Rehabbing to suit yourself

House: Rehabbing gives a homebuyer a major advantage: The place can be customized to fit any taste.

November 11, 2001|By Charles Cohen | Charles Cohen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Standing in black pants, shirt and tie, Ken Cohen looks like a trespasser in his soon-to-be rehabbed home.

With its guts ripped out and with wood studs going up for framing, the house on a corner of Dillon Street is better suited to those wearing construction boots and tool belts, just like the guy who's preparing a natural gas line under what will soon be the kitchen floor.

But standing around is just how Cohen, a pediatric oncologist on his way to Johns Hopkins Hospital, plans on rehabbing his house.

Cohen specializes in brain tumors, but this is beyond his healing skills.

"Frankly, I have no delusions of participating in a renovation," Cohen said. Rehabbing a house means different things to different people.

The standard stereotype is of an urban pioneer, grabbing the remaining daylight hours after work to rough in a wall or install a window, virtually living in a construction site that perhaps one day may become a livable house.

In such cases, just as important as having a knowledge of tools, is having a risk-taking gene that gives one the courage to undertake such formidable tasks as righting a sinking floor.

Actually, the rehabbing process can be as customized to the individual as the houses themselves. According to lenders, builders, contractors, real estate agents and homeowners, anyone can do a rehab as long as there is a solid plan, flexibility and the understanding to expect the unexpected.

At a time when mortgage rates are at their lowest point in almost 40 years, the urge to jump into a rehab project may be more tempting than ever.

But before making the plunge, the first question that has to be answered is: Why put yourself though months of orchestrating a renovation project when there are a number of recently restored homes already on the market in Baltimore City?

According to those who are in the midst of their own projects, the decision to oversee the rehabbing of a home has to be based on a person's idiosyncrasies and finances.

For the past 10 years, Cohen has been renting comfortably in what he calls "condoland" in Fells Point. Yet, he has always toyed with the idea of buying a house.

When his rent increased, his dreams started turning into reality.

But Cohen was determined to get a house to suit his needs:

He wanted a rowhouse in a safe neighborhood, with an extra-large living room big enough for entertaining, as well as containing his baby grand piano. It also had to have lots of recessed lights, enough wall space to hang his art and a garage.

Unsatisfied with rehabs for sale, Cohen was enticed into going the rehabbing route when a builder claimed she found the perfect place: a dilapidated corner building in Canton.

"I knew I was going to have a lot of input into the design, and I'm sort of a visual person," Cohen said.

For others, rehabbing is a matter of daring to dream big, while bowing to financial realities.

It took Paul Wrzesinski, a manager at Costco Wholesale Club, a year after he bought his great aunt's Canton rowhouse for $70,000 to feel he was financially stable enough to borrow another $72,000 to rehab his house.

While sweeping the floor, which was to be spared demolition, the nervous Wrzesinski looked like a parachutist about to take his first jump. Wrzesinski was waiting for Dave Carey, a loan officer with Equitable Trust Mortgage Corp., to show him a few rehabs in progress so that he could get a better idea what he was in for.

Carey says that taking clients on tours through rehabs isn't part of a loan officer's job description, but as someone who has taken on four rehab projects himself, he can relate to a rookie's apprehension.

Carey wanted to make sure his client was ready to accept his aunt's house reduced to a skeleton of walls, floors, ceiling and dust - lots of dust.

`Very powerful sight'

"That's a very powerful sight when you walk into a gutted house," Carey said. "It's hard to see it as the finished product."

Carey is blunt with his clients. He tells them there will be headaches, but they will forget about the troubles on the first day they walk into their renovated home.

During a tour of three renovation projects, Carey took on the role of interior decorator, telling Wrzesinski the difference between vaulted and tray ceilings. He told him the advantage of turning plumbing stacks into closets. He was able to show him what some drywall and some well-placed inset lighting can do for a 100-year-old rowhouse.

By the last stop, Wrzesinski, more at ease, was itching for his contractor to get started as Carey hammered home the point he had been making all along:"[Is the] little bit of decision-making, the little bit of headaches you have, worth the $80,000 equity and having the house exactly the way you wanted it - with the tile you want, the carpet you want, the cabinet you want and the appliance you want?

"Is that worth it? I can't see how anyone says it's not."

Hire? Or do it yourself?

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