A Year To Do A Rental Property Renovation? Sometimes….

by | BiggerPockets.com

Hi, here’s a little story about a year long odyssey of my year long renovation of my second rental property. I paid 13k for a row home in Baltimore, MD and it took me a year to complete the renovation and get a tenant in. I’ll share why this took so long, and why that was okay.

The Video

Overestimated My DIY Skills

I did not have as much liquid capital as I should have had. This was my second renovation, and I based DIY skills that I used on my previous renovation for a condo built in 2001, for a row house built in 1905. Right…Total newbie mistake thinking its going to be the same level of output. Thankfully, I could rely on Youtube, and subject based home repair books to get through it. This, of course, added time to the project. As I was working full time, I only had Saturdays to do all these repairs (during the last two months, I went up there Friday – Sunday, and camped out at the house. That’s another story.). So, going up to the house with a lot of spit and vinegar, but having to take the time to learn new repair skills and new tools would make a project go into next week. Yeah, one project per weekend turned into one project per three weekends. You can see how this added up. Add to the fact that every time a contractor told me the costs in the thousands, I decided to do myself, also added extra time. You would think demoing the basement would be a one day event, until you get to the level of plaster coating the walls from 1960. Truly, that stuff is ridiculously good at sticking to brick surfaces. Another extended project…

 Underestimated Costs

All of a sudden I had a lot more repairs than money in my pocket book. The only way around this obstacle that I knew at the time was to save up money from paycheck to paycheck. So, If I had to wait 3 or 4 paycheck cycles to have the money, I would wait those cycles out while I did the little things. That definitely extended the time of my renovation, which I did think at the time would only be 3 months. But, what’s important is what I learned.

What I learned

At the end of the day, I learned some valuable lessons. I learned that failure doesn’t have to be an option. If I didn’t have money, I saved up, and it’s a good thing I was living frugally to be able to come up with the funds. Also, I learned that vision was important. I could have quit at anytime with certain repairs not being made, but I refused to let up until my vision of cozy, warm home was fulfilled. I truly believe that my visioning is what lead me to the finish line, because I knew in my bones how I wanted that house to look and feel by the time it was finished. And I also learned more about houses and repairs in that one year to fill a book, and I can much more knowledgeably talk to all contractors about repairs and level of effort. That is something you just can’t get from a book or reading the internet. Sure, I wish it would have been finished a lot sooner as planned, but you really have to look at what you take away, and still keep on trucking. This actually motivated me even more to continue in real estate investing, especially in my price range, because the finished product was even nicer that I had envisioned. So, if it doesn’t go as plan…it really can still turn out ok, just keep moving one paycheck to the next until you accomplish your goals.

Photo: Bossi

About Author

Lisa Phillips

Lisa Phillips is an REI coach that exclusively advises everyday investors on how to cash in on working class neighborhoods for higher profits with sensible investing strategies. You can meet with her live at her weekend intensives or retreats, in the 4700+ member Sub30k Mastermind Group, or on Google+ here!


  1. Wife and I were in the same boat. Weekends, evenings. Called it my 2nd job. Kept thinking it would never get done. Knew a few people that did some handy work, carpet, plumbing, but for the most part, did it all. all the way to finding and screening the tenant. Learned a lot. I think It would be a good experience for everyone getting into real estate. I think it should be a requirement for real estate agents.

    • I started LOLing when I read your posts, because thats exactly how I felt. But, you’re absolutely right: The experience you learn doing things this way is worth more than any guru or seminar you can attend, so I am humbled and extremely grateful for what you can only learn by gritting your teeth and not stopping until you finished! Thanks,

  2. Were there any particular YouTube posters or book series you found particularly helpful for beginners? I’m living in one unit of a triplex that’s totally livable as it is, but has amazing potential if I do things like finish the basement and rebuild a garage. I’m a fairly quick learner, but I’m having a hard time finding which teachers to trust!

    • I was very project specific, so whoever had the most views when I googled “Installing ceiling fans” or “repairing a water heater” was the one I chose. This was a couple of years ago, so there may be more leaders that have appeared. However, I did not see a lack of different videos that were up. And, Lowes and Home Depots have great videos on installing different items. Its definitely out there.

  3. My project 2 hours away took me 10 months to complete. That was with 4 hours round trip driving time every Saturday and Sunday. Like you, at the time I had limited funds and did as much as I could until I was able to get some financial help. I look back and don’t know how I did it — I think it was because I had to. But it gave me a lot of skills, and the knowledge to know what I would do in the future and what I would definitely hire out. And when I do hire it out, what is involved in it and therefore what it should cost.

    • Exactly! The confidence and knowledge I have can only be gained through trial by fire. I don’t know if I would recommend this method, per se, because it was the hard way of implementing my REI strategy. HOWEVER, there was value to be gained from it that can not be recreated in any other form.

      • Lisa, you are very right. My whole process was about 10 months. But at the very end, it almost felt like completing a year of college. The evening shift at the Home Depot, knew me very well by then he he he!!

  4. Great post Lisa. I did a somewhat similar rehab as you – DIY style while working a day job. However, we anticipated some of the challenges and took steps to minimize the timeline as much as possible, given our constraints:

    1. Location – the house we picked was halfway between my office and my home, and only 7 miles from my home, so little commuting time was wasted. It was also under 2 miles from Home Depot, which was awesome. The location also allowed me to work 4-6 hours in the evening on work nights, not just weekends. I would never try a rehab of this magnitude 2 hours away like Dawn described above.
    2. Age of home – No we didn’t buy a 1905 row house – those scare me because absolutely nothing is modern and you have to replace pretty much everything. We limited our search to mid 80’s and newer. At least the drywall/electric and some of the plumbing could be salvaged in our case.
    3. Partners – I partnered with my BIL, which saved my bacon. He works a FT job too, but whenever we had a lot of manual labor, we were able to hire his 17 y/o brother and several of his friends for $10/hr.
    4. Rip and replace – It was sometimes easier to cut out an entire system and replace it than to try to repair an aging system. We did this with water heater and some of the plumbing and all the light/fan fixtures and applicances.
    5. Limited use of “contractors” – some stuff just isn’t worth doing yourself – or impossible. Of course we installed the ceiling fans, fixtures, water heater, faucets, paint, siding, did demo and cleanup, etc, etc, etc ourselves because we wanted to DIY as much as possible, but its pretty difficult to replace the A/C without an HVAC license. So we found the cheapest guy we could get a good reference for. Same with the roof and the garage door. (Garage doors were $550 for just materials from HD, vs $650 installed by a fireman with a side business) We paid a friend to do drywall repairs, so it was pretty cheap.

    So I’d say be Agile and balance what you can and want to do with those items that can save you huge amounts of time but don’t cost THAT much extra to hire out. And of course, shop around on labor so you aren’t just making contractors rich.

    And yes, we learned a lot, as you did. The knowledge gained from your first or second big rehab may be the most valuable payoff of the deal, as long as you don’t lose your shirt on the cost side :).

    • Lol, yes! I laugh, because it already passed, im done, and i can’t cry! Amazing, and I hope everyone here can read your words, and it can help them out too! 1980s and up is solid criteria if you have that available: Old enough so there isn’t a premium, but new enough so that fixing it doesnt have to be extremely expensive. Thanks for sharing with the community!

  5. Great article Lisa. This is exactly what people need to read. As we discussed before on the phone, people need this kind of information. Too many people get stuck with rules or percentages and never jump in.

    It’s great you jumped in and didn’t give up. We ALL have unexpected expenses that we have to overcome in our real estate. And quite frankly if someone tells you they are always dead on then they are full of S**T.

    Anyways, you learning the ins-and-outs of repairs will definitely be a huge benefit. All investors should learn to some extent. This has come in handy for me a lot when I do hire contractors instead of doing the work myself. I have had some unfortunate times with some hack-tractors and have actually had to show them how to do their job.

    Many contractors think ‘we’ as investors are not mechanically inclined and that could be true for many of us. But this is also how costs can go up and up. So again, cudos… the more you learn and understand the easier it will be to know when a hack-tractor is trying to screw you or overcharge you.

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