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How to Remodel a House on a Budget

Let’s face it: Chip and Joanna Gaines have inspired a lot of daydreaming about our Fixer Upper fantasies. We’ve graduated beyond our Pinterest projects, surpassed our Marie Kondo phase, flirted with The Home Edit, and now we want more. We want to tear down walls and build porches. We want a kitchen island big enough to house a shipwrecked Swiss Family Robinson. Shiplap dreams may be free but material costs are an entirely different reality, which leads to many of us searching for ideas about how to remodel a house on a budget.

Not like an HGTV home renovation budget though, like our budget.

That part’s a bummer. It’s probably a lot more fun if you get to use someone else’s money.

Meet the Mochizukis

Enter Kyle and Lauren Mochizuki, a San Juan Capistrano, California couple with all of the charm of Chip and Joanna but with more traditional jobs (a nurse and a firefighter), not quite as much DIY experience, and their own carefully budgeted finances. And yet they still put the “prove it” in home improvements.

Hannah sat down with the Mochizukis to learn more about how they used YNAB as a vehicle to reach their destination of being debt-free. They paid off $266k worth of car loans, credit card debt, and a mortgage with laser sharp focus, relentless determination, countless sacrifices, and probably super powers?

(There had to have been a radioactive spider or something involved but they didn’t mention that at all.)

Their biggest motivating factor in freeing themselves of debt was that they wanted to start a family. As Hannah so aptly put it in her video: “First comes love, then comes marriage…then came Owen.”

And once Owen arrived and began accumulating all of the colorful bouncing, swinging, singing, rocking, rolling, flashing stuff that babies seem to acquire, suddenly their 1100 square foot condo didn’t seem so family friendly.

So, they moved into their dream neighborhood. Not necessarily their dream home, but you can renovate real estate more easily than you can change your proximity to the beach so it wasn’t a bad move on their part.

The Mochizukis found their not-so-dream house in their dream location. So they decided to learn how to remodel a house on a budget.
The Mochizukis found their not-so-dream house in their dream location.

Learning How to Remodel a House on a Budget

So, to summarize: dream family, dream neighborhood, fixer-upper house.

“It was going to need some work. It was livable and everything was functioning but it was quite a bit more—it was pretty expensive compared to what we had before,” Kyle confessed.

Since they had paid off the mortgage of their condo during their effort to become debt-free, they were able to put about half down on their new house once they sold their old one, putting them in a fairly fortunate position. But they were hoping to maintain that for as long as possible.

Here are the four steps they took to keep their renovation budget-friendly:

Step One: Paying Attention to How You Live

Their first step? Was to wait. (No fun at all, really.)

“We took a long time to figure out how we lived here before we decided to fix it up and change a little of the quirkiness about it,” explained Kyle.

And despite that sounding like the most boring first step in the history of first steps, it’s a pretty good idea. How often have you fallen in love with a home improvement project pic on Instagram only to look around and realize it wasn’t at all applicable to your life or current space? Paying for, and ultimately having to live with, something you don’t actually want and need would be even more of a bummer than waiting.

Step Two: Making a Budget for Home Renovations

Now we’re ready to (sheet) rock and roll (paint), right? Heck yeah. So, step two of our home renovation project is…*checks notes*…to make a budget.

Make a budget? Surely that’s a construction lingo for grabbing a sledgehammer and tearing down a wall. Or at least picking out some industrial-looking lighting fixtures to hang over our farmhouse table. This can’t be right.

*Takes a closer look at notes*

Okay, no, step two is to make a budget. Alright.

If you’re a YNAB user, you have two options here: add categories to your existing budget or start a brand new budget that is specific to your home renovation costs.

(Yes, you can have more than one budget under one YNAB subscription!)

Kyle and Lauren chose the latter. (Insert your own latter/ladder home renovation pun here.)

We lined up all of the big-ticket items and we were able to start plugging away for it—similar to probably how somebody that would use YNAB for a business: countertops, kitchen cabinets, bathrooms, flooring, paint…” said Kyle.

Fixtures, mirrors,” added Lauren. Fixtures! Finally, we get to shop for fixtures! Okay, so I underestimated the fun that could be had with budgeting.

Kyle continued, “Add-ons, yeah. We just made a category for each and we knew what our dollar amount was at the top and as we budgeted away, we knew how much we had to spend on each one and what the contractor told us. So we were able to plug those dollars in and know, confidently, that we weren’t going to go over, and we didn’t.”

Can you even imagine renovating a whole home and coming in UNDER BUDGET?

“Well, the thing was…we gave ourselves an allotted budget for each individual thing and we knew that we didn’t want to spend anything more than that. And if we did, we had to figure out where we were going to take it from, within our whole-house budget, so that made it doable,” Lauren explained.

I guess it all really does start with a plan. (And maybe a radioactive spider bite, but they’re still cagey about admitting that part.)

Step Three: Identify Where to Spend and Save

So now we get to pick up a sledgehammer, right?


Another thing Kyle and Lauren did right was identifying which projects they could potentially tackle on their own. Hiring a contractor is a smart (and necessary) move in most cases, but the Mochizukis saved a lot of money in the long run by choosing to take advantage of Kyle’s handiness and his willingness to do the parts of the home renovation project that they could figure out on their own (with the help of the University of YouTube, of course).

“If there was something he could do, he did it, to take it off the list, to take it off the budget—you know, the labor cost,” Lauren said. “It freed up money. I think it was $11,000 at least that we saved.”

As they saved money in one category, they’d reallocate those funds to another place in the budget.

The important part here lies in correctly identifying what you’re capable of—you’re not saving any money at all if you DIY demolish a load-bearing wall and bring the roof down. Even if you had a lot of fun before the roof fell.

Don’t cut corners on projects that may have long term consequences, especially if you’re seeking dream home status. Painting walls? You can probably do that. Re-plumbing a bathroom? I’m just saying that the thought makes me nervous for you. Proceed with caution.

Step Four: Be Willing to Wait

More waiting?

But we already waited. And we weren’t huge fans of that part.

That’s all true. But the Mochizuki family’s willingness to wait was an essential part of carrying out their plan to save for home renovation and complete their home improvement projects without going over budget.

Taking your time is also critical to the overall “dream” aspect of a dream home renovation. If you’re in a big hurry to get it all done as soon as possible, you’re going to make a series of small sacrifices that may result in purchases that aren’t exactly what you wanted. Take your time, make intentional choices, save up for what you want, and get that light fixture that you’ll love for a while.

Step Five: Enjoy Your Home and Your Life

The Mochizukis made their home their own...without going over budget.
The Mochizukis made their home their own…without going over budget.

It’s easy to convince yourself that your home renovation dreams are urgent, and tempting to take out a home equity line of credit or assume other debt so that you can have your HGTV-like reveal more quickly (and probably more extravagantly). However, it’s important to realize the true cost of debt—and that’s not just the interest that accrues, it’s the time it takes to repay it.

As Lauren said, “We are in our dream home, we have it how we want it, so I think now the key is just to enjoy the time. I feel like as we get older and kids get older, you see them grow and you realize how fast it’s going. I think the more debt that you accrue, the less time is really yours. Eventually, you’re going to have to pay that back, it’s just a matter of how long. How much of your time do you have to spend working to pay it off?”

Buy yourself time by avoiding debt as you complete your own transformation from fixer-upper to fabulous.

Ready to make your own home renovation budget? Download our printable Project Expense Planner to keep track of costs. Also, try YNAB for free for 34 days (no credit card or commitment required) to experience less money stress along the way.

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How to Remodel a House on a Budget