From Starter to Finish

Searching for your first place can be daunting.  We live in a HGTV, DIY world where shows exist that teach we can have everything we want for a minimal price with some sort of five week turnover.

The truth of the matter is this isn’t true.  Most of us don’t have a team of people to fix up a house of our choice.  Most of us don’t have friends with their own HGTV show who can do a turnover for us within a two month period with a total revamping of a house for a cost that would, at most, only cover a roof replacement.

What comes of this is the expectation of having it all when you have nothing to begin with when you want to have it all.  It sets high expectations for a first home that many cannot achieve.

With that, I was house hunting pre-HGTV and DIY shows when they started telling us we could have everything we want in five weeks for an outrageously low cost.  Now, there are shows here and there that will be realistic, but the reality is that mistakes can be made when purchasing your first starter home, and I’d like to give some insight based on personal experience.

My adult life started out renting an apartment in an undesirable neighborhood.  When you’re young, you generally just like that feeling of being out on your own, but the year of waiting for that lease to run out was a pure nightmare.  I don’t ever think I wished a year away the way I did back then.  Gun fire, police cars, fights outside of the complex – that was the norm of every day living.  I endured knowing it was what I could afford, but it wasn’t what I anticipated for my life, and I couldn’t get out of there fast enough with my baby.  I think the moment that set me over the top was the inability to control the bug population trailing in from other people’s apartments.  It was just a place I would never want to revisit with any kind of fond memory.  To me, renting a bad apartment isn’t the end of the world because it isn’t permanent. Nowadays, you can thoroughly research an area and get an idea of where you want to live ahead of time.  I didn’t have that luxury back then.

My first home was purchased when I was 22 years old.  Despite having a small child and one on the way, there are things we didn’t look for due to inexperience.  One should have been the school system.  Another was the size of the house.  What I’m saying here is that we bought an approximately 1,000 square foot home that had a decent piece of property without great schools.  The mistake involved in this purchase was that the house had little storage, no garage, and the property was more appealing than the house.  I was married to someone who didn’t have home owning experience and also grew up in a family that wasn’t real concerned about where they lived.  My family was the opposite.  This isn’t a bashing of the family, this is complete honesty regarding at how they looked at things.  I grew up in an upper middle class family in a large home.  My father owned big cars and big houses, and that’s what was “normal” to me for lack of a better word.  The person I was married to had a lower middle class upbringing, and we were raised on opposite ends of the spectrum.  Contrary to what the public might think, I was the one that saved every penny, and he was the opposite.  I will vouch that it’s extremely hard to get ahead in life if you’re the only one attempting a future.

I had looked for awhile for starter homes back then.  There was one in particular that was a great size and could have been renovated.  Unfortunately, at that age, I wasn’t aware of my capabilities.  Purchasing that home would have been ideal.  My father convinced me to bring a contractor to the house who he knew somehow, and the contractor said there was $20,000 worth of repairs that needed to be made.  The house was at the top of our approved mortgage, so $20,000 wasn’t in the picture.  If I had known what my capabilities were, that house would have been perfect.  There’s a difference between sweat equity and having someone else do the work for you.

Another house I saw was in a great area and formerly owned by a Vietnam Veteran.  There were a ton of trees planted in the front of the house that were planted in front of the house as though it were in the woods when all the other houses dictated a beautiful neighborhood.  The inside of the house had wood nailed to all the walls and was painted in camouflage.  There was a large peephole that peered outside, and the backyard looked like something straight from a nightmare.   I was extremely sad for the previous owner.  Again, this would have been another great house to own because it was within an excellent school district and could have been great for my children, but I couldn’t see past what was going on in that house because I wasn’t aware of my capabilities.

After disagreeing a bit with the other party and being a person that was easy to be swayed to do what the other party wanted, I found a single family home on a decent amount of property.  We walked into the house, and the other party told the owners we would buy it.  I went along with it, and the first day we moved in, I was in tears.  I knew from the start it was all wrong for us, and I have to say I wasn’t exactly happy living there for seven years.

What took place with that home was me being the person to mow that nice piece of property with that little house.  I was the only one trying to improve it.  There was nothing I could really do to that house for extra space.  Sure, we thought we could put an addition on, but additions can’t take place when people can’t save money.  The schools were low rated.  My children weren’t getting the best education.  The master bedroom was so small that a king size bed filled the room.  It was a sardine can, to say the least.  However, it was where I first started learning to renovate houses.  That’s where I first started drilling, sawing, installing, and making it look the way I wanted….even though it could never be the way I wanted.  Despite my depression with that house, my creativity in other realms started to flourish.  I was sewing every day.  I created beautiful floral baskets.  I started repairing, repainting, and installed a dishwasher where there wasn’t one.  My goal was to get out of that house, though.  That came later.

Move forward a few years, and I went onto another adventure in starter homes.  This time, remarried with new hope in life.  This time, I knew what I could do and wasn’t afraid.  We worked together.  We had a plan.  We spent countless hours and days trying to find a home.  We had a list of towns, an idea of how much property, and looked at things with an open eye of what we could renovate.  With this perspective, we landed a two story home on an acre of property.  The house had been used for boat storage and was converted into a home.


This was my second starter home.  Originally, the house was a flat box.  It later had a second story added.  We hired a contractor to put a large room on the front, add dormers, and make a half bathroom into a full bathroom.  The house was located on almost an acre and had room for expansion.  It was originally 1,800 square feet, and the size increased to 2, 450 square feet which worked well for our growing family.

Donna Michaels - Bathroom Renovation 1

One of the bathrooms I renovated in the starter home involving a more updated vanity, mirror, tiling the floors, new lighting, and new fixtures.

I tiled, installed hardwood flooring, renovated the kitchen, hired a contractor for additions after daughter number four was soon to arrive.  We worked together to have the money to do things, and that’s where a huge difference was made in life.  We were able to purchase our dream home after selling that home.  Even with the dream home, it was a future dream home.  The home I purchased next was another renovation job, but had everything in it that I ever wanted.  It was all possible because of owning the previous home.

Donna Michaels -masterbedroom- floors, walls, extra storage created behind end table

The master bedroom was a little awkward in shape due to not having dormers, but we were able to access storage behind it using a small door seen behind the end table.  This was helpful to us since we were lacking a garage.  The flooring that I purchased was used throughout the house and really added to creating a nice look.  The original floors downstairs were basement type of carpet.  The room was decorated using a mish mash of different items that worked when I put them together.
Donna Michaels -downstairsbathroom, made corner cabinet, installed vanity, tile, heater, paint, plumbing

My kids were scared of this basement-like bathroom located in the downstairs of our starter home.  I warmed it up adding tile to the floor, walls, a good sized vanity, and some comfortable colors.  I made the corner cabinet and stained it the same color as the vanity.  It helped due to the window being located in an odd location.  Also, it was deep enough to help hold all of the girl things my girls acquired.


Although this seemingly does not look like the most impressive kitchen around, the previous cabinets literally disintegrated on the floor.  They were replaced with these oak cabinets that I purchased online and installed myself.   I tiled the entire floor.  I cut the granite looking laminate countertop and designed the back splash.  The back splash was very useful because the walls were uneven, and everything wrong with the walls disappeared with the renovation.  The color of the kitchen was painted with a can of kitchen paint found on the Oops! paint table for $5.00.

Based on experience in life, here are my recommendations when purchasing your first place (and use the word “home” to apply to any residence you may be attempting to find).

1.  Live in the most inexpensive place you can live in order to stash as much money as possible for a down payment.  If you have a family member kind enough to know this is what you’re aiming for and wants to assist you in that endeavor, then work with it.

2.  Don’t be in such a hurry to purchase a home that you overlook the undesirable.  If that parking lot in your backyard and the noise bothers you, then don’t buy it.  Keep looking.  There is always another house.  Whatever bothers you will bother someone else (unless you can change something on the interior), and could make resell difficult in the future.

3.  Don’t let anyone scare you regarding interest rates and push you to purchase a home based on interest rates.

4.  Don’t buy a place based on the outside property.  When I say that, it’s because you may spend more time indoors than you realize unless you like to camp out in the yard frequently.

5.  Revisit the place you’re considering.  Look around the area.  Again, if you let fear that it’s going to go set in, you may make a wrong decision.  Where there is one place there is another, and get the thought process into your head that if you ‘lose’ a place, then maybe that place wasn’t meant for you because something better might come along.

6.  When you purchase a starter home with a set amount of time you think you’ll be there, assume you might be there years longer and ask yourself how you’ll feel if you have to stay there longer.  Seven years can turn into fifteen.  Most people I’ve met have ended up living in a place longer than they intended.

7.  Have a vision and consider foreclosures or home that needs TLC.  You may be able to negotiate the price down.

8.  Bring an experienced home buyer with you when looking around (a parent, friend, someone who has been there).  Ask for a straight up honest opinion and tell them not to cave even if you love the place.  Really evaluate what they say to you and don’t be so in love that you have blinders on.

9.  Last, but not least, when you actually do make that offer, be careful not to insult the buyer.  It happens.  Low balling the house too much can be a big mistake.  You may insult the seller so much that the seller wants nothing to do with you.

When you get into that house, don’t delay renovations because you have it set in your heat that you’ll be moving in a certain amount of time.  Treat it like you might be living there forever because you never know how long you might end up staying.

A starter home doesn’t have to be a starter for you.  If you are willing to get your hands dirty, you may be able to purchase a home that could be everything you wanted.  However, renovations cost money, and even if you buy something that needs updating, if the square footage is great for your family, it might be worth taking a chance because the future may bring you more opportunities and an ability to do everything you want with that house.

Related posts

Leave a Comment