The 120-year-old house in Manayunk had good bones. It just needed some cosmetic fixes — projects that first-time home buyers Amy Wright and her boyfriend, Mitch Mathern, were confident they could handle.
Then they discovered mold behind cabinets, a sinking kitchen floor, and the feeling that maybe they were in over their heads.
"New projects started popping up left and right,” Mathern said.
When Mathern, 25, and Wright, 23, decided to move out of their Manayunk apartment and buy a house to take advantage of low mortgage rates, they knew they wanted a home with history. And they knew that required some work.
The Moorestown natives bought their rowhouse in January and planned to hire contractors to help them realize their vision. But they didn’t close on the house until early April, while construction was shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus. They had to be out of their apartment in mid-May, so they faced a tight timeline.
They realized renovating their new home would be mostly up to them.
Wright works for a pharmaceutical company, and Mathern works in marketing. Neither had any construction experience. But like many people, thanks to the pandemic, they had time.
For the last month, they’ve been renovating. Mathern’s parents, who had remodeled the family’s kitchen, contributed tools, materials, and sweat. Mathern’s best friend, an electrician, helped, too. YouTube tutorials have proven vital. Videos have taught them about drywall installation and techniques for spackling. They’ve taken advantage of hardware stores’ curbside pickup. And they used their newfound knowledge to take on projects they hadn’t dreamed of tackling.
"It makes you feel like Chip and Joanna a little bit,” Wright said, referring to the stars of the former HGTV show Fixer Upper.
There were a few major differences.
“They make it seem so easy,” Mathern said. "They’re having fun all the time; they’re joking. It did give us some confidence.”
“Some false hope, I think,” Wright said.
With extra time at home, owners nationwide are reevaluating their living spaces and what changes they might want to make. A National Association of Realtors survey published last month found that of the respondents unable to move, 47% said they had started a home improvement project on their own or planned to do so.
David Pekel, chief executive officer of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry, said people are learning that whatever the future looks like, "it’s going to be different than it was pre-pandemic.”
"Having spaces in the house that are dedicated to work are becoming really top of the mind for a lot of people,” as well as play spaces for children and yard enhancements, Pekel said.
In places where remodeling work can continue, “many [members] are busier than they were pre-COVID, but with different types of projects,” such as upgrades to appliances and fixtures, he said. Some customers are asking to postpone major renovations during the pandemic.
Rachel Street, president of South Philadelphia-based Hestia Construction, renovator of historic properties, and host of the television show Philly Revival on the DIY Network, has gotten calls from homeowners asking about bathroom and kitchen remodeling, but Philadelphia isn’t currently allowing construction work in occupied living units.
Street said residents can learn online much of what they need to know for work, such as installing tile, laying down floors, replacing doors, painting, replacing hardware, removing or installing trim, exposing brick walls, and replacing mortar on the outside of brick or stone homes. She added that "even contractors look on the internet for tutorials and things.”
“There are a lot of things you can work on in your home, depending on the state of it, that will really change the look and feel but won’t require any major skill,” Street said.
Plumbing, electric, heating, cooling, and ventilation are examples of work best left to professionals, she said. That advice also applies to specialty woodworking and refinishing floors, skills that Street said are "difficult for somebody to just pick up and do well the first time.”
For example, if an inexperienced homeowner rents a sander to try to refinish floors, “you can eat up too much of your floor and you can destroy it,” she said.
For older houses, she said, “you may want to leave some of the historic parts for a professional.”
The Philadelphia Historical Commission routinely offers free advice to property owners who ask for tips to restore buildings in historically accurate ways. Property owners also can consult books, websites, and the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s “standards for the treatment of historic properties.”
Wright and Mathern pulled up carpeting and tile to expose and treat the old wood floors underneath. They repaired two sets of stairs and painted the rooms on all three floors. They and their helpers replaced moldy drywall in the kitchen, installed new cabinets, and reinforced support beams under the kitchen floor, which was sinking in one spot. Past owners had tried to level it by adding layers of flooring. They counted seven.
They also found pleasant surprises, including decorative wallpaper under flooring and the coal closet in the basement.
All told, the renovations have cost about $10,000, including hiring a plumber for some emergency work and someone to sand the floors.
"We’ve definitely saved a lot of money doing it ourselves,” Wright said.
They created an Instagram account, called “Philly Fixer Upper” as a shout-out to the HGTV show, to motivate themselves and to document their work for friends, family, and neighbors.
"There were definitely some people who thought we were crazy in the beginning, but they’re coming around,” Mathern said.
The couple have figured out many of the house’s structural issues and will continue working on the cosmetic fixes as residents, while also raising a new Australian shepherd puppy.
Now, when Mathern and Wright settle in to watch reruns of Fixer Upper with their newfound confidence, they tick off the tasks they know they can do and see the possibilities of what they can try.