What I Learned From Purchasing a Fixer-upper During a Pandemic

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Interiors and Article By Steve Marraffino, Principal Designer, Marracar Design

Photography by Catherine Nguyen

The Pandemic taught us many things: How to cut our hair by watching YouTube videos, how to conserve toilet paper, contactless grocery shopping, the joy of baking, and how to be more neighborly. One lesson my partner and I learned was how to successfully purchase and renovate a fixer-upper house from 3,000 miles away.

Having our own interior design firm, we shifted our business model during the uncertainty of the pandemic. While adhering to the current CDC guidelines and protocols, we limited physical interaction with clients by incorporating virtual design presentations, tele-conferencing, contactless sample drop-offs, and scheduling personal masked appointments to visit local showrooms. These newly applied tools and learned skills were valuable in undertaking this challenging remote fixer-upper renovation. However, as with anything new, there was a learning curve. We are sharing our experiences and the lessons learned with you, dear reader, because you can do it too!

You know how Realtors love to say “location, location, location!”  Well, we’ve learned through this experience that when you know absolutely no one in a particular location the saying should be “referrals, referrals, referrals!”  When contemplating purchasing a house in the Raleigh area, we relied heavily on referrals to make this purchase and renovation possible. It all started with a cousin who graduated from Chapel Hill and later lived in Raleigh. We asked him for recommendations in finding a Realtor. After we studied the recommended Realtor’s website and read past client reviews, we made the call. Alex Lawrence (AKA Big Al), called us back shortly thereafter. With his enthusiasm, jovial demeanor, and extensive knowledge of the Raleigh housing market, we knew we had found the right person.

As we were considering which home to buy, we depended on video walk-throughs that Alex created for us. After meticulously analyzing MLS photos we came across a home that looked promising. Our fantastic Realtor once again worked his magic with his smartphone so that we could virtually “see” almost everything inside and around the property. It was enough to encourage us to move forward with an offer and eventually an accepted purchase agreement. We then flew from California to Raleigh, signed all of our closing documents and were handed the keys to our newly purchased home. When we opened the forest green double front doors and entered our new property for the very first time, we were met with the strong stench of cigarette smoke. We’re talking Nugget Casino, Reno Nevada circa 1970 type of cigarette smell. We remember asking our Realtor during one of our virtual showings what the house smelled like. He simply replied, “Like your grandma’s house.” And, while I understand that to mean a mixture of mothballs and oatmeal cookies, I neglected to remember that my own grandmother did in fact smoke cigarettes inside her Healdsburg, California home. So, in all fairness – our Realtor wasn’t wrong. The existing wallpaper which we thought was a beige chintz was actually a white chintz stained from decades of cigarette smoke. The buttercream doors, trim, casing, baseboards and molding were actually a gloss white that was discolored yellow from 50 years of tar build up! One important lesson we learned from this experience is that when you are house hunting “virtually” you are eliminating two vital and, arguably, most important senses: smell & touch. As we just learned, smells can tell you a lot about a property.

During our trip to North Carolina to finalize our purchase, we made sure to allow extra time to get as many things arranged as we could to begin this renovation. We ordered a debris box, a port-o-let, secured our demo crew, interviewed flooring refinishers, and researched local window and door suppliers. We made sure everyone was on board and scheduled to meet the demands of our timeline. This visit was also a great opportunity to spend time at the property. Before returning to California we took extensive measurements, captured hundreds of photographs, studied the existing layout, discussed design ideas, and drew out many different diagrams and floor plans.

Again, relying on referrals, our Realtor was a great resource for recommendations. Alex referred us to our soon to be plumber, who in turn suggested a contractor, who ultimately became our general contractor. Finding a contractor we could work with from 3,000 miles away was the most important piece of our impending remodel puzzle. A knowledgeable and experienced contractor is instrumental in a successful renovation, and we found ours to be not only knowledgeable and experienced but also reliable, affordable, and trustworthy. Most importantly, he listened and understood our vision. Having a well-respected contractor made it easy for us to work with his subcontractors and recommended tradesmen. The painter, electrician, tile setters, laborers, countertop fabricators, and installers were all fantastic. Our contractor also took on a lot of the project management responsibilities. He scheduled and was present during inspections, made sure the project stayed within budget, and adhered to our project timeline.

In addition to the wonderful referrals we received from our Realtor, we were also lucky enough to have several family members who live within three hours of Raleigh. This allowed us to have additional support in making our project run smoothly. We relied on these family members not only to report on progress at the jobsite, but also to receive samples, lighting, plumbing fixtures, and materials needed for the renovation. They were also willing to travel to local showrooms to assist with tile and countertop selections, and were extra “eyes” to review paint colors and wood floor stain samples on-site. If you don’t have a family member or friend in the nearby area of your renovation, this would be a good reason to hire a design professional. They will be able to make frequent project visits to the job site and ensure that your vision and goals of the design are being carried out.

Being extremely organized, very detailed, and thorough in all aspects of home renovations allowed for less bumps in the road. As interior designers, we have familiarity and experience gained from working on multiple renovations, remodels, and new construction projects. As with any design project, we researched materials and products to come up with a design plan and budget that would work for us. Kitchen cabinets, hardware, lighting, paint colors, light fixtures, appliances, wallcoverings (to name a few) were all selected and thought out well in advance. We chose to work with a national cabinet company that allowed shipping to any US location. We utilized this cabinet vendor for all our kitchen and bathroom cabinet needs. Additionally, we worked with a national plumbing supply chain to purchase our appliances, faucets, hardware, fixtures, and plumbing materials. With these plans in place, we managed to materialize our renovation goals.  

Through this experience, we learned the following valuable lessons and tips:

Clear Communication 

Being able to communicate your vision clearly to your general contractor is necessary. Since we are interior designers, we have experience with and access to architectural software programs. We relied on these tools to create digital renderings, floor plans, electrical plans, elevations, and schematics to illustrate our vision to the people involved in our renovation. If you do not have the means or skills for these applications, we strongly recommend you enlist the help of an interior designer or architect. You wouldn’t want your CPA to cater your daughter’s wedding! It’s ok if design is not in your wheelhouse. Everyone has their special talents and understanding yours will be an advantage.

Keep it simple  

Don’t over-design or over-complicate the renovation especially if you have limited availability to be at the project site. Leave certain decisions until later when you can be there in person. In our case, we did not tackle the kitchen backsplash, bathroom mirrors, installation of certain light fixtures, or window treatments until after we moved into our home and had time to consider all the options.

Be flexible 

The best advice we can give you, reader, is that there will be surprises. Allow extra time and room in your budget to tackle the unexpected. For us, not only was the cigarette smell a surprise but we also had a lot of rust build up in the original 1966 iron and galvanized steel plumbing. This prompted a replumbing of the entire house – a cost we were not initially anticipating. The unexpected can also offer great opportunities for better design. For example, our plumber told us we had to find a new place for the toilet waste line in the upstairs hall bathroom. We ended up creating a small alcove in that space, which allowed for a visually larger bathroom and provided an accent wall for decorative wallpaper and décor; something we would not have considered otherwise.

Have a reasonable timeline

Work with your general contractor to come up with a realistic timeline for the renovation, then allow additional time for the unexpected. Since we were renovating during an uncertain time with the pandemic, we knew that supply chain and manufacturing practices were unreliable. While our general contractor was given a 10 month timeline to complete this renovation, we really allowed ourselves a total of 12 months. This way you won’t feel as rushed or overwhelmed if things take a little longer (which it did in our case).

Live off-site

As much as we wanted to be in Raleigh during the house remodel, we were often thankful to be away from the construction mess. It is difficult to see one’s house completely torn apart. Having a sanctuary, an off-site living space creates the necessary calm when you are in the midst of a major renovation. It also allows the contractor and your team of experts to complete tasks more efficiently, and typically in a shorter period.

Be diligent 

If you are not there in person, there is even more need for scrutiny during every aspect of your renovation. Examine and re-examine progress photos and videos. We noticed in one of the progress videos that the wall sconces in the dining room were too close to the window, even after we had specified their desired location in our lighting plan and wall elevation. Catching this early prevented us from spending more money later in the renovation to correct the issue.

Enlist help from a design professional 

We strongly encourage you to work with an interior designer or architect. Their knowledge of current design trends will allow you to discover a multitude of design ideas you may never have thought of on your own. We were able to masterfully remodel our 1966 brick colonial all while maintaining the integrity of the home and reusing several original elements. Years of experience with spatial and floor planning allowed for the changes to be subtle, yet pack a punch with a seamless flow. An interior designer will advocate your vision throughout the renovation to ensure the end result meets your expectations.  

Go For it 

The best way to make your renovation a success is to believe in yourself and stay committed to the project. With a well-organized plan you, too, can virtually renovate a fixer-upper from afar. Maybe it’s a vacation home, a second home, an income property, or your forever home. Take the risk, c’est la vie, no pain no gain, you only live once, no looking back, insert your own favorite motivational anecdote here.

The pandemic has shown us many new ways to live. Some are better than others. Perhaps giving yourself a haircut is something you might want to leave behind. However, the pandemic did show us that we can virtually and successfully purchase a fixer-upper and beautifully complete its renovation. If we could accomplish this in the most challenging of circumstances from 3,000 miles away, then you too, can achieve such a feat. And that is a feather you can place in your cap and wear proudly! (And it will also cover that self-taught haircut- win-win!)


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With over 15 years of experience, Marracar Design has been helping homeowners realize their home’s potential for amazing design.  Our original approach and continued knowledge of design trends has allowed our interiors to remain contemporary, comfortable, and innovative.  Marracar Design, an interior design for today, offers superior design direction and advice through the following:

  • Remodel consulting
  • Digital floor plans and 3D renderings
  • Kitchen & bath planning
  • Quality Furniture and lighting from 100+ brands
  • Sourcing of materials and finishes
  • Window coverings and treatments
  • Styling
  • Marketing design
  • Color consultations & color schedules
  • By the hour design consultation
  • Project management