Home Details I Overlooked the First Time


If you're in the market for a new home (new to you or new period), make sure you aren't paying premium prices for so-so materials, and don't underestimate the expenses and headaches associated with making what seem to be minor improvements.

I've been visiting new homes in my area, just checking out what's available. The high-end homes feature high-end materials with accompanying price tags and, it seems, the moderate homes feature moderate materials also with high price tags. Just because a home is new and everything looks good now, most materials will not last or look good forever, especially the cheaper ones. Though there is absolutely nothing wrong with buying a house with less-than-luxury materials or less-than-perfect design, you can still do some homework to make sure you are paying a fair price.

First, how do you learn about materials?

  • Visit your favorite home-improvement center and/or specialty store. See and feel countertops (such as granite, solid surface, ceramic tile), kitchen cabinets (oak, cherry, maple, hickory woods and wood veneers in a variety of finishes as well as thermofoil), flooring (ceramic tile, carpeting, engineered wood, solid wood, bamboo, linoleum), and more.
  • Mix in some Internet research; you can start with Home Tips and vendor websites, then move on to home-improvement forums if you have an interest in learning about project experiences.
  • Take a Parade of Homes' tour.
  • Ask home-improvement pros a few questions about the best materials and though you won't get a straight answer, you will most likely get insight into appropriate applications. (That is, if you have young children, get really strong or inexpensive, easily replaceable flooring. And you may discover a ceramic tile that can withstand the pressure of an automobile, explaining the price differential between two tiles I was considering for a kitchen backsplash).

I wished I had paid more attention to materials when my husband and I selected our current home. It was in a neighborhood we liked, had plenty of indoor and outdoor space, and was very affordable. The mortgage payments have been easily made, which is good since we needed money to make functional repairs and fashion improvements.

As far as major projects, I learn best from experience so I'll tell you about some of my adventures. You should know that I am not (typically) a DIYer but have located, hired, and worked with contractors, getting their advice and trying to make sure they did what they were supposed to do. In many cases, there were some underlying problems (either in the original construction or some that arose due to repair needs and/or aging materials) that I could not have diagnosed or fixed myself easily or quickly.

Here's a rundown on the scope and cost of our home-improvement projects:

HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning)

Our house had ceiling heat, which, for a time, was promoted as an energy-efficient method of heating, defying basic principles that heat rises and therefore doesn't warm the people who are paying the electricity bill. (Now you see why I held Duke Power in my portfolio). On the upside, during the short time that we tolerated the ceiling heat (before our first child was born), the dough that I brought home from my bread-baking class at the community college always rose and the bread baked perfectly.

When natural gas became available in our neighborhood, we had a gas heating system installed and expanded the HVAC capabilities to include the master bathroom and sunroom addition.

Approximate cost of $6,000 in 1994 dollars.


Cheap everything was the hallmark of the kitchen: oak-like paperboard for the cabinets, flourescent lighting, laminate countertops, and linoleum flooring that dented every time anyone in the house dropped something (at least a couple times a week).

We've replaced everything with ceramic tile flooring, maple cabinetry, granite countertops, and stainless steel appliances. I had a huge debate with myself about adding ceramic tile flooring but opted for it because 1) it doesn't show dirt easily (at least the color I selected doesn't); 2) it doesn't dent (though I have to be careful about dropping anything on it, easier now that my kids are older and I have slightly fewer distractions) and 3) I overheard two ladies at the gym discuss how putting tile in their kitchens was one of the best home-improvement decisions they've ever made. My biggest regret/didn't-know item is that magnets do not stick to stainless steel so I had to get a bulletin board to place important notices.

Cost of slightly less than $29,000 including ceramic tile in the sunroom attached to the kitchen.


I'll hit the highlights (or rather low points) of my master and guest bathrooms, previously decorated with the least expensive products available on the market right down to wooden towel rods.

The tub in the master bathroom had a few holes (I know this is odd) that were unattractive but did not impact the function of the bath. I didn't realize that replacing the tub meant possibly tearing down walls to make way for a new tub; my contractor recommended, and we agreed to, replacing the tub with a walk-in, ceramic-tiled shower. The guest bathroom had cabinet drawers that sagged and a stark, commercial-like mirror. We've replaced the flooring that was rotting due to water damage, brought the sink placement up to current building code, put in exhaust fans, and added decorative lighting and mirrors.

Cost for both bathrooms of approximately $15,000.


Fixing the main entry door was much more complicated than I imagined. I wanted to replace an oak door that was cracked, which seemed like a pretty simple thing to do. Also, I wanted to replace a storm door, which was easily done. First I learned (through a series of trips to the hardware store and varied conversations with door/millwork pros) that I didn't want to replace the door but the slab. Replacing the entire door involves replacing the door unit, which can run thousands of dollars with decorative sidelights, etc. I was looking for a less expensive option.

I liked solid oak doors and picked one out. Then I read all about the finishing process. Apparently if I did not finish the door to precise specifications and if I let heat trap between the oak door and storm door (by closing the doors during the day, a common practice), then the warranty was void. Imprecise finishing and heat build-up would cause the door to crack, which was the reason I was replacing the door. So, after more interaction with the millwork pros, and consultation with my husband who was familiar with the difficulties of applying finishes, I opted for a fiberglass door. Just in case anyone else is in the door-replacement market, you may not be able to get a fiberglass door to the dimensions of your door frame; it's easier to cut a wood door than change the fiberglass mold.

I've also replaced a storm door leading to my deck and put in french doors to replace a not-really-working sliding glass door.

Cost of $2,500 (in 2007 and 1997 dollars).


There is none. One of the previous owners closed it in to create two bedrooms, where people actually lived, slept, and thrived apparently. The decor is el-cheapo 1970's do-it-yourself with fake wooden walls and mismatched lighting. I didn't care about the lack of garage when I moved in (I'm not a car person) but over time, it started to bother me.

Now? I have re-purposed one of the rooms ala HGTV into a library, consolidating stray bookshelves onto one wall and simultaneously covering some of that fake wood, buying a nice bedspread and pillow shams for my daybed (my first-ever pillow shams), and framing and putting up photos. The room has been a godsend now that my kids are getting big and crowding our upstairs space.

I am in the process of creating a storage area with the other room and am happy to report that I can see the carpet now (it's orange and brown btw).

Cost = $0

So, don't do what I did: look closely at the materials and think very seriously about renovation projects before you buy.

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Guest's picture

surely homes are priced according to location,size, desirability and decor. what would it have cost you to buy a home with a high quality of decor in the same neighbourhoood with the same amount of area and style of house. i reckon it would have cost you more to the tune of atleast half the money you spent on revamping your current house.

but then the decor may not have been to your taste. to me as long as the neighbourhood, size and general aesthetics of the house are sound, you are probably better off buying a house which is not revamped newly. if you do that you pay a premium for someone else revamping the house and it may not be to your taste. better to get somewhere liveable and when you have lived there for a few months you have a better feel for how you want the house to be and function.

unless of course you find a place which is exactly what you want. then you might as well negotiate the best price for it


Guest's picture

I'm with the 'its better to decorate it yourself' crowd as everyone else seems to decorate in my personal least favourite colours, brown and cream.

I'm actually in the process of decorating my first ever house (definitely only new to me - it was built in 1910) and I'm trying not to make too many poor decisions.

Julie Rains's picture

I have probably been watching way too much HGTV but the sales agents on Design to Sell nearly always want to get rid of the color(s) (as well as all the family photos) and go with neutral, generic look so new families can imagine themselves living in the house. When we sell, I'll have to paint over deep (cranberry) red, bright blue, yellow, and green.

Decor is one thing; major functional changes are another, including those that you didn't realize would be major like having to redo the bath for $8000+ just to replace a $500 tub. The recommended bathroom person wouldn't even call back with a quote after making us wait months to stop by and give us an estimate; I don't know if he was just slack or didn't think we'd believe him when he told us what we eventually learned what we had to do to fix a seemingly minor problem. Fortunately, we found a diligent contractor who mentioned the bad news but followed up very quickly with hey-this-would-look-great ideas.




Guest's picture

instead of replacing baths that are damaged or don't fit in with the decor, you can always just have it re-enamelled to match the rest of the bathroom. Much quicker, cheaper and easier than a whole new bath.

Myscha Theriault's picture

Don't know why I hadn't run across this article of yours before, but I just did. It's very timely, because even though we are basically retired, we are considering having David take another job that is a little further south. Various reasons are involved, almost all of which involve taking as much of that income as possible and using it to develop equity and make other investments. We'll need to pick up a place down there, as it is too far to commute. But the salary if it comes through would make it all worth while. This is great advice that we can use to negotiate with. Thanks!

Julie Rains's picture

I'm sure you'll do great with your home inspection (and the use of a home inspector who can catch hidden items, like a roof cracking under shingles, per my experience), along with your visual and handyperson skills but I'm glad that helped. Just getting a contractor out to your house, rearranging your schedule to accommodate work, and shopping for supplies are all time-consuming (not to mention the cost).

Myscha Theriault's picture

An excellent turn of phrase, because that's exactly what it is . . .

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