How I Got Into $87,000 of Debt by Turning My House Into a ‘Home’

A room before and after renovation Getty Images

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Upgrading your home is exhilarating. You get to choose your finishes, the style you love, new paint colors.


Who doesn’t want to make their new house a perfect “home” for their family? And can you even call it home if you haven’t renovated?

These questions led my husband and I to spend $87,600 on home renovations, all of which we paid with credit cards and loans in only a couple of years. Our quest for the perfect house got us into massive debt after buying an already expensive house in Los Angeles.


We bought into the notion that in order for our house to be our home, we had to make upgrades that fit our style and functionality.

We hired contractor after contractor to do work that didn’t need to be done. Honestly, before any renovations, our house was perfectly fine. The kitchen was fully upgraded with granite countertops, the bedrooms were spacious with ample closet space, and we could have lived there happily with our two children without changing much.

Nonetheless, we decided to take the plunge without thinking ahead about our financial future. And as our design imaginations ran wild, so did our debt total. Here’s how it went down.

Electrical Upgrades

The first day after we moved in, my husband hired an electrician to change the old outlets and install recessed lighting in the living room.

Total: Around $600

Furniture

Suddenly, our couches and tables didn’t quite fit our vision for our home. We decided to buy a house full of furniture on credit.

We purchased a living room set, a dining room set (with room for eight, when we were only four people), a new bedroom set, rugs, end tables, dressers, mirrors, everything.

Total: Around $6,000

Windows

We moved in during February, which can be pretty cold for us Californians. And because the home was old and the windows were practically original, they leaked a lot of air.

So, of course, we replaced them with top-of-the-line, double-paned windows.

Total: About $7,000

Roof

One day it started raining. We didn’t have any leaks, but since the home inspector told us during the escrow process that the roof needed to be changed in the next few years, we decided to do it sooner rather than later.

Even though we didn’t have the cash for this major expense, somehow it still seemed like a smart idea to get ahead of a future problem.


Total: About $18,000

New Facade

The outside of our home had a unique siding that looked like knotted wood. Our friends would comment on our peculiar wood façade. It literally looked like we had a termite infestation.

But I kind of liked the strange way it looked. It was different from every other house on the block.

My husband hated it. So he found a company to update the entire exterior, with sleek stones on the bottom half and smooth stucco on the top half.

Total: Around $8,000

More Non-Essential Upgrades

The list continues: a new garage door; new patio and pavers in the backyard; large ceramic tiles installed in the living room, den and halls; indoor paint for every room in the house; and crown molding.

Total: $13,000

A.C. Unit

Then came a more urgent expense. At the beginning of summer, our 25-year-old air conditioner burned out. Instead of shopping around for a deal, we decided that paying more would get us a higher-quality unit.

Total: $12,000

Curb Appeal Upgrades

We got a new fence in the front yard and removed a bunch of trees in the backyard.

Total: $8,000

When a Real Emergency Arrived

After all this impulsive spending, we had one unexpected expense hit us hard during the holidays: a massive plumbing leak under our house. We either had to completely change the current plumbing and update our foundation, or reroute our entire plumbing system.

We chose the easier and better long-term option—rerouting the plumbing—but even though it was the more affordable option, that didn’t mean we could actually afford it.

And to our surprise, our home insurance found a loophole. Because the leak was technically under the house, they deemed it outside their coverage area and didn’t cover any of the cost.

We were hit with a bill for $15,000.

Adding Up Our Upgrades

In just two to three years, we racked up over $87,600 in debt, but it wasn’t all at once. We would charge a few things on our credit cards, typically hitting $20,000 to $25,000, and then once we paid it off, we’d start all over again.

It was a horrible cycle. Looking back, it would have been much more wise to save the money, plan out our upgrades, and shop around for the best quotes or even DIY some of it. At the very least, we would have saved a lot of money by paying cash. I can’t begin to think about the amount of interest we paid on all of these upgrades.

Keeping up with the Joneses or the Kardashians (or whoever you aspire to live like) can be a recipe for massive debt and stress. Turning our house into a home didn’t suddenly enhance our lives. Yes, the home was renovated exactly to our preferences, but did it increase our quality of life? The answer is no.

Upgrading our house was a reaction to our perception of what our home should look and feel like, based on societal standards. I wish we waited on most of those upgrades. We could have invested that money and created passive income that would have given us long-term benefits.

It took us years to discover that financial stability matters more to us than a new garage door or a backyard patio. The stress caused by the debt overshadowed any happiness we felt from our fancy upgrades.

Now, eight years later, I’m focused on saving, investing in retirement, and staying out of debt for good.

Bottom Line

There are many free or inexpensive ways to make your house a home that don’t cause you to go into debt. 

You can paint your walls or hang meaningful pictures and art. If you need a new piece of furniture, you can scour thrift stores, upgrade an older piece, or search for furniture sales.

Watching before-and-after home makeovers can be inspiring. But keep in mind what things really cost behind the scenes. Learn from my mistakes and understand the true price of your upgrade project before taking the plunge.