11 Tips For Renovating An Abandoned 115 Year Old House On A Budget

Michelle’s quick note: Today, I have a great blog post from Elizabeth about renovating a fixer upper. She writes about designing a beautiful life on a budget, and today she is going to talk about the ways she saved money when renovating a fixer upper – an abandoned 115 year old house. Her before and…

Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Last Updated: September 9, 2023

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Michelle’s quick note: Today, I have a great blog post from Elizabeth about renovating a fixer upper. She writes about designing a beautiful life on a budget, and today she is going to talk about the ways she saved money when renovating a fixer upper – an abandoned 115 year old house. Her before and after pictures are amazing. Enjoy!

Here is how to save money when renovating a fixer upper - an abandoned 115 year old house. Renovating on a budget, fixer upper homes, is possible!HGTV darlings, Chip and Joanna Gaines, have captured the hearts of millions of viewers and serendipitously inspired people across the country to go out and purchase a “Fixer Upper” of their very own.

Related readings that will help you when renovating a fixer upper:

My husband and I fell into this camp when we inherited his late Grandmother’s 1901 cottage. With my background in interior design and my husband’s affinity for carpentry & construction, we were smitten with the romantic idea of fixing up an old family house.

We dove head first into the renovation with rose-colored glasses and an unrealistic budget.

In the end, our misguided renovation estimate QUADROUPLED over the course of the three-year project. We had inherited what you would call a “money pit“. 🙂 (If you guys haven’t seen the movie, The Money Pit, it is so good.) This forced us to get really creative when it came time to finding affordable finishes.

Not to fear! Not all fixer uppers need quite as much work or money like ours did to make a diamond in the rough shine.

Real estate investing can be a lucrative – albeit risky – income source. It has allowed my husband and I to be completely debt free.

We purchased our first home in 2011 for $183,000, made minor cosmetic improvements, rented it out for a few years, and then sold it in 2016 for $285,000.

The housing market in our neighborhood exploded in those five years and we were able to use that equity to pay off all of our loans. Purchasing a bargain-priced, outdated home and renovating it yourself (even over time) can be a really great way to make money when you sell it if you make smart choices and utilize sweat equity.

I am not a real estate or renovation expert by any means, but I hope others can learn from our experience renovating properties and use it to their advantage on their journey to financial freedom.

Whether you are looking to spruce up your home for you and your family on a budget or thinking about investing in a property to renovate and flip, here are a few tips and pieces of advice we have picked up over the years:

Here is how to save money when renovating a fixer upper - an abandoned 115 year old house. Renovating on a budget, fixer upper homes, is possible! What a beautiful renovated dining room!

Hire a reputable contractor when renovating a fixer upper

If your new home requires considerable amounts of work and you need to enlist the help of a professional contractor (or sub-contractors), make sure he or she is licensed, insured, and reputable.

Get quotes from multiple contractors and ask for references. Request proof of insurance and their license number.

Look them up on Yelp, Facebook reviews, and BBB (Better Business Bureau).

The last thing you want is to fork out thousands of dollars to someone who doesn’t know what they are doing; it will cost you so much more in the end.

Create a realistic budget with buffer when renovating on a budget

Just like you would in an everyday budget, it is important to assign every dollar in your renovation budget. For our renovation, I created a budget spreadsheet that included material costs, labor/estimates, sales tax, and a buffer.

I would include a 10-20% buffer of the entire project to cover surprises like termite damage, asbestos, mold, or items you forgot to account for (nails and caulk can get real expensive, real quick).

In my budget, there were two columns: one for “estimated costs” of an item and one column for “actual costs.” After a material was purchased, I would enter the “actual cost” into the spreadsheet.

This way I had a running total of what was spent and could quickly calculate what was left and if we were on budget.

Here is how to save money when renovating a fixer upper - an abandoned 115 year old house. Renovating on a budget, fixer upper homes, is possible!

Wait for sales/clearances when renovating a fixer upper

We waited to start projects until the materials went on sale.

For example, our kitchen cabinets were scored during a 20% off sale. We also purchased all of the tile for our shower for $17 since it was a closeout product (it normally would have cost around $200). All of our interior doors were 75% off since they were a special order return. Keeping an eye out for deals and having the patience for things to go on sale can save you big bucks. Be sure to shop the back endcaps at stores as this is often where clearance product will end up.

At Lowe’s, you can find large carpet remnants, special order returns, and discontinued items at deep discounts.

Don’t forget to use Ebates and Honey for online purchases for even more money back in your pocket! 

Use coupons when renovating a fixer upper

When we changed our address with USPS, they sent us a packet that was filled with coupons from major retailers in the home industry. Some of these included Wayfair, Bed Bath & Beyond, Big Lots, and Lowe’s. The Lowe’s coupon was really helpful because we used that when we bought our new appliances (saving us about $200). Ten percent may not seem like a huge discount, but when you are doing a complete kitchen remodel, it can save you hundreds of dollars.

Leverage Credit Card Points and Perks

I am not one to promote credit cards if you don’t feel like you can use them responsibly or if you already have a lot of credit card debt. However, if you are comfortable with credit cards, you can take advantage of some of the perks when renovating.

We have a business credit card that we use for all of our transactions (and pay in full every month).

Over time, we had acquired a decent amount of points and decided to cash them in for Lowe’s gift cards to pay for our cabinets – a $1400 expense we didn’t have to put a penny of our own towards! We also have a Lowe’s credit card which saves us 5% on all purchases.

Over time, that 5% really adds up. (For example, you could save $1000 on $20,000 worth of materials.)

Barter services with fixer upper homes

Say you are a web developer and need your house painted – why not offer to create a professional website for the painter in exchange for him or her to paint your house? I once gave an interior design consultation to a professional photographer in exchange for new headshots for my website.

Think about what skills you have and offer up a trade. The worst they could say is ‘no’ but ideally, you could save a decent amount of money in exchange for your time.

DIY/Sweat Equity

I am not a fan of attempting everything in a renovation yourself unless you are a licensed professional (we usually hire out for major things like electrical, plumbing, HVAC, roofing, and structural repairs), but simple cosmetic tasks are totally doable.

Things like painting, tiling, installing flooring, landscaping, trim, and cabinet/vanity installation are ways you can save a boatload of cash.

You can easily find tutorials on YouTube or DIY blogs with instructions. This is where you can really create that “sweat equity” in a property – by eliminating a lot of the labor costs, you are essentially putting money back in your pocket.

Buy used when renovating a fixer upper

We love to find deals on Craigslist or similar re-sale sites.

  • We scored our vintage cast-iron sink for free.
  • We saved about $300 on a vanity and faucet by finding a used set for $75 on Craigslist.
  • A lot of contractors and remodelers will do “curb alerts” when they are renovating a house and don’t want to transport something to the dump themselves.
  • Be sure to also check the Habitat Restore – we have found solid wood doors and beautiful antique chandeliers for a steal.

Update instead of replace when renovating on a budget

Some things can easily be salvaged and refreshed with paint, trim, and other light cosmetic fixes. If you have solid cabinets, try painting or staining to breathe new life into them.

This will cost a fraction of the cost of replacing. We added trim to our outdated cabinets to create a Shaker look instead of ripping them out and saved about $2000.

In the same mindset, instead of tearing out outdated tile, try re-glazing them. There are many ways you can refresh existing fixtures; you just have to get a little creative.

Install what you can afford

It is so easy to get into a “keeping up with the Joneses” mentality when renovating your home. Popular TV shows, Pinterest, and bloggers often feature stunning renovations with custom cabinets, marble tile, and designer lighting that may be out of your price range.

The last thing you want is to be paying for your renovation project 20 years from now! We opted for stock cabinets, vinyl flooring, utility grade hardwoods, and laminate countertops and couldn’t be happier with our selections. We got the look that we wanted without blowing our budget or going into debt to pay for it.

Be honest about your skill set

I think it is really easy to watch “Fixer Upper” and similar shows on TV, think they renovated that house in no time and it is something you could TOTALLY do (speaking from experience here).

I remember watching a specific episode where they tiled a shower and made it seem like it took a leisurely afternoon to finish. When we tiled our own shower, it took two of us five straight days of 12 hour shifts.

DIY renovating is really hard work.

If you have never picked up a hammer before and plan on doing a lot of the work yourself, really think hard about if this is something you want to get into. Once your feet are in, it can be difficult to jump back out without losing money.

Are you interested in renovating a fixer upper? Have you ever DIYed a part of your home?

Here is how to save money when renovating a fixer upper - an abandoned 115 year old house. Renovating on a budget, fixer upper homes, is possible!


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Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Author: Michelle Schroeder-Gardner

Hey! I’m Michelle Schroeder-Gardner and I am the founder of Making Sense of Cents. I’m passionate about all things personal finance, side hustles, making extra money, and online businesses. I have been featured in major publications such as Forbes, CNBC, Time, and Business Insider. Learn more here.

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  1. Wow, Elizabeth, what a remarkable transformation! It certainly is HGTV worthy!

    My wife would love it if we could do something like this as our main source of income or even a side project. I don’t think it’s in the cards right now, but I could see us taking on a project in a few years. She’s glued to HGTV constantly.

    We’ve done things in both of our homes like painting, laying floor, and hanging crown molding. I’m learning (slowly) how to frame our basement out and hang drywall. So, we’re learning some skills. But, we’re nowhere near able to take on another home now. Haha.

    Great article and some really practical tips. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks so much, David! Haha, your wife and I are alike; I’m totally hooked on HGTV too. πŸ™‚ Good for your guys for being so hands-on with your projects. I am sure in no time you guys will be pros and hopefully at some point could tackle a bigger project! Thank you again for the kind words – I hope you have a great weekend!

  2. Mustard Seed Money

    Wow those are amazing updates that you made. It’s clear that you and your husband have a gift when it comes to design and carpentry. Personally, I like the idea of fixing things up but I definitely am a little scared to do the work myself. But with youtube today I wouldn’t mind trying πŸ™‚ Thanks for sharing!!!

    1. Thank you, Mustard Seed Money! We really do enjoy doing projects like this, so that helps keep us going through the tough jobs. πŸ™‚ It really is amazing what you can learn from YouTube! That is where we learned how to do minor plumbing and install hardwood flooring, lol. When you teach yourself something new like that, you gain a great sense of accomplishment. I hope you’ll give it a try some day!

    2. Megan

      Wow! These updates are truly HGTV worthy! You guys did an amazing job! Do you remember what color you painted the living room area with fireplace? I LOVE it!

  3. Go Finance Yourself!

    Those pictures are awesome. Fantastic work! I’d have to think hiring reputable contractors would be #1. Maybe I’ve just seen too many HGTV shows that talk about the horror stories of working with a bad contractor that leaves you high and dry or way overcharges you.

    I love going the DIY route for what I can reasonable accomplish, and would love to do a fixer upper like this someday.

    1. You are so right, Go Finance Yourself. We got lucky because one of our good friends is a talented contractor, so we had someone we could trust that also knew the best sub-contractors around. It can be an absolute (and expensive) nightmare if you hire the wrong guy/gal. I’ve learned the best way to find good companies is by word of mouth. Thank you for the kind words! I too hope you can do your own fixer upper one day. πŸ™‚

  4. Hi Eric! Thanks for the nice feedback. πŸ™‚

    Yes, absolutely. We paid our contractor around $65,000 – this included: demo, all new plumbing (and tieing it into city water/sewer system), all new electrical, all new HVAC (didn’t have central air/heat before), new joists and footers, all new framing, new subfloor, new drywall, new exterior railings and porch rebuild, and hardwood refinishing (we installed the new hardwood ourselves), and installing all new trim. My husband and I tackled the cosmetic finishes for about $20,000 – paint, tiling, vanities, lighting, hardwood flooring, new kitchen (cabinets, appliances, countertops), re-casing existing windows, interior doors, brick foundation repair, and minor landscaping. We also hired an exterior painter ($3000) and are getting a new roof in a few weeks ($5400). All said, I would say we are in it for around $95,000. The house is 1552 square feet, so it is about $61 per renovated square foot.

    Had we known how much work this house needed, we would never have put that much into it (we thought at least some of the systems would be salvageable). We also didn’t expect the extent of termite damage that forced us to do all new joists/footers, framing, and subfloor and new hardwoods. Since this house was abandoned for a while, it needed so much more work and money than a house that has been maintained over the years (which sounds more like your house). I would think a “normal” renovation per square foot would be much less. πŸ˜‰

    I hope this helps! Thanks again for reading.

  5. Thanks so much! Hope you have a nice weekend. πŸ™‚

  6. Lindsey Mozgai

    Your fixer upper came out so adorable! Nice work!

    1. Thank you, Lindsey! πŸ™‚

  7. I would love to renovate a heritage home! Elizabeth’s project came out so well, I love all the design and colour choices she made. It’s a scary thing to get into though, you never know what you’re going to find behind the falls of a 100 hundred year old home but I much prefer their charm over a new build in the suburbs. Great tips on sticking to your budget, especially the one about being honest with your skills…so much truth!

    1. Hi Sarah! Thank you for the kind words. πŸ™‚ You are SO right – as they say, opening up those walls is a can of worms. I’m with you. It is hard to beat the character of an old home. Hope you have a wonderful weekend!

  8. AShley

    Beautiful! — I gotta know though, what is the paint color you used in your living/family room?!

    1. Hi Ashley! Thanks so much. It is Sherwin Williams Magnetic Gray SW 7058. One of my favorites!

  9. You guys did some awesome stuff to get your cabinets for cheap. I feel like that’s one of the hardest things for me and my wife to do. We’re considering just having the old cabinets we already have just redone by a company. Have you ever tried that?

    1. Hi Bob! In our last house, we did keep the existing cabinets and just gave them a little bit of a makeover. They were solid wood flat panel cabinets, so we added trim to the edges of the cabinet doors and drawers to make them look like shaker style. We loved the end look.

  10. ReachingTheCrest

    Great job! My wife and i tackled a big project like that with our first house. A town home that needed a lot of work. What i learned the most was that with older homes you never know what’s behind that wall. You start to open things up and all of a sudden you discover questionable electrical and plumbing issues that end up costing you more than you thought. For us, like you, it was all worth it in the end.

    When we bought our second home, it was move in ready! Ha.

    great post.

    1. Haha, move in ready is pretty nice, isn’t it? You are totally right – older homes can be quite the gamble. You never really know what has been done to the home by a not-so handy previous homeowner. Glad it was still worth it for you guys. πŸ™‚

  11. MoΓ―se

    Wow, what a gorgeous house! I like the handy tips for renovating a fixer upper πŸ™‚

  12. Kristine Puzel

    Your renovation is beautiful ! From the pictures, it has a wonderful open and airy feel to it. I love those glass-paned interior doors.

    1. Thank you, Kristine! Yes, we got lucky with those French doors. They were one of the few things left that were original to the house. One of my favorite features. πŸ™‚

  13. With a background in Landscape Architecture I am also fond of anything HGTV. My wife and I bought a 65 year old home that needed some cosmetic help, which is no problem for me. This brings be to my favorite section of your post, “Be honest with your skill set”. We decided to take out a wall in the kitchen to open it up a little bit. I thought it would be easy because there use to be a window where we wanted to open it up. Of course, there was a major beam hidden in there with some very scary electrical work. I was WAY over my head at this point. Luckily though, my Dad was not. We were able to finish the project and I learned a great lesson! Thanks for the awesome article!

    – Adam

    1. Hey Adam! Thanks for reading and the kind words. It is so great that your Dad could help! Taking down a wall sounds so easy in theory, doesn’t it? πŸ˜‰ I bet your house turned out beautifully once you guys were done!

  14. Mrs. Farmhouse Finance

    Wow, Elizabeth, the transformation is incredible! I love seeing before and after pictures of renovations. My husband and I are building our first home, and are trying to save money in every way possible. I agree that it’s important to be honest/realistic about your skill set. Just because you watch HGTV, does not mean that you can do everything yourself! We will be outsourcing a lot of the work to skilled contractors, but doing some of the finish carpentry, painting and landscaping ourselves. Thanks for the inspiration!

    1. That is so exciting! I bet your home is going to be stunning. You are right – you can’t do everything yourself! I think it is smart for you guys to pick carpentry, painting, etc to tackle. Those are things that if aren’t perfect, you can still sleep soundly at night and not worry if your DIY electrical fix is going to catch on fire. πŸ˜‰ Thanks for commenting and best of luck with your project!

  15. Wow…awesome job!! What a difference. Chip and Joanne would be proud😊

    1. Haha, thanks so much, Lisa! πŸ™‚

  16. A lot of real estate investor get turned off once they take a first glance at a certain property and see that it is a fixer-upper home and dare not take a second look. Let me tell you this straight up, DO NOT JUDGE A PROPERTY BY IT’S LOOKS! Real estate investment properties come in many different forms which is why you should not be turned off by the looks of a home but rather pay further attention to the details.

  17. Jaime

    Great info! One thought on the Habitat for Humanity Restore store…visit ALL of them within driving distance. One store a half hour away from us looks like a lumbar yard, it’s chock full of building supplies…stores near us have nothing like that. Store we drive to is near large RV manufacturing area so they get their stuff.

    And for readers who have access to Menards I have one word…REBATES! We rebuilt our home following a house fire and saved thousands (I know because I tracked everything on a spreadsheet ) in rebates. Their storewide 11% off everything sale is awesome. Takes weeks to get the store credits back but they come!

  18. When it comes to real estate, one thing many people don’t know about Brownstone homes in the Bedford-Stuyvesant, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, Greenpoint, and Park Slope section of Brooklyn, New York is that if you can get your hands on a Brownstone house from the late 1800’s for under $1,000,000 and renovate it, you can sell it for close to possibly a cool $5,000,000. Brownstone renovated homes in downtown Brooklyn nowadays “renovated” run close to $2,000,000 and better for a starting price.

    Moreover, if you can buy a few of those properties with side hustle blogging income and rent those Brooklyn brownstone homes out, you’re guaranteed to be in the money times over and guaranteed a new source of streaming income! πŸ™‚

  19. Catherine

    Wow, so beautiful what you both accomplished! We are planning on moving to another state on a pretty piece of property. But the house was built in 1940. It needs walls removed and I’d love to salvage the wood flooring, not to mention carpet and paneling adding a guest bathroom etc…Basically the whole house needs updated.

    The most I’ve done is paint, trim and replace light fixtures. Plus moving to a new state I know I have to really search out a reputable contractor.

    Thank you for your helpful tips. With prayers of selling out home at a good price, we are planning on having extra $ in case of these incidences. I also want to see if I can find a round about construction costs per sqft that contractors charge in that state. Is that possible?

    Blessings.

  20. Ella Walker

    I like your points about using pictures and writing to convey your goals to the contractor.

  21. Good morning and happy Saturday Michelle,

    Hope you’re enjoying your “weekend.” What an inspiring read. “Renovating a Fixer-Upper” on Making Sense of Cents is a captivating tale of determination, creativity, and the sheer joy of transforming a house into a home. As someone who has always been fascinated by the idea of renovating a fixer-upper, this blog post truly resonated with me. “may” look into a vintage home someday. I’m unsure if I want something in Hockessin, Rehoboth Beach, or what. I’m a bit confused for now.

    One aspect that stood out to me was the emphasis on the importance of planning and budgeting. Renovating a fixer-upper can be a daunting task, but the detailed breakdown of costs and the strategic approach to tackling different projects highlighted in the post are incredibly valuable for anyone considering a similar venture.

    The “transformation” photos provided in the blog post were truly jaw-dropping. It’s astonishing to see how a neglected property can be turned into a beautiful, livable space with some vision, hard work, and a little help from skilled professionals.

    Often, we tend to focus only on the “success stories,” forgetting the challenges that come with such undertakings. By sharing both the highs and the lows, the blog paints a realistic picture of what to expect during the renovation process, which can help others prepare mentally and emotionally for their own journeys.

    In addition to being an engaging read, your blog here offers valuable insights and practical tips that could prove beneficial for aspiring fixer-upper renovators. Whether it’s learning from the author’s mistakes or following their “success strategies,” there’s something to take away for everyone interested in embarking on a similar adventure.

    All in all, “Renovating a Fixer-Upper” is a must-read for anyone who’s ever dreamt of breathing new life into an old house. It’s an empowering reminder that with dedication, passion, and a clear vision, the possibilities are endless.

    Kudos to you again Michelle, for sharing and making Making Sense of Cents for hosting such valuable and inspiring content. This blog post has certainly left me feeling motivated and excited about the potential of taking on my own fixer-upper project someday to the public 9th step “if it’s meant to be.”

    Keep up the fantastic work! πŸ™‚

    Your affiliate marketing friend from Flatbush Brooklyn,

    Drewry

    a.k.a.

    Sha-LO

    #PBC4Life