A 1938 House Was Their ‘Perfect Starter’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Halpern is the director of programming and production at UC San Diego's new low-power television station.

Leave Los Angeles for the impostor San Diego? Don’t be ridiculous. But that is exactly what I did. Twelve months ago to the day. It was a tossup between the excesses of smog, traffic and Hollywood or buying a comparatively affordable home with my fiance.

Guess which one I chose? We bought a cute house built in 1938 for an acceptable $149,000. It would cost twice that much in a comparable area in Los Angeles--even in these “buyer’s market” days. It was a perfect starter for us--two bedrooms, two baths and a bonus room--a large recreation room with a fireplace, exposed beam ceiling and French doors opening onto the patio. It was 1,330 square feet, with a big private back yard.

The house needed more than TLC--it needed a new roof, electrical upgrading and major remodeling in the kitchen and the rec room. The trick was going to be to do all this work in the three months the summer afforded us and for our $15,000 budget.

First thing we did was buy some needed supplies and tools and skylights through the Recycler for about $1,500. Then we did the basics--replace the 20-year-old roof and added 24 new electrical outlets in the house. We were a good month into our remodeling and down to $10,000 in our kitty.


We got to know some very good local Mexican-food takeout restaurants as we converted a small kitchen and dining room into one large room by tearing out the dividing wall. We also tore out three layers of linoleum flooring, seven layers of wallpaper, three old, warped wood-frame windows and the ugly 1930s kitchen cabinets.

My fiance, Greg, gets kudos for putting in a beautiful skylight with soffit, adding light and aesthetics to the room. We replaced the windows with garden windows ($440), which not only gave us room for an herb garden, but also added more space to the room. We bought new cabinets from Ikea, put them together and installed them ourselves (saving about $12,000, just on the cabinets and installation!). We spent four days tiling the floors, countertops and walls. The kitchen’s direct costs were about $7,500. With supplies, etc., there is $2,500 remaining in the bank and three weeks in our summer.

“Camping out” in the living room amid plaster and sawdust and clutter was getting a bit wearing, so we were highly motivated when we started on the bedroom. We wanted to make the old rec room into a warm bedroom. First, Greg installed another skylight, much easier this time since this room was an addition and had a flat roof. We lightened the dark stained ceiling with a white stain. Along one wall were three tract-like windows. We left the middle one for ventilation, took out the other two, and installed an interesting asymmetrical glass brick design.

We pushed out the two shallow closets several feet to make two walk-in closets. Inside we installed wire shelves to fit our customized shelving needs. Home Depot cut them to order and we spent about two days installing them. We lined the walls with tongue-and-groove cedar to ward off moths. The closets lent a bedroomy feel to the room and looked pretty. In fact, one closet wall faced the bedroom. We added a special touch by putting a column of glass bricks in it. Subtract another $1,000 and 10 days.


We then covered the asbestos linoleum tiled floor (the kind your elementary school had in the ‘50s) with a combination of deep jade green carpet and commercial linoleum tile. We found a real bargain with commercial tile at $1 a square foot. It comes in many colors and you can make all sorts of geometric designs and borders using fashion strips. Minus $1,300.

Since our toilets were original equipment with the 1938 house, we splurged on two new “environmentally friendly” toilets. The city of San Diego offers a $100 rebate toward the purchase of one 1.5-gallon-flush toilet. We had the memorable experience of “camping out” in our back yard over the one weekend that we had no toilets.

One of our most creative touches and inexpensive ideas is found in our main bathroom. I invented a new use for roof flashing--those rolls of aluminum trim you see in the hardware store. We used it on the floor and it looks great and is a steal (about $35). We used steel wool and vinegar to remove its oily coating, allowing it to accept adhesive better as well as to give it a brushed look and making it less slippery. It cut easily with heavy-duty shears and we laid it on with the same tile adhesive we used in our bedroom and other bathroom. We then secured it with upholstery tacks, which added a perky touch.

At the end of three months and $15,000 we had essentially finished our remodeling. Our biggest jobs were the kitchen and the bedroom. We did give face lifts to the bathrooms too. A big bonus was the fact that we lived a mile from Home Depot, which we frequented three or four times a day.

Since we had come so far in those three months, we were inspired to keep going. We spent every spare dime and moment over the next three months furnishing the place, installing a security system and redoing the wooden floors throughout two-thirds of the house. With our wedding behind us, and our house 90% complete, we plan on starting a saving account this year! There are still many little things to do on the house. Our next big job is landscaping and gardening! But it is a sweet house and besides, the freeways move at rush hour and I can breathe.