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How to Update a Small Home Without a Pro

A novice homeowner triumphed over DIY disasters with the help of friends, family, and YouTube

<p>The exterior of the 1930 Craftsman has a rich color palette.</p>

The exterior of the 1930 Craftsman has a rich color palette.

Photo by Gridley + Graves

There's the easy way, and then there's Brad's way. Meet Bradley Huber, millennial homeowner. High-school social studies teacher by day, home-improvement student by night, a man who knows what he needs to know and where to turn when things go wrong—which is fairly often. "It got so when the phone rang we'd think, What catastrophe has he come across now?" says Brad's amiable mother, Leslie, who runs a dairy farm with his handy dad, Keith. "When he bought his house, we kinda chuckled. He'd never been interested in power tools before."

Take a tour inside of this DIY Craftsman redo: House Tour: 1930 Craftsman House Transformed

All that's changed now. "Brad's inspiring because he does the research and keeps working at it until he gets it right," she says.

Not that the path to self-knowledge is ever easy. At one point, unhappy with his kitchen cabinets—he had already tried adding molding to the slab doors, but it was impossible to keep clean—Brad decided to swap out the fronts for something in Shaker style. "I called in people to give me quotes," he says. "But they were absurd. So I decided to make my own doors." He found a video online showing how to cut grooves in the stiles and rails so that the center panel could slide in place. "They were not perfect, but I was really pleased with the way they came out," Brad says. "Then I started hanging them, and it was one of those SOS moments: I don't know what I'm doing, and I get the third door up, and it doesn't fit. So I called a friend and said, 'You have to come over right now—it's an emergency!' After that it was all right. It was just one of those times where you need somebody to hold something so it doesn't slide around."

Read more: How to Hang Kitchen Cabinets

And isn't that true of so many things around the house? On the plus side, Brad knew from the beginning that with this house he'd found a great match. A man of infinite patience if limited means, he had been trawling the real-estate market in Rochester, New York, in search of a place whose mortgage payments would be no larger than his rent. Also, he'd been bitten by the remodeling bug and was dying to call a place his own.

In early 2011 he turned to a listing for an 864-square-foot two-bedroom, one-bath 1930 Craftsman. Its location, in a streetcar suburb called Irondequoit, wasn't ideal—Brad was 25 at the time and wedded to downtown—and it was hard to know which was more dismaying when he showed up for the open house: the washed-out 1950s aluminum siding or the surge of rival bargain hunters. "It's usually a Realtor and some cookies," he says. "This was wall-to-wall people."

The house was in pretty sad shape but, like any good teacher, Brad could sense potential. For one: original unpainted woodwork and period windows. For another: the width of the range, at 30 inches, too small for its allotted space. Brad had just the thing to fix that problem—a 36-inch 1950s Chambers stove, which he had acquired and put in storage like a soup pot in a hope chest. "I had already started nesting," he says.

Read more: Should You Buy That Fixer Upper?

He bit down and made an offer. "Not a penny more," he recalls saying of his upper limit of $67,000.

"When they called and said, 'We're going to accept,' I was like, Wha-at?" Brad's life as a laid-back renter was over, and his days as a homeowner who finds time to redo everything—and then blog about it—had officially begun.

<p>First-time homeowner Bradley Huber.</p>

First-time homeowner Bradley Huber.

Photo by Gridley + Graves

They say the first year is always the hardest, and that was certainly the case here. While busy romancing the decor, Brad overlooked the furnace, an old wheezer with an expensive oil habit ("I was more focused on painting," he concedes). When the first stunning utility bill landed with a thud, he turned the heat to 62-degrees F—during the day. At night he dialed down to the 50s and dove under quilts.

Efforts to liven up the Craftsman's bland exterior were so fraught that the neighbors gathered to watch. "The color was supposed to be an olivey green with ivory trim and gold accents," says Brad, who painted nine swaths of sample greens on the garage before settling on one. He kept his nose to the paintbrush until finishing an entire side, then stepped back. His No. 1 green had dried to the color of pea soup.

Read more: Read This Before You Paint

"It was awful!" he says. "I was upset because they say, 'Get these samples and you won't go wrong,' and I didn't want to spend any more time picking a paint color. Also, I had friends coming over to help me paint, and when you have free labor…"

"So I went back to the store and picked out the darkest gray they had. I thought, What's the worst that can happen? It was called Pencil Point, but I didn't think much about the name, I just had them make however many gallons."

As more and more graphite-colored paint went up and the sun went down, the house began to disappear into the darkness. Brad recalls thinking, What have I done? I've painted my house black! And I've got so many gallons of it.

But this time the paint dried to a deep, on-trend blue-gray—or would that be blue-tinged pencil? Whatever—at least the neighbors went back inside.

Read more: Editors' Picks: Our Favorite Colorful Houses

Elsewhere, Brad tinkered with ways to honor both Craftsman authenticity and contemporary tastes. The living room proved a challenge because previous owners had torn out a fireplace between two windows to make room for a TV in that spot. Naturally, when Brad reinstalled a period-style mantel, late 2011, he had the same problem trying to park the TV. So he put it in the fireplace, diverting the eye with a boldly striped accent wall.

While the room looked fine, the stripes conflicted with the gray patterned wallpaper that claimed space a year later in the adjacent dining room.

That room Brad had originally painted two shades of blue, one the same as the darker blue stripes. "I thought, Eh, it's all right," he says, but "the look was just not quite as fresh as I wanted." Watching Downton Abbey one night, he found inspiration in Lady Sybil's bedroom, where she was prettily framed by faintly patterned wallpaper.

"I kept hearing these awful stories about wallpaper, but the one I found at the home center was prepasted," Brad says. "Once the first sheet went up and I got the hang of trimming it and sliding it around the wall with my palms, I had it all up in a few hours." Spoken like a seasoned pro.

More-mundane repairs required outside assistance. "If I really need to talk to someone I'll go to the independent hardware stores because they are familiar with houses in the area and they can tell me what to do. They'll order special parts for things like the tub taps."

<p>Floor Plan: Cosmetic enhancements gave the house—just 864 square feet, front porch included—a new look. The attic and the basement, which holds a workshop (not shown), remain unfinished.</p>

Floor Plan: Cosmetic enhancements gave the house—just 864 square feet, front porch included—a new look. The attic and the basement, which holds a workshop (not shown), remain unfinished.

Floor plan by Ian Worpole

Brad also spent a lot of time online. "I'd try something simple like changing a faucet, and there'd be no shutoff valve," he says. "It would be two in the morning, so I would go to YouTube and type in 'changing a faucet.'" Umpteen links would pop up. "You page through them till you find someone who knows what they are talking about and had the same problem."

Lest you picture him watching Tom Silva and the rest of the TOH gang from the comfort of a recliner, much viewing was done on a cell phone propped up amid the mess on the basement worktable, where he would watch the first minute and a half of, say, How to Build a Mantel before mounting the stairs to perform Step 1, then running back down to watch Step 2, find another bit of molding, and run back up—repeating as needed.

It was tempting to bring in a pro on such occasions but hard for a penny-pincher to part with the necessary cash. Worried that his vintage stove's gas line might be subpar, Brad lined up a free energy audit from a company trying to sell him a new furnace, and while politely conversing about drafts managed to confirm that the auditor had checked for leaks.

Brad found solace in other novice homeowners' blogs. "I like the stories and the timelines," he says of his fellow sufferers. "You feel like you're part of a team for a minute, you go through their trials and tribulations." Also, "they are always doing something on the cheap," which he could appreciate. Rather than overpay, he scoured Craigslist sites for months before forking over for a dining table and chairs. At school, he was known to sprint to his car when the bell rang at 3 p.m.—to get to the nearest estate sale before it closed at 4 p.m. "By then everything was half price, and I could get a lot of stuff inexpensively," Brad says. "There were so many things I needed"—like old suitcases, which he picked up for a buck each and turned into end tables that also hide his collection of DVDs.

Gaining access to the right tools was a challenge. Brad rented a sander to do the floors, tracked down smaller items at a thrift store devoted to tools, borrowed others, and when forced to spring for a table saw went for the midrange brand. Other times he did without. "You try to make do," he says.

Read more: Pay Less for Home Remodel Supplies

"I knew I wanted to retile the shower, so first I got quotes from people, and they'd say $3,000, and I'd say, that's not going to happen…but I could afford the tile itself." Just not a wet saw. Instead, he followed instructions online for scoring and snapping tile. "That worked okay-ish," he says, "but I was never able to get a precise cut, and that made the job harder than it needed to be." Especially when he decided to tile the ceiling, too.

Some jobs he has vowed to never try again, or at least not without reinforcements. "I wanted beadboard on the rest of the bathroom ceiling," he says, "and that was not a job for one person. You're trying to hold it and nail it, and then the piece falls, and it's very upsetting." It didn't help that he was doing all this hammering while standing on the toilet.

Read more: 20 Budget-Friendly Bath Ideas

To help relieve his frustrations, he'd show up at work the next day and vent in the teachers' room. Unfortunately, schools like his no longer offer shop class.

Brad's folks were able to lend an occasional hand, but they are an hour away and couldn't do much beyond fielding phone calls after dinner—peak SOS time for home improvers with day jobs. "We did help him pay for new electrical service," Leslie says. "And Brad's other family members replaced the sash weights, so the windows now work."

Brad is quick to acknowledge his support system. In fact, says this tireder but wiser 29-year-old, one of the most important lessons he's learned is to better scope out a project before plunging in. "There are jobs where you hire someone," he says. Blacktopping the driveway fell into that category. Says Brad, "I wanted a warranty."

Over the past four years, "there may have been some dark hours," he will admit. "But at the end of the day, I got what I wanted. The house isn't perfect, but it's a good reflection of me."