Hands-on House

Owners, Some With Expert Help, Add To Home's Value By Fixing It Themselves

April 19, 2009|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,andrea.siegel@baltsun.com

With a tool belt slung on her hips, Dana Gaither crouched on a deck on a recent Wednesday, squinting at the bottom edge of a piece of composite siding.

Palms on the piece, she lapped it over the top of a big plank of siding. She aligned the lower edge with a red line on the plank.

"I think that's it," she shouted over a symphony from a nearby generator, hammers, saws and drills.

Volunteer Carol Suzdak pounded in one nail. Next, Gaither hammered in the other. Then, each holding an end of a level, they made sure the siding was on straight. Their task: working from the bottom up, to install siding on the back of the first floor of this Pigtown rowhouse.

"Sept. 30 was the first time I picked up a hammer," said Gaither, a service technician at Mercy Medical Center.

Having worked on other Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity houses in Pigtown, she's helping to construct the one that will be hers within weeks.

"I can say I helped build my own house. It is an honor and a privilege to say this is mine," she said, paired for the siding job with Suzdak, a longtime Habitat volunteer.

With the 350 hours Chesapeake Habitat requires, a $1,000 down payment and a special lender program, Gaither is buying the rehabbed two-story home for below market value. A no-interest, 20-year loan will give her a monthly payment of about $300 less than the rent on an apartment she shares with her college-student daughter and baby granddaughter.

"I said, 'All I wanted to do is buy a house,' not build it. But I'm building. I'm learning," Gaither said.

Early on in the process, she and another worker cut some of the trim-work too short; she also had a panic attack when asked to step on scaffolding.

"I've laid floors. I've torn down walls. I've done mortar work. I've done the baseboards and floor joists," she said. "Oh boy, what you can do with a hammer."

Habitat for Humanity, in which low-income owners-to-be work on their own and other homes alongside volunteers, contractors and Habitat employees, is considered a sweat equity model.

Contributions, by volunteers and client homeowners, transform people as well as communities because "life is partnership," said Chesapeake Habitat's CEO, Mike Mitchell.

The experience helps all participants grow, learn skills and develop confidence, he said, and the homeowners-to-be are energized.

"The excitement of sweat equity comes in creating with sweat equity something for themselves and their family," he said.

Allan Tibbels is a co-executive director of a Habitat affiliate in the Sandtown community. Though precise terms vary among affiliates, Tibbels said all have the same basic three: clients must meet income requirements, not be on affordable housing and be willing to work.

Not only is sweat equity key for Habitat's program, but real estate agents say that sweat equity is starting to rebound, with buyers looking to save money, especially first-time buyers prepared to buy a home in need of work and roll up their sleeves.

Foreclosures, short sales, partly rehabbed houses and others often sell for prices below similar homes in a neighborhood for a reason: The house needs work.

Doing some of that work themselves can offer buyers enough of a financial saving to make affordable a house that might otherwise be a financial stretch.

The Gwynn Oaks house that Natasha and Luke Mattey bought last year looked nothing like the house of their dreams. It's getting there, due largely to the newlyweds' labor.

From installing light fixtures to landscaping, painting to pulling worn carpeting, they are doing much of the transformation themselves, with Luke Mattey's father helping. They've devoted evenings and weekends to scraping old paint drips from newly uncovered hardwood floors and installing a backsplash in the kitchen.

"Every room has been painted at least once," said Natasha Mattey.

Live-and-learn-style, they painted their bedroom red, decided it was "angry-looking" and repainted it a soothing sage, she said.

Some days, her fingers are raw from removing tacks from the floor.

"If you can do all that and not get divorced, it's worth it," Natasha Mattey said.

The couple - he's a financial services supervisor and she is an administrative assistant - estimate that they've saved at least $2,500 so far by tackling jobs themselves. Their improvements are adding value to the house.

Art Taylor, a manufacturer's sales representative, said he thinks he and his fiancee, Andrea Carr, a dietitian, will have saved more than $50,000 by buying a distressed Federal Hill rowhouse later this month and making most of the repairs - many cosmetic - on their own.

"That it needed work gave it a significantly lower price," he said, adding that there was "not a chance" they could have afforded a comparable one that was already fixed up.

"I think they are at the start of a trend," said Carol Rose, their Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage agent.

"Until things change significantly, there are a lot of properties to be worked on out there," she said. "And if you can do some of the work, you can get into the neighborhood."

habitat help

Habitat for Humanity International operates worldwide, with Chesapeake and Sandtown affiliates in Baltimore and others in surrounding areas, including Anne Arundel, Harford and Howard counties. Find an affiliate through habitat.org.

Volunteers: Register online; weekday volunteers are always needed. Volunteers can learn construction skills and teach them to others. You don't need to bring tools. Help is also needed in Habitat's ReStores, for landscaping or for other tasks.

Client homeowners: Sign up, online or by phone, for a brief introductory session to learn about the sweat-equity commitment and the home ownership program. To qualify, you must be low-income (varies) and willing to put in sweat equity.

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