Shaping the dream

#208 in a series of true experiences in real estate
August 1997, Hills Newspapers

It is one of our life pleasures to see what our friends and clients are able to do to improve their houses, to make them their own.

Not long ago we visited a couple who had bought a ranch style house from us two years ago. They almost didn’t buy it. A rancher was not their dream. In fact the first time we went to see it, fresh from enjoying old shingle style and English country sort of houses, we were taken aback.

Here was a turquoise-y front door with too-fussy, raised white trim and the door was flanked by glass brick window panels. Inside we found aluminum crank-out windows, seas of brown fuzzy carpeting, flat ceilings that felt too low. Heavy yellow wood interior doors, shiny with varnish. Metal stair railing — the kind more often seen along stucco-house front steps. All-in-one electric stove, probably a treasure when new, the type with the oven up above the burners, the glass door stained brown from cooking.

The corner window kitchen sink was tiled in gray and pale yellow and some of the edge tiles had come loose. They were now incongruously held together with electrician’s tape.

The bathrooms were tiled primarily in pink. Each had an aluminum and ribbed glass shower enclosure. The recreation room downstairs had acoustical tiles on the ceiling and a large bar covered with fake zebra skin.

But the price was good we all agreed. A lot of space for the money.

Then we were silent as we again looked around us at the doors and floors and ceilings, considered the pink, yellow and gray tiles, the narrow-brick fireplace with, oddly, a small window up high on one adjacent wall but none on the other.

We retreated that day to think, and although no one said so, we didn’t expect to think very seriously. The house was just too far off the mark.

No doubt our clients talked to one another about the house after we left. I know we did although we were slow to start. For the first couple of days we confined our remarks to an occasional reference to how unattractive we found various parts of the house. But then we got around to seeing the possibilities.

What if the windows and doors and floors and kitchen were different? There was so much space there. It was true that almost everything in it was something we didn’t like, but it all seemed to be unusually sturdy and solid.

The shiny doors, for instance, must have cost a fortune new — solid wood, not hollow. The builder hadn’t done things cheaply. Presumably the entire building was done with quality.

We called our clients (or maybe they called us — I don’t remember which now) and were delighted to find that we’d all been thinking and saying the same things. We immediately agreed to go back and look again.

Same bad front door. Good door, well made anyway, but ugly. That could be fixed. Same bad carpet but oak plank floors, possibly in perfect condition, underneath. Wood floors would help.

What would it cost to replace the windows we asked one another. There were a lot of windows. And put in French doors? A deck that wraps around the back of the house?

We spent some time considering the kitchen. New stove, maybe keep the tile — retro look, you know — replace the lino and the egg crate fluorescent light fixtures. Add an island in the center of the large room, hang pots from a rack, install new hardware, faucets, and sink.

The fireplace could be plastered or tiled. The dining room divider, a combination bookcase and planter with thin corner poles anchoring it to the ceiling, could be changed somehow or covered up entirely. Yes, eliminated altogether.

We were getting cautiously excited. We could see now that the house could be better, that an infusion of money and the right selection of new elements could bring the house into style. But how much money, how much time would it take?

Over the next few days we gathered information, looked at the heating system, the foundation, talked to a residential construction estimator. The basics were as good as we’d assumed. The estimator figured it would be easy to spend $100,000.

The house had grown on us all. Our clients were now saying they could move in, live with things as they were, redo parts as money and time allowed. They were surprised to find that they could feel this way, such a contrast to how they had reacted at first.

They bought the house, removed the carpeting, and moved in. The floors needed nothing more than vacuuming. Their first purchase was going to be another stove but they kept putting it off, thinking about how far they’d go with the kitchen.

After a few months of living in the house, they hired a contractor to tear out the living room ceiling, cover the fireplace, plaster over the one strange window, and replace the dining and living room windows with swing-out wood casements.

The ceilings are now elegant “stepped” plaster and beautiful. They no longer look or feel low. There are new baseboards and new interior doors all painted white. The planter-bookcase is gone and in its place a wide plastered opening.
Charcoal-colored slate covers the raised hearth and the area around the firebox. The front is cased with a traditional-look, painted wood front with mantel. Toasty-brown walls, recessed lighting and a folded-paper light fixture over the dining table, and large, round-armed upholstered furniture transform these rooms.

Sisal-look, dark vanilla-colored wool carpeting has been laid in the entry and on the inside stairs. Identically framed, black on white ink paintings hang in a row on the celadon-green entry hall walls.

By “de-detailing” the exterior (removing shutters, door and window trim and glass brick panels) and adding formal-looking landscaping, the owners gave the outside of the house a sleek, timeless appearance.

It’s hard to believe it’s the same house.

There is more to do, of course. House redos seem never to be done and this one was a lot to bite off. These owners are tremendously talented. We loved seeing what they have done and can hardly wait to see what comes next.

“Am I glad they bought that house,” Anet said as we drove away. “Wasn’t that fun?”

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