The topic of today’s post comes from @l.vuoung54 aka LV, one of my Instagram friends, who asked me recently if I would share how I even begin to organize/prioritize house projects. LV first reached out to me (on Instagram) shortly after our Toronto house went up for sale. Apparently she toured it with her husband and wanted to bid on it and her husband said it was too small (been there, girl) and then she saw my Toronto house again when it was featured on Design Mom and so found me on Instagram and a sort of friendship was born (anyone with the good sense to want to buy a 795 sq. ft. bungalow in Danforth East is okay by me).

Anyways, her question: How do I make those yearly lists that decide which house projects get done (and in what order) and which ones get put off for another year? It’s a great question and timely, too, since it’s late September and so I’m in both reflection mode (how did we do this year?) and planning mode (what are we going to tackle next year?).

I start by making a big list of everything that we want to change and/or needs fixing or doing, interior or exterior.

Nowhere on this list is a vague statement like “Renovate kitchen” or a super specific task like “Prime drywall in hallway.” Instead, my master list breaks down into small but concrete projects like “Replace kitchen appliances” or “Drywall hallway.” I find this keeps me from feelings of not knowing where to begin (“Renovate kitchen” sounds pretty monumental) or feelings of overwhelm (“Drywall hallway” sounds a lot more doable than “Demo plaster, drywall hallway, tape hallway, mud hallway, sand hallway, prime hallway, paint hallway”).

I make this list in a Word document so that I can continually add to or take projects off the list. (“Retile kitchen floor” was on our list at first, but we’ve since decided to just live with our linoleum. Similarly, “Upgrade frame to meet current seismic codes” did not appear on our list when we first moved in, but that got done this year.)

Then, I check the list for priority projects and any other project that needs to get done in order for that priority project to be completed.

A good Oak House example was our eavestroughs. We moved into our house in May 2017 and knew the eavestroughs were something we wanted to address before our poor, sad house went through another wet Pacific Northwest winter.

From the master project list, we also knew that our roof needed to be reshingled and we also needed to fix a bow in our roofline. My friend Kate calls this scenario “Shaving the Yak” (first you have to sharpen the blade, etc.) and man, my house is full of these dominos. And so it went. In order for the eavestroughs to be replaced (priority project), we first needed to fix the bow in our roofline (September), reshingle the roof (October), remove the tree encroaching the eavestroughs (November) and, finally, replace the eavestroughs and soffits (December). (It also meant we had to add venting to the roof because our soffits turned out to be purely decorative (January).)


When you’re first getting started renovating a house — say it’s over 100 years old and it hasn’t been maintained in 25 years and you just moved in with your 16-month-old — these priority projects should dictate your list. Does it suck to spend several months (and $15,000) focused on your roof? Well, yes. But if your house has heating, plumbing, roofing, electrical and/or foundational issues, well, you generally have to address those problems first because it’s going to suck extra (and cost more) to undo new work (like drywall) because your roof leaked.

If you’re still in that phase — the fix major issues phase — I would also look at your master list and see if there’s anything cosmetic that can be tackled that won’t interfere with future project plans, just to keep your spirits up.


(I’m a big fan of this master list because it should prevent you from, say, putting new baseboards in a room in which you plan to redo the flooring.) For us, in that first year of dealing with the roof and needing new appliances and cleaning out the previous owners’ possessions and there being no window coverings in the bedrooms and our ready-to-burst hot water tank, I was also able to replace all the trim in both bedrooms, prime and paint the bedrooms and change out the light fixtures and door hardware in those two rooms. We had no plans to redo flooring or replace windows or reconfigure the bedrooms in any way, so being able to check off the master bedroom and Frankie’s bedroom was highly motivating and relatively inexpensive given everything else on the list.

If you’re out of that phase — and into the “I’ve fixed the big stuff, now what?” phase — or you were never in it to begin with (how dare your electrical be up to code with no effort on your part?) I would get your list out again and divide all your projects into three categories:

BIG PROJECTS: Projects that are either very expensive, time-consuming or will complicate your life greatly (or all three, fun!). Good examples for us are our back deck (expensive, time-consuming) and hallway drywall (complicate our lives).

MEDIUM PROJECTS: Projects that are simple to execute, but might be a little expensive (e.g., Replace appliances, convert wood-burning fireplace to a gas insert) or moderately disruptive to daily life (e.g., Getting a door put on our den to turn it into a nursery means sourcing a door plus a day of workers, dust and noise in the house).

SMALL PROJECTS: Projects that can be done easily and inexpensively at your convenience (e.g., painting, hanging a light fixture, planting flowers).

In order to plan your year, decide on your capacity (both in terms of budget and just how willing you are to live in chaos) for each type of project for the upcoming year. For the past two years, we’ve had both a big budget (thanks to our Toronto house sale) and quite a tolerance for chaos in the name of progress, so we’ve tackled a lot. (Just take a look at our 2017 Home Report Card!) For the upcoming year, 2019, not only has our budget thinned, but we’re expecting a new baby in January/February. Personally, I’m leaning towards a 2019 House Project List that will include just one Big Project, two or three Medium Projects, and a handful of garden-related Small Projects.

Whether you feel like you can tackle two projects or twenty, I would try to choose projects mean you are working methodically towards rooms or areas of your property that feel finished to you. (Nothing saps motivation like a feeling of lack of progress.) Good project pairings for us this past year were to Paint the Exterior of the House (Big Project) and also Replace Screen Doors (Medium Project) and Replace Outdoor Light Fixtures, Change Exterior Door Hardware, Plant Front Garden Bed, Hang Hose Coils (Small Projects).

My final and most important tip of all is to NOT STRAY FROM YOUR LIST save for emergencies, like a contractor pointing out that your hot water tank may explode at any moment. “While you’re at it” is just about the biggest make-work phrase in home renovation and, if you’re anything like me, tackling more than what is on an already-ambitious list will result in exhaustion and threats of divorce. If you finish everything on your list by September or come in under budget for the year — wonderful! Put your drill away and enjoy your home for a while.

With three months left in the year, we have just one Medium Project left on our 2018 list — to replace our bathroom counter, sink and faucet (our faucet is back ordered). Overall, 2018 has been considerably less stressful than 2017 because we stuck to our list. Looking forward to creating a short but still productive project list for 2019 that keeps the changes and challenges coming our way in mind.

Thanks again for the question, LV! Hope this was helpful to you and to anyone else struggling with where to begin or with how to dig their way out of the chaos that is renovating a home that you also live in (perhaps with your young child and cat).





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