We have this area of our house that we’ve affectionately referred to as the Crap Room since we moved in. It’s a living room that’s between our garage and the main part of the house, and it’s very dated and dark and typically filled to the brim with all sorts of, well, crap. Kid toys, a full-sized punching bag, discarded shoes, backpacks, eight hundred tons of individual Legos strewn all over the floor, random pieces of paper, an old cat scratching post, pieces of various Hot Wheels tracks, dumbbells … anything and everything, pretty much. Several months ago I convinced JB to put in a door at the top of the little stairway so I could just close off the chaos of the Crap Room when it felt too visually overwhelming.

This past weekend we spent a few hours tackling this room — throwing away the garbage, donating the rarely-used stuff, and finding homes for everything else — and while it’s still dated and dark, it looks a thousand times better. A million times. I mean, you can actually sit in there now, although those wood-paneling walls do sort of wear on you after a while.


There are so many things about our house that I don’t love. I don’t love that we have no utility room and our washer and dryer are out in the garage. I don’t love my kitchen with its ill-placed, totally mismatched cabinets. I don’t love that the master bath is the size of a Porta-Potty and thus all four of us share one hall bathroom and people are always spitting “Sparkle Fun” Crest all over my makeup brushes and peeing on the toilet seat.

I’ve been hugely reluctant to commit to any major upgrades to this house, though. We did two big remodels on our old house and while I absolutely loved the results, I’d never want to make that kind of financial investment again. Basically, I don’t want to do anything to this house that we can’t pay for with cash.

It’s always kind of hard to find that balance between dreaming of improvements and being happy with what you have, isn’t it? When it comes to the lesser-loved parts of my house, I try to think of that Melody Beattie quote: Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.

Truly, I am beyond grateful for the things that make our house a home. What does it really matter whether I have design-magazine-worthy rooms, I tell myself, when my rooms are warm and more than adequate and filled with love and laughter (and if someone breaks something it’s not exactly the end of the world, because it probably came from TJ Maxx)?

Also, as I learned last weekend, a little elbow grease goes a hell of a long way. Some primer and paint on that paneling and I bet our Crap Room wouldn’t be that crappy at all.

I’m curious, what’s your approach to home improvement stuff these days? Do you have a wish list of things you’d love to do to your house, or do you feel pretty settled with what you have? Has your feeling about prioritizing upgrades changed with the economy and housing values (because boy, mine sure did)?


79 Responses to “Greener grass”

  1. Jessica V. on November 6th, 2013 11:24 am

    We bought our house 8 years ago at the top of the market, so are probably stuck in it for a while. We ended up doing a lot of work in phases because it was a total disaster (new drywall, central heating/air), new paint and carpet in the bedrooms and living room, and then followed up a couple of years later with a kitchen facelift (new counters, painted cabinets, new floor, moving the washer/dryer out of the kitchen and into the garage) and finally a total master bathroom redo (it was leaking into an adjoining closet, so we gutted it). We ended up dumping a bunch of money in it, but we love where it is now – and since we’ll be here for a while, we felt it was worth it. I think we are done now though – not much else to do at this point.

  2. Heather on November 6th, 2013 12:23 pm

    I see a difference between home projects that are designed to make it look better vs. home projects designed to make the house work better. Redoing kitchen cabinets because they are outdated would slide to the bottom of my priority list, but reworking the kitchen to create a better working space that I’ll use daily? Worth it. And in that case the new cabinets would be worth it as well. New dining room table just because the current one is old? Again, not high on my list. But adding a small desk to the corner of the kitchen as a computer/homework table? That helps my house work better for us and in that case, it’s an expense I’m willing to take on. With your space, primer + paint is such a small expense, I think it’s worth it just to try to make that space more inviting – you will want to use the space more, which makes your home work more for you.

  3. Courtney L on November 6th, 2013 12:26 pm

    I can wholeheartedly relate to this post. We bought our house in Southern California in 2005 aka the most expensive time to buy real estate in this area ever! It is a solid house, roomy, in a “transitional” area. It had laminate counters, 4 kinds of shag carpet – but underneath the shag was beautiful original wood floors and we have a lovely front room fireplace. Everything was cosmetic! We could fix it up, make it pretty and get out of here in 5 years before our kids started school! Then it dropped to half its value and the the momentum on home improvement also dropped dramatically. I can’t justify putting money into a house knowing I may never get the investment back. Our house is completely functional, even with it’s wood paneling, popcorn ceiling, avocado green kitchen sink. There is more than enough room for our now family of 4. We got our children into a neighboring school district that doesn’t suck. The one room we didn’t touch is now the room I spend the most time in, it is my office while I work from home. It sometimes depresses me, but then I try to remember the bigger picture. I’m grateful for a home to call my own, period. Our hope is to one day turn this house into a rental and I’ll make my forever home beautiful.

  4. sarah on November 6th, 2013 1:23 pm

    I compare a lot, and find the woe in it, but I’m not competitive at all, so the DRIVE to live up to something isn’t that strong.

    Our house was purchased the week I started grad school, and was financed completely by me on an undergrad research asst salary of $26,000. It is a modular house, and had HIDEOUS wallpaper throughout, mismatched and poorly hung. Our realtor was shocked we wanted to buy the place, but we could afford it, and it met our specifications. Our counters are old & cheap, and if we could afford to upgrade them, we would. We did tear up the teal carpet throughout the house and put in cheap laminate.

    Our couch is a hand me down, and hurts my back but we can’t afford a new one. So we sit/lay on it and don’t think about it much.

    I grew up really having to value what we spent our money on, and am uncomfortable with incurring unnecessary debt. I also lived in an apt until I was 12, when my mom bought a house. When we lived in the apt, we went on bike rides, and to the zoo, and museums; things we liked to do together. After we bought the house, we mowed the yard, painted, pulled weeds; things I had to be cajoled to do.

    So, yeah, I hear ya. Other people have more spectacular houses, but that’s not where I want to spend my money or energy. I’d rather keep what we have neat and well cared for.

  5. Liz on November 6th, 2013 1:36 pm

    My parents’ house had a basement with dark paneling like this, which they have recently renovated. But their quick fix solution before doing this was just to paint the paneling white. It sounds like it wouldn’t look great, but it actually was perfectly fine and definitely made the room nice. Something to think about for a cheap fix!

  6. Marolyn on November 6th, 2013 1:50 pm

    I just read a meme that said “Someone Else is Happy with Less Than What You Have”. I live in a trailer. All my walls are fake wood paneling. Except in the kitchen where we have fake white tiles. All our cabinets were mixed and matched from other trailers and some even made from old pieces of random wood from the looks of them. We took off all the doors. Hubby white washed what was left of them on the wall all to match and I took cardboard and cut it to fit the back of each cabinet. Covered cardboard in an AWESOME black and white damask contact paper and now my tiny trailer kitchen looks freaking awesome! We’ve rented 4 places since we lost our home in 2009. All of which we have done cheap and cheaper upgrades to, including buying a 600$ pedestal sink at the Habitat for Humanity resale store for only 35$, re-paneling the bathroom and even went so far as to put in new shower walls. We painted everything and had this little house looking awesome….Then we moved because the floor in the living-room was slowly sinking into the ground. We found the trailer to rent out in the middle of nowhere instead of in the town where we were. We had an awesome garden harvest this summer and ate from it everyday. I spend more time outside than in here in the country. I had given my husband a list of things that would have to met if I were to have to live in a trailer, again (25 yrs ago, when my son was first born). The next morning he found it on Craig’s List. When we drove up the gravel road and turned into the drive I almost started crying. the feel was just like the place I grew up in ( minus the trailer and insert a big farm house instead)~ The yard was full of trees, had a perfect garden spot and a shed for my hubby to piddle. We’ve since done more to the outside and yard than inside. Small things like the pallet garden that was beautiful. A big handmade porch swing my hubby made for me hangs between two of the backyard maples. Handmade Fire-pit from Rocks around the property. For Mother’s Day my husband finally showed me what he had working on all spring in his shop. A beautiful buffet that is now an instant heirloom.
    We spent more time and money on the changes to the house we bought and lost to foreclosure than we have the rented places we have lived since. But we are SO much more happier than we ever were before.

  7. Amber on November 6th, 2013 2:33 pm

    Love that quote. What a great reminder and good timing for the season.

    Oh, the dreaded remodeling. We recently sold our first house/purchased our second. While we are thrilled with having more space, much of the house is dated (and not in a quaint, vintage way).

    Considering the constraints you mentioned, and keeping in mind that upon sale we want to recoup whatever we put into this house, we are proceeding with caution. For us this means doing what we can ourselves, saving/using tax returns, etc. to pay cash for the rest and not over doing it with the super high end finishes like the carrara marble slab kitchen counters that I would love to have but honestly just aren’t necessary for our family.

    While not all parts of the house are “our style” right now, everything is functional. And as much as I would love, love, love to take out a loan or tap into equity and just have the updates done tomorrow, I know that in the long run we will be much happier that we took the route we are on.

    Why is it so hard to distinguish between wants and needs sometimes?! I tell ya, sometimes my wants FEEL a whole lot like a need in the moment.

    Your room looks great all cleaned up and organized! I’d do exactly what you mentioned and get some light, bright paint on the walls. I would be willing to bet it makes a world of difference.

  8. Maggie on November 6th, 2013 3:16 pm

    In 2008 we considered redoing our extremely small and unfunctional kitchen including taking out a wall and expanding it. We got designs, we got bids, at the last minute I couldn’t pull the trigger on spending the money. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise because my husband got laid off about 6 months later. He got another job and got laid off from that job 2 years after that (he’s in real estate, good times). He once again found employment, but we managed on my salary for a few months solely because we didn’t take out a big loan to redo our kitchen. Since then, I’ve been extremely gun shy of dropping a lot of cash to make our house significantly different. In the long run, my piece of financial mind is worth more than more counter space.

    In addition, I’ve got two relatively young kids and things are still getting ruined. Since the things are old I’m not greatly bothered. If they ruined something new and fancy, I’d be pissed. So is probably better for familial relations not to have a lovely newly redone home ;-)

  9. June on November 6th, 2013 3:53 pm

    I’m in a relatively new house (<10 yo), which I wanted in part because I would not have to upgrade anything. Except every appliance is breaking like clockwork and needs replacing – had to buy a washer/dryer (prev owner took hers), the fan on the heating system (that ran heated air through the house) died within weeks of taking ownership, microwave now makes a buzzing noise and then shuts itself off, dishwasher kinda rinses but apparently no longer cleans dirty dishes, and the freezer is making a buzzing noise. Holy crap.

  10. Annabelle on November 6th, 2013 4:58 pm

    I have currently put the big improvements on hold due to the immediate need for a brand new sewer line (curse you, clay pipe!). Here’s to embracing the cheap projects with big impact. I’m sanding and staining the bannister, painting the spindles, and installing a carpet runner on the stairs. And tonight I’m hauling the kids out to see a craigslist MCM sideboard.

    Another vote to paint the paneling.

  11. Karl on November 6th, 2013 6:41 pm

    We’re in a small house. We put an addition on it (2 rooms, shower bath, basement) after the first year because the family was growing and 2 bedrooms wasn’t going to cut it. We basically did *nothing* to it after that for about 25 years, other than a bit of inexpensive basement finishing to add a sort-of-bedroom down there. (It was actually rather sought after because of the isolation from everyone else.)

    About 5 years ago, after everyone had been out of the house for a decade, and with cash in hand, we took down a wall and completely redid the kitchen. We put more into it than I originally paid for the house, and I still love the results. I don’t see us doing much more, though; maybe a redo of the addition’s shower bath (which is the master bedroom’s bath).

    I agree with not being in a rush, especially with children, and especially especially with fundamentally cosmetic upgrades (like our kitchen). Painting the paneling sounds like it’s worth trying.

  12. Julie on November 7th, 2013 7:30 am

    I’d paint the paneling a nice light neutral colour. I’d also change the outlets (and switch plates?) to white. Painting the brick on the fireplace is also an option. I think as long as you have the space… it’s usually pretty cheap and easy to give a room a total makeover. Paint, doorknobs, light fixtures, window coverings etc. all give you big bang for your buck.

    We’re on our third home, having bought each one, spent money (anywhere from 10k to 50k) renovating nearly everything possible. My husband and I love renovating (it’s definitely a hobby), so once everything is to our liking… we move!

  13. Maud on November 7th, 2013 9:12 am

    We want to redo our shower. We have agreed that we should ask the guy who lives just down the road about it, since he did our neighbor’s bathroom and it looks great, and we know him. We have the money to do it, probably. We just haven’t got around to it, and our shower is gross and every morning we think how gross it is and that we should really call the guy, and then forget it again until the next morning.

  14. Olivia on November 7th, 2013 6:59 pm

    I’m pretty much anti-major renovation just for the sake of something different; if it ain’t broke and all that. And really, unless it’s something I think is truly hideous, I try to appreciate fixtures for the aesthetic of the time they were built. Our current home was built in 1951 and there are a few features like some original tile and the formica counter top with a metal edge, that are not in style now, but I think they bring charm to the house and they have held up well. I cringe when I watch rehab shows that just smash all the original details out of a home when they are in good condition.

    I’ll paint and hang pictures and sometimes change a light fixture. I really wish we could change the carpet because what we have is cream colored crap and is so stained, but we don’t have the money for it. Other than that, the only things we do is maintenance to keep what we have in good shape.

  15. Cheryl on November 8th, 2013 8:03 am

    I’m in the same boat you are – we love our house, but there are some aspects of it that we absolutely hate. (We have a room with dark wood paneling too!) It took some serious time and work, but I’ve managed to shift what I originally imagined for our house to fit our lifestyle more. My 2 rambunctious boys have made it perfectly clear that I need to think RUGGED – which actually works out because I’m a woodcarver and can build and design stuff myself. :-)

  16. Mary on November 8th, 2013 8:16 am

    I feel a lot like you do. I’m grateful for so many things about this house, which we’ve owned for about two years now), but there are some things that drive me nuts.

    I have two mental lists: the not-so-complicated things, like replacing the out dated lighting and getting better accent chairs for the living room and replacing the horrid gold paneling on the fireplace. And then there’s the complicated list: re-doing the hardwood floors, replacing carpet, entirely remodeling the master bath (MORE GOLD!).

    But like you, I’m a writer who is working a bit less than before to be the parent who is at home as much as financially possible, and while finishing the basement would increase the value of our house, I’m not going 30k into debt for it. Hellz no. So we’ll check one thing off the list at a time, starting with the small stuff.

  17. sara on November 8th, 2013 8:54 am

    We bought our first home 4 years ago and completely fell victim to how naive we were. Realtors make it all seem so simple… “oh, just knock down that wall and expand! No biggie, just some paint and new flooring, but it has such good bones!!” Combine this with the fact that the previous owner was a do-it yourselfer who never finished a project and OMG, HOT MESS!! … ugh. We planned to be in it 5 years, fix the problems and maybe have a baby here. Well, we’re on our second baby and have COMPLETELY grown out of it. I’m trying to see if as a learning experience for the things that I want in a future house.

    We’re considering putting it on the market next year and perhaps moving in with my parents for a little while. With a little luck we’ll be able to make our down payment back. We’re in Illinois now but we’d eventually like to move to North Carolina, by my husbands family. And I don’t see any way to do that in a decent amount of time without staying at my parents and getting our shit together financially. ANYHOW, we will not be doing any major work that we planned to do on this house, as I don’t think it would be worth it. However, when we do end up getting another house some day I wouldn’t be opposed to buying a house and doing work on it, if I plan to be there for the long haul and truly love it. I think that it’s a house you love and that you want to stay in for a long time, then the investment is worth it on a personal level. If you only want to be there a few years, then it’s risky.. and a pain in the ass.

  18. KDA on November 10th, 2013 1:02 pm

    Paint the paneling and move the sofa away from the wall, even if it’s a foot or two. I think the brick looks fine, but you could paint it too.

  19. Rachel Sea on November 15th, 2013 6:12 pm

    I have a list of things as long as my arm. I live in an older house, which was previously owned by an accursed “handyman” and it is literally a miracle the place hasn’t burned down from the shocking (also literally) electrical work. Finding all the scary electrical, and replacing water damaged bits (who lays down particle board on a bathroom floor? who fixes leaky plumbing with duct tape?) has meant that both bathrooms and the kitchen need full remodels, but because of some really shoddy work done by couchsurfing friends who wanted to help, and for lack of funds, all three projects have been creeping along for 9 years, because we aren’t willing to go into debt over it.

    I’ve learned to be happier with what we have through a liberal application of elbow grease. Sometimes just brightening up a door or changing a window covering can make a big difference in a room. I put up a curtain in the 6′ doorway between our kitchen and living room, and suddenly the stupid, awkward shaped room felt better proportioned, and more cozy

    Were I you, I would start by removing the popcorn from the ceiling. It is nothing short of amazing how much it opens up a room, and you can scrape and repaint it yourself in two days. When we did it at my parents’ and MIL’s houses, the ceiling suddenly felt a foot and a half higher, and the improvement in the light…the spaces just glow now.

  20. Aubrey on November 16th, 2013 10:01 pm

    Have you ever checked out the Young House Love blog? They’re big on what they call “Phase 1 Projects” – basically sinking a little bit of money and effort into something that they know they’ll put a whole lot more money and effort into down the road. Here’s a post that sums it up and shows a few of their Phase 1 changes: http://www.younghouselove.com/2013/10/are-phase-1-projects-just-a-waste-of-money-time/

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