How to Renovate a Small Home (and Accommodate Growing Kids)


We have two children who will be 10 years old in less than a year. One is a girl, the other is a boy (twins – no, not identical).

Having one of each is amazing. Children of different genders expand the scope of our parental responsibilities in different ways. We wouldn’t trade.

As frugal parents, of course we recognized the advantage of having two girls or two boys. That way, the kids could share a bedroom until they were 18, saving us the hassle of trying to make another bedroom out of a 1,400 square foot tiny house.

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As easy as same-sex twins would be (and our minimalist nature), the renovation investment we’re about to make to accommodate growing children will be more than worth it.

Our current layout

The Kubert family lives in a modest home in a fine area of ​​Minneapolis. The 1940s Rambler was built as a post-war starter home. Beautiful hardwood floors and coffered plaster ceilings reflect the attention to quality from those times.

There are no hollow doors in this generation of houses.

The original finished space has two bedrooms separated by a full bathroom. There is a nice sitting room and an adjoining dedicated dining room. Even the kitchen is a manageable size for modern needs (and traffic flow to and from the basement).

The basement was finished about 20 years ago and I currently hold court as a remote employee (in a shared lounge with our Pelaton, a home theater and a guest bed). The 3/4 bathroom was installed by the previous owner.

A separate walled off room serves as our Lego room and vintage NES (well, our rowing machine). Honestly, we could get away with putting one of the kids in a “Lego room” if pushed, but there might be objections to having the rower in the way.

The Lego room is the same size as their current shared bedroom directly above. And he has a special closet. Cons: 1.) no egress window for security and 2.) poor insulation from a 20 year old reno. But it is perfect for Lego Mayhem and economical building of Star Wars sets!

The basement lounge is where The Theater Room and Peloton share space today.
Here’s our Peloton+ (yet another ‘thing’ to find room for!)

A reconstruction plan is coming into view

We took out a refinance on our house at the beginning of the year, which freed up just over $120k at a very low rate. Talk about a good time at today’s rates…

This money is used to renovate our humble rambler with the primary goal of creating a separate bedroom for each of the kids and the secondary goals of a more comfortable home office and home gym.

Q: What repairs will we do? We could build an extension at the back, keeping the living on one floor (a double if you count the basement). We could build and add a full second floor (which would make our first such home on the block). Or we could keep the trail as is and focus on building the best damn basement you’ve ever seen.

Where will Kubert and Mrs. Kubert end up after this decision? The pandemic has created some challenging headwinds for homeowners looking to get work done in Reno. First, COVID-19 itself has put many contractors and skilled workers out of work. One couple we know lost their main contractor to illness just as their second story began.

Second, supply chains were killed, which only exacerbated the third dynamic: skyrocketing lumber prices due to high demand (and said FUBAR supply chain). What would have cost $150,000 to $200,000 quickly and seemingly overnight turned into a $250,000 to $350,000 menu.

Our first stop was to find a contractor with a good reputation. If we were going to invest a a mountain of money for reconstruction small house, the job had to be done right.

Option 1: reconstruction of the extension

Luckily we have a neighbor who has just completed an extension. Her original contractor was lousy, and on top of the delayed schedule and shoddy work, the jerks managed to damage her neighbor’s garage. Her second contractor was a breath of fresh air. His team got the job back on track and finished on schedule.

We knew we needed this “rescue crew” for our project, even though we planned to go all out and apply for the job.

Our architect was referred to us by the same neighbor. Now we had architect and design team under contract to help us reality check what will and won’t work with our spin-off project. A few site visits for measurements and a few Zoom calls later, we had our plans ready to bid.

Our design team felt that the addition would be less expensive than the second floor addition, so we settled on that option.


I had a conversation with ANOTHER neighbor who said his contractor friend could do the second floor much cheaper than “knock it out”. Something to do with foundation work? Sigh…

With this information in hand and a rough estimate of $275K for an additional floor, we went back to our architect and asked her to draw up plans for the second floor. What harm could there be in pursuing all options before the first shovelful of dirt was dug?

Option 1 cost: $275,000

Option 2: Renovation of the second floor

This is perhaps our favorite of our options. Adding a second floor will almost double our square footage. We’ll get the master bedroom of our dreams and the kids will have nice living quarters too.

Advantages of two-story living: additional bathrooms. We would have our very nice master bathroom and the kids would have their own bathroom to share. Here’s the plan I drew on the whiteboard, which by the way pretty much matches what the architect also drew (admittedly a bit more accurate):

Eventually we got so far into this option that we were re-examining elements of the exterior design. The second plot addition is difficult to perform aesthetically. Many of these upgrades are unsightly “boxes”. Design is important for the right combination of materials and objects. We wanted our box to look nice!

The kicker? After completing all design work for Option 2, we received an estimate from the builder. It was actually MORE than option 1.

By this point, we began to feel that the whole process had been played out. Perhaps we were too hopeful that avoiding foundation work would save us $50K or more in remodeling. Unfortunately…

Option 2 cost: $295,000

Option 3: The cellar of our dreams

By this point in the process, four months into hiring our architect and design firm, we had no compelling options to work with. The cost of each reconstruction option was more than the value of the house in 2004.

Of course, housing has become more expensive since then, but still, almost $300,000 is a huge amount of money for a family planning for the future.

So I did what Kubert does when money dilemmas arise. I stewed. And I stewed. And I was still stewing. We sat on these two options for almost a month, considering a possible “option 3” or even moving to another, bigger house.

Moving seemed like the most logical choice. Surviving construction is difficult, especially with children.

However, we love our area. And we were not alone. Home prices continue to rise in our part of town when people find out the suburbs are funny.

Economics 101: Demand continues to grow, while limited housing supply is shrinking.

This beautiful 3 bedroom, 2 bath attraction with 1,750 square feet of finished living space? Be prepared to finance $450,000. A 4 bedroom, 3 bath home in our neighborhood is now asking $800K. Ugh…

I finally suggested to Mrs. Coober option 3. We would keep our existing footprint and just reconfigure the basement. This would be a complete renovation of the basement that was finished 20 years ago. However, this time we would do it RIGHT.

The new basement will have two nice sized bedrooms for the kids with walk outs and sliding windows and an en-suite bathroom. The bathroom plans feature double sinks, heated floors and a shower.

Our kids will love it (and so will we when they go to college!)

To make this option attractive to my wife, I suggested turning my current office space into a dedicated home gym. We will open the ceiling to allow for exercises based on jumps and abs. The floor will feature a fancy rubber mat that can be found in commercial gyms. So far so good.

I will also be fixing some mechanical and structural things. The walls and ceiling will be insulated with foam and sound insulation. We will use it Marmoleum instead of carpeting. Although our basement is dry thanks radon abatement system put many years ago, it is still a good idea to avoid carpets in basements.

We will also repair the HVAC ducts for the main floor. The new feed runs (currently on the inside walls) will be replaced by new returns (currently on the outside walls). Could do with a little more love on the main floor while the basement ceiling is open.

Option 3 cost: $170,000

Pros and cons of basement repair

We are moving full steam ahead with Option 3. Construction will begin in December and will likely last 3 months. Here are the aspects we weighed in our final decision:


1.) We cut our remodeling costs in half simply by thinking more deeply about what our space needs are (and will be) and how to optimize them.

2.) We can now consider this modest home a potential “forever” home, as two seniors can do better with 2 stories vs. 3.

3.) Based on Pro #2, with very little new finished square footage, our cleaning job will be no worse than it is today.

4.) We avoided spikes in property taxes, maintenance, heating, cooling and electric costs. All this must be taken into account during reconstruction, where a new area is added.

5.) Our yard and trees remain intact, as does the character of our neighborhood. It turns out we won’t be the first to add a 2nd story.


1.) There will be less space if guests come from out of town. I will have to leave my new office (FKA, the kids’ bedroom) if friends or family stay overnight. That means I’m going to the office for a few days. But it’s not the worst thing in the world (especially if I ever retire. Hmm!)

2.) My movie theater! My favorite movie theater is gone! nooooo!!!

Yes, it was a big sacrifice for me. At least we have to demonstrate in full Star Wars and Marvel’s catalog over the past few years thanks to COVID.

Still, it sucks. We will have to see how connecting a minimalist home theater performing in my new office / guest room (office / guest room / cinema room??) upstairs.

God! There is a lot of packaging.

I’ll get over the movie theater situation. In fact, it might just motivate me to put some effort into making this office/theater combo a beauty (wall-to-wall carpeting, baby).

Maybe I could sort through work emails by having Mad Max Fury Road playing in the background…

First of all. We’ll see how construction goes this winter. It should be “fun”.

I am still convinced that in the battle of small house vs big house, our decision to renovate a small house wins for all the pros listed above. And for sustainability reasons too.

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