I Bought, Gutted, and Am Now Reassembling a Condo From Scratch

Or how I learned to stop worrying and embrace my living room toilet.
Publish date:
December 10, 2015
Design, construction adventures, home ownership, HGTV

Home improvement shows are liars. Don’t for one second believe that all it takes is a couple of days, a carpenter, and a wink to transform a space from a hell hole designed by Satan himself to a breezy, modern, welcoming room where you will host endless wine and cheese parties.

It is downright irresponsible to perpetuate such fallacies, and people who watch too much HGTV are deceived into taking on projects that are far more extensive than they originally imagine.

How do I know this? Eight months ago I embarked on the adventure of home ownership, buying a roughly 750-square-foot condo that had lots of potential at an excellent price.

In doing so, I became a member of a rapidly growing club. According to the New York Times, single ladies are buying homes at twice the rate of single men. My new condo was nowhere near move-in ready, but I was eager to get in and make it my own.

The woman who sold me the condo (after nearly two months of buyer/seller/lawyer insanity that is a different story for a different day) was deranged. She had lived in my little slice of would-be heaven for a decade and had transformed it into a very, very strange living space.

“No matter!” I thought, naïvely.

I was able to live with my parents while I renovated. That wouldn’t take more than what, 2 months? I had vision! I’d do most of the work myself so it wouldn’t even be that expensive!

Poor, sweet, Spring of 2015 Kate. How wrong you were.

The first thing I learned about the seller was that in her eyes, there was nothing that couldn’t be fixed by painting it. The floor tiles (painted gray), the shower doors (painted brown), the flusher on the toilet (painted black)—it all had to go.

I gutted the bathroom, a decision that left the condo without a working toilet for about five months, but a decorative toilet in the living room for that same span of time.

The floor under the bathroom tiles was rotted and needed to be replaced. The vanity was also rotted (and painted) and the sink was cracked, so those were replaced as well. And, because I’m a glutton for punishment, I decided to exchange the moldy plastic shower walls for subway tile. Thanks to my dad and uncle, I am now an expert tiler/grouter/sealer. Need tile help? Have me over.

There was also construction that needed to be undone. The seller has sectioned off the living room into a very small, narrow living space and a “bedroom” for her teenage son.

The bedroom was little more than a seven-by-eight foot cell. I can’t imagine living in a space like that as a teen, and I’m guessing the bottle of vodka I found in the crawl space belonged to him.

Because I do not have to keep a teenager somewhere in the condo, my sister and I took a Sawzall and a sledgehammer and tore down the wall separating the room in a couple of days. This was an awesome, cathartic experience, but the dust made us itchy and turned our boogers black.

The kitchen also needed some serious love. When I bought the place, there was only one tiny high-hat lamp and curtains covered all light sources—including the doorway. There was a Pagan symbol paper-mâchéd onto one of the walls.

The ceiling was a dark navy blue, almost black (remember, nothing that couldn’t be fixed by painting it). Half the cabinet doors had been removed and disposed of for no ostensible reason. There were cigarette burns on the cabinets and the countertop.

When I pulled the shelves out of the pantry for painting, I found about a zillion old sesame seeds chilling where the shelves met the walls.

I learned a very important lesson working on this room, which is that the children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie can be applied to real life. If you replace the cabinet doors, then you’re going to want to replace the pantry door so it matches.

Once you have a new pantry door, the appliances should really be updated as well. If you replace the appliances, you’re going to have to get a new floor. If you get a new floor, then why the hell don’t you just replace the countertop while you’re at it?

Now that I’m nearing the end of this undertaking and am slated to move in before the end of the year, I’ve been reflecting on what’s changed since buying the condo back in April.

I’ve stepped out of my comfort zone to plan and execute a massive construction project with the help of only a few wonderful people and select professionals. I’ve had to deal with sexist Home Depot employees (apparently, if I’m wearing a dress, I must not know what type of lumber I need), watched insane YouTube videos about the ins-and-outs of vinyl tiles, and nearly knocked myself unconscious trying to patch a hole in some drywall.

Please note: It hurts when a piece of drywall nails you in the face.

Renovating a condo has also taught me to appreciate the absurdities in our lives, and learn to laugh when there’s really nothing else you can do. Find some random blood on the crown molding that definitely doesn’t belong to you or yours? Hilarious! Where are the Clorox wipes? Find out the previous owner glued a bunch of pipes that should have screwed together? Laugh it off and get the saw.

Perhaps most importantly, this renovation project imbued me with patience. I never anticipated it would take nearly a year for me to move in, and had I known that from the get-go I might not have ever gone through with it. When I finally do move, it’ll be to a place that I created, and that is worth more than I ever thought possible

And, above all else, I’ve come to the unassailable conclusion that home improvement shows are dirty, filthy, stinking liars.