The proactive homeowner: How to stay on top of home improvement

Yesterday was an exciting day at the Rothwards household! After three weeks of demolition and construction, we installed our new hot tub.

It took six men an hour of maneuvering before we managed to set the spa into place…but we did it. And we didn't break anything. Now it's a matter of completing the decking and roofing, then Kim and I will be able to enjoy our remodeled outdoor oasis!

Installing our hot tub

We're eager for construction to be over. Since buying our “English cottage” last summer, we've poured tons of money and time into a variety of renovations. It's been a non-stop construction zone.

You see, during the seventeen years the previous owners lived here, they performed very little maintenance and upkeep on the home and property. When we had the place inspected before purchase, the inspector raised a lot of concerns:

Warning from inspection report

The inspection report was so dire that Kim and I almost passed on the purchase.

After we did decide to buy the place, I vowed that I'd be a proactive homeowner. Instead of allowing things to fall into a state of disrepair, I wanted to fix everything that was broken and then stay on top of home improvement in the years to come.

Today I want to share four specific actions I've taken to try to be a proactive homeowner.

Develop a Schedule for Regular Maintenance

A great place to start with home improvement is to find (or create) a regular maintenance schedule. While you'll definitely have projects specific to your own house (about which more in a moment), there are certain chores that ought to be done on a routine basis.

Here in Oregon, for instance, gutters should be cleaned both at the start and the end of the rainy season (late October and late April). Spring is a good time to wash windows, inside and out. It's also time to clean and set up outdoor furniture. During the summer, I like to trim trees and shrubs back from the side of the house. Fall is a good time to inspect the attic and crawlspace.

To create our maintenance schedule, I started with this home maintenance checklist [Google Doc] based on an article from The Art of Manliness. I tweaked the document to fit our needs, adding and removing things specific to our home.

I've also discovered that it's useful to add certain recurring tasks to my digital calendar. (I'm never going to remember to change the furnace filter unless I make an appointment with myself to do so.)

Create a House-Specific To-Do List

House To-Do ListWhile it's helpful to have a general maintenance schedule to remind you of regular tasks, it's even more important to keep an up-to-date to-do list that's specific to your home.

I keep our to-do list in Basecamp, a web-based project-management tool that I already use for other projects. (I've heard good things about Asana too, although I've never used it.) You might keep your to-do list in a spreadsheet or even a spiral notebook.

For each room in the house and area of the property, I keep a separate list of tasks that need to be completed. To start, I populated these lists in two ways:

  • I went through the pre-purchase inspection report and added every problem the inspector had flagged. Some of the stuff he noted was minor. In these cases, I made sure to mark the task as “low priority”.
  • Kim and I made a slow tour of our home and yard in order to catalog other projects we wanted to complete. For example, every room in the house needs new paint. Every corner of the yard needs to be weeded and re-landscaped.

We refer to our to-do list constantly. Whenever we have a free weekend for home maintenance (as we did last weekend…and this coming weekend), we check the list to see which tasks are most pressing and/or most appealing.

Finally — and this is important (if somewhat obvious) — whenever we find a new project that needs to be tackled, we add it to our list. By keeping our home projects to-do list up to date, needed maintenance should never be neglected.

Keep a Home Journal

Before we even moved in to our current home, I started keeping a “home journal” to log everything we learned about the place. Honestly, it's one of the smartest things I've ever done.

I keep this home journal in a Microsoft Word document. (I've uploaded an edited version to Google Docs for you all to look at.) Every time we do major work on the house, I make an entry in the journal. Every time we discover something new about the property, I make a note in the journal.

Here's a typical entry from my home journal:

Our Home Journal

Each note includes a date and the type of work done, then a narrative description giving more detail. In some cases, I document costs. Most of the time, however, we keep receipts and invoices and other documentation in a dedicated Dropbox folder, which is where the home journal lives too.

This journal is mostly meant for me. From past experience, I know that I'll forget what work we did when, which usually leads to a frustrating search for documentation. With my home journal, I have all of the needed info in one place.

This home journal has a secondary purpose. I want to use it as documentation if/when Kim and I decide to sell this place. I want to be able to show prospective buyers all of the upgrades we made to the house. (Note that this benefit is purely theoretical. When we sold our motorhome recently, we learned that many buyers view work like this as evidence there's something wrong with what you're selling.)

On a similar note, it's smart to perform periodic video tours of your home and property. These are useful not only for you but also in the event of an insured loss, such as robbery or house fire. When shopping for a house, I film every home I tour. After buying and moving into a new place, I do another pass through with the camera. Going forward, I try to do a video tour about once per year.

Build a List of Trusted Contractors

Over the past fifteen years, I've learned that contractors come in all kinds of flavors. Some are cheap. Some are fast. Some do quality work. I've also learned that it's impossible to find a contractor that possesses all three traits. Two of them? Sure. But not all three. (In other words, if a contractor is fast and high-quality, she's going to be expensive.)

When we started looking for homes last Spring, my friend Emma Pattee — who has experience buying and remodeling rental properties — suggested that I start a spreadsheet to list trusted contractors. “My husband and I have done this for a while now,” she told me, “and it really helps. When we find somebody we like to work with (or think we might want to work with in the future), we add them to the spreadsheet. I'll send you our current list, if you'd like.”

Kim and I have referenced Emma's spreadsheet to find plumbers and electricians. We've also started building our own list of contractors we trust. (For instance, we love the guy who did our carport. We hired him to do our back deck project too. He's not cheap, but his quality is amazing!)

Even with a list of trusted contractors, it's important to follow standard advice when hiring folks to work on your place:

  • Get price quotes from multiple sources. It's smart to know what your options are even if you ultimately don't go with the lowest bidder.
  • Seek referrals. When you're ready to hire somebody for a project, ask your friends (Facebook is good for this) and contractors you've liked in the past. I've found that good contractors know who the other good contractors are, and they're happy to recommend them.
  • Ask for references. If you haven't worked with a contractor before, request contact info from past clients. These references will be cherry picked, of course, but they'll still give you some idea of what the company is like.
  • Check reviews on Angie's List (or similar sites). View these reviews through skeptical eyes, but check to see if there's some sort of pattern. I've been able to rule out potential contractors, for instance, because of multiple reviews complaining about lack of communication.

Searching for new contractors can be a little scary. You don't want to make a mistake by choosing somebody who's too expensive or whose work is shoddy. (Or, worse, both at once!) By maintaining a list of trusted vendors, you can reduce some of the trepidation. Plus, the list is something useful you can share with friends and family!

There's No Place Like Home

I also think it's smart to set aside money for future repairs and improvements. One common financial rule of thumb is to contribute 1% of your home's value to a dedicated “home maintenance” savings account each year. After Kim and I are done with this initial round of work, we'll probably do so.

The deck and hot tub project should be our final large home-improvement expense for many, many years. During the past eleven months, we've repaired and/or replaced every major system in this house. Sure, there's still some small stuff that needs done — we want to paint each room, for instance — but these jobs are minor. They're things we can do ourselves for cheap.

Honestly, I'm looking forward to some peace and quiet. It's been exhausting to live and work in a construction zone!

First, though, I'm going to have our house inspected again. After plowing so many resources into repairing and renovating this place, I want to have a neutral third party go back through to make sure we've addressed all of the important issues — and that these issues have been handled correctly.

As frustrating (and expensive) as the past year has been, we don't regret buying this house. We love it here. We want to continue loving this place, which means we're going to do our best to stay on top of maintenance and home improvements. We're going to do our best to be proactive homeowners.

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Tina in NJ
Tina in NJ

My brother is an architect with a 100-year-old house. Both our mother and our sister have used his contractors. We found our electrician on Angie’s List and our plumber by asking at the plumbing supply store. The plumber was not established, and I think the guys at the store were trying to help him out by recommending him, but he did good work.

You get it fast, cheap, or good. Pick two. You’ll never get all three.

Bill
Bill

Great info! I agree, about getting more than one estimate from a contractor. One HVAC contractor in our area was doing a lot of work in the neighborhood because the state was giving rebates. I had him come in to give me an estimate and he spent about 10 minutes looking around. My neighbor mentioned someone else he was really pleased with, so I asked him for an estimate too. He spent a full 90 minutes crawling in every corner of our house spotting wrong-sized ductwork, inadequate insulation and sealing, and answered every question I had. His estimate was not… Read more »

TS
TS

good stuff. We bought a similar house, our inspection verdict wasn’t as severe, but the maintenance was certainly lacking. How did you manage to get home insurance for the closing with inspection like this? Our insurance company screamed a bloody murder and forced us to sign in blood that we’ll replace a number of things within 90 days of closing (which we did). Ok, i’m going back to my todo list now which, by my estimate should keep me busy for the next 10 years (we are doing a lot of DIY)

Sheila
Sheila

Good idea getting a home inspection after all the work. We get them every 5 years because you just never know what’s happening in the crawlspace or attic. We’re not willing to crawl around those areas ourselves.

Lucille
Lucille

This intrigues me. I’ve wanted to get a home inspection just to see what a buyer’s inspector might find, if I ever do decide to sell. What has stopped me is a fear of the cost. What do you find is a fair price for your every 5 year inspection? And when you have them, do you tell the inspector it’s for a sale? Or just to be proactive?

dh
dh
Daniel Crawford
Daniel Crawford

JD thank you for sharing your home ownership experiences. My home was built about fifty years ago and it had many deferred maintenance items that cost more than I had expected. The major repairs have now been completed. Sadly, I did not keep a home journal. However, starting immediately my goal is to follow your lead in keeping a repair journal and creating a home maintenance saving account for future items. It was also good to hear about the success in selling you motor home. Please consider writing a final post detailing the costs of your year of travel around… Read more »

Mike
Mike

We went with the most expensive contractor for our major renovation nine years ago. When we found major structural issues (previous renovations enclosed a porch, literally, in a way that none of its footings could be used) he didn’t charge us more to remedy the issue. “I promised you a price and I won’t change it.” He did charge for other changes (we needed to replace a window not in the original score of work) but not anything related to the original plans. I’m sure he still made money, but that he likes the jobs where that doesn’t happen more.… Read more »

Chelsea
Chelsea

I used Angie’s List until I gave a low review for a company that misquoted an estimate (they left out labor costs???) and took over a month to rectify the situation. Angie’s List deleted my review once the situation was resolved — because they argue that a contractor who fixes a problem shouldn’t be penalized with a negative review.

WantNotToWantNot
WantNotToWantNot

Terrific advice. Especially on the contractors. It took us a number of years to find the plumber who loves his work, the electrician who is a real expert, etc. It’s worth it, once you assemble the A Team.

Financially…fixing up an old house is a little like childbirth….you’ll forget the pain as time passes, and you’ll so enjoy the benefits.

I can’t wait for the photos of the Hot Tub Inhabited!

Joe
Joe

Starting a list of trusted contractors is a great idea. I’ll do that. It’s so difficult to find good helps these days. Everyone is super busy.
We have a ton of work to do on our duplex too. We’ll just tackle them a little at a time when we move in. It’s too much work to get them all done at once.

Nice job! Your home looks great now. Enjoy the new hot tub.

Debbie
Debbie

Another place I go to for recommendations is NextDoor. Best place to get recommendations for contractors that work in my neighborhood is from local neighbors on the list. I also have learned who to avoid from reading NextDoor posts. I don’t use Angie’s list anymore since I’d found iffy service with one contractor and they took down my poor review of a plumber that took short cuts, refused to correct issue that arose and I had to pay another company to completely redo the main line from house to the street. I don’t trust Angie’s list to be accurate.

Seonwoo
Seonwoo

One could always use a Github issue tracker 😉 https://github.com/frabcus/house/issues

Ok no but seriously, you probably don’t want to be broadcasting the issues of your house to the world on Github.

Frogdancer
Frogdancer

I love the idea of a house maintenance journal. I bought The Best House In Melbourne two years ago, and it was in pretty good nick, but there are still some things that I want to keep on top of. This is an idea I’ll pinch, because I’m really good at procrastination. My major landscaping work began yesterday. My backyard is totally gutted and soon I’ll be looking at brick paving everywhere, with wicking veggie beds and a huge roof under which I’ll be lolling about on a comfy couch reading books and sipping shiraz. A hot tub sounds good,… Read more »

Jo P.
Jo P.

How about a pic of your “English cottage”? I thought you lived in a “tiny house”. Would like to see what your “real”(my quotes) house looks like! We’re retired and have too much space, but until I read you, I wanted more! Keep the inspirations coming!

Sandy
Sandy

I’m glad you guys are installing the hot tub! Can’t wait to see the finished result. You’ll probably live in your home for the next 20+ years.

lmoot
lmoot

If I were ever to design a house from scratch, I would unabashedly put access panels everywhere. They can be hidden behind wood paneling (those swank 1970’s wood panels were onto something!), and if you have more of an industrial personal style, it could just metal cabinet doors. Or they can be easily hidden higher on the wall with framed art. I don’t understand why houses were ever designed to have to be partially demo’d in order to fix critical components; then the additional cost and labor of having to fix what was destroyed. Makes no sense. I am thankful… Read more »

S.G.
S.G.

I agree on the plumbing and hvac set in concrete. Drywall is one thing, but digging into concrete for a leak?!

Jeanne
Jeanne

For that reason, I decided not to finish the wall where my washer and dryer live (it’s in the basement, in any case). That way, when I’ve had to change a couple builder-grade connections, all it took was changing the connection – no new drywall, no mess.

S.G.
S.G.

We have gotten good referrals from our local hardware store, also. The little ones work hard to develop relationships with home owners and contractors.

Marcia Pinneau
Marcia Pinneau

My husband and I are not handy, but we wish we were. We sold our house last summer, it was built in 1975 and turned out to be kind of a money pit because we wanted to make it nicer and make improvements, but we were work full time and are not handy, so had to pay contractors to make the improvements. We must have put $100,000 into that house that we never got back when we sold it, although the improvements might have made it sell faster. How can you tell which improvements are required to keep the house… Read more »

Jim Wang
Jim Wang

I do the same thing as your journal and I include as much information as possible, including who did the work, point of contact, phone numbers, etc. This way if something happens, everything is in one place and I don’t have to go searching. Last year, we had a tree snap and break a small section of our fence. We could easily look at our journal, find the contractor who did the original work, and get started on the repairs without a lengthy search. This will have a financial payoff too down the road, anything that’s an improvement (like our… Read more »

Jennifer G Fortier
Jennifer G Fortier

Will you have the house reassessed after all your improvements are done? I think in my state you can appeal your property taxes if the town assessment is more than 10% off from your property’s actual value but I don’t know if it works the other way.
With all the improvements you’ve done I’d expect a big jump in the home’s value.

Darren Steele
Darren Steele

JD I love this website and have read your articles for several years. But I think you probably would’ve been better off financially by just buying another house or building one from scratch. But hey, as long as you and Kim are happy, that’s all that matters!

Petersons
Petersons

Great article, thanks. I live in New York City and have given considerable thought to the idea of moving to the suburbs. Presently, I pay a “cheap” annual maintenance of $1000 per month. I’m afraid of devoting my weekends to the never ending repairs and constant maintenance. I’d like to do other things with my time and with my family. To tie up hours and days every week for planning and managing all these projects concerns me. With houses there is always something that needs repair or maintenance, year after year. Yes, the end result is amazing. Nothing like a… Read more »

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