Must Have Tools for a New Homeowner

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When we bought our first (and so far only) house, we were struck with how many tools we seemed to need, tools that we either rarely or never used before. Many trips were made to local hardware stores (or Amazon), but after about six months we felt like we had finally gotten to a good place.

Everything listed below are items we personally own and I’ve only included items that I like and regularly use. The lists are by no means comprehensive, but hopefully you can find something of use.

Outdoor Tools

First up is outdoor tools. This group was the one we owned the least of at the onset and thus needed to buy the most of.

  • Shovel
    A shovel has a tapered pointed end and is primarily used for digging holes. It is useful for many other things such as shoveling mulch, gravel and so on. I’ve found that this is one of my most used outdoor tools.
    What you want is one with a heavy duty head and has the ability to replace the handle, as these can break. I bought mine at our local co-op and it has a fiberglass handle which has held up very well.
  • Spade
    A spade has a straight edge and is slightly better suited for shoveling loose items versus the shovel. It also lets you square off holes you have dug. I don’t use this tool nearly as frequently as the shovel, so if you had to choose between the two, go with a quality shovel.
  • Metal Rake
    Contrary to what you may think, I find that this type of rake isn’t useful for raking leaves. It is great at raking heavier things such as mulch, gravel, dirt, hay/straw and other similar things. It is a pretty good tool all around.
    Similar to the shovel, you want a heavy duty head and preferably a replaceable handle. I also bought this at our local co-op with a fiberglass handle.
  • Garden Wagon or Wheelbarrow
    Sometimes you just need to move things and one of these two items is great for that. We ended up buying a dump capable garden wagon at Tractor Supply and so far we have really liked it.

Hand Tools

Many of these tools I already owned when we moved, but it is possible that a lot of new homeowners do not.

  • Hammer
    You need a decent hammer. While you could get by with a simple, cheap one for hanging pictures and such, a quality hammer will last a lifetime and be useful for a broader range of tasks.
    I had a simple hammer when we moved, but opted to get a Estwing Hammer when I started building our chicken coop. It is a very nice, all purpose hammer and I use it quite frequently.
  • Stud Finder
    I’m sure that most people have discovered the annoyance that is stud finding. Sometimes you just need to anchor in a stud and they can frequently be a pain to find. I’ve tried several battery powered ones and never liked them. On a whim I bought a Magnetic Stud Finder and it’s pretty much amazing. It works by being magnetically drawn to the nails/screws used to put up the drywall. So far I’ve yet to run into a situation where it didn’t find a stud.
  • Caulk Gun
    One of the first tasks I had to do when we moved in was to buy some silicone kitchen caulk and apply it around the kitchen sink. Whoever installed it apparently forgot to do so. I ended up buying a Tarvol one as it sounded like a robust tool. Brittany and I have used it for several dozen tubes of caulk with no complaints.
  • Snaking Tool
    Lets face it, no one likes unclogging a drain; it’s gross and it always needs to be done at the worst time. A few years back I bought a set of small plastic clog removers and for most clogs they will do the job. It is the first tool I try on a clog and only after failure will I consider getting the auger out.

Powered Tools (battery, AC or air)

  • Cordless Drill
    You never know when you will need to drill a hole or drive a screw and that makes a cordless drill invaluable. When we moved I had a Bosch cordless drill, but as I was frequently working in both the house and the pole barn, I decided to buy the Bosch Cordless Drill Set. It’s a great set because you get the regular drill, plus an impact drill (great for driving lag bolts) and two batteries.
  • Multimeter
    Some may consider this non-essential, but even a simple outlet or switch change is best done with a multimeter to assist. If wiring such things is too scary, I don’t blame you. Electricity can be dicey, but this tool has been essential in both installation and troubleshooting.
  • Electric Bug Zapper
    We moved to a bit of land and as such we find flies and wasps more frequently than we would like. I randomly ran across this bug zapper one day and bought it on a whim. It is amazing! Flies and wasps get taken out with minimal fuss and no smears on the walls.
  • 3 Outlet Heavy Duty Extension Cord
    This is not a power tool per se, but needed to power tools. A heavy duty extension cord is a must and one with three outlets on the end (and a LED light indicating current) is really great.
  • Angle Finish Nailer
    I have several nail guns (all acquired after we moved), but if I had to name one as the most useful and my favorite, it would be my Hitachi 15 Gauge Angled Finish Nailer. I like it because it is quite versatile. I’ve used it to put up molding, nail boards together for furniture, put up plywood sheets on the wall, attach soffit boards and fascia and many other things.
    Since I bought it, it appears that Hitachi’s tool division was bought and is now Metabo. The comparable nailer appears to be the Metabo HPT Pneumatic Angled Finish Nailer,
  • Compound Miter Saw (aka chop saw)
    An absolutely essential saw if you do any work around the home. It’s perfect for quick cuts, or angled cuts, or mitered cuts. If you get the sliding version, it’ll even be useful for cutting shelving wood. I ended up buying a Kobalt (Lowes) 12″ sliding compound miter saw and while not the most accurate, it has been a workhorse.
  • Circular Saw
    Eleven years ago I bought a Milwaukee Circular Saw and it is still going strong now. If you don’t have a table saw, or need to make long cuts on site, a circular saw is a great tool. I’ve used it quite extensively in the last few years and it is a tool that can replace many other saws, in a pinch.
  • Electric Earmuff
    I’ll admit to having owned a pair or two of these for quite a while. And the reason? Not only do they protect your hearing, they can also amplify sound. This is great when you are working with someone else and want to be able to communicate while still protecting your hearing. They have a 3.5mm audio jack, allowing you to hook up to a phone (or MP3 player) and play tunes while you are working.

Miscellaneous

This list is a bunch of nifty things I’ve run across in the last few years that I have really liked.

  • Anti Tip Kit
    Whether or not you have kids, this kit can prove invaluable for the safety conscious. Some furniture is just tippy and needs something like this.
  • Hand Made Broom
    I can’t stand the lame plastic brooms that all the stores seem to have. I just don’t think they do a good job. This broom on the other hand, is super and has held up to frequent use quite well.
  • LED String Lights
    These lights are pretty fun and quite durable and energy efficient. We have them strung up in my daughter’s room and also around our fireplace mantle (a non-working fireplace). For pictures of the lights in action scroll to the end of our contractor post.
  • Dimmable LED Light Switch
    After moving into our house, we started the long and arduous process of replacing nearly every light fixture. The ones the previous owner had put in were the bland off-the-shelf Lowes special. As part of this process I would put dimmable LEDs in and in a few rooms of our house, I added this light switch.
  • Dimmable LED Candle Light Bulbs
    And.. After trying quit a few different candle bulbs, I ended up deciding to get these. They are very consistent (as in, they all work regardless of the fixture) and put off excellent light.
  • Programmable Light Switch
    Living out in the country, it gets dark at night given the lack of street lights. While we don’t frequently stay out past dark, it does happen and it was very frustrating to come home and have to fumble with your keys in the dark. After some research, I ran across this light switch and decided to buy it. It was an excellent purchase! I have it set up to turn the outside lights on at dusk and off at 11PM, meaning we have never come home to a lightless porch since.

In Closing

There are many other items I could list, but I don’t want this post to be endless so I will stop here. Hopefully this list will help you to select some useful tools for your home.

Don’t Dive In

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If you are about to buy a home, or you just bought a home I want you to take some time before you decide to dive into any DIY remodeling projects or hire a contractor to do a project.

The former ladies of the house & a white picket fence which is no longer there but we plan to restore one just like it.

Don’t Dive In

First things first…if you are purchasing a home that can be lived in for a while before you start making changes, I advise you to do just that, live in it for a while. Especially if you are a first time home owner.

I think when we first see a space we have an “idea” of what we want to do with it…some of those ideas may be “needs” or “wants” to be done to the home… But until we live in the space and feel the flow of the space, understand its quirks, you don’t really know what you want to do with it. You may take on a project right away, but later regret it because in hindsight it wasn’t as important, or it was the wrong choice for that home.

My Suggestions

Here are a few things to consider before you make any BIG decisions on the space that you now call home.

The way the back our house originally looked, and the old red barn which is no longer there sadly.
Apparently it blew over when a tornado came through in 2012.
Live in the Space for a While

Before deciding on what BIG things you want to have done, live in the space for at least 6 months. Understand and feel the flow of the home. Learn all the weird quirks of it. The beauty and charm of an older home is the weird quirks, and honestly decide what you can live with and see as “charming” and what things you’d like to change.

Too often I think people destroy the charm of an old house with a full remodel, removing all that was charming and weird about the space to begin with. Understanding the home and how it flows, and what your true needs are to make the space practical for living will really help you weed out what truly needs to be done to it, and how.

After living in my home for over a year I realized my initial ideas of how I wanted to restore the back area wouldn’t have been the best choice for the flow of the home, and now I have a better understanding of what I want done and the style in which I want it to be done.

Restore Instead of Remodel

Consider maintaining and restoring the original style of the home back to it’s GLORY days, instead of remodeling, try to think more in terms of restoring, especially if you have a historical period home.

If your home is from the depression like ours, research what it may of looked like, or try to discover what it did look like before it had various owners and additions or changes made to the home. Or if it is a Victorian home, try to restore the home with fixtures and woodworking that will fit in with the rest of the home but still include all the modern amenities and conveniences.

The kitchen (not original to when the house was built) but what it looked like in 1998 before it was fully remodeled in 2016.


Discover History

Try to discover the history of your home. Because I love to talk to anyone everywhere I go I was able to discover some of our homes history through a neighbor after I went to a Easter sunrise service at towns cemetery last spring.

Our neighbor Louise was so sweet to invite the former owner Beverly who lived in our home from the early 50’s to the late 80’s. Her husband’s family purchased this home shortly after it was built in 1945. Beverly and Louise came over for tea one afternoon. She brought photos which was super fun, to see the home and how it had changed throughout the years.

Outline Needs and Wants

Make a list of needs and wants – what really needs to be done, as in you can’t live unless these things are completed or changed, and then make a list of wants.

For example, I’d love to have our kitchen ceiling opened up and the back porch made into a breakfast nook. In addition I’d love to rework the root cellar underneath the kitchen with a new entrance. But for now, I realize that’s not in the budget. A new fridge, some shelving added and a bucket of paint will do wonders for the space. I can live with that until we have the budget to do what I really want done. I’d also love to have all the fireplaces restored and rebuilt and wood stoves installed, but again, that’s a want and not a necessity.

Consider Materials

When you do go to remodel/restore, carefully consider the materials. Sometimes it’s best to wait longer for the better quality items instead of just doing the quick fix for right now changes. Instead of spending the money to do it quick and cheap, just wait until you have the money you need to do it right with the materials you really want to use. Consider trying to use recycled items as well, finding vintage items to add into your home, or more sustainable/green options that will be healthier for you and your family.

Conclusion

Living in the space, getting a feel for the space, and learning the history will really help you make better choices. Often I feel like we rush in too quickly to make changes to a space before we fully understand it, and then later regret the choices. Remodeling and restoring a home is a big investment, so you want to make wise choices that you are satisfied with, it brings value to your home, while maintaining the home’s charm and history. and making it a practical home for you to happily live and love doing life in.

How to hire a good contractor & our experience

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In short, I don’t know. The one we hired was mediocre at best. But maybe, just maybe, our experience taught us enough to point out potential pitfalls to watch out for.

The Backstory

Towards the end of our We bought a farm post, it’s mentioned that we bought an older farmhouse. What wasn’t said is that it was (and still is) a bit of a fixer upper. When we first started looking to move we wanted to buy land and build, but for reasons I won’t go into now, we ended up changing our mind and instead started searching for a nice house with a bit of land.

We found a few places that looked like they met the bill but they either had too many issues, were outside the budget, were in the wrong location, or were snatched up before we could blink. When we saw the listing for our house, we dismissed it at first as it didn’t initially stand out. Part of that was a poor listing and another part was that it would require some work. Regardless, we put an offer that was contingent on inspection and it was accepted. Some will call us crazy, but we did this without having seen the house in person. The perils of cross state purchasing… However, we figured anything that was a huge deal breaker would come up in inspection and worst case, we’d be out some earnest money.

A few days later we flew down for the home inspection and there wasn’t anything majorly wrong with the house. The 2nd floor needed renovating and there were a bunch of more minor things that needed work (as identified at that time…), but overall it seemed good. Thus, we decided to go ahead and purchase.

The Move

Moving is always stressful, but our move was one of the worst we had ever experienced. My daughter was sick, we were moving a 10 hours drive away, the house was an absolute mess when we arrived, the water had been turned off, we didn’t know anybody… In short it was a rough couple of days. Couple that with a sudden feeling of buyer’s remorse… You see we were immediately struck by how much work the house actually needed. The 2nd floor suddenly seemed much worse and with only one bedroom on the first floor, we were feeling a bit homeless.

Normally, I’m quite the DIY type of guy, but this was a large job and I was working full time. Additionally, we felt the need/desire to get the upstairs into a livable condition sooner rather then later. So it was decided to hire someone and that began the search for a contractor.

The Search

I more or less grew up using the internet to research items and services before buying. Reviews have always been quite important to me and I have been known to shell out a bit more in order to get a better quality item.

However, I have learned that many small businesses, or businesses that primarily serve other businesses, frequently have little online presence and in fact may have little to no advertising or listing anywhere. This makes it difficult to find a business to work with, let alone discover if it is a well liked company that does good work.

You may be asking, where am I going with this? Well, we discovered that finding a contractor in this area was difficult, finding one on short notice was even harder and finding one with reasonable pricing even more so. We contacted at least 10 different contractors and most didn’t return our calls. Of those that did only two showed up to discuss in person the work we wanted done. One of those ended up deciding he didn’t have the capacity to fit us in before the end of the year. That more or less left us with the final contractor as what we felt like our only option.

Now, I should mention that we heard about this guy from people in our town. He had good recommendations from at least two different people. When we met him in person, he seemed like a nice guy who knew his stuff… Given all that we ended up hiring him.

Our Experience

As I mentioned earlier, most of the upper floor needed a remodel. The worst was the bathroom and what would become our daughter’s bedroom.

At the onset, our contractor was fine. He seemed to understand what we wanted and his team got to work pretty quickly. However, we started to run into issues within days. Despite carefully explaining what we wanted from him, it seemed like every portion of the remodel that was started was news to him. For instance, we wanted the bathroom gutted and expanded slightly into the next room. It was going to need a new floor and a bathtub. He told his team that they were only going to put in a bathtub, but the floor and ceiling were going to stay the same. We ended up having to have yet another discussion about this in order to get the work back on track. Of course it wasn’t included in the original quote either…

From this point on we felt that we were babysitters, constantly having to monitor their day to day work in order to catch them before they did something wrong or didn’t follow what we wanted. It might have been better if the contractor actually came by every so often instead of just sending his team with vague ideas. It also would have helped if he actually took notes or used the examples and notes we gave him, but he didn’t do either.

However, generally speaking, the first few weeks went pretty well. It was mainly demolition work and then framing; none of that was difficult to communicate, I suppose.

A Few Weeks In

One of the big reasons for this remodel was to add insulation. Our house is rather old and the upper level had nearly no insulation anywhere. There were several spots where you could see/touch the wood on the underside of the roof. We asked our contractor to add as much insulation as possible. He subcontracted it out to another company and they blew in insulation anywhere they couldn’t add batts. This actually went quite well except for yet another communication issue.

We told the contractor several times that we wanted the ceiling in the bedroom to have the cross beams exposed. They are nice looking, old, rough cut boards and we thought it would look great and really open the room up. Despite showing pictures, and endlessly explaining what we wanted, our contractor consistently got it wrong and at one point was even planning on cutting the beams out! When the insulation was put in, they added it between those beams, which would have necessitated sheetrock being placed over the beams, instead of behind them.

Thankfully, we were around and noticed the issue and explained, yet again, what we wanted. They finally managed to get it right, but wasted several hours of everyone’s time.

Sheetrock

This next part remains one of the biggest issues… Our contractor did not do sheetrock hanging so he decided to subcontract it out. As he explained it, he had a few people he works with but the one he ended up using wasn’t his favorite and it sounded like he only picked them because the others were busy.

Having experienced their work, I can see why they aren’t his first choice. First off, they didn’t show up when they should have; when they finally did show up, they didn’t have their whole crew and just left after 30 minutes, claiming they would come back tomorrow. Tomorrow came and they didn’t show… They finally start work about 5 days late and while they completed the project pretty fast (it was only 2.5 rooms) they did a pretty poor job. They were also quite rude…

Unfortunately, we forgot to take pictures of the poor job they did, but the gist of it is, walls that were previously squared up, didn’t end up that way after the sheetrock was up. There were rather large gaps in some areas and in other spots the sheetrock didn’t meet up with room features, such as the woodwork. Our biggest complaint is in the bedroom where the upslope is noticeably bowed out, right as you walk into the room…

When we brought this up to our contractor, he just brushed it off, telling me that he warned me they weren’t the best… We seriously considered telling them to tear it down and do it right, but I think we just were getting fed up and left it.. Looking back we feel like we really should have pushed to have the issues fixed. His poor subcontracting was hardly our fault after all.

Our contractor was quite good and fast at the mudding process and it ended up decent when he finished. However, Brittany is still angry that brand new walls are crooked and bowed out. Not something you want or expect when you pay a substantial sum of money for someone to do work.

Finish Work

With the sheetrock up and the mudding done we were now to the finish work. This is the point where we went from merely frustrated to frequently angry… The reason being that the finish work is what is visible and thus is even more important to get right. But the theme of not listening properly to our wants, continued. We asked for shelves to be built in the new walk in closet; example pictures were provided. Yet they went ahead and built something quite different than what we wanted.

In Progress

Rooms were painted the wrong color, outlets put at odd heights or not properly attached, shelves put in without asking us if we even wanted them. Baseboard was put on without enough nails to secure it. They cracked the glass on a window and never repaired it. When installing the vanity, they removed the baseboard to fit it, but didn’t put anything back in, thus there is a gap that leads directly to an attic space (hot/cold drafts, bugs etc..).

There was one bright spot around this time. Our contractor knew a guy who did tiling and after meeting him we had him install the bathroom floor and bathtub tiles. He did a extremely good job despite the brand new walls and subfloor being uneven. He was very good at listening to our needs and made sure to get our feedback before starting work.

Eventually, they “finished” the work and I stupidly gave them their last check, despite the list of about 6 things to remedy. He said he would get that taken care of soon, but of course we haven’t heard from him since. We probably would have hounded him if we weren’t so tired of the whole ordeal and if the issues were more major. Most of them I’ve already fixed by myself, but still, fit and finish was seriously lacking from them.

Our experience could have been worse, I suppose. They did largely do what we wanted, but we had to fix many things and there were frequent price overruns. Given that this is the first time we hired anyone to do remodeling or contractor work, it was quite the eye opening experience. We did learn quite a bit from it and are now better able to recognize potential pitfalls to avoid. If only it didn’t require such a frustrating and expensive experience to do so.

Advice

As I said in the beginning of this post, I’m not exactly an expert on how to find a good contractor. However, based on our experience, I have several tips and pieces of advice that should be helpful:

  • Recommendations from friends is a good start, but not the end of finding a contractor
    • Our contractor was recommended by several people and we largely based our decision on their recommendations, but we could and should have done more checking up, we should have asked to see examples of their work from those recommendations. I would suggest trying to see the work in person as photos can be deceiving.
    • inquire about why they recommend the person/company and ask what work they have seen or had done.
    • We discovered that sometimes people will recommend someone simply because they know them, or know of them, not because they think they do good work, or have had work done by them.
  • Be patient and have a flexible schedule
    • Being patient is hard because you simply want to hire someone and get it done. But you really need to get multiple quotes from different people and get a feel for them before deciding.
    • Many contractors book out many months in advance. For instance one company we had do a quote wouldn’t have been able to start for 2-3 months.
    • Our schedule wasn’t very flexible so we had a short search period and thus had very few options.
  • Get a quote with a detailed schedule of work
    • Our contractor gave us a quote, but it was far from detailed. A detailed quote should be several pages with drawings and outlines.
    • This is of critical importance because otherwise you will end up like us, constantly monitoring their work because they aren’t doing what you want.
    • Additionally we ended up spending a lot more than the quote we received. The reason was that half the work we asked for wasn’t properly detailed on the quote.
    • Note the work properly. He had all the work we wanted done in broad strokes, but the devil is in the details…
  • Get a concrete estimate as part of the quote
    • We did a pay as you go system, but this leads to cost overruns and a contractor that may decide to cut out and leave a job unfinished.
    • If you request changes, get an updated schedule of work and quote.
    • Hold them to the quote! If they want to charge you more, they better have a good explanation.
    • Do not pay them until the job is complete.
    • If your contractor hires a subcontractor, say a “painter,” make sure they are paying for the job and not hourly.
      • Our painter was being paid hourly by us based on our contractors hiring and he was the slowest painter ever costing us more money

Hopefully this advice helps you out. Let us know about your experiences in the comment section, or any additional advice or thoughts on the matter.

Finished Photo Gallery