Mary Bailey Syndrome: 5 Things to Know Before Buying a Fixer Upper

There’s only one right answer to the question of best Christmas movie ever: It’s a Wonderful Life. Every year I watch it while preparing my Christmas cards. It is by far my favorite holiday movie, and it’s 100% to blame for forcing me to buy a fixer upper house.

It’s a Wonderful Life has been quietly brainwashing generations of women since 1946. We watched as Mary Bailey dreamed about having the perfect life in that charming old house on 320 Sycamore. The holes in the roof, the unfinished walls and the decrepit staircase: she loved it all.

After moving in, Mary worked tirelessly to restore the house inch by inch, all while raising four kids and helping with the war effort, of course. She saw its potential beauty and made it a reality with little more than elbow grease and a smile.

Filling out Christmas cards in a mid-century house

From the first time I saw It’s a Wonderful Life as a teenager, I knew that someday I wanted to bring my own rickety old fixer upper back to life, too. I refer to this delusion as Mary Bailey Syndrome.

Now four years into my fixer upper experiment, I have a few lessons to share with anyone else who has been infected with the syndrome. Before you buy your fixer upper, read this first.

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1. You Will Spend Money on Boring, Ugly Things

Since 2014, Eric and I have had to replace our water heater, fix a sewer line and install a new boiler. All of this represents thousands of dollars spent on things I couldn’t post on Instagram. No one visits my house and says, “Wow, I love your boiler!”

When Mary hung wallpaper, she could see and enjoy the results of her work every day. But when you have to install new plumbing or replace the roof, it’s not Pinterest-worthy, and you won’t feel particularly gratified. You’ll just feel your wallet get lighter.

Mary Bailey made the idea of restoring an old house look romantic, leaky roof and all.
The fantasy: breezily hanging wallpaper in a well-ironed house dress. The reality: messy bun and swear words.

You might have to spend a lot of time and money just to get your house back to a properly functioning state before you can work on the pretty stuff. Sometimes you will feel frustrated that it doesn’t look like you’re making any progress.

A year or two could go by, and it will seem like your house looks the same because you can’t see those shiny new pipes or your now up-to-code electric system.

2. Every Project Will Take Longer Than Expected

One of the sure signs of Mary Bailey Syndrome is having a rose-colored view of home improvement projects. As a recovering survivor of the syndrome, I still have this problem when I start a new home or garden task.

If I think a bathroom makeover will take a weekend, it will actually take four weekends. It’s one of the unchangeable laws of DIY home improvement.

Not once have I finished a house project and thought it went easier or faster than I expected. However long you think a project will take, it’s a good idea to multiply your estimation by four. Sometimes that same formula applies to the cost, too.

This also means if you thought it would take you two years to fix up your house, it might take more like eight. Or a lifetime. Remember Mary was still working on her house by the time her kids were well into grade school.

Update: See the before and after pics of five years in my fixer upper

3. Landscaping Might Kill You

I can’t prove this, but I’m 99% sure that landscaping a wildly unkempt yard could kill you. Spend an afternoon pulling ivy and let’s compare notes. This is back-breaking work.

Fixer uppers are more likely than other houses to have overgrown landscaping that you will need to tame. That could mean ivy, a thriving patch of relentless blackberries, or a rotting fence with tetanus-infused nails sticking out. Dreamy.

Don’t be fooled by the smile. Landscaping a fixer upper means digging holes in the late autumn rain in snow pants to keep from freezing while your fingers almost break off.
Don’t be fooled by the smile. Landscaping means digging holes in the late autumn rain in snow pants to keep from freezing while your fingers almost break off.

You could also be liable if any of this overgrown landscaping is dangerous. Think over-sized trees barely clinging to the earth, just one storm away from crashing into your neighbor’s roof.

Even a jagged old sidewalk could cost you money if someone trips and gets hurt. It’s something to consider when you’re selecting your fixer upper and prioritizing projects.

4. The Little Things Will Wear You Down

On your long to-do list of future house projects, the little things will fall to the bottom. You have to prioritize the big improvements first, like the boring stuff mentioned above.

But it’s the little things that will drive you mad year after year. Ask George Bailey what he thinks about the loose finial on his staircase banister.

Mary Bailey Syndrome and the stress of restoring a fixer upper
This is my face on most days.

For me, it’s the carpet nail damage in the doorways of my partially finished basement. That is my metaphorical finial. We removed the decades-old carpet, exposing cracked tile flooring that needs to replaced someday.

Right now there are no flooring transition strips between the rooms. There are just ugly cracks where the tile ends and gaping nail holes where the painted cement floor begins.

Those cracks and holes will be there until we replace the basement flooring, which is low on the priority list. Meanwhile, the canyon-sized holes get bigger in my mind every day.

5. You Will Love It

In conclusion, you should probably buy a fixer upper. Yeah, I might still be infected with Mary Bailey Syndrome.

A few years ago I met Karolyn Grimes (Zuzu from the movie)! I wonder if she knows about the Mary Bailey Syndrome epidemic.
A few years ago I met Karolyn Grimes (Zuzu from the movie)! I wonder if she knows about the Mary Bailey Syndrome epidemic.

You know when people with kids say they are sleep deprived, they never have time to go out, and their toddler vomited on them this morning, but then they say you should definitely have kids? That’s what fixer uppers are like.

Your fixer upper will consume your time and money. On the surface everything will look like a disaster. But making that house yours will be an act of love, and in spite of all the stress you will probably enjoy it.

I do have a few tips to help keep you going when you feel like you can’t look at another power tool or paint can.

  • Make an exhaustive checklist of everything you want to do, categorized by area (master bedroom, living room, gardening, landscaping, etc.). Check off tasks as you complete them, but keep them on the list. This will give you an idea of how far along you are and help you estimate how far you have to go. See more tips for new homeowners here.
  • Get a lot of before photos of your home. The inspection is a good time to do this. Then when you feel like you’re not making progress, look back at those photos and be happy about what you’ve accomplished.
  • Take it Bird by Bird (one of my favorite writing books, and a good mantra for accomplishing goals one step at a time). You can tame your yard and transform your house, but don’t try to do it all at once. Remember the project time formula—multiply your expected timeline by four—and take care of yourself in the process.

Good luck, and happy hammering!

2 thoughts on “Mary Bailey Syndrome: 5 Things to Know Before Buying a Fixer Upper”

  1. Well “Mary Bailey” (Tara)..I think back to right after you guys moved into your new house..we made a roadtrip to Oregon and the guys worked on strengthing your balcony. You guys have come a very long ways since then on goodness alot accomplished on your to-do list for sure!! It has been a work of love (and well maybe a few swear words along the way 😉 ) turning your house into a home! Keep dreaming and doing “Mary Bailey” (Tara)!


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