Couple stay put, convert townhouse

DREAM HOME

Upgrade: After a short search for a new home, a Columbia family realized they enjoy the location of their house and renovated it to fit their wishes.

May 23, 1999|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Four years ago, Helen Szablya and her husband, Chuck Dann, had a narrow window of opportunity to find the house that was right for them.

When they married in 1994, Dann moved into Szablya's townhouse in Columbia. The townhouse, built in 1968, had begun to show its age and its living room was inadequate for entertaining.

But the couple held off searching for a new home while Szablya's daughter, Anna Meiners, was in high school. Anna graduated in June 1995; Szablya's son, Alex Meiners, would enter high school in September. It seemed that the summer would be the right time for Szablya and Dann to look for a new home so that Alex wouldn't have to transfer during high school.

Szablya, a communications officer with the U.S. Treasury Department, and Dann, a Baltimore attorney, began looking at houses in Baltimore.

But when they returned home and sat on the deck at the rear of the townhouse, they began to appreciate the serene, green world of trees descending a slope toward a brook. They realized they liked living in Columbia, being within walking distance of a produce store and other shops. They wanted an updated, upgraded house, but they didn't want to move.

"What we really wanted was a big, open entertaining area," Szablya said.

She and Dann began planning a makeover of the townhouse. The project took months of planning and countless hours of searching for materials. Szablya did a lot of research and purchased materials such as marble and granite from suppliers. "We went to one place to get the faucets, a different place to get the porcelain," she said.

The project stretched from Memorial Day to Labor Day 1996 and left the family without a stove or refrigerator for two months. Szablya and Dann coped by taking a three-week vacation to Europe during the renovation and by dining out.

When the work was finished, the house's flat front facade had acquired added visual interest with a "bump-out." A living room wall adjoining the deck -- which originally gave no hint of the trees beyond -- now features large windows that make the outdoors seem part of the house. The wall that separated the living room from the kitchen is gone, creating an open first floor that flows from kitchen to dining area to living room to what Szablya calls a "spillover room," containing family heirlooms such as a rug made by her Hungarian great-great-grandmother.

The couple chose Howard County builder Richard Knight for the renovation. Knight, a 30-year veteran builder who likes a challenge, said the renovation attracted him because, "They were taking an average townhouse -- they probably have more money in it than they could get out -- and they ended up with a way above-average townhouse for that neighborhood. It has all the amenities of a half-million-dollar house."

Szablya and Dann agreed with Knight's assessment that they probably will not recoup the $80,000 investment from renovating the 2,800-square-foot townhouse, purchased for $112,000 in 1988. But, Dann said, "It was either put in $10,000 or $20,000, or do the whole nine yards."

They opted for the features they really wanted.

Knight said the project presented no construction challenges. But it did offer an interesting decision.

Szablya and Dann wanted to eliminate the wall between the kitchen and living room, but were concerned that the wall appeared to be load-bearing, which meant it would be unwise to take it down unless they added a support beam. A support beam would be a barrier to the look they were trying to create.

Knight studied the wall and concluded that it didn't have a supporting function. Take it out and see if the house settles, he suggested.

An upstairs door became the settlement indicator.

"That door is the perfect test, because if there's any settlement, you won't be able to close the door," Dann said. In the three years since the project was completed, the house has settled one-eighth of an inch.

The couple chose granite counter tops with flecks of deep green that reflect the trees' color. Guests "would always be in the kitchen with us," Szablya said. Now guests can sit at the breakfast bar and talk with the hosts without being in the midst of the kitchen activity.

Szablya and Dann saved labor costs on recessed lighting in the living and dining areas because the builder had to remove the ceiling for the renovation. The smoke alarms were hard-wired as a safety measure.

The couple installed stereo speakers that can be adjusted to different sound levels in each first-floor room, which was easy to wire after the walls and ceiling had been removed.

The house contains items that symbolize the heritage of Szablya's family, who fled Hungary in 1956. A glass cabinet contains a set of demitasse cups brought from Hungary by an aunt who escaped to the United States. Another room contains a portrait of Szablya's grandmother as a child.

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