Annie and Connor Carroll open up about everything from Nashville’s real estate market to down payments to DIY bathroom tiling.

By Jane Borden
January 16, 2020
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Annie and I didn’t really like it when we walked in,” explains Connor Carroll, recalling the couple’s first visit (back when they were dating) to the 1950s ranch-style house that’s now their home. “It felt like you needed to wear a smoking jacket just to be inside it,” he says, laughing. But then they thought about it, and they came back.

The 1,500-square-foot layout, including three bedrooms and one bath, was promising. It had a front yard and a backyard—plus a two-car garage. It was in the trendy, walkable neighborhood of East Nashville. But everything was outdated, and $219,000 felt like a lot for the shape it was in. Still, they saw potential. Also, everything Connor owned was in storage because he’d been prepared to move into a different house but his contract had suddenly fallen through on the closing day.

Annie and Connor Carroll First Home Remodel
Credit: Joseph De Leo; Styling: Matthew Gleason

The housing market is stressful anytime but especially the first time. Everything seems too expensive, and prices only go up (usually). There’s no clear answer to this quandary, but there are success stories like the Carrolls’. They pulled together a 20% down payment and took the leap of faith to homeownership. Over time and with a lot of elbow grease, they transformed a dated fixer-upper into a comfortable, smart-looking home that’s all theirs.

“We get a lot of joy from making something our own, from having a vision and carrying it out,” explains Connor, a commercial film director. Annie works as a decorator at The Mix Interiors. No matter how much work happened before they were married, Connor recalls, “The house still felt like a place to hold my stuff. Since Annie moved in, it’s felt like home.” Here’s what they learned.

First Home Carroll Exterior Before
Carroll's First Home Remodel Exterior
Credit: Joseph De Leo; Styling: Matthew Gleason

Brace yourself for surprises.

“Anytime we wanted to repair something, we had to fix nine other things along the way,” Connor says. The inspection revealed that the wiring was dated, but they didn’t know the severity of the problem. When they removed the kitchen’s wood paneling to replace it with drywall, they discovered all the wiring had to be redone—stat. “Not only was it old, but also some was the wrong gauge for the appliances. One wire had nothing covering it, just copper against studs,” he adds. “That was our first big uh-oh moment.” The second came when he found a 2-inch gap between the baseboards and the wall—new baseboards needed.

Don’t just go with the first contractor.

“In the beginning, we hired a few people to do little projects, which showed us the quality of their work,” Annie explains. The couple held off on doing their kitchen until they found a contractor they loved, Chris Huffine. The wait was worth it: He figured out a way to make two low-hanging beams disappear when everyone else had said it couldn’t be done. “Now we pass on his name to all of our friends,” Annie says.

First Home Carroll Kitchen Before
First Home Carroll Kitchen Before
The couple saved by working within the existing plumbing lines and using carpentry fixes to make the space feel bigger.

DIY as much as you can.

Once you have your plan, highlight anything you can handle on your own, including smaller parts of large processes. In the kitchen, Connor built open shelving with iron pipes from The Home Depot and installed the lower cabinets. He and Annie painted the home’s interior and, with help from friends and family, did most of the demolition themselves in the kitchen, bath, and exterior. “We saved a ton on demo,” Connor says.

Carroll Fist Home Remodel Dining Room
Annie found the pair of robin’s-egg blue china cabinets at the Nashville Flea Market, and Connor salvaged the table from an old apartment rental.
| Credit: Joseph De Leo; Styling: Matthew Gleason

Learn skills from tradespeople.

Anytime a specialist is in your home, take the opportunity to see how things are put together and how they work. This knowledge helps you solve future problems. “People are willing to teach you and explain it all,” says Connor, who describes the deal they made with the contractor who worked on the bath, “I paid him to tile one wall and show me how to do the rest.” They estimate saving at least $1,000 on labor.

First Home Carroll Bath Before
Carroll First Home Remodel Bath
Credit: Joseph De Leo; Styling: Matthew Gleason

Make it right for right now.

Annie’s background in interior design informed all of the renovation plans. “We tried to keep the original charm of a 1950s home while making it more functional and giving it our own point of view,” she says. For example, the white subway tile in the bath is characteristic of the era’s ranch-style houses. The couple kept the original wood paneling in the living room but freshened it up with paint (Sherwin-Williams’ Shade-Grown, SW 6188). And when they updated the exterior, they paid extra to incorporate decorative grilles into their new vinyl windows to create a more traditional aesthetic.

Carrolls First Home Remodel Living Room Before
First Home Carrolls Living Room Setting
Credit: Joseph De Leo; Styling: Matthew Gleason
Carrolls First Home Remodel Living Room Sideboard
Carrolls First Home Remodel Living Room Fireplace
Left: Credit: Joseph De Leo; Styling: Matthew Gleason
Right: Credit: Joseph De Leo; Styling: Matthew Gleason

Sweat the small stuff.

Annie recalls how she felt after they installed a light by the front door, “I thought: It’s just a lantern, but it really updates the house! Those little things are what make a big difference.” The couple added a wooden porch post with address numbers, painted the living room dark green, hung new window treatments, and acquired original pieces from some of their artist friends.

First Home Carrolls Final Numbers
Credit: Joseph De Leo; Styling: Matthew Gleason

Finish That Fixer-Upper!

Sometimes, you’ve got to go with the flow to get it done. Here are Annie and Connor’s six best tips

1. Know your nonnegotiables.

Connor wanted to live in town. Considering his budget, he knew he would be looking at a house that needed work. “I have friends who wanted a new build, and they had to move really far out of the city,” he recalls. “This one was still beyond my price range, but the market was going nuts. If I wanted something in the city, I had to do it then.”

2. Take it one day at a time.

It took several years (and emptying a savings account from childhood) for Connor to reach the down payment. For the renovation work, they advise patience. “We spent a lot of time finding the right people and pricing things out. If the estimates came back too high, we would figure out a way to do some of the work ourselves or revise the scope of the project,” Annie says.

3. Band-Aid fixes are okay.

“After I put down my money, I thought: How am I going to fix it all?” Connor says. “But then I realized that you can live with a lot.” Before they could redo the bath, Annie spruced it up with tile paint. When they found a hole in the baseboard that led straight to the outdoors, they devised a temporary solution. “An exterminator sprayed the gaps monthly, and it was fine,” he explains.

4. Flex your own muscles.

Every ounce of labor you personally contribute not only saves money now but also creates more resale value in the future. In only four years, the Carrolls’ home has seen an impressive 44% increase in price (based on the average appraisal from four real estate services). In other words, the couple will ultimately be rewarded for their hard work.

5. Look for financing deals.

Connor and Annie received a $500 electricity bill and had to replace the windows right away. Fortunately, the vendor offered an 18-month, no-interest payment plan to cover the $16,000. “There are a lot of offers right now from window and HVAC people,” Connor explains. Now their power bills are just $150 to $200 a month during the winter.

6. Stick to your budget.

Annie loved the look of wood windows but chose vinyl ones to cut costs. They also used engineered hardwood for the kitchen instead of traditional wood, saving thousands of dollars. When deciding how to renovate, consider the prices of the other homes on your block. You don’t want to invest more than you will be able to get a return on at resale.