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A 10-year journey to make a North Jersey old house new SUNDAY, JULY 15, 2012



In 1968, when my family moved into our 1906 colonial — the only house we ever owned — my mother had the kitchen and upstairs bathroom gutted and modernized for $4,630. We were all about Formica: dark brown faux-wood-grain cabinets and speckled countertops, Armstrong linoleum and matching sink and appliances. Remember the color palette: harvest gold, burnt orange, or my mother's choice — avocado green. The rest of our house in Bloomfield — from the visibly imperfect plaster walls with discolored fleurde-lis wallpaper to the electrical wiring — badly needed resuscitation. But my parents had saved 17 years for their down payment on the $20,000 home, and there were no deep pockets for the artisanal renovation needed to restore it. In the early 1970s, wood paneling was our savior, albeit a dark one.

Like a petrified forest, the house was preserved in this homage to the 70s — the cave, as I saw it — for 30 years. That is, until I moved back home in 2000. It was obvious: the paneling, dropped ceilings and dreaded clam molding had to go. But it wasn't my house. Until it was. In 2002, my 83-year-old father died. My mother, then in her late 70s, decided she wanted to remain in the house, which had held the story of us.

We decided to share ownership and expenses. Psychologically, I needed to make the house my own — think Zen or airy. I could not commit to life in a space that I had grown to see as worn and stuck. But even simple renovation was a challenge on the income of a writer turned private school teacher.

$65,100 later While a cousin suggested putting up drywall over the paneling, I never saw renovation as more cosmetic cover-up. Transformation and expansion occur from within; ask any yogi. Since 2001, we've redone almost the entire house, with the kitchen preserving the Formica foothold. We installed central air conditioning and renovated the upstairs bathroom, three bedrooms, the upstairs hallway and staircase, the first-floor laundry room, part of the outside foundation, and the living room and dining room. Approximate construction costs, including electrical and plumbing, were $65,100. This total does not include paint, furniture, sound systems or numerous runs to the hardware store for incidentals. One lesson I learned: don't get drunk off your equity line. Before my dad died, we had renovated the upstairs bathroom. Bye-bye Formica vanity and 1968 beige fixtures the color of Aunt Mary's facial make-up. Hello Victorian pedestal sink, commode and white subway tile! This came out of savings, to the tune of $5,636. Because the contractor messed things up by moving interior pipes to an exterior wall, we spent an additional $5,000 having another contractor correct the situation. The irony: we had rejected other contractors because their bids began at $10,000. After my dad died, we got an equity line of credit. We knew there were more projects in our future but wanted to work in stages. We preferred to take on smaller debt — generally in the $5,000-to$15,000 range — and repay it before starting another project. All of our renovations involved gutting and included demolition, removal, materials and labor. Payments were usually made in three installments, and no final payments were made until jobs were completed.

Power of permits We learned the hard way about permits. Witness Exhibit A: the upstairs bathroom, with the pipes on exterior walls. Regrettably, because we hadn't completely learned our lesson, when the upstairs bedrooms were done, one exterior wall did not get insulated. When the contractor suggested leaving up the old

plaster wall, saying it was "like insulation," I was still a neophyte. Like insulation? Talk to me on windy nights. Permits keep people doing the right thing. Inspectors come for a "rough" inspection while all the walls are open, exposing structure, wiring and insulation. "Date" your contractor. The relationship you have with your house and the people working in it is as intense as any intimate relationship. A healthy renovation is about collaboration, communication and trust. Even smooth experiences grow wearisome. No matter how much you like the tradespeople, they are strangers who are taking up residence in your home. Treat meeting with contractors like speed dating. Talk to as many as possible. (Typically, I average three to six for each project.) Share your vision (and pictures) with the craftspeople and then listen to how they respond. These people are in and out of other people's homes all the time. They will come to know where you keep the coffee mugs and if there are any leftovers. Listen to your instincts. I like humor and a sense of aesthetics in my tradespeople. Referrals are essential, and most of our tradespeople came to us through others: A cousin's coworker, the neighbor's brother-in-law, the plumbing supply guy. Eventually, your relationship with your contractor changes. Like Hollywood romances, what starts out as breaking news on TMZ can end up on Dr. Phil. Think boredom meets bitter. The sight of them has gone from making you weak in the knees to nauseous. You're done.

Second time around This is what happened with the contractor on our two biggest renovations. The first go-round involved renovating the master bedroom, the hallway and staircase and replacing all seven doors with ones that are six-panel solid wood. What I appreciated about this contractor was her sense of aesthetics and affordable work. She understood what I was trying to do at the house. The job started in August and finished in mid-October, a bit late. Our contractor worked alongside her two helpers, doing whatever needed to be done. She had an eye for installing oak flooring. Her artistry, though, was in finish work. As an add-on, I asked her to install picture framing on the staircase because it could be boring just to have long stretches of wall. Working from an Internet photo, she sketched out panels on the wall. For me, this was the crowning jewel.

Soon after we finished the second floor, we began thinking about the first floor. We wanted to open up the living room by taking down a wall that separated it from a former home office. We also wanted crown molding, a new fireplace mantel and restored beams in the dining room ceiling. We hired our contractor again; she knew the house, and we knew her. It was supposed to take only six weeks, and be done by the end of summer. But a lot had changed since the last time she was at our house. The economy had sunk deeper than the Titanic. The contractor had already downsized and dropped one of her two carpenters. Early on in our job, she fired the other and never replaced him. I'm guessing she bid too low on our project.

Switching roles Maybe our payments were dealing with past debts. Workers from her other jobs hunted her down at our house, looking to be paid. She bought lower-grade windows than the ones we'd agreed on, which I didn't realize until they were installed. I alternated between being her helper and an angry boss. You will become the de facto contractor. Even when you have a contractor, you will become the de facto contractor. Even when you are at your day job, you will be the de facto contractor. As the job neared six months, I fired my contractor via voice mail because she refused to return my phone calls. By then it was late October. I had begun teaching at a new school. I needed a transom window for a hole that had been framed out and an installer who could also trim the aluminum on the exterior windows. The six-week job ended a few days shy of Thanksgiving. Six weeks or six months, now we reap the benefits. Recently, the chimney guy came to do some work. When he walked into the living room, he looked at me and said, "Wow, the place looks beautiful."

(Pull Box) Before you begin your renovation Know your tolerance for upheaval. Construction dust spreads to all corners of the house and coats everything. Despite perpetual wiping and sweeping, it will begin to feel like you're living in the dust bowl. Navigating supplies and equipment is akin to negotiating an obstacle course. The sounds of circular saws and hammering will lead you to crave quiet as you never have. Know when to say "uncle." Not every problem needs to be a battle. Stuff happens, especially in old houses like mine. What you do with problems is the difference between agita and receiving the creative talents of someone's higher angel.

Home repairs the record real estate cover july 2012  
Home repairs the record real estate cover july 2012