Zen and the Art of Residential Remodeling

The poet Gary Snyder tells a Zen story about an individual who sits in a remote cabin for some time, rain and shine, even though there is a small leak in the roof. Then one day he gets up and, with a burst of inspiration, deftly moves one tile only slightly. The leak stops, and he goes back to his sitting.

If only all remodeling could be that simple.

But perhaps it can be, if we approach it with the same frame of mind as that of the sitter. In other words, don't get your underwear in a bundle when it comes to improving your home.

Bear in mind three words of advice to heed when it comes to remodeling. What and where you remodel are important, but the three words are not location, location, location. They are time, work and creativity.

To begin with, pick the most profitable (when it comes to building equity in your home) spots to remodel. Most agree that the kitchen and bathroom are the first things prospective buyers look at, and remodeling these will reap the highest percentage of investment.

When my wife and I outgrew our little home in Lakewood a few years ago, we made an offer on a house in a nice neighborhood, but at 10% below its market value and on the condition we bought it "as is."

Repainted, Recarpeted

After a satisfactory report by a building inspector whom we trusted, we went through with the purchase and immediately repainted and had a new carpet installed--and reused some of the old one in our little boy's bedroom, where it would get abused anyway.

We also ordered mini-blinds at a discount store and installed them ourselves, saving a lot money.

Our next project was to do major remodeling in the kitchen and bathroom. We figured we had about $10,000 to spend on the project, including the $1,000 or so we had already spent.

Although we needed the bathroom done desperately, we managed to come across a company that specializes in kitchen cabinet refacing, and they came in with an estimate that was exactly half the cost put forth by their rival--about $3,000. Moreover, they could begin the project almost immediately and have it finished in only four days. We went for it.

One obstacle that needed to be overcome in having our cabinets refaced by the company we chose (and one reason why they were able to undercut their competitor) was that we had to remove the old countertop and tiles ourselves. This took a little elbow grease and skill.

A Satisfying Experience

When you do this kind of work, you cannot just go in and hammer away; if you do, you will poke holes in the drywall. Instead, make an "incision" of sorts in the tile surface and expose some of the wire mesh that reinforce it. Then, wearing thick gloves (leather welders' gloves work fine) gradually loosen the tiles by hand in sheets. I found it to be a satisfying experience to work with my hands and be involved in the remodeling process this way, and the time I spent was minimal.

Anyway, we were quite satisfied with the final outcome, and plan to replace our old stove and refrigerator, which are still quite functional but stick out a little in our Euro-style kitchen.

Other work we did ourselves included painting, wallpapering and the installation of track lighting in the kitchen ceiling, suggested by my wife, Rumi. It allows light to focus on several different critical areas--certain cabinets, the breakfast nook, the refrigerator, stove and microwave.

We took a bit more time with the bathroom, however.

As with the kitchen, we decided not to relocate any major items such as the toilet or bath but did manage to remove another old counter and replace it with a 4-foot-long synthetic sink that came in one piece and is certainly more attractive than the old basin. We managed to find a floor model and got it at a sizable discount.

Further, the new sink fit in with the color scheme of the bathroom, which was determined primarily by the almond, standard-sized Whirlpool tub I got at a garage sale in Rolling Hills for $300. It is probably the highlight of all the remodeling that we did, and fits in well with our overall scheme.

Sledgehammering Old Tub

After I had collected most of the materials and fixtures that we needed for the bathroom, I looked around for a handyman to do the work. This included breaking up the old tub with a sledgehammer so it can be removed from the bathroom in little pieces. I decided against doing this myself, largely because there is a certain amount of danger in smashing and handling the sharp pieces of porcelain.

I got several estimates from handymen who contract out the work to what seems to be a loose-knit band of tradesmen; I went a step further and found a local contractor who agreed to do the work for about half of what the larger companies estimated.

The only mistake I made, however, was not going with an electrician I knew when it came to installing the power line to the Jacuzzi. The work was contracted out to a friend of the installer, and a few weeks after the work was done, I had to get the phone company to send someone out to reestablish service. It seems that the installer's friend had played havoc with the phone wires under our house.

By the time we had finished remodeling our bathroom we had created a comfortable living space for ourselves that would last until we decided to stop paying our hefty mortgage payments or move to a more impressive address.

In the first year that we have owned the house we not only brought it up to market value but also experienced about a 30% increase in property value, resulting in a gain in equity of over $100,000. This may shock out-of-state readers, but we all know of similar stories here in Southern California.

Willingness to Work

The key to our success in our remodeling, in the long run, was our willingness to work at it, partly as a kind of hobby but also as physical exercise. I rationalized that I could forgo my weekend workouts at the gym in favor of a few hours with a crowbar, hammer and/or paintbrush. What is more, I learned a lot about tools, materials, product, and techniques, and about where to buy supplies.

Also, I learned more and more as I went along, and the experience and information were invaluable. From the first building inspection I observed, to the last time I watched "This Old House," I have made miles and miles of progress but begin to wonder what I would do if I had to do it again. I am also thinking about continuing the present project; when I feel it is finished, it will probably be time for us to sell the place and move.

But for now, does anyone know a good landscaping company that will tear down a 50-foot-long retaining wall cheaply?

READERS WELCOME TO SHARE THEIR REMODELING TALES Readers wishing to share their remodeling experiences should send queries or manuscripts to Real Estate Editor, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, 90053.

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