The House Has a New Heart

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Kathy Price-Robinson is a freelance writer who has written about remodeling for eight years

It's not that Pat and Peter Leung didn't love the kitchen of their new Placentia home.

They did--18 years ago when, as the home's first owners, they got to pick out the white tile with tan grout and the parquet-look vinyl floor. ("Easier to maintain than wood," the salesperson told them. "No waxing.") That all blended nicely with the dark-stained cabinets, harvest gold appliances and plastic panels covering fluorescent lights.

"When we walked through it, we thought it was wonderful," said Pat Leung, 48, a grade-school teacher.

But even a kitchen used by thoughtful owners will begin to wear after nearly two decades. The noticeable decline started eight years ago, when Peter's father dropped a heavy pot into the porcelain sink, producing a glaring crack.

However, replacing the sink seemed impossible because the tile covering the edge of the sink would have to be removed without breaking it. And then once a new sink was installed and the tile replaced, the new grout would have to be perfectly color-matched.

"We thought, well, we'd have to change the counters if we replaced the sink," said Peter Leung, 48, a training manager at Lockheed Martin. And because it didn't leak, they just lived with it, the way they'd lived with the gaudy Early American lamp that hung in the breakfast room. "We never liked that lamp from the minute we walked in the door," Pat said.

The kitchen's once-shiny floor started to get dull and worn in spots and needed waxing, but the wax was building up in the textured vinyl. And four years ago, the couple replaced their ailing stove--that featured upper and lower ovens--with a new black stove sporting just a lower oven. This left a big gap in the tile behind the stove, which they covered with a piece of sheet metal painted black.

As perhaps a final insult, the upstairs bathtub had overflowed and leaked through the floor, causing a stain on the ceiling of the breakfast room adjacent to the kitchen.

We have to do something, the couple said. They had raised their two daughters in the home--Tisha is 22 and Perri is 16--and had visions of one day enjoying grandchildren there.

The deterioration of the kitchen may have continued had not the couple received a telemarketing call in March from Mega Builders, a general contracting and remodeling firm based in Van Nuys.

Pat Leung was a little suspicious, asking: "Where did you get our name?" We looked it up the tax records, the caller told her. The couple figure the age of the home and the amount of taxes paid clued the company that these were original owners who probably had an 18-year-old kitchen ripe for remodeling.

The couple scheduled a sales call and Alon Toker, the president of the company, made the presentation.

He showed the couple his contractor's license, letters from satisfied customers and a list of references. He told the Leungs that his company had completed more than 7,000 jobs since 1988.

Instantly Impressed

"I was really impressed with his professionalism," Pat said. And even though the couple signed a contract that night--after midnight, as it turned out--without checking with a single reference, they don't think they acted unwisely. "Why would he make such a big deal out of his references if they weren't good?" Peter figured.

When it came to making remodeling decisions, besides replacing the sink, possibly the counter and certainly the beaten-down floor--the couple were without a vision of their new kitchen.

"We didn't really have any particular image of what we wanted," Pat recalled. "We realized the only thing we wanted to keep was the new stove."

With Toker's guidance, they started admitting that some elements of the original kitchen never had been right. For instance, one side of the kitchen contained a refrigerator, pantry cabinet and built-in desk that nobody used, but it had no counter space. And reaching into the back of an awkward corner cabinet required a contortionist's skill.

To cure the former problem, Toker suggested moving the refrigerator to another wall, eliminating the desk and adding a stretch of counter. His company could build an open cabinet to hold the microwave, freeing up even more counter space.

To cure the corner cabinet issue, he suggested a double-hinged door which, when open, would reveal all the cabinet space. "Hey, that's kind of neat," Peter said.

Toker's next comment got the Leungs dreaming big. "With the double-hinged door, you are crossing the line from stock cabinets and into a custom kitchen. Now if you have anything at all you wanted, what would that be?"

It didn't take Pat more than a few moments to blurt out: "Well, I'd like a kitchen that fit me." Although she had not complained about it, the standard 36-inch-high counters were torture to her 5-foot frame.

"It's difficult cooking with the wok and with big pans," she said. "It's difficult cutting vegetables. It makes you tired and you can't get good leverage." She needed to use a small stool when doing such chores.

Toker specified 33-inch-high counters and a shorter dishwasher to fit under the counter. For the new cabinets, the couple decided on maple, which Pat said "is the most pleasant wood," with a subtle grain. The floor would get an oak laminate on plywood, applied directly over the old linoleum to save on demolitions costs.

Toker suggested granite for the counters, but besides balking at the high cost, Pat thought the material would defeat her goal of lightening up the kitchen. "The only granite I'd ever seen was dark," she said.

Sold on Granite

But Toker knew of some light granite that would be perfect. He specified tile counters in the contract, agreeing to upgrade them later--with a $5,000 increase in the job's cost--if Pat liked the granite. As it turned out, she adored the sample that blended perfectly with her cabinets and appliances. "I knew immediately when I saw it," she said.

Throughout the decision-making process, the Leungs had to rationalize replacing items that were not actually broken or worn out. Take the florescent lights in the ceiling. Although the light fixtures weren't exactly beloved, they may have survived the remodel had the spotlight above the sink survived. But when the kitchen was reconfigured, the new sink would no longer be directly under the old spot.

"We said, 'Hey, that won't look right if it's not on center,' " Peter recalled.

"I'm a very symmetrical person," Pat added. "It drives me nuts if it's not lined up."

The couple struggled to decide: Do we just move the spotlight? Do we replace all the lights? Finally, they threw their hands up, chose the latter option and said: "Let's just do it."

A few luxuries included a new refrigerator, even though the original one refused to give up, as well as an instant hot-water dispenser on the sink and a crushed-ice dispenser on the refrigerator.

"I love crushed ice," Pat said. "I don't know how we lived without it."

After the contract was signed in March, demolition started in April and the job was finished six weeks later. After the new kitchen was in, and the acoustical material was scraped off the ceilings in the adjoining breakfast and family rooms, the couple realized the old aluminum windows in those rooms looked pretty sad. They had those retrofitted with double-paned French windows.

After all was done, the couple had spent $34,000--and they were happy. "We have a whole new wing of the house," Pat said. "We were amazed at how everything fell into place."

According to the general contractor, the Leungs' job went smoothly partly because the couple is very understanding and accommodating. "I wish everyone was like them," Toker said, adding that before a job starts, he doesn't sugarcoat what is to come. "There are going to be strangers in your house," he tells clients. "There's going to be dirt. There's going to be noise."

Putting Up With Work

As it turns out, the Leungs were able to handle the intrusion. "It was not difficult for them to keep their composure," Toker said.

However, he pointed out, the Leungs weren't laid-back either. "She's a demanding customer," he said of Pat. "You don't get a picture-perfect installation like that with someone who doesn't care."

"This is the part of the house we live in," Pat said, looking around her new kitchen. "This improved the quality of our life."

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Kathy Price-Robinson is a freelance writer who has written about remodeling for eight years. She can be reached at KathyPrice@aol.com.

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