Rehabbing a good idea for some


March 05, 2000|By Karol V. Menzie and Ron Nodine

A COLLEAGUE of Karols, new to town and dwelling in the suburbs, is pondering a move to the city. He and his wife love the rowhouses, the ambience, the neighborhood quality of places such as Federal Hill, Fells Point, and, in its new surge of development, Canton.

Ron has also seen rising interest in the Bolton Hill-Reservoir Hill areas, and in the area around the two stadiums downtown.

But this couple has already looked at some houses and discovered they are 30 years too late for the kind of real estate killing made by people in the 70s, who bought crumbling, Formstone-coated rowhouses and turned them into period palaces. And watched their investment multiply many times over.

Those people were the first beneficiaries of sweat equity -- a little government help with the money, a lot of homeowner involvement in the work.

Those houses are out of the couples price range (not to mention Rons and Karols!). But, they wonder, is it still a good idea to buy a less-than-ideal house (that is, cheap as the market goes) and fix it up to suit them?

Baltimore has potential


rr is full of beautiful 19th-century rowhouses, tall and stately, small and quirky, some with most of their period detail intact, some converted to apartments but still solid. Some of the loveliest are in crime-ridden neighborhoods.

And gentrification, with its soaring property values so beloved of investors, is a disaster for the displaced residents who can no longer afford to stay in the area.

But, yes, in the right place, renovating is still a good idea.

Baltimore, like Philadelphia, Boston, and parts of New York City, has a vibrant core thats worth preserving. City life can be invigorating: the people on the sidewalk, the mix of ages and races. The theater and the restaurants. The baseball and the football crowds, the parades and the politicians.

Weigh the risks

Want to

rr be part of it? Well, how much risk are you willing to take?

If you buy in a made neighborhood, youre probably buying at or near the top of the market, but the investment is pretty solid.

If you move into the fringes, just on the edges of the good neighborhoods, you may find a real gem, affordable and ripe for renovation. But the chance of recouping your investment is less assured.

And you may find walking the dog at night is not as comfortable. And you left the mall out in the county.

But there is absolutely nothing like a rehab for pure exhilaration. Yes, its exhausting, even if youre hiring someone to do the work. But watching a masterpiece -- your masterpiece -- emerge from grunge and chaos gives an almost mystical feeling.

And if you find yourself in a community of rehabbers, youll never find better friends.

Sense of accomplishment

The camaraderie

rr developed over rehabbing triumphs (Finding the sash weights in all the old window frames! Finishing the deck! The first working toilet!) and rehabbing disasters (The termite damage in the stairs! The gouged floors! The trips to the emergency room!) is precious and lasting.

Its never just the money. Its about doing something grand, about rescuing a piece of the past, about creating your own space in the midst of history.

If that sounds like your cup of tea, pick up a notebook to start writing down your experiences.

We can pretty much guarantee two things: no matter how many stories tall your house is, some of the balusters will be missing from the stair railing. And no matter how old the place is, you probably wont have a ghost. Surely that one Karol had was a fluke.

But thats another story.

Next: What to look at, and for, and what to ask, when you start shopping for an old house.

Ron Nodine is owner of American Renovator Inc., a Baltimore design-build remodeling firm, and former president of the Remodelors Council of the Home Builders Association of Maryland. Karol Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, e-mail Ron at Or write c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, MD. 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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