Chip and Joanna Gaines’ show makes renovating look easy—but it’s not. I found out the hard way.

By Karla Walsh
Updated August 23, 2017
Chip and Joanna Gaines on Today Show
Credit: NBC /Getty Images

When I handed over the down payment check for my first home, a beautiful 1935 brick bungalow in Des Moines, Iowa, all I could picture was progress and possibility. I was beaming and riding high on the fact that, at 27, I had saved enough to own something—a big something—on my own.

As soon as I settled in, I imagined everything falling into place. I’d easily add a wine cellar over here, host an epic dinner party over there, and cozy up with a cup of tea to be more creative than ever in my book-filled writing nook.

Sure, I’d encounter roadblocks, just like the ones Chip and Joanna tackle each time they modernize a home on Fixer Upper. As I came to find out during the two years I owned my house, though, the images on TV and in my head were far from real.

As odd as it sounds, a squirrel on my couch (and many other memorable moments in homeownership) taught me that life doesn’t always follow a script. These are the five universal lessons I learned from my own fixer upper.

Fixer upper house
Credit: cjmckendry/Getty Images

When in Doubt, Get the Insurance.

As a first-time homeowner, I relied a lot on my inspector to give me the straight scoop about the condition of my purchase. Unfortunately, mine didn’t have X-ray vision, so I had no hints that something like water line insurance might be crucial. When I saw the “Only $5 a month!” insert that came with my first water bill, I believed it was the equivalent of trip insurance. Nice to have, but something I would need in about 0.01 percent of cases.

I believed that until I came home from work on a frigid December day, about eight months after I moved in, to find my shower’s water pressure was down to a trickle. I Googled “barely there water pressure” and found out enough about old pipes to scare me into ordering the insurance right that minute.

The moment I found out I would be able to work with the insurance company to fix the leak for next to no money—instead of paying $10,000-plus at full price—was the moment I was fully convinced to always check the “Yes” box for insurance. The piece of mind and the warm showers are worth it.

You Can DIY Way More Than You Think—But It Takes a Lot of Work.

My house introduced me to more than just new types of insurance. I also met my boyfriend who lived about a mile away. He had fixed up his foreclosure to make it livable and adorable—and offered to help me do the same. Before we met, I was basically at a stand still. I knew my mustard-colored living room didn’t feel “right,” but I couldn’t put into words why. More importantly, I didn’t know where to start, so I simply hid from the fact that my house was practically empty and the walls were bare by spending next to no time in the space. Happy hour? Yes, please! Long work days? Nowhere else I’d rather be.

But talking to him, I realized I would need to do more than add a wine cellar to make the space mine. During more thorough investigations, we began discovering some aesthetic and underlying issues that would need to be addressed, from hardwood floor scratches to cracked window panes.

Without his help and encouragement, I probably would have been like the average millennial in a recent Houzz survey and spent something to the tune of $26,000 on reno costs in just one year. But with his mentorship, I channeled my inner Chip Gaines and became a pro at drilling, removing carpet, refinishing hardwood floors, reglazing windows and plastering walls for a fraction of that price tag. I never thought of myself as handy before, but one successful project lead to the next and I now have a whole toolkit of skills that I can open up to pay it forward with friends and charities like Habitat for Humanity.

The Right Tools Make All the Difference.

One reason why Habitat is so close to my heart: I was at a local branch of the Habitat ReStore taking a loan out of the Tool Lending Library two or three times a week during reno year. It was there that I learned the difference between a pipe wrench and a strap wrench, where I learned how to use a floor sander and a floor buffer, and where I learned the power of sandpaper.

Early on in my extreme home makeover, I decided to stain my coffee table to try to wow my handy boyfriend. I didn’t do my homework or ask for advice, so I had no idea I should have employed a power sander to even out the surface first. The result: A splotchy, uneven, matte mess. My boyfriend came over the next day and my “TA-DA!” was met with a, “Wow. Well we’ll deal with that later.”

I nearly forgot about the coffee table, as it was pushed to the side and covered with tarps for the next three months while I painted the interior of my house from top to bottom and sanded and refinished the base boards.

When I finally uncovered the coffee table, my DIY skills had come so far that I laughed, grabbed my sander, and started from scratch. A little more know-how, a lot less intimidation, and the finishing touch of a layer of polyurethane left me with a surely-Joanna-approved piece of farmhouse furniture in an hour.

Know When to Call in the Reinforcements.

Certain things shouldn’t be DIY’d. Certain things like replacing shingles on a steep roof, messing with a malfunctioning sump pump, or taking on a resident squirrel.

While I was busy learning how to use a caulk gun and refinish a porcelain sink, I was blissfully unaware that a family of squirrels was making themselves at home in my attic thanks to a loose roof vent. Apparently, the insulation up there wasn’t quite cozy enough for one of them, as one night, he made his great escape through the vent system and onto my couch. A loud scream and a room-to-room broom chase (during which one of us was in heels and a cocktail dress) followed, and I spent the next month sleeping in the only room of the house with no vents while an animal control person slowly removed all five of my furry tenants in live traps.

Little felt better than my first night of sleep back in my bed after the great Squirrel Saga of 2016. Well, maybe that first full-powered shower.

Less Is Absolutely More.

Ripping out carpet and pulling weeds gave me all the time I needed to process many emotions I would have skimmed over pre-home ownership. Turns out, I had put a lot of my self worth into this house. Most of my friends owned a thing—a big thing like a condo or a home—and I thought checking that box made me an adult like them. In the end, four bedrooms and three baths were way too much for me (handyman and I split after about a year of dating, so it was just me in the space for the foreseeable future) and the constant stress of “what will break next?!” became really exhausting.

When it came down to it, my definition of fun is not (and never will be) working 8 to 5 then coming home to work 6 to 11 on my living space. When I unlock the door to my home, I want it to be a respite. I need it to be relaxing. I realized what I enjoy even more is having the time and money to travel, enjoy amazing meals, and explore other passions. After all, if I was spending all my time rehabbing, when would I host those dinner parties and enjoy the bottles from the wine cellar?

So I found a realtor, watched my fixed-up abode get snatched up before it was even listed. Now, I’m writing this piece, mug of tea in hand, from a couch in the no-strings-attached one-bedroom apartment I’m happily renting.

This wasn’t the story I expected when I handed over the check two years ago, but it was exactly the happy ending I wanted to write.