How To Renovate A House With $0 In The Bank

My husband and I are working with my in-laws to renovate his childhood home. Our plan is to move in by Thanksgiving of this year. Oh, and also? We have absolutely no idea what we’re doing.

At the beginning of this project, my parents offered to help us plan. “What’s your budget?” my mom asked, looking over the top of her legal pad, where she was making a prioritized list of what needed to be done first.


“Um … we don’t have one,” I said.

Her incredulous facial expression prompted me to explain. “We don’t have any money to put towards this project,” I said. “So we are just going to do our best to make it livable and we will do the remainder once we’ve actually moved in.”

We actually started this process almost two years ago. My in-laws bought a bigger home, moving out of the one in question. My husband began urging me to consider buying it, saying it would be a great investment and much easier on our bank account, but I wasn’t too keen on the idea. That’s an understatement, actually. I REALLY DID NOT WANT TO DO IT. The house is a typical 1980s ranch, with dark wood paneling, popcorn ceilings, and small rooms. I just couldn’t see how we could make it ours.

Fast-forward a few months, and I eventually came to realize that this was an amazing opportunity that we needed to jump on. So, great! I was finally on board — now what?! As it turns out, renovating a house with no savings takes 47,000 times longer than it should; without savings, we can only tackle tasks when there’s money leftover in our monthly budget. But it’s not ALL bad. As a recently-converted do-it-yourselfer who had never done anything like this before, ever, I assure you: if we can do it, so can you.

Looking to renovate a house, even though you’re pretty much broke like we are? Follow my advice below:

1. Enlist (and accept!) help. The first thing we did was make a list of the people in our immediate circle who know how to do sh*t. First on the list? My dad, who happens to be fantastic at painting and electrical work. Next, my friends who have actual experience renovating houses. This gave us a good pool to source advice and information from, at no cost. These are also people we can borrow tools from, rather than renting them.

I also found out that some of my friends actually ENJOY painting and were happy to help us, just for fun. Take all the assistance offered, because believe me — you’ll need it.

2. Sign up with Houzz (or something like it). I downloaded the Houzz app on my phone because I can look something up (“mid-century modern landscaping,” or “white modern door”), screen shot it, and text it to my husband to see what he thinks. It’s a great resource for ideas and inspiration, and, most importantly, it’s free. Some people prefer Pinterest, but I find it seriously overwhelming, so I stick with Houzz.

3. Keep a tape measure in your bag. I learned this the hard way. My husband and I went appliance shopping, not intending to buy anything, and suddenly, we had a brand-new washer and dryer that we later realized were not going to fit into the allotted space in our new house. After my initial temper tantrum — THIS WOULD ONLY HAPPEN TO US, BECAUSE WE ARE THE ONLY IDIOTS WHO DON’T MEASURE FIRST! — we figured out a solution that didn’t involve returning the new appliances. But seriously, don’t be like me. Spare yourself the emotional distress and just measure first.

4. Keep an open mind. I never thought I would be the kind of person who scraped popcorn ceilings down and refinished interior doors and cabinetry. I’m not patient, I’m terrible at paying attention to detail, and I hate taking on projects that can’t possibly be finished by the end of the day. This renovation is forcing me to open my eyes to new potential, not only in the house, but within myself.

5. Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize. If we happen to have a few extra bucks this month, do we spend it on light fixtures, so we can actually see what we’re doing, or do we paint the front door? Which one is more important? These are the things my husband and I argue over. (We went with the light fixtures.)

6. Remember that you get what you pay for. When money is very tight, it’s tempting to go with the cheapest option, always. Resist that urge and do your research before buying anything. For example, Annie Sloan chalk paint and Purdy paintbrushes are more expensive than other brands — but both do amazing things, so they’re worth the money. The cheaper stuff sucks and a sh*tty paintbrush can really ruin your day. Trust.

7. Make peace with imperfection. Will my entire to-do list be done by Thanksgiving? No. Will I have to move into a house that isn’t completely finished? More than likely. Part of doing anything yourself means that you have to be okay with things being less than perfect, and maybe later on, when we have more money to spend, we can do it better. Or, maybe it will be just right, just like it is.

Photo: Getty

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How To Renovate A House With $0 In The Bank