When I bought my house nine years ago, my son was about to turn three and I reveled in the security of owning my slice of the American dream. Being a single mom was (and is!) both challenging and rewarding, but I knew that having a house to call my own was the best thing that ever happened to my son and me.
My house was ten years old when I bought it, and it was in excellent condition. Still, as time passed, a variety of issues cropped up. I think my way of handling (or not handling) home improvements is fairly typical for single women who own their own homes. Hopefully, my experiences will help you navigate the waters of home improvement. Here's what I've learned:
1. You can go places with a good book and a toolbox. The Christmas of the year I moved in, my sister and brother-in-law gave me a toolbox filled with the basics: screwdrivers, wrenches, a hammer, nails, nuts and bolts, and so forth. They also gave me a book on basic home repairs. Their gift literally provided me with the tools I needed, but it also gave me confidence that I could tackle minor home improvement projects. My advice: invest in some tools and use a book or online sources to guide you through the routine maintenance that your house requires.
2. Ask for advice. As a single woman who is now 49 years old and has limited knowledge of more complex home improvement issues, I'm always afraid that I'll be taken advantage by a repair company. When my air conditioner conked out on a 100-plus degree day, for example, I had no way of knowing if I really needed a new unit. I've learned to call on neighbors, family members, and friends - whose collective knowledge exceeds mine - to get their impressions. They've steered me in the right direction on a number of occasions.
3. Keep tabs on the neighbors. All of the houses in my immediate vicinity were built by the same builder at roughly the same time. Getting to know my neighbors and talking to them about home improvement has helped me get a sense of what to plan for. For example, two years ago I began to see that the houses around me were starting to get new roofs. Although I didn't have a leaky roof, a few months ago I decided to re-roof. I wanted to be proactive so I didn't get stuck with the expense of drywall repairs in addition to the cost of a new roof.
4. Ask for referrals, and then check them yourself. Through my neighbors' referrals, I've been able to find a superb roofer, an impeccable exterior house painter, and a terrific tile guy. But I don't just rely on their word. I always - repeat, always - check with my state's contractor licensing board to verify their licenses and with the Better Business Bureau to check on past complaints. I get all estimates in writing, and ask for proof of insurance.
5. Don't put your head in the sand. There has been more than one occasion when I've chosen not to deal with a home improvement issue, and I've always regretted it. I knew, for example, that the exterior of my fireplace had some dry rot. Unfortunately, by letting it go for so long it cost me much more than if I would have dealt with it immediately.
6. Make a list. This last bit of advice is basic, but critical. Start and keep a home improvement list. As a single mom, it's all too easy to get caught up in the hectic pace of daily life and let routine home maintenance fall by the wayside. I divide my home improvement list into three sections: one for items that need attention in the next three months; one for home improvement projects for the coming year; and one that maps out what I want to accomplish with the house over the next five years. The short- and medium-term lists keep me motivated, while my long-term list helps me save the money needed for the big-ticket items.