Rehabbing can be even better the second time around


January 02, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

We just sold a house we've been working on for several years. People are always asking, how can you work so hard on a house and turn around and sell it?

One of the answers is that we've never quite gotten everything we wanted into one house -- French doors and a roof deck, a whirlpool tub and a tiny iron balcony, a built-in bookcase and eating space in the kitchen . . .

There's always the next house, which will have just the right space for it all. Maybe.

But there's another reason: The rehab learning curve. Every house is different. So every time we do a house, we pick up new skills and learn valuable lessons that we can't wait to apply to the next project.

The most recent project was so big that we had to learn to do new things ourselves, to keep rehab costs down. When we discovered that the stair carriages -- the zigzag parts that support the treads -- were rotten, Randy learned how to replace them. The landings were rotten too, and he replaced those, without taking out more of the historic original structure than absolutely necessary.

When we needed to open up a shallow, dark, brick addition on the back of the house, Randy perfected his masonry skills installing a steel beam and steel lentils. The house was in a historic district, so the original wood facade windows, which were in awful shape, had to be restored, reglazed and replaced in the openings. Karol became an expert at stripping them down to bare wood and not breaking a single existing pane of glass (old glass has a character that new glass can't duplicate).

It had been a few years since either of us had worked on a project this large, and we learned what things currently cost. Framing lumber has gotten more expensive -- and we think the quality has declined. We also learned there can be huge price differences in cabinets, appliances and fixtures. It really pays to shop around. Some suppliers will sell to the public at prices closer to wholesale than to retail; call around for the best deal.

Not all the lessons we learned were positive. The house had been vacant for years and came with a slew of city housing-code violations that, as time went on, caused increasing problems.

If you become involved in such a property, you should know beforehand that the more violations are involved, the more you will necessarily be involved with the housing-inspection bureaucracy. You may even find yourself on a rehab schedule not of your own making.

If your project goes perfectly smoothly, you should have no trouble meeting whatever requirements the inspecting agency demands. But if you run into trouble with time or money, it can be a real hassle. Good intentions do not count.

In Baltimore, a vacant-house notice on a property means that it must be inspected and found to meet codes in all areas before it can be inhabited. You need an occupancy permit before you can move in. If you were planning on making a vacant house barely habitable and finishing the work in residence, you may have problems.

Whatever your situation with the housing department, and whether you live in the house or not, it behooves you to be a good neighbor. It won't help your case if the neighbors are constantly complaining about garbage or noise. Keep sidewalks and yards clear, and try to end noisy operations by early evening. Shovel the snow and sweep up after the demolition crew.

That way, if you do run into problems, you'll have neighbors on your side; or at least you'll know you did all the right things.

But really, the most important thing we learned is how much fun it is to rehab a house. Yes, it's hard work, and yes, some parts of it are filthy or tedious. Or both. But there's nothing like the satisfaction of bringing an old house gently into the modern era, saving the best of its past and replacing the worst of it. That's a feeling we'll never tire of. Which is probably why we just bought another house.

Next: Shopping for a rehab in a tough market.

Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is a home writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.

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