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You can never go home again: The estate flip

My father passed away in March. He wasn’t in the greatest health but he was still getting around okay. He went out for a daily coffee with his friends and he had stopped by our house a night or two before we got the call from a neighbor that he was “sick.” While his death was sudden and unexpected, it didn’t come as a huge shock.

Fortunately, both my mother, who passed away in 2002, and my father had pre-planned their funerals. I didn’t have to make or second-guess any big decisions.  All I had to do was set the wheels in motion.  I was the only child, so I was executor and sole heir of the modest estate, which included the house.

We made the decision to remain in our current house and sell my dad’s house.  It was free and clear so there was no rush.  I could take my time getting the house ready for market.


My wife and I went through the house and decided what items we wanted to keep and what items we wanted to sell or donate.  We also wanted to keep certain items for “staging” purposes.


This was essentially going to be a flip.   I had to constantly ask myself how far to go .  The bathroom was certainly of its time, with pink wall tiles and pink floor tiles that my mother had covered with more neutral peel-and-stick tiles.  Do I renovate and bring it up to date with new tiles and fixtures? Or do I just clean it up and hope potential buyers don’t find it to be too outdated?

The basement family room had wood paneling and no overhead lights.  Do I gut the room and put up drywall?  Or do I leave it alone and let the buyer worry about it?  Or do I paint the paneling to at least brighten it up and make it look a little more modern?  In the end, I did nothing, leaving it as-is for the next owner to put their stamp on it.

The main floor was long overdue for some fresh paint.  My wife helped pick out some neutral colors. If I have learned nothing else up to this point in my marriage, it’s to trust my wife’s instincts when it comes to paint colors. And I knew that I wanted to remove all the carpets on the main floor to expose the hardwood floors.

For the next few months, I spent three or four hours a day at the house painting, cleaning and fixing.

The bathroom

I decided to “restore” the bathroom as much as possible to bring it back to its original state.  The wall tiles, pink and outdated though they may have been, were in good condition and were original to the house when it was built back in 1956.  “Outdated” today will become “period charm” at some time in the future.

I removed the peel-and-stick tile from the floor by steaming it using a wet cloth and an iron. I used GooGone to remove any remaining residue. Fortunately, my mother had waxed the floor, so using a wax stripper cleaned everything right up. It took a lot of elbow grease, but the cost was mere pocket change.

The bedrooms

I gave each of the three bedrooms a fresh coat of paint and then removed the carpet. It sounds easy enough, but it was time consuming, especially since I chose to paint the insides of the closets white.  As I finished each bedroom, I took up the carpet to expose the gleaming hardwood floors.

My parents had the floors refinished just before I came on the scene in 1967, and, like everyone else in the early 70’s, they promptly covered them with wall to wall carpet. So, for four decades, the floors never saw the light of day, except when the carpets were replaced, keeping them in pristine condition. Removing the carpet was like uncovering a long-lost treasure.


Once the spring weather broke in April, I hired a contractor to replace the driveway and to install a waterproofing membrane on part of the house. The waterproofing was necessary as there was evidence of water damage in the basement. Rather than try to mask the problem, I had it fixed so I could offer potential buyers assurances that there is no longer an issue. The downside was the damage to the landscaping which I now had to repair. Landscaping was not part of my original budget.

waterproofing membrane
Installing the waterproofing membrane.


The driveway was another problem that could have deterred potential buyers. The old driveway might have lost me the same amount of money in a sale that it cost me to have a new one put in but a new driveway would make the house easier to sell. Another side benefit was the entertainment value of the interaction between a next door neighbor and the contractors.

From the day that the old driveway was removed to the day the forms were put down, the neighbor was outside with his survey and tape measure making sure we weren’t encroaching on his property. On the day of the pour, he seemed to be constantly harassing the work crew. I  can understand his frustration with the mess and the inevitable damage to the edge of his lawn, but I grew up next to this guy. I constantly assured him that I would restore his property even if the cement contractor didn’t.

sidewalk removal
Removing the old, incredibly thick sidewalk.

concrete driveway
New concrete driveway.

New wire to the garage

With the driveway dug up, I had an opportunity to make an upgrade that I hadn’t been planning on.  The garage was built back in 1973 or 74 and my father did the electrical himself.  A single 15 amp circuit was plenty at that time and more than enough for what my folks used the garage for.  However, being a woodworker (a hobby that has now been on hold for half a decade since we moved into a house with no garage), I know that a single circuit is not enough for the average hobbyist.

So, before the new concrete, I dug a trench and ran some 8 gauge wire in conduit to the garage.  Whoever buys the house will have the option of keeping the single circuit as is or installing a new 40 amp service in the garage.

I went through the frustration of having to cut a patio in my first house in order to run electrical out the the garage.  The previous owner of that house told me after that he wished he had run the wire before pouring his patio.  So did I.  For 200 bucks,  I figured that I could save whoever buys this house the same sort of frustration.  Plus I removed the potential of losing a sale because of an inadequately wired garage.

Living room, dining room and hallway

By mid May, I finished all the painting on the main floor of the house. Just as in the bedrooms, the carpet in the living room had preserved the floors in perfect condition. The only work I had to do was install new quarter round moldings. The trim throughout the main floor had been stained with a color called “wheat” by a manufacturer that had long since gone out of business.  Rather than try to match the quarter round to the baseboard, I instead matched it to the floor.

The fit and finish is some of my best work yet, even if I only mitered the corners instead of coping them.  I would have finished a lot sooner, but I did all the cutting in the garage using my dad’s compound miter saw. I could have brought the saw in the house and saved a lot of time, but I did not want to make a mess with the sawdust. Each time I had to fine tune a cut required another trip out to the garage. But it was worth the effort to keep cleanup in the house to a minimum.

The kitchen

My parents had the kitchen done about 25 years ago and it was still in decent shape.  I repaired a couple cracks in the plaster and painted.  I then gave the vinyl floor a good scrub.  Good enough!


At the end of May, with the help of my friend’s brother, I landscaped the front yard the waterproofing.   It cost a few hundred dollars for some plants, mulch and sod to restore some semblance of curb appeal.

Clearing the clutter

My dad was a tinkerer so there was a vast assortment of old tools, fittings, and other odds and ends to sort through in the basement, garage and shed.  Everywhere I turned, I would find another bin or box of something that my father had kept.  It was a little depressing because I could hear his voice saying “I better keep that, I may need it someday.”  And now I was asking myself, “should I keep that?  I may need it someday….”

My mother was also a collector.  She liked her figurines and assorted tchotchkes and all of these remained in the house after she passed away.  There was also stuff that had been her mother’s which held deeper meaning for her.  But do I keep something that meant something to someone who meant something to me when I have no direct connection to that thing myself?

I hired professional movers to pack and move my mother’s Royal Doultons and my grandmother’s china.  Other stuff was sorted for yard sale or storage.

Putting the house on the market

I removed everything from the main floor, leaving only a few pieces of furniture.  I wouldn’t exactly call it “staging” but it looked a lot better and less cluttered than it did before.  Here’s what the living room looked like before:

cluttered living room
The living room as it was.

When my mother was alive the living room was only used when we had formal visitors.  After she passed away my dad had satellite television installed and used the living room more than any other room of the house– and it showed.

Interesting note:  the round table in front of the window had a lazy susan for storing 8 track tapes.

With the carpet removed, fresh paint on the walls and most of the clutter removed, the room looks much larger.  I wish I had taken this picture at a different time of day with better lighting, but this gives you an idea.

The living room de-cluttered.

The house went on the market in mid-June, just as housing prices were taking a major hit (update 2016:  this was at the beginning of what would later be called “The Great Recession”).

It wasn’t perfect

Despite my hard work, the house still had a few things going against it.  It only had one bathroom and that bathroom had never been updated.  I left the basement as-is, so anyone buying the house would probably want to start by replacing the carpet (at a cost of a few thousand dollars, probably).  And while it was in very good condition, the kitchen was still 25 years old.  I wouldn’t have got much return on those upgrades, but anybody buying the house would see them as things that needed to be done.

Over the past five years, my dad had a lot of work done to the house and the property– some good, some not so good.  He spent a LOT of money– some wisely, some not so wisely.  The waterproofing and driveway were significant investments, and I really don’t think he could have afforded them on a fixed income and dwindling savings.

And some of his other “improvements” may have hurt the property value.  For example, a roof extension at the back of the house worked for him.  It kept him dry.  It kept snow and ice off the sidewalk to reduce his risk of slipping and falling.  But it made the kitchen very dark.  The shed made the back yard smaller.  Some of his electrical work was, shall we say, dubious

Still, within 3 weeks, after some intense negotiation, I accepted an offer. A week later all the T’s were crossed and I’s were dotted.  The deal closed late in late July.  Had it been ready for market back in April, the house might have sold for 15% more.  It was just bad timing, what with the financial collapse and all. Update 2020: That house would be worth about 75-100% more in the current market. Real estate values in our area have exploded since 2016. But that wasn’t something we could foresee in 2008.

Dealing with the emotions and memories

Some days were easier than others. Most days were more emotional.  There were a lot of memories in the basement rec room. That was where I spent many hours watching television while I was growing up. My spot was on the floor, about four or five feet away from the television. I remember watching The Brady Bunch, Emergency! and Happy Days with my parents (while the shows were first run in prime time). Even before that, I remember watching Sesame Street and Bozo as a preschooler and kindergartner.

Most of all, though, I remember the many Christmases. The rec room was where we had our Christmas tree. Christmas night, after everybody had dinner, aunts, uncles and cousins would congregate in the basement. The ladies would talk and chain-smoke on one side of the room, us kids would play on the floor on the other side, and the men would most often end up in the work room playing cards. Now this room, as it was, will only exist in the family photo albums and as a distant, fading memory.

The empty rec room.

Update, November 2, 2008

Halloween night.  The houses are few and far between where we live and the nearest subdivision is about a mile down the road.  So we took our daughter back to my old neighborhood where she has trick or treated every other Halloween.  This was only my second time back since selling my dad’s house in July.   It was a chance to visit with some of the neighbors who had been so helpful and supportive while I was preparing the house for the market.

It was strange watching our daughter going up to her grandfather’s old house, but she seemed okay with it.  My wife and I were content to wait at the road, but found ourselves invited in when the kid blurted out, “This was my Papa’s house!”

An impromptu house tour

The main floor hadn’t changed much besides some new paint in a couple of the bedrooms and contemporary furniture.  It was all very tastefully decorated, but still recognizable.  The biggest change was in the basement.  Brand new carpet, in a solid, neutral color, covered the stairs and continued into the rec room.  The new owners had painted all the wood paneling, making the space brighter and much more modern.  They had removed the huge built-in corner bar which made the room much larger.  One wall was painted a heritage blue color which,  with the new carpet, made the room feel warm and cozy.  The cumulative effect of all this was absolutely stunning.

My mother, the neat freak and perfectionist, would have approved.  I had certainly had a mental picture in my head for many years of what I would have done if I was moving into the house.  I had even considered doing the same sort of thing for the “flip.”  But what I saw on Friday night far exceeded any of my expectations.

In a sense, being able to see the house again provided some closure.  The transition is now complete.  This young couple is making the house their home.  And they are doing it with style and taste.


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