Friday, July 25, 2014

Ground zero: Old house, new look

From page HS4 | April 05, 2013 |

Everything must go. That thought drove me as I cleared out my parents’ home of 50 years. Little did I know, once everything was gone the real work would begin.

The ultimate goal was to get the 1,700-square-foot California ranch house empty, fixed up and on the market by the end of March. I had a lot to do in four weeks.

Empty, the old homestead looked even more tired than before. The furnishings had buffered the facts that the carpet had seen more miles than a foot army and the wallpaper was more dated than Betty Crocker’s hairdo.

I looked around the home I grew up in, and instead of seeing a refuge where I once tanked up on food, sleep, clean clothes and abundant parental love and advice, played hide and seek, and blew out lots of birthday candles, I tried to see it through a buyer’s eyes.

Boy, did that change my perspective.

Besides the carpet and wallpaper, the cottage-cheese ceilings, dowdy drapes and worn out cabinets also had to go. The fix list grew faster than kids.

I called my good friend Bill Wood, who not only owns a couple dozen rental houses so can fix places up in his sleep, but also has his real estate license.

Unlike other Realtors who encouraged me to sell the property “as is,” Bill said if we updated the place and didn’t overspend we’d net more and sell faster.

“What would it take?” I asked.

“One month and $15,000.”

“How much more would we get?”

“Probably $50,000 more than if you sold it as is.”

“A fourth grader can do that math.”

“Plus,” he said, “when a home looks new and move-in ready, buyers are less likely to ask you to drop your price for paint or carpet allowance.”

I pushed up my sleeves. “Let’s go,” I said.

“No way” came the chorus from friends, family and those in real estate. “You can’t bring this place into the 21st century that fast for that price!”

Oh yeah? Watch.

Bill’s contacts and my ability to make quick design decisions on a budget made us a formidable pair.

In the one week I was in town, I cleared the house, had an estate sale and selected paint colors, carpet, engineered-wood flooring, tile, hardware and window coverings. (Proof that a task will expand or contract to fill the amount of time you have.) The rest I did by puppet string from Florida.

Bill lined up painters, flooring crews and a handyman to do tile, electric and plumbing work. Crews began the last week in February. One month later, we were ready for market.

Here’s what we did and what we spent:

  • Good-bye wallpaper. The flowered wallpaper throughout was cozy, quaint and just right for its time; that is, when Doris Day was hot and Elvis was cool. But today’s buyers want a fresh, neutral, but not-boring palette to build on. We stripped the paper, retextured the walls and painted them Sherwin Williams Boutique Beige, and painted doors and trim Whisper white.
  • Seeya cellulite ceilings. Whoever came up with the idea to coat smooth ceilings in stuff that looks like curdled cream should be covered in the stuff and made to stand in a public square. I heard the heaven’s sing the hallelujah chorus when these came down. Best improvement ever.
  • Farewell floors. The house’s floors were a patchwork: blue carpet in the master, yellow in my old room, green in my brother’s, light brown in the living areas. The kitchen had the same linoleum as the Egyptian tombs. It looked as bad as it sounds. Without hesitating, I had all the flooring torn out. In its place, we installed engineered wood laminate, 4-inch planks of Antique Teak in the entry, living room, family room, kitchen and laundry. (I love real wood floors, but their much-higher cost would have cut too far into profits.) Then we put a low-pile carpet in a light shade called Flax Seed in the bedrooms, and tiled the two previously carpeted (ick) bathroom floors. Next, we replaced the very underwhelming baseboards with 4-inch moldings painted in Whisper.
  • Cover those cabinets. Replacing the cabinets would have also blown the budget, but the home’s dark grainy wood cabinets and crusty bronze hardware looked better when Nixon was in the White House. To spiff them up, we sanded and painted them inside and out. Because the freshly painted cabinets made the tired, rusty vent hood over the stovetop look even worse, we replaced it.
  • Hinging on hardware: Metal matters. And it must look new if it’s going to attract buyers. I ditched all the old antique bronze knobs, pulls, hinges and handles and replaced them with hardware in brushed nickel.
  • Catch up those counters. Now that the main bathroom had new paint, knobs and tile flooring, the Formica counter and original sinks cried, “Replace me.” We tiled the counter, put in new nickel faucets and towel bars, and replaced sinks and toilets in both baths. In the master, we traded out a rickety glass and aluminum door to the commode with café doors.
  • Can the lights. We swapped the large fluorescent kitchen light for six can lights, and the brass bathroom light fixture for one in brushed nickel.
  • Ditch the drapes. After removing the dowdy drapery, we left the wood-paned windows undressed, which let in light and garden views. Over the aluminum windows, we hung 2-inch white wood blinds. They finish the windows, provide privacy and light control, but will let new owners add drapes if they want to suit their décor.

You did all that for what?

Paint, removal of wallpaper, scrape ceilings — $7,150

Laminate floors, carpet, 4-inch baseboards — $3,835

Floor tile — $106

Wood blinds — $695

Six canned lights — $175

Stovetop vent hood — $240

Bathroom light fixture — $100

Bath counter materials — $150

Two bath sinks — $80

Two nickel faucets — $60

Towel bars -$40

Two toilets — $196

Café doors — $150

GFI protected outlets — $40

New wall plates throughout — $40

Handyman six days — $1,200

TOTAL: $14,257

Join me next week as I talk about the upgrades we didn’t do and why.

Syndicated columnist and speaker Marni Jameson is the author of “House of Havoc” and “The House Always Wins” (Da Capo Press). Contact her through





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