living thru a reno

In the words of my grandmother, “I ought to have my head examined.” I’ve just waved goodbye to Marty and Joy, leaders of the small construction crew who have inhabited my home for four months. They’ve seen me in my pajamas, walked through family meals, wished our girls luck on their first day of school, met my parents from New Jersey and respectfully sped up their work when our daughter needed her bedroom back after a hospital stay. Our family of five seemed to have grown with surrogate members in paint-spattered boots.

I feel strangely sad to see them go. My husband remarked that it’s akin to Stockholm syndrome, not entirely tongue-in-cheek. I should be jumping for joy that I am free of the banging and total lack of privacy. As much as I feel weird to see them pack up the mounds of debris that inhabited my yard like dinosaur carcasses, I am equally euphoric. I love the way our house turned out. It was transformed from a closed, ugly, dark, moldy mess into a larger, sharp, clean, bright home. Maybe it’s that once they got started, it was like the constant adrenaline of a race, watching our vision come to life and now that we’ve crossed the finish line, I have to come down.

I’ve woken up early for the last time to move my car to accommodate the omnipresent Action Builders van that delivered the skilled hands and mighty tools to 56 Hazel Drive, so I feel it is my duty as a writer and a citizen to share my story and provide some useful tips for anyone crazy enough to buy a true fixer-upper.

Vision, Vision, Vision
The house was far from move-in condition, as the photos above show. The family knew the kitchen was basically unusable, but after more than a month of rain, it also had a giant hole and leak in the ceiling.
The house was far from move-in condition, as the photos above show. The family knew the kitchen was basically unusable, but after more than a month of rain, it also had a giant hole and leak in the ceiling.

The house was about 1,500 square feet with room to grow. Certainly it needed more than a nip and tuck. This would be major surgery. It had three bedrooms and two baths with a decent existing footprint throughout. The back of the house was essentially rotting. Lots of interior walls would need to be taken out, and a master suite added. The outside required a total facelift. I spent hours scouring pictures on and sketching on napkins. Swatches of paint and wood lived in my purse for months.

We did not have an architect or a designer, were on a strict budget and had to live in it during construction. The first week in, it was odoriferously apparent that the house had a serious mold problem. We couldn’t wait for the demolition and counted the days. Then we learned the project was going to start 30 days later than scheduled. It made for a very rough beginning.

Mother Nature decided to add a little more stress by providing torrential rain upon our gutterless new abode nearly every day for five weeks. The hole in the kitchen ceiling glistened as a steady stream of filthy water dripped from its maw into a bucket. We’d stored our stuff all over town, between friends’ basements and a storage area, so we were living with about 20 percent of our belongings. The kitchen was unusable and the bathroom was medieval.

It would have been better not to have tried to live in the house. Our teenaged girls were stuffed into one room and my husband, me, our 9-year-old daughter and our king bed were jammed in another. Undergarments were lost, keys disappeared, towels scarce. Pets were constantly being boarded and unboarded as the whole house was generally dangerous. Working “at home” as I do, was truly a misnomer. At one point I was on a conference call huddled in a corner in between a plastic tarp and a pile of old sub-flooring with a pneumatic drill pounding at 1 million decibels. I was often saved by the mute button during the process. Headaches from noise and clouds of dust were commonplace and prompted many sleepovers at hotels and in the basements of kind loved ones.

My house may have literally been the homeliest address in 15228.  But like the awkward girl sitting in a row of prom queens, I knew this house had good bones. As time went on and our vision began to take form, what was once a dark tunnel began to reveal a really, really hopeful light at the end.

A lot of imagination and skill was required for a make-over, but it could be done.

Location, Location, Location
It’s all about location. When this now inviting Hazel Drive house came on the market, Jay and Jennifer Rignani put in an offer sight unseen

I know when we bought it­—no inspection, “as-is”—some friends found it to be a stomach-churning decision.  Well, not some. All friends. To us, it was easy. When Vera Purcell of Howard Hanna called to say 56 Hazel Drive was coming on the market, I asked her to put in an offer without seeing it. The whole reason our family moved to Mt. Lebanon years ago was to enjoy the walking community. But inventory and the size we could get for our money had been an issue for years. There was no way I was letting this one go. Pulling up to the mustard-brown Dutch Colonial eyesore was maybe the best and worst blind date ever. Best because the location was perfect for us and the worst because this place took the home right outta homely. But this HGTV addict was going to make it work.

TIP: The most inflexible and expensive thing in Mt. Lebanon is the street. So, if you love the street, you can create the house you love.

Money, Money, Money

As expert as they were in making our offer stick, the agency didn’t have an answer to my question:  “Is there a type of loan that combines a construction loan and a home mortgage?” Apparently that question is either never asked, or just extremely unusual in these parts. I was met with blank stares. Determined, I connected with a colleague who rehabs houses in Lawrenceville, who answered my question instantly, recommending an FHA 203(k). After some fast, intense research I saw it was exactly what would enable us to buy the old dump and rehab it in one shot.

TIP:  Do not assume a real estate agent or their in-house mortgage person will understand what this is, but educate yourself; an FHA 203(k) is exactly what you want when you find a fixer-upper. It limits your loan closing costs because it’s just one loan and simplifies the home renovation process. FHA 203(k) loans are backed by the federal government. We went through Victorian Mortgage, which processed the whole transaction flawlessly. It’s legitimate and attainable. Look it up.   

Clarity, Clarity, Clarity

There were some tense moments with the builders when tasks fell outside our scope of work, things that we disagreed about. We went a few rounds over some cosmetic stuff that still remains inside. The lesson here is clear though. When you hire a builder, you must think through every nail and floorboard ahead of time. Construction is very literal. A new wall is just that. It does not include fixing the light socket 2 inches to its left. Patching a hole in the front concrete porch means patching that hole. Not other holes while the cement guy is there. As much as I liked the crew personally, this was a job for them and not their house. Unlike DIYers, they won’t do anything extra while they are on the project site. And that is what your house will be while you are renovating; a project site­, not your home.

At first I thought we’d leave much of the original pieces such as the windows of the house alone.  But as the addition took form, it was clear that leaving the shabby old brown windows in place with the beautiful white double-hung casement windows would be like wearing a haute couture gown with flip flops.

TIP: Walk through every inch of the house inside and out and record everything you would want to change if money were no object. Then, have your builder itemize the bid with all of that included, and break the project into digestible chunks that acknowledge that money is an object. Remember there are different ways to approach your renovation. You can repair or replace. You can recycle or buy new.

Reality, Reality, Reality

When Marty and Joy, the married carpenters and project managers for Action Builders first arrived, months ago, they were like denim-clad, sledgehammer-wielding angels. I came to expect to see their familiar faces every day, to hear their unselfconscious whistling along to WDVE on portable radios. Now that they’ve built our home with skill and patience that I will never understand, I consider them pivotal figures in this chapter of our lives. The project took exactly 95 days. Extra windows, upgraded HVAC and assigning tasks to the construction company that we thought we’d do ourselves ticked up the bills and put us over budget. Even with the massive overhaul that happened, we still only touched about 50 percent of the house.

With an old house comes old things. An old yard, basement, driveway, roof and chimney to name a few that still need attention. Some things that we fixed ultimately will be replaced.

After four months of plaster dust and jackhammers, the Rignani family had a home. Jennifer, Jay and their daughter Violet prepare a meal in the kitchen minus the ceiling hole and with the addition of a great center island.
After four months of plaster dust and jackhammers, the Rignani family had a home. Jennifer, Jay and their daughter Violet prepare a meal in the kitchen minus the ceiling hole and with the addition of a great center island.

islandThis last week of finishing touches was both exhilarating and again, strangely anti-climactic. The wow-factor was really at about the 75th day when tile was finished, cabinets were in, light fixtures up and brick painted. As I worked inside, finally in peace, I overheard Marty and Joy, talking about their next project. I felt protective of them now, felt like they were part of our family and I hoped they would enjoy their next challenge.  Before they left, we shook hands and took pictures. Though they tackle projects like this for a living, I think 56 Hazel was a particularly satisfying “before and after.”


BathroomFor our family it was too. Before this house we were happy Mt. Lebanon residents without a place we really felt was ours. After this experience, we feel like we designed a truly personal home that represents who we are and where we are going in the future. I was lucky enough to be on site throughout the process. This enabled precision that doesn’t live in any blueprint, but in the moment­—an opportunity for a different curve of wood or width of a doorway is being created. There is a sensational feeling about building the place where you live. When everything from the color of the walls to where those walls will exist has been designed by you, it’s akin to a thank you note to yourself. Personal, handmade and thoughtful.

Ironically, when we bought the house without a home inspection, it was leaping into the abyss. Now that we’ve torn into it front, back, inside, outside, upstairs, downstairs and all around, we know the house better than any standard inspection ever would have revealed. And, after a couple hundred meals out and the collective experience of living through construction, I’d say our family of five know each other better, too.

TIP:  If you can swing the financing, buying a fixer-upper is an adventure I highly recommend. The enormous caveat is this:  budget in for temporary housing for you and your pets. You can still make the whole thing personal and save a lot of money on aspirin.

Finished renovation images and feature photo by George Mendel