When you are buying and renovating an old house, the darndest things just seem to fly out of your and your partner's mouth!

"We should buy an old house. That would be fun!"

"We can get a fixer upper and work on it in the evenings. We'll be done in no time!"

"If we make sure our apartment lease overlaps our closing by three weeks, we should have enough time to get the house in shape!"

"We can probably renovate the whole house in about three years!"

"I feel like there should be an easier way to strip the paint off of this door!"

"Shut off the water! IT'S POURING OUT OF OUR CEILING!"

"I think we should probably strip all of the molding in the house!"

"You bought that giant thing and you want me to hang it where!?!"

"That claw foot bathtub on Ebay is perfect! We should just buy it and keep it in the basement until we need it!" (10 years later)

"I hate you, you've ruined my life. I can't believe this is what our life has become!"

"No way this bathroom will take more than three months to finish!"

"Sure we can refinish those floors on our own."

"Does Home Depot rent augers?"

"What was that noise?" "I almost fell off of the roof, but don't worry, I didn't!"

"Maybe we should start a blog!"

And the list goes on, and on, and on. Call them pipe dreams, nuggets of realization, moments of fantasy, tantrums of terror, or simply periods of clarity. Both Wendy and I have participated in the veritable highs and lows, euphoria and devastation, and more often than not, utter disaster and disbelief that accompanies the renovation of an old home...done primarily on your own.

All of the quotes mentioned above have been uttered once or more by at least one of our household's members while living in our home. Ten years of hopes, heartbreak, happiness, and (sometimes) helplessness.

We do a lot of talking on this blog about the benefits of restoration. The tremendous satisfaction it brings. The ability to preserve a piece of our nation's fabric. But we're not unrealistic! We don't make attempts to gloss over the fact that it's sometimes a slog and a half. DIY is rewarding, sure, but it also can really tick you off!

Wendy and I have been at this renovation thing for a while, and we know that it comes with a series of ups and downs, both in the literal trips to the top of ladders, as well as the sometimes gut wrenching feeling of a project that isn't cooperating.

Though it sometimes feels quite lonely when you're dealing with a misbehaving project, a quick search of the Internet reveals just how much company you have as a frustrated yet accomplished DIYer. The World Wide Web is full of tales outlining gross underestimation, egregious miscalculations, and tremendous jubilation, all revolving around the sometimes foolish, but always welcome adventures of the poor souls (and often their somewhat willing spouses) who have thrust their lives into the chaos that is...DIY home improvement.

In dealing with the inevitable derailment of DIY designs, it's good to practice a few simple exercises to help get you to the next step. When you've set your bar of expectations either slightly or significantly beyond your existing ability, these actions might help to center you and your project, allowing you to break through your skill level glass ceiling and over that hurdle that's stood in your way for minutes, hours, days, weeks, months...

1. Throw Things

Never underestimate the power of transforming an unsuspecting object into a dangerous projectile. The majesty of a launched piece of scrap wood, lightweight hand tool, or even plastic laundry basket as it sails through the atmosphere of your work space, landing zone unknown, is unrivaled by the most picturesque landscapes. You may not have been able to cut that piece of wood to the proper length in spite of measuring at least a half dozen times, but you absolutely have the skills necessary to convert that now scrap lumber's potential energy into an ass kicking whirlwind of kinetic energy that's out looking for a fight.

A word to the wise, or at least the pragmatic, it's best to briefly glance at your surroundings before launching that scrap piece of wood, as the likelihood that you might damage an already completed project, or that you may bounce the object off of something back into your own face, is of a shockingly high probability. We're talking statistical anomaly outlier high, like that one smart kid's test score in high school that always made you feel stupid no matter how hard you tried high.

2. Surf the Internet

Misery loves company, and there's no better place to try to find that lonely bit of misery looking for a friend than on DIY blogs or forums. Do a quick search on the thing that's ailing you (i.e. 3 year DIY bathroom renovation) and you're sure to find yourself knee deep in similar projects seemingly created for the soul purpose of waylaying your own self doubt and loathing.

You can either take the high road, leaving a comment or a message expressing support, empathy, and assurance. Or you can do the truly therapeutic thing and critique the work of the poster, casting a haze of doubt over some aspect of their work they're obviously well beyond and unable to correct without taking serious steps backwards. If you do opt for the low road, take solace in the fact that your stress relief has almost undoubtedly resulted in their sleepless nights, questioning not if, but when their DIY house of cards will surely come crashing down due to the use of an incorrect screw or a non-preferred brand of caulk.

A word of caution on this one. If you find yourself on Pinterest, it's best to just throw your computer out the window, because nothing good can come of it. Pinterest is a vortex of nearly flawless projects that all apparently took the creators about two days to accomplish. There are few things that will make you feel worse about yourself than getting sucked into the churning hells of Pinterest when you have a project that is balancing that delicate line between disaster and success.

3. Watch Home Improvement Reality Shows

This tip may seem a little odd, but one sees quite a few disastrous projects when watching any of the slew of DIY inspired shows on TV. From the classics like "moss covered walls," to the gratuitous inappropriate product placement on shows of today, it seems a disaster is looming around every commercial break, and it's been placed there intentionally to make you feel better about your own floundering project.

4. Wine

This category pretty much speaks for itself. Wine is a great way to escape from one's own renovation hell, yet consumption of said beverage makes you look refined in a way that doesn't quite scream "I need an intervention" the way a recycling bin full of crushed cans of Natty Light might.

5. Start a New Project

If a project has you down, why not just forget about it for a little while? Start something new that you can obsess about. Something that can take your focus. Something that will distract you from your difficulties. Something that will surely present its own unique set of obstacles, problems, and frustrations. Surely this is a fool proof plan that can have no obvious detractors or opponents. Brilliant!

6. Injure Yourself

No no, I'm not talking the intentional self infliction of pain, nor the idea that you would feign injury for the sake of taking a breather on a project. But it often seems that when things are getting to be extremely frustrating, smacking my thumb with a hammer, jamming my hand with a screw driver, or slamming my head into the nearest low objects that I've largely successfully avoided for years, somehow gets things back on the rails and headed in the right direction.

It's very important to note that you should NOT overdo this step. Taking things too far might take you out of DIY commission for quite some time, and this does nothing to help your project or your relationships with the people in your life that want things like a functional toilet or kitchen counter tops. Keep this important caveat in mind while injuring yourself.

7. Wine

Seriously. See number four above.

8. Hang Out in a Finished Project

It's sometimes advantageous to take stock of what you have done well. When I find myself staring at the same thing for more than three hours without any real progress to speak of, I go to a room of the house where I feel very happy with the outcome. Lately, it's been our master bedroom. A sense of calm serenity fills me when I'm in the room, and I think much of it has to do with the end results of the work we did. 

However, be careful with this coping mechanism, as it can quickly lead you astray. Within five minutes of my "appreciation time," I begin to focus on the areas of the room that are not yet complete and need my attention. The automatic lift yet to be installed, the windows yet to be restored, the storm windows yet to be completed, the screws in hinges yet to be inserted. If I'm careless in my window of self congratulation, I suddenly find myself with a larger list of items to do, once again pulling me from the real task at hand.

9. Swear Like a Sailor on a DIY Ship!

This one actually plays quite nicely with item #1...throwing things. I find it's often best to combine item #1 and this item as they complement each other so well. You can go with a for PG version of simply uttering swear-like sounds, or the full fledged NC-17 F-bombs every other word peppered with your more traditional four letter friends. If the mood strikes you, get creative and start combining unlikely companion words. Though it does nothing to move your project along, it will almost undoubtedly make your significant other chuckle from the other room. And if you're really good, you might even make yourself laugh with your creative use of the profane.

10. Pets

This is the best one in my book! You see, your pets don't care how good or bad your project turns out. They don't mind that you've created an area of your home that's simply a mess. In fact, I believe they're actually drawn to it. You want to test my theory? Put a pile of drywall dust or saw dust in the middle of your floor with clean areas all around it. I'm willing to bet that one or all of your pets will be sniffing, sitting, laying, and rolling in that pile before the hour is up. Don't believe me? Try it.

Actually, your pets are there to make you feel better about yourself, no questions asked. They really don't care about these things you obsess about. All they want is to give you unending love and affection, in spite of all of your personal DIY shortcomings. They are even so considerate that they won't even mention that you're drying them with a towel that sat in saw dust before you used it, or that your focus seems to be on an unpainted piece of molding while you're scratching under their chin. They love you regardless.

What can we say? We're gluttons for punishment while maintaining ourselves as champions for a cause. We're card carrying citizens of a DIY community without a cure. We'll probably do this until we die, or at least we'll die trying. But regardless of initial intent, our demented delusions, our unusual undertakings, and endless evangelism, we know there are enough people out there just like us.

Do you have any good tips to add onto our list? Surely you probably read some of the above with a "been there, done that" head nod and look of sympathy on your face. Hopefully our pain, and your experiences, can help another unsuspecting DIYer cope with the unexpected or difficult when it is 100% and absolutely sure to arise. 

Comments 22


7/1/2013 at 1:07 PM
So nice to see it's not all baby showers and brownies around there! As for #10, my cat believes this is a 5000 sf kitty Disneyland designed for her benefit alone (she can get to nearly every room on every floor through the walls and floors). Oh well, at least you have Wendy's baking to get you through the pain . . .
Ha, not at all. The parties and baked goods are how we take a break from the house project list.

Sounds like your cat has it made, and I love your blog. I'm so relieved we're not the only ones stashing a claw foot tub in the basement for "someday." ;-)
7/1/2013 at 2:39 PM
So true about the wine, and Pinterest. One of my favorite photos from the recent kitchen reno is of our beagle poking her head through the plastic (put up by the contractor to contain dust) with a worried look on her face that says: What are you doing to the room where the FOOD lives? Am I getting dinner tonight? She found the whole process fascinating, and almost got her nose in the paint tray a few times ...
That's so funny. There's nothing more traumatic to Mel and Lulu than a blocked off room. They glue themselves to the doorway, wondering why we'd be so mean to ban them from "their space." :-)
7/1/2013 at 2:47 PM
My name is Kristen and I am a thrower, a swearer, and a slammer. I'll throw the object, while swearing at it, then stomp off and slam a door for good measure.
Sounds like we're kindred spirits, Kristen! :-)
7/1/2013 at 3:05 PM
You two impress me greatly--my husband and I are NOT DIYers, but we have been restoring our home in stages since 2006, which is like camping without going anywhere. So, when we ask Our Favorite Builder over for yet another round, we succumb to "big eyes, small stomach" syndrome and he ends up doing work ALL OVER OUR HOUSE. If you're in the middle of that kind of work, make sure you keep at least one room totally untouched. You can hide there and it will keep you sane when you're blowing plaster dust out of your nose. By the way, cute cat picture...
The "one room at a time" approach seems to be greatly undervalued. We had a former neighbor that started stripping all of his home's molding at once, which resulted in a complete and total whole-house construction site. Luckily we were able to see from his house the benefit of having at least one room to retreat to.

Good luck with your project! Any end in sight?
7/1/2013 at 6:20 PM
Oh my gosh...I just laughed for 5 minutes! Very well said and with great humor! Thanks for keeping it real guys, and for putting the reality out there. It is good to know we are not alone. :)
We're very glad you enjoyed the list. There's really nothing better than knowing you're 100% not alone in your own personal insanity.
7/1/2013 at 6:30 PM
I've had a lot of practice at #1 and #9. It really does help. Believe me, over the course of the time I've worked on our house, I've woven several tapestries of profanity that are still hovering over the Chesapeake Bay!

+1 on the "one room at a time" approach. It really helps keep the sanity.
As much as I'd like to say that the "one room at a time" approach is overrated, no spouse in their right mind can claim such an outlandish lie.
7/1/2013 at 8:00 PM
This might be my favourite OTH post yet!

I need to add more wine to my coping mechanisms...
I think it might be #2 on my list. I'm pretty sure #1 is still my Wendy Grinch post. www.oldtownhome.com/2013/1/9/How-the-Wendy-Grinch-Stole-Christmas/ But hopefully we'll have many more good ones. If only you lived closer, we'd surely help you on the "more wine" goals.
7/2/2013 at 4:53 AM
Great list, and they all happen here during our projects (but only my husband throws things, and is "better" at the injury part, e.g. nearly cutting off his finger with a table saw and falling off a ladder head first onto concrete steps).

I most heartily endorse #5 and #10. We need almost no provocation to start another project or two or three in the midst of some major project. My theory is you accomplish more that way because eventually you get around to finishing most of them and the end result is you've done a whole lot!

Out of our many dogs and cats over the years, we've had a few who were "helpers". Boris, a Siberian husky, liked to get in between the hammer and its target in order to get more love -- no way to work with him around. Top, a black pug/crow, likes to steal small objects when you're building or assembling something. We're so lax we think this stuff is cute rather than annoying.
While I've fallen off of a ladder onto our brick patio, the whole "cutting off a finger" thing is my own personal nightmare scenario. As in, I have nightmares about it. It's a good thing I have lots of scrap wood to knock on.

As much as I love involved pets, helper pets can be a little overwhelming.
7/2/2013 at 11:03 AM
This is an awesome list, I had to laugh so hard. I only know part of the pain, as I own no house, but… I'm writing this comment sitting in the kitchen of my rental, which after 2.5 years still has no wallpaper (it's usual to have it here, so the wall without just look grody and unfinished) and needs a new floor. Which is sitting in boxes in my living-room. And has been for 6 moths now the floor's been too cold to put it down for 4.5 of those though).

I kinda underestimated the energy it takes to make an unrenovated flat in a 100-year old house a nice place to live (owned by a huge company that doesn't care, so no reno-deals to be made with a kindly landlord). Especially after you put all your things inside before it is finished… I can't imagine how it would turn out if i had a whole house to renovate. I love living vicariously through you guys though! And it's a nice reality check, to see how much time and care has to go into projects before you get to all the beautiful after-pictures that people so proudly present all over the internet.

I really enjoy seeing the during-steps and read all the explanations you two always give. I've been reading you for quite a while now (not sure how long, but before the stair-reno i think) and it's just so much fun to see the house evolve. Thanks for writing!
Thank you so much for hanging around here with us for so long. We're so glad our words and stories are vivid enough to give you a sense of the effort, but more importantly, the care we put into our projects.

We've been in your spot, in an apartment we'd like to make our own but understand there's no real value in investing the time, money, and effort if we ultimately don't get something out of it. Don't worry, if you really want it, eventually you can sink all of your time and effort into something old. I promise it's worth it!
7/5/2013 at 5:41 PM
Ahh, this article is soo true! My husband and I are working on our third home in four years. Hopefully, the third home is the charm! He is definitely a swearer and a thrower, while I turn to the Internet and wine. I just found your blog yesterday, and I plan on getting caught up in the archives now! I love Old Town Alexandria, and we live in Mason Neck just a few miles down the road. I can't wait to read more about your home!
Welcome to our blog, neighbor from the south. We're so glad you found us. As you can probably tell, we think Old Town is a pretty wonderful place to live, and we like it quite a bit. As we're now solidly in our 10th year of renovation on this house, I can't even fathom three houses in four years. That's just craziness! Hope you enjoy your reading and we see you around very often.
7/7/2013 at 3:32 PM
Too funny :)
7/8/2013 at 12:50 PM
HAHAHA! Indeed!!!

It's amazing the things you can make sound like swear words that normally aren't. When combined with real swear words, the cacophony of harsh syllables is really a beauty to behold.
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