Every fall, for the past few years, I’ve embarked on a college tour — like a band tour minus instruments and a decent singing voice— stretching from the Midwest to the Southwest, moving my two sons and my significant other’s sons into their dorms. While the basic dorm set-up requires little more than creatively cramming half a dozen boxes and suitcases stuffed with supplies and clothing into a room the size of a shoebox, moving a college student into a rental house or apartment takes planning, resourcefulness and a strong propensity for cleaning.
A month before my older son moved into a two-bedroom house for his senior year, I asked him to schedule a walk-through with the property manager. He wanted to determine which supplies and furniture he would need before his lease started. As a mom who rehabs houses for a living and obsesses over every maintenance detail, I was curious to see the place he had looked forward to moving into for the past year.
A few days later, we walked into his future home, a sweltering rental house in Texas that had been locked up and electricity-free for the previous three summer months. The family room featured a gold oversized sofa and matching hideous love seat, both in worse shape than a prizefighter after a brutal match. Across from the ugly twins were an overstuffed green recliner and a bulky, light orange movie theater-type chair with massive cup holders. Underneath the mismatched mess was carpeting that may have been tan when it was installed, but was now several shades darker.
As we walked from room to room, I kept a smile plastered on my face and my thoughts to myself. There was only one way to describe the home my son had been raving about: a disaster. I hadn’t expected an Architectural Digest-worthy home, but I also hadn’t envisioned a prime candidate for the HGTV show “Fixer Upper.”
Not wanting to squelch my son’s enthusiasm — a friend of his had lived there the year before and he had looked forward to being the next tenant — I only made two comments to the manager: the foundation needed to be fixed and the smoke detector in one of the bedrooms had to be replaced. I suspected that by the time he moved in, there would be more items to be repaired.
While my son and his roommate could have lived with the existing furniture, I suggested we find pieces more functional and less overwhelming. And by overwhelming, I meant anything smaller than the mobile-home-sized furniture parked in his family room. He agreed, with the caveat, “I don’t want anything too nice. I don’t want to worry about it getting wrecked.” In my mind, that meant only one thing: free furniture.
We started with a furniture list:
- Desk chair
- Outdoor furniture
I turned to friends, family, neighbors, Craigslist and a neighborhood app called “Next Door” for help, where I posted this message: “My son is looking for outdoor furniture for a house he is renting at school.”
Within two days, he had an iron table with a glass top (free) and two chairs with a matching side table (also free). After I bought a potting table for my deck and bid on a clothes steamer (I already owned one but at that price couldn’t see living without another), I realized I was falling into the rabbit hole of online bargain shopping and forced myself to refocus, but not before checking two more sites offering furniture and other “pre-loved items”: Letgo and VarageSale.
His dad enlisted his fiancée and her family in what soon became a furniture scavenger hunt. She gave my son a leather love seat and a wood dining table that were no longer needed. Her sister found a grey sofa for $40 (reduced from $80) on her neighborhood’s Facebook page. Even my younger son participated in the search. While he was driving home from work, he spotted an estate sale and bought an old, dusty desk for $10. Channeling Martha Stewart, Joanna Gaines and anyone else capable of turning ugly into awesome, I sanded, repainted, and installed new hardware to transform the dated desk into a functional, updated workspace for less than $15.
Although half of my garage was already filled with boxes and furniture, my son and I visited two brick and mortar places: the Habitat for Humanity nonprofit home improvement store called ReStore and the Salvation Army thrift store to see if they had anything else he might need. Both retailers had a wide selection of furniture, lamps, bookcases and other items but, by this point, my son was feeling a bit overwhelmed by what he already owned, and wanted to wait until he moved in to add anything else, if anything at all.
A week later, we loaded my senior’s four-door sedan, his brother’s pickup truck, and my SUV with our newly acquired furniture. When we arrived at the rental house, the foundation had shifted significantly enough over the summer — more than when we had initially visited — to wedge the front door inside the frame. We started a running repair list to give to the property manager after my son moved in, rather than send her texts with individual issues as we discovered them.
Before we emptied our makeshift moving vans, we hauled everything from the family room (except for the recliner) to the curb. (By the end of the evening, two of the three pieces were gone.) The “new” furniture was more to scale than the oversized pieces we had replaced, the family room felt bigger, and his house no longer resembled a used furniture store. He spotted a desk chair in one corner of the house that was perfect for his refurbished desk.
After we unloaded all three cars, my younger son left and his brother and I began clearing cabinets, vacuuming, and unpacking. We started with the kitchen. His friend had left a refrigerator behind but had forgotten to empty the contents when he left in May. By August, with the electricity turned off and temperatures in Texas over 100 degrees, the interior had turned into a science experiment gone badly wrong. We scrubbed and disinfected the shelves, the sides, and the doors, but when we realized black mold had seeped into the insulation, we rolled the afflicted appliance to the curb. (Fifteen minutes later, it was gone.) Either my son lives on a popular block, or collectors know exactly when to cruise the streets searching for cast-offs. His dad found a used, mold-free refrigerator at Restore and brought it to the house a few days later. In the meantime, my son used his dorm fridge from last year.
The food in the refrigerator wasn’t all the former tenant left behind. Inside several cabinets we found enough containers of spray, liquid and powder cleaners to disinfect the entire neighborhood. A majority of the bottles were unopened, which explained the dirt build up in the shower, toilet, sink and virtually every surface throughout the rental house. We spent all afternoon and evening scrubbing and dusting every neglected inch.
At 10 pm I left for the hour-long drive home, exhausted and a little disappointed we hadn’t accomplished more. I had to admit that, after spending all day with a sponge in one hand and a spray cleaner in the other, the house already looked better.
The next day, my younger son and I filled my car and his truck with the outdoor furniture and drove back to the house. His brother helped him take everything out of his truck and my younger son drove home. My son and I finished cleaning, unpacked a few more boxes and set up his bedroom.
During the two days and nights my son and I worked, we added more items to the repair list. While I realize students are tough on rental houses, it doesn’t mean they have to live in a place that hasn’t been maintained. The list included replacing rotten boards on the front porch and back deck, fixing a toilet that screeched like a wounded animal with each flush, and replacing mangled blinds. The request for replacement blinds became a higher priority a few days later when my son walked from his bedroom to the bathroom to take a shower, not realizing the landlord was in the backyard with the maintenance crew.
Before I drove home after another long day and night, I walked through the house, proud of what we had accomplished together. We had transformed what had been an eyesore two days ago, into a comfortable, functional, and clean place for my son to live. Being able to open and close the front door a few days later when they fixed the foundation was an added bonus.
As I pulled into my driveway, my son sent me this text:
“Thanks for your help, mom. I have some friends over and they say it’s really nice.”
I can’t remember the last time I exerted that much energy, especially not while cleaning, but the time I spent dusting and organizing, unpacking and rearranging with my son, was worth the extensive top to bottom scrubbing involved. Not unlike the unexpected college road trip his younger brother and I took a few years ago, minus the grime-filled shower and dusty baseboards, my son and I spent hours of uninterrupted time together.
We talked about his upcoming semester, I asked about a few of his friends, and we discussed his plans for after he graduates next spring. If connecting with my son involved clearing the corners and ceilings of spider webs and hauling bag after filthy paper-towel-filled bag of trash to the curb, I’ll keep a sponge and bucket of cleaning supplies on standby.
My son has been in his home for a few weeks, all repairs have been completed, and he starts school in a few days. As I prepare for the last stop on this year’s move-in tour when I help my younger son settle into a dorm for the last time, I can’t help thinking about next year when he’s planning to move into a house with a few friends.
This time, however, I’ll know what to expect. I doubt any rock star ever worked this hard on tour.
Lisa Kanarek is a mom of two sons in college, a freelance writer, a house rehab addict, and a frequent flyer. Her work has been included in the anthology “Feisty After 45” as well as various websites, and writes the blog Forgottotellyou.com. She lives in Texas where she may be breaking state law by not owning a pair of cowboy boots. Follow along on Facebook and Twitter .