Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Dill House Diary: Our Starter Story

While I've shared many renovation pictures, I realize I haven't really taken the time to talk about how we actually found our first home. So today, I thought I might share that story.

We found this house--our first real, purchased, this-is-ours house--by walking around downtown Frederick, searching for homes for sale. We happened to walk up Fourth and noticed a for-sale sign hanging in front of this somewhat pitiful-looking rowhouse. While its neighbors flaunted brightly painted brick and little transom windows, this home jutted like a sore thumb. All off-grey vinyl and weeds.

"This place is cute," my sister remarked. I cocked an eyebrow. Are you kidding me? I thought. Seeing my expression, she shrugged. "I don't see anything wrong with it. A little plain, but it could have a ton of potential you never know."

Later that week, Mark and I booked an appointment with a realtor to see the interior. Let's just say it was so small, plain, and cheap that our realtor didn't even want to walk inside. Her nose curled, she stood by the front door under the pretext of "letting us take a look around." In reality, I think the price tag was a little too low for her preferences. But something about the teensy brick house caught my attention.

Sure, the kitchen was tiny. Sure, there was only one bathroom. Sure, the upstairs had been divided into a patchwork of rooms so small they may have well been a series of connecting closets. There were plenty of icky cosmetic issues to correct. Linoleum floors, tangled blinds, an old leaky window unit, a particularly battered water-heater. The white walls and cabinets robbed the home of its homey-ness and rendered everything cold and institutional. Nothing about this home was welcoming. A layer of dust and grime coated the molding, cabinets, and floors, evidence of the owners' neglect and other buyers' indifference.

The couple who had owned the home before had clearly sacrificed much of the 120 year old home's character for convenience. Noting the number of days the home had been for sale in a fairly lively  market, I knew that the home's many cosmetic issues were scaring away other buyers. Yet, despite all the glaring ugly problems, something about the little house just felt inviting.

As cheesy as it sounds... when I walked in the front door, the space seemed to whisper "Come live in me. Come make me pretty again." The thought then formed in my mind: We could do this. We could fix this place. And thus we bought our starter home: a 900 square foot brick row-house, badly in need of some TLC, in Maryland.

Several gallons of paint, buckets of nails, and hours of elbow grease later... We did fix this place. Now, instead of hesitating at the doorway (as did our realtor), visitors step through the doorway with a smile, followed by "This is so cute."

Projects we've completed:
  • removed vinyl siding 
  • painted the exterior brick
  • built a guest nook
  • installed a custom-designed stained glass transom above entry door 
  • laid new tile in the bathroom 
  • installed a new water heater
  • built a flower bed 
  • removed several cabinets in the kitchen and laundry room
  • stained and installed wood shelving in laundry room
  • repainted every room in the house
  • laid new hardwood in the kitchen
  • removed an awkward, over-the-stairs closet
  • tackled the veritable weed-jungle that concealed the patio
  • removed a wall upstairs to create an open office space
  • laid new hardwood throughout the upstairs
  • created built-in bookshelves in the "guest nook"
  • built a stair rail
  • painted the radiators
  • installed new light fixtures in the dining room
Projects to tackle:
  • complete kitchen renovation: new countertops, backsplash, and open shelving above sink
  • install a new vanity and new fixtures in the bathroom
  • build and install bypassing barn doors for the closet
  • create a patio "hang out space"
  • build a bike shed 
While there are still many things left to do, the to-do list gradually shrinks. Sometimes, it's easy to take for granted everything we've done. To overlook all of these changes. But it has been nice in writing this post  to stop and admire our handiwork. We've put in so many difficult, sweaty hours to restore this home's character, enduring the old-house quirks, frustrations, and penny-pinching that come with renovations.

Yet I wouldn't take back one second of owning and renovating our own home Because this place is ours, all-ours. And with each hammer-fall and saw-grind, our little fixer-upper has slowly turned into a home.

As you look for a new home, you can do like we did and literally walk around town, looking for sale signs. However, our method was probably not the best way to tackle this house-hunting business. Especially if you live in a larger city. One of my favorite real estate websites is Compass. When I'm bored, I like to search other cities and imagine living in different neighborhoods. Compass has an "Explore" feature that essentially allows you to visit New York  or Washington, D.C. neighborhoods. Even for those of us who don't live in one of these awesome cities, it's fun to just check out the listings--to imagine what your life could be in another city. Whether you're in the market for a city apartment or just curious like me, you should check out their site! After all, like Mark and me, you never know what will speak to you. 


  1. That is such a cute picture. Great color choice!

  2. This is beautiful! My husband and I actually just moved to Frederick about a year ago and are just starting the process of looking for a rowhome downtown. We will likely end up purchasing a "fixer-upper" as well, so it's great to see what you've been able to do with your sweet home. I also read the blog about removing the siding from the exterior of your home. How did you know that your house had brick underneath?

    1. Thanks so much! It has definitely been hard work, since we've done all the renovations ourselves, but it has been so worth it. Frederick has so many cute places-- I definitely recommend living downtown. We love walking to dinner or just strolling along the canal. As to your question about the brick... since it was part of a row, we assumed it would have the same siding as the neighbors. We also asked the sellers at closing, just to make sure! We had to do a bit of repair work (due to nail holes) but otherwise it was easier than expected to strip the vinyl and paint!


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