It wasn’t much more than a year ago that I hung over the railing of the loft of our tiny one-bedroom condo, crying huge tears that splashed on the floor of what once was a kitchen, thinking that I’d have to live in that 783-square-foot dump forever.
God was punishing me for wanting more than I could afford, for wanting to own a piece of California real estate. Everything my husband and I had--the last pennies from our piggy banks, our savings bonds and even loans on our life insurance policies--had gone for this awful hole in the wall.
Our first home was a hopeless mess that would never become habitable by humans.
Somewhere in the middle stages of remodeling, I think this overwhelming feeling of despair haunts every amateur, and then you either get a grip on yourself and plunge in to finish the job or simply give up.
My husband and I, both thinking that we’d have to spend the rest of our lives there, decided that we’d better make it the best place that we could. Cash poor, but not without blind ambition and credit, we took the plunge of first-time remodeling.
It paid off--against all odds--when we sold with a gross profit of 35% over our original purchase price. Our net profit was still a healthy 26%.
Although our intentions were originally to stay, I want to prove that anyone can remodel for profit. Anyone.
I married a man who didn’t know which end of the hammer was the handle, and now a little over a year later, he owns well-stocked designer tool boxes.
Unlimited cash reserves are also not necessary. All that’s really needed when fixing to sell is a great eye for detail.
I guess I’ve inherited this trait from my father, an architect. I grew up in a house that was built in the 1890s but never completed. We lived in rooms in various stages of completion, and the buzz saw constantly interfered with our evening television reception.
Coming from a large family, we never had the money to hire out the work, and we watched our parents slave away the weekends sawing, painting and pounding. Sometimes we even helped.
Growing up like this, I figured a tiny little condo remodel would be a piece of cake. My husband knew better, but he couldn’t discourage me.
First, we gutted the kitchen and the bathroom, then we had all the carpeting and old vinyl ripped out. Then we really went crazy. We tore out the old closet doors and all the antique gold lighting fixtures, pulled out the sinks and the broken faucets, peeled off the stained wall paper and threw away the dust-encrusted mini-blinds.
Then we hauled out the grease-coated kitchen appliances, along with a full-size washer and dryer that looked as if they’d been riddled with bullets. We were at ground zero. That’s when I started to cry, wondering what I had done!
Now we had to concentrate on making the place livable. Our biggest expenses were for carpeting and vinyl flooring for the kitchen and bath. Next were the kitchen cabinets. These were the only items that we contracted out.
Because we thought we would stay, we bought the best we could afford in carpeting. We chose a sheared Berber carpet in winter white to brighten the unit and make it seem larger than its size. The walls had been painted by the seller, so we matched the carpet to the wall color. Once the carpet was installed, the gloominess of the unit disappeared.
The vinyl flooring had the same background color as the carpet, but the bathroom had small floral motifs and the kitchen had a simple brick pattern accented in almond. The total cost for the carpet and vinyl, including installation, was $3,000.
Next, with my father’s help, we designed the kitchen. I remember my first peek through the window of the unit, when my eyes caught a glimpse of a full-size washer and dryer. I thought, “How nice, a laundry room!”
To my dismay, I was looking into a 7-by-10 foot kitchen that not only housed these appliances, but all the other standard appliances as well.
One of the first purchases we made was a stackable washer-dryer unit. We were able to keep the laundry area in the kitchen, but we opened up a 40-inch space that now housed a built-in desk that also doubled as a laundry folding area.
We worked with a young independent contractor who built us custom cabinets in almond, highlighted with oak edging. The cabinets, finished and installed, cost $2,200; the washer/dryer unit and stove, $1,800.
These were the last of the big-ticket items. Everything else that we did cost a total of $2,000. For this, we got the best return on our investment. This money was spent for the details, the finishing touches, the items that get the most notice by prospective buyers.
Three hundred dollars bought us a vanity, sink and brass and porcelain faucets. The vanity was cherry with a pink-beige top, and brought elegance to the bath.
A new brass light fixture cost $19, and coordinating brass towel racks were bought as a set for $15. Wallpaper with colors that matched the flooring cost $45. A new medicine cabinet cost $15. Everything was bought at local discount stores and installed by us.
The bedroom was a breeze to complete. All we added were gold-trimmed mirror wardrobe doors that we installed ourselves and new mini-blinds for the window. Total improvements in this room were $280.
We changed all the door handles to curved levers, which also contributed to the custom decorated appearance. These totaled $80. We changed the remaining faucets in the kitchen sink and the tub to quality for about $125. We were able to find classic light fixtures in brass and glass at bargain prices between $10 and $15.
Minor painting also made a world of difference.
We painted the inside of the dark-brown entry door off-white; this gave an instant uplift to the interior and visually lengthened the hallway. The stairway to the loft also had a dark wood and black iron railing. When washed in white, it blended nicely into the background, becoming less of an eyesore. We also painted the interior doors and trim a brighter white to contrast with the eggshell colored walls.
The final cost for a completely new interior was $9,000.
The money we saved by doing the work ourselves enabled us to purchase higher-grade materials. We spent hours comparison shopping and took advantage of sales, coupons and close-outs. We took care to match all fixtures by manufacturer, color and style.
It may sound as if we simply went shopping for things, then came home and installed them. Of course, this wasn’t the case. I’ve left out the usual remodeler’s headaches. For example, we worked on installing the vanity for four days. During that time, the water was shut off, and we had to brush our teeth in the kitchen sink.
After all this, you ask, why did we sell?
After the place fit our cosmetic expectations perfectly, we discovered that it was simply too small for three of us (the dog makes three). One day, I grew tired of the bruises I got from bumping into the dresser as I got into bed. A realtor came by and hung a sign.
Our little dream home sold the next day.
Maglio is a free-lance writer who lives in West Hills. 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, Calif. 90053.