Steph Yiu

Before & After: First Time Home Improvement

Moving sucks! We moved last April and have been slowly making changes to our apartment. It feels like it takes forever to get everything unpacked. Because I take pictures obsessively, I realized I had a good collection of before & after photos I could share. Whenever I see magazines features with before & afters, I wonder how much blood and sweat went into the transformation. Now that these photos are mine – I can tell you!

Back Deck (4 weekends)

So our apartment in Boston doesn’t have a backyard, but my first taste of home improvement was at my boyfriend’s place in Portland, Maine. In spring 2016 we decided, kind of on a whim, to create a deck for his overgrown and unused backyard. At dinner one night, I drew my idea on the back of an envelope… and then we made it happen. No, it wasn’t that easy – it was hugely helpful that my boyfriend spent a few summers working in carpentry and construction… because I would have had no idea where to begin.

Weekend 1: His mom and I dug up the backyard, which had something like 15 massive hosta root balls. It was ridiculous – we thought we’d find 3 or 4 plants, but we kept finding more. We replanted the hostas in the front of the house, or re-homed them in Vermont where his family lives. We then measured the space about four times over, and then made a trip to a lumberyard. We looked at samples of composite decking, picked a color, and ordered it.

Weekend 2: We assembled base frame of the deck with pressure treated wood. We made sure to paint the base wood a dark brown so that it would look invisible under the composite decking. Surprisingly, what took the longest was not cutting or constructing the frame, but making sure the ground was level. It was a lot of tamping and saying, “does that look flat?” We also decided create an opening in the deck for a pretty little bush that was growing in the back corner, so we framed around that as well.

Weekend 3: By now the composite decking arrived, and we cut the pieces to size. The hardest part was cutting the slant pieces that would run along the side of the fence – as you can see, the backyard is a weird trapezoid shape. In assembling the top of the deck, we had to carefully create uniform spacing for the screws and gaps between the planks, knowing that the deck material will expand in the summer. This was also the shopping weekend. We picked up pretty pebbles to fill in the gaps along the fence Home Depot, and ridiculously cheap patio furniture (and tiki mugs!) at Christmas Tree Shops. The one item we splurged on were modular patio couches from LoveSac. The pieces can be re-arranged in any shape (arm chair, love seat, sectional) which was important for a tiny backyard space. They can also be packed flat for winter storage. These were an awesome purchase, and the flexibility became even more important when we moved.

Weekend 4: We pressure-washed and painted the fence (which in hindsight we should have done before we put down the deck, but dropcloths worked just fine). Then, we assembled the furniture, picked up some colorful accent tables, plants, and pots from Lowes. By Sunday night we were eating dinner on the patio and watching a movie on the couch.

Weekend 5: Throw a deck party!


Living Room (3 weeks)

Once we moved to Boston, the first room we completed was our living room. The below are rough estimates of time – obviously we weren’t focused on the living room for 3 weeks, but worked on what we could between our real jobs and adopting a dog.

Week 1: I wanted the walls grey and the firstplace blue. Easy enough, right? Well, we went to Sherwin-Williams and… it was an utterly confusing experience – how are there 5,000 shades of grey and 2,000 shades of blue? After about 30 minutes of staring at swatches, I pulled the trigger and bought five samples (three greys and two blues). Once we were home, painted a few test patches and looked at the color in the morning and night. Then we just chose one and hoped for the best.

Weekend 2: I was on a 3-hour long conference call marathon one day and I used the time to tape the windows, ceiling, and trim. Surprisingly, doing a repetitive task meant I was paying close attention the entire length of the conference call! Also… a curved living room wall is awesome until you try to tape along it. Once that was done, we cleaned the walls, spackled what we needed to, and painted. Thanks to my boyfriend who has also worked summers as a painter, we had all the materials (drop cloths, brushes, trays, rollers, scrapers, lighting) on hand. Painting was the easy part.

Weekend 3: We bought our couch from Craigslist. Like the patio furniture above, it’s modular – we tend to throw a lot of parties so the flexibility is awesome. The rest of the furniture we already had, but the TV stand had to be a specific size and height to fit the space – for that I just turned to Wayfair which lets you search by width and height.


Mud Room (1 week)

Our mudroom is right off our kitchen and it’s a constant disaster zone. It looks nice in this picture but that’s just because I moved all the crap off the counters. Normally, it’s where we dump groceries, jackets, hats, mittens, leashes and dog stuff, yoga mats, workout clothes, and luggage we’ve forgotten to unpack. It’s also the laundry room, which means there’s often clothes and laundry baskets scattered about. We decided we wanted some open shelving to get stuff off the floor, and also to make things easily accessible.

First, we measured the space. We decided how many shelves and brackets we wanted (it depends on how much weight you want the shelf to support). Then, we bought some pine boards, bronze shelf brackets, screws, and wood stain from Home Depot. We went out into the driveway and stained the wood. We left the boards outside to off-gas because the stain makes the wood super stinky for a few days. Then, we hung up the shelves. Home Depot didn’t have dark colored screws, so we colored the screw tops with black Sharpie so you can’t see it.

Some of the other items in the space: a cheap coat hook from Home Goods, IKEA wire basket storage (which we use for grocery bags), a massive dirt-trapping entry rug (so we can wipe down the dog when he comes in), an old shoe rack, and a dog crate.


Basement (1 day)

I did this yesterday! Since we moved in, our basement has been a horror show. Yesterday, I took everything off the shelves and started from scratch. I created various totes grouped by category or activity, and got almost everything off the floor. Then, I used a Shop-Vac to vaccum the shit out of the basement floor. My boyfriend has a pretty big collection of tools and whatnot, so I used an old yoga mat to create shelf for small items (screws, nails) that would otherwise fall through the cracks.

My back hurts after hauling heavy totes around all day yesterday! While it’s easy to scroll through the photos of before & afters now, all of the Boston projects took place over the course of a year, slowly humming along in the background of daily life, work, and travel. I can proudly say we have no more moving boxes left and it feels great to be settled in. But, as you know, there’s always a neverending list of home projects to do…

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