Tom Silva and daughter Kate
Photo: Richard Schultz
This Old House general contractor Tom Silva has spent his career helping homeowners across America, but a recent assignment kept him closer to home—advising his daughter, Kate, 28, on the purchase and renovation of her first house. Tom and his wife, Susan, were thrilled when Kate said she was moving back to Boston from San Diego with her fiance, Jay. Naturally, Dad volunteered to help in the house hunt.

Tom found what he thought was the ideal place: a modest 1950s Cape with a nice piece of land, on a quiet, dead-end street. "It's a perfect starter house," Tom says. "It has three good-sized bedrooms, but it's small enough that they won't spend a fortune on heat. The land is flat and fenced in—great for their dogs..and a family, eventually."

"Oh, and one other thing he forgot to mention," says Kate. "It just happens to be 1.3 miles from his house."

All the easier for Tom to drop by with his tools. Like many first-time home buyers, Kate and Jay soon learned that even a house in good move-in condition usually needs some updating. So what secrets about home ownership does Tom share with his own family? To find out, we listened in as he gave Kate a few words of professional—and fatherly—advice.

1. Get Your Priorities Straight
Like anyone who buys a new house, you and Jay will discover things you want to change once you settle in—like, say, that upstairs bathroom. Yeah, it's totally out of date, the paint's peeling, and the tiles are all cracked. But those are just surface things that you can live with.

I always say, "Spend on the things you can't see before you splurge on expensive finishes." If you blow your budget on a fancy bathroom, you won't have anything left for basics—like heating and cooling. I have to tell you: This house's forced-air system doesn't have enough ducts on the second floor. I mean, what's the point of a new bathroom if you're shivering in your bedroom? But since this is your starter house, it's not worth the expense of converting to hot-water heat. Just replace the ductwork. I'm not always a fan of forced air, but the ducts do make it easy to add central air—which we should probably get right on, because I hear this summer's going to be pretty hot.

As for the bathroom, a new exhaust fan and a fresh coat of stain-fighting paint, like Kilz, will work wonders to make the peeling and mildew go away. Worry about the marble tile and the jet tub later.

2. Have a Plan and Stick to It
So many homeowners want their house to be finished the day they move in, from the bedroom color to the kitchen appliances. But when you bought the house, you budgeted for repairs you knew had to happen. Make sure that's what you spend on. You may be anxious to blow out a wall and expand the kitchen—a $20,000 job, minimum. But remember how we noticed during the inspection that the pipes have been cobbled together with every material you can imagine? I've seen that in a lot of houses, and sooner or later the plumbing always fails. So it's no use redoing the kitchen if the work will have to get ripped out to get to the pipes. You will have just wasted $20,000.

3. Sleep on It
I always tell people that it's best to live in a house for a while—like a year—to get a feel for the space before making big design changes. For one thing, you have time to save up, and the costs are lower if you plan ahead and book a crew in advance instead of making it a rush job. But also, features of the house you thought you hated might turn out to be your favorites, and you could discover why other things are the way they are. Like an oddly shaped nook that you find out wraps around a plumbing stack. I've had lots of jobs where the homeowner said, "Now I get why they built it that way!" You have to live in a house, day and night, season to season, to truly know how you want it to be.
Ask TOH users about Home & Real Estate

Contribute to This Story Below