How I spent my tax refund

My house was constructed in the early 1950s. It’s an updated type of Chicago bungalow called an English Tudor, and while it looks pretty small on the outside it’s really quite big on the inside. On the first floor I have a small entry foyer, a large living room, a large dining room, a medium-sized kitchen, a full bathroom, and two bedrooms: a small one, and a medium-sized one. The first floor is where I’ve been living and sleeping since the fall of 2009.

Before that, my ex-husband and I slept in a very large bedroom on the second floor. This was one of the bedrooms I began renting out after the divorce to bring in extra income. The second floor of the house also has a full bathroom that we had updated in 2005, a smaller bedroom with a walk out porch, and a lot of built-in storage and closets. The smaller bedroom had been “decoratively painted” by the previous owners of the house at some point. (I also rented this bedroom out and the two different guys who lived there over two years didn’t seem to mind that the room had a flower stenciled on the closet door.)  Other than that bathroom update in 2005, however, the upstairs has remained untouched since I first moved into this house in 2001.

Since I was divorced in 2009 and took over sole ownership of the house, I’ve used my tax refunds to do some sort of work on the house every year. In 2009 it was a kitchen remodel, in 2010 it was outdoor stuff (tree trimming and landscaping updates), and in 2011 it was a bunch of external/internal maintenance things (spot tuck pointing, internal wall repairs, as well as sewer rodding and cache basin cleaning). With this year’s tax refund, I decided to freshen up the second floor with new floor coverings, paint, and light fixtures. I also had the stairwell connecting all the floors in the house freshened up, too, with new carpeting and paint.


Small bedroom before remodel

Smaller bedroom before remodeling. Note the “decorative paint” and the stained carpet. The first tenant messed the carpet up, but it wasn’t very pretty from the start.


Smaller bedroom after remodel

Fresh paint, new laminate floor, and new light fixture.

Isn’t it amazing what some paint can do for a room? And here’s the real “after” on this room, now that B has it set up as his studio.

Guitar row in the studio

Guitar row in the studio.

Production space

Production space for editing/mixing videos and music.

The big bedroom presented a few challenges. There is some infrastructure in the room for the first floor heating (why they put radiant heat in the ceilings during the 1950s and not the floors is beyond me!) and the cooling system (a high velocity A/C system installed back in 2003). Before the refresh, this room had two small, built-in desks in the corners. One of the desks covered the heating pipes, while the other was there just for balance, I guess. The desks were installed in December 1967. I know this because one of them was dated and signed by the builder/original owner of the house, a contractor by the name of John H. Neil.

How do I know that was his name? He put his name up in lots of places in the house. Like this one at the top of the stairwell.

Top stair landing

John Neil (J.H. Neil) painted his initials on the wall before adhering paneling.

Before, top floor landing

The same location with paneling and old carpet still in place.

Despite his proclivity to slap his name on everything, I have nothing but fondness for John Neil. He built a solid house and raised five daughters here. The poor guy must have been frequently hounded to put the seat down. Maybe that’s why he put a bathroom on every floor of the house.

Anyway, back to the big 2012 remodel.


Big bedroom

The big bedroom at the front of the house. Built in shelves at right are actually re-purposed doors.

One of the built-in desks, added in 1967. This one covered the return line for the radiant heat. The silver “tubes” are A/C ducts for the first floor.

Big bedroom ceiling

The ceiling in this bedroom is full of odd angles because it follows the peaked roof line. The dark stained wood accents were there when I moved in.


Big bedroom updated

Same room, different look. The shelves were removed to allow for more flexibility.

Uncovered mechanicals

I have to figure out a way to cover the pipes while still having them accessible for maintenance.

Big bedroom ceiling

The dark wood was primed and painted to match the rest of the walls and the light fixture was updated.

I still don’t know what to do about that heating/cooling infrastructure that sits in a corner of the big bedroom, but I’ve used up this year’s tax refund (plus a bit more) and I don’t want to spend anything on custom cabinetry at this point. I’ll figure something out. [BTW, the wall colors of both bedrooms are exactly the same. The big bedroom looks more yellow in some of the photos, but I think this is because of the way the light changes throughout the day.]

Oh, and that stairwell area signed by J.H. Neil? After the update it looked like this.

Stairwell after remodel

Stairwell after new carpet and paint. Touch up needed on the stringers, as they got a bit messed up from carpet install.

Total cost of this refresh has cost $8,122 to date, and I’m still not completely done. That ended up being about $1,000 more than my combined state and federal tax refund this year. The hallway connecting the two bedrooms still needs to be painted, but I can do that myself. I just wouldn’t have been able to prep and paint the big bedroom and stairwell, with the soaring ceilings and crazy angles. Nor could I be sure to replace all the flooring with such skill. (Really, zoom in on that shot of the flooring placement around those mechanicals in the big bedroom. Those flooring guys did amazing work!) So I feel like this was money well spent. The hallway connecting the two bedrooms still needs to be painted, but that’s something I can do myself. I’ll need to pick up some more paint, so there will be a bit more cost involved besides my time, too.

To view a slide show of all the before, during, and after photos I took, go here.

So what do you think? Does it look good? If you have any ideas for how to cover those pipes in the big bedroom, be sure to leave a comment! I’m thinking of fixing up that big bedroom like a hotel suite and renting it out through Airbnb; if you have any ideas on that, I welcome them, too.


6 thoughts on “How I spent my tax refund

    • Actually, I was thinking along those lines: have a custom cover built for the radiator and mechanicals. It would have to be custom because the pipes are further from the wall than the current radiator cover. How would it look if I had two very different radiator covers in the room? As a short term fix I was hoping to make up an Ikea hack. I have a small table top that I can put legs on that are tall enough to cover the pipes, then put a nice table cloth on it or something.


  1. Sorry, I don’t have any ideas for covering the pipes. But your renovations look great! We are going to be renting out our current home in the next few months, so I will need to get used to painting again…


  2. Looks great! One of the pics isn’t currently working, though (fyi). I loved your comment on the owner hounded about putting the seat down. My dad has 13 brothers and sisters. Mostly sisters. One bathroom. Talk about seat down…..


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