Ready, Set, Remodel!

Kathy Price-Robinson is a freelance writer who has written about remodeling for nine years. She can be reached at:

After buying their Burbank home nearly two years ago, Laraine and Ralph Herman had a dream:

Enclose a breezeway and create a laundry room to move the washer and dryer out of the garage. Post-remodel life in their 1940s home, they thought, would be a lot easier.

Driven by their dream, the couple set out to find a contractor to do the work. However, one contractor after another wondered “what the architect would say.”

The trouble was that the couple didn’t have an architect for their project, which was more complex than just replacing kitchen cabinets.


“And without plans,” Laraine Herman

said they discovered, “you can’t get a bid.”

Still determined to remodel, the couple set out to find an architect. One turned out to be unlicensed. Another didn’t return calls. Another said the couple would be “stupid” to hire a firm that did both design and construction.

“I just hung up on him,” she said, recalling her frustration. “After all that, we just decided not to do it.”


The couple got a home improvement loan and hired subcontractors to replace windows throughout their home, beef up the insulation, replace the roof and redo the landscaping.

Someday, they say, they will again attempt to remodel the breezeway.

The Hermans are not alone in their quandary. Few endeavors are as fraught with the potential for frustration--and satisfaction--as home remodeling.

Unlike other big expenditures, like buying a new car, every home remodeling project is unique, without easy comparisons to other projects.


And besides that, remodeling happens in your home, which is supposed to be private, clean and quiet, qualities not associated with a construction site.

Imagine several strangers, all early risers, taking up residence in your house for weeks or months, pounding down walls and stirring up dust.

Some homeowners end up in court with their contractor, some part ways amicably and some become lifelong friends.

Yet for all the uncertainty of home remodeling, one can hardly up and move family and furnishings to a new house whenever the bathroom tile becomes dated. If ever the term “no pain, no gain” applied, it does to remodeling.


“You must know that your life will be disrupted,” said Patricia Morrow, who successfully remodeled her North Hollywood home. “But it will be OK because the rewards at the end are so great.”

But how do you begin the remodeling process? Do you start with a contractor? An architect? A design-build firm? Your own wits?

Ask 10 people and you’ll probably get 10 suggestions. One will advise always starting with an architect. Another will say never to start with an architect.

Truth be told, there are lots of ways to approach a remodel. Here are 10 of them:


* Create a design team with, for instance, the architect and contractor of your choice. The team could also include an interior designer and/or landscape designer.

* Start with a contractor, who will find a designer or draftsperson.

* Start with an architect or designer, then put plans out to bid.

* Start with an architect or designer, then negotiate a bid with a trusted contractor.


* Hire a design-build firm, which both designs and builds your project, thus eliminating the all-too-common adversarial struggle between architect and contractor.

* Start with an interior designer.

* Act as your own designer, hire a draftsperson to draw up plans.

* Act as your own contractor (owner-builder).


* Hire a general contractor for some of the job and subcontractors for the rest.

* Do the whole thing, or part of it, yourself.

The correct method for you depends on many factors, including:

Do you know and trust any remodeling professionals?


Do your friends or neighbors know any?

Is your knowledge of building vast or slim?

Do you like to control every detail of a project or prefer to allow trusted professionals to take over?

Do you have a lot of spare time?


The best plan, long before you approach professionals, is to know yourself: your temperament, your tastes, your budget and your project.

Spend some time considering how you want the remodel to enhance your life. Do you want a luxurious spot to soak in the tub? Somewhere to put the groceries when you come in the door? More natural light in the kitchen for reading the morning newspaper?

Once you’re clear on what you want, come to grips with how much it will cost. Be aware that almost all home-improvement magazines are based on the East Coast, where costs tend to be lower. Plus, because remodeling magazines promote remodeling, they can be expected to give estimates on the low side.

So if a remodeling magazine claims that a totally remodeled kitchen (new cabinets, counters, lights, flooring, appliances, etc.) will cost $20,000, don’t be surprised if your new kitchen costs double that.


When you’ve come to terms with a) your remodeling budgets and b) the limitations of that budget, you’re ready to start bringing your remodel into reality.

For inspiration and tips on how to do a remodel, consider how these four homeowners navigated a successful remodeling path:

Creating Your Own Design-Build Team

“I trusted both of these people. They weren’t trying to hold me up.”


--Patricia Morrow


Patricia Morrow and her two children finally outgrew their two-bedroom North Hollywood home in the early 1990s, and it was obvious that something had to be done.

“I was sleeping in my daughter’s room and my son was in the other room,” said Morrow, who had bought the house with her then-husband in 1970, pre-parenthood. “It was obvious there was no room for Mom.”


But moving to a larger house was never an option for Morrow and her children, Mary and James.

“I wanted my kids to say, ‘This is the house Mom brought me home to from the hospital,’ ” she said. “I wanted them to be near neighbors who would say, ‘My, James, you’re sure getting big.’ ”

Plus there was the divorce to consider. “You don’t want to displace the kids any more than you have to,” said Morrow, a management recruiter. And she didn’t want to walk away from the two ash trees on the side of the house that she had watched mature.

Also, she liked the increasingly mixed ethnicity of her neighborhood, which she said is “the neighborhood of the future.”


So, it seemed, adding onto the 1950s bungalow was the only recourse. Trouble was, “I’d only heard horror stories about remodeling,” Morrow said.

Still, she pressed on. To increase her chances of success, she turned to her friend Ralph Mechur, a Santa Monica-based architect she had met when both worked for the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. Mechur designed kiosks and other items for the Olympics; he also designs homes.

Morrow also wanted to use the services of Joe Morris Construction in Studio City, which Joe ran with his son, Jeff. (Joe has since retired.) Morrow heard about the pair from a colleague at the office who knew their work well.

In creating her own design-and-build team, Morrow did not have to put a design out to bid to unknown contractors. In her mind, trying to get the lowest bid means “leaky windows and materials that won’t hold up under kids’ feet.”


With the talent lined up, Mechur said: “Let’s all get together and talk.”

At the first meeting, Morrow spelled out her budget, $100,000, and her dreams: add a second story with two more bedrooms and another bathroom, enlarge the family room, put in hardwood floors and create a homey, country feeling. In fact, she wanted a wide porch all around the house.

After hearing her desires, Mechur came up with this idea to take advantage of the large corner lot: Change the front of the house to the side, facing the other street, thereby placing the steps to the front porch between the two beloved trees.

But that created two problems: One, the trees were too close for a porch overhang, and two, a second story would interfere with the tops of the trees.


Jeff Morris came up with the idea of notching the porch roof where it met the trees to make it look like the porch was there first and the trees grew into it. He also thought of moving the second story back from the porch, which also created more of a farmhouse look.

In subsequent meetings, Mechur’s design ideas were matched with the Morrises’ construction knowledge. In fact, the process was so harmonious that Morrow never realized, until friends informed her, that there is often friction between an architect and the builder.

“I thought architects and contractors always got along. And I trusted both of these people. They weren’t trying to hold me up,” Morrow said.

Plus, she admitted, her own easygoing attitude and acceptance of adversity probably helped.


“Why would anyone think you can get the best out of people by complaining?” she asked. “It’s not brain surgery. It’s a house. I’m not smart about these things, but it makes common sense.”

After the remodel was complete, it appeared that Morrow’s strategies for success paid off.

“So many people stop to tell us that they lived in a house just like ours in the Midwest,” she said. “Or they tell us you never see houses with this kind of front porch anymore. Nobody believes it’s a ‘new’ house.”

Source Book


Project: Remodel and add second story to 1940s North Hollywood home.

Cost: $100,000

Architect: Ralph Mechur, Santa Monica.

Builder: Jeff Morris, Jeff Morris Designs, Studio City, (818) 761-0745.


Starting With a Contractor You Trust

“I’ve come to realize that the most important thing is a recommendation from someone you trust.”

--Dede Charbonneau



When Dede and Tom Charbonneau contemplated updating the tired kitchen of their 1950s home in Van Nuys, they began to hear tales about remodeling experiences--all of them depressing.

“Everybody warned us, remodeling your kitchen will be a nightmare,” said Dede Charbonneau, a teacher. “They all had stories.”

Plus, the couple had their own share of home-improvement disaster stories. “We’ve been burned and stolen from like everyone else,” she said. One incident that still smarts is the so-called plumber who was hired to replace their piping. “The guy ran out,” she said. “We lost $1,800.”

Still, after a house has been used for 40 or 50 years, it’s bound to need some renovation. You can either live with a beaten-down house, move or undertake a remodel.


And so the Charbonneaus forged ahead, armed with the biggest lesson they’ve learned over the years:

“I’ve come to realize that the most important thing,” Dede Charbonneau said, “is a recommendation from someone you trust. If I don’t have that, I don’t even want to do it.”

That theory had already played out positively when the couple, seeking a landscape contractor, asked their trusted local nursery for a recommendation. The nursery gave them only one name, and that person ended up doing quality work for the Charbonneaus.

So when it was time to choose a remodeling professional, the couple asked the landscaper. He said: “If I was going to do a remodel, I’d use A Straight Line Construction.”


“Knowing what [the landscaper’s] standards were,” Dede Charbonneau said, “I trusted him.”

Calling A Straight Line, located in Simi Valley, she said: “I want to see three or four of your latest jobs.”

As she discovered, A Straight Line is a “hand-holding company.” That realization started when company supervisor Dale Ebner picked her up and drove her to some of his latest jobs. She not only liked the quality of the finished remodels, she was also impressed with the relationship between the contractor and his clients.

“When we left each house, Dale hugged the homeowner,” she recalled. “I said, ‘Oh, my God.’ But sure enough, when he was done with my job, he was hugging me.’ ”


Once Dede decided to use A Straight Line, she was sent to a kitchen shop, which works as a subcontractor, to help design the kitchen and pick out cabinets.

Unlike the Hermans, whose tale of woe was related above, the Charbonneaus found in A Straight Line a contractor who was already linked with a design service.

The shop already had measurements that A Straight Line had taken of her kitchen, and--after several false starts--they found a kitchen Dede Charbonneau liked.

After receiving the bid from the contractor, she was impressed with the itemized list of materials, labor, overhead and profit. She didn’t begrudge the profit and overhead the company charged or the 12% the company made on materials, especially after she tried to purchase some of her own materials and made “a mess” of it.


“I got the wrong tiles,” she recalled. “I got the wrong pieces. But the contractor was very sweet about it.”

During the $18,000 remodel, in which the kitchen was gutted and redone with wood cabinets, white tile counters and new appliances, she probably helped the process along with her accommodating nature.

On one particularly hot summer day, she told the workers: “Don’t go out for lunch. Let’s have a barbecue.” Kicking back on the shady lawn over hot dogs and hamburgers, she and the workers--some employees of the company, some subcontractors--got to know each other.

Even after the job was finished, the builder wasn’t. At the end of the five-week project (six weeks had been estimated) the builder provided a two-year warranty on its work.


And, of course, because homeowners with aging homes are frequently planning the next remodel, the Charbonneaus had another project in the wings. When they decided to redo the front of their home earlier this year, they called in A Straight Line for the job. The living room is next. In addition, they recommended the company to their neighbor.

“It all goes back to a recommendation from the neighborhood,” Dede Charbonneau said. “And to the person you trust.”

Source Book

Project: Remodel 1950s kitchen.


Cost: $18,000

Building Contractor: A Straight Line Construction, Simi Valley, (805) 583-2327

Job Supervisor: Dale Ebner

Starting Your Remodel With an Architect


“The only thing that was way out of line was how much it cost. Even the architects were shocked.”

--Deborah Searle


When Deborah and David Searle moved into their Chino home eight years ago, it didn’t take long to detest the home’s dark, cramped kitchen. In fact, it was loathe at first sight.


“I hated every minute of it,” said Deborah Searle , a dietitian, remembering how she used to sprawl on the floor to reach to the rear of the awkwardly placed cabinets.

And reaching the door to the backyard and pool involved moving around a peninsula and the dining room table. She likens it to “salmon swimming upstream.”

But she and her family loved the half-acre lot the home was situated on, so they put up with the kitchen until, she said, “I just couldn’t take it any longer.”

But thinking about upgrading the kitchen also reminded them, unhappily, of a remodel they did on their previous home. That project, in which they made the master bedroom larger, redid a bathroom and added an office, was a disaster in some ways.


For instance, the contractor installed a 10-foot-long Corian counter in the bathroom that was only 18 inches deep, presumably to save money, instead of the typical depth of 21 or 22 inches.

When the couple wanted it replaced, the contractor tried to charge them an extra $1,000. Finally he made the correction and did not charge them, but “it left us with unpleasant feelings for the rest of the remodel,” Deborah Searle said.

Looking back, the couple decided they made a mistake by not hiring an architect to help with the design. While they did hire a draftsman to draw the plans, she said “he had no imagination.”

For the new kitchen, she said, “I knew I wanted to use an architect.”


To find an architect, she relied on word of mouth, the method that is most often recommended by professionals and homeowners alike. And that’s how she found Paul and Maureen Wheeler, of Wheeler & Wheeler Architects in Claremont; a friend knew and liked their work.

It turned out to be a good match. The Searles had a $50,000 budget and some “musts"--"Lots of light was critical,"Deborah said--and the architects came up with some inspired ideas. One was putting a small window of glass block above the cook top to bring more natural light into that side of the room without placing a window where the view was poor.

The architects also suggested the stone-look floor tiles and the curved shape of the island. They re-created the same curve in a step outside the new French doors.

“That’s what I learned most,” Deborah Searle said, “the importance of carrying over similar lines and shapes to give continuity to the design.”


According to her, the Wheelers’ brilliant design ideas were well worth the $4,000 fee. But there was a problem:

The project as it was designed--including extending the kitchen, moving a load-bearing wall, building a solid roof over the patio, adding 800 square feet of new tile flooring, five skylights and Corian counters--would cost more than double what the couple could afford. This was not discovered until the project was bid on by contractors.

“The only thing that was way out of line was how much it cost,” Deborah Searle said, recalling bids at $110,000 and $123,000. “Even the architects were shocked.”

After buying the home at the height of the market in 1990 and having lost at least $50,000 in value by 1996, the couple didn’t see how they could justify putting a $110,000 kitchen into the house. “It was torturous,” Deborah Searle said, recalling her dilemma.


They partly solved the problem by sacrificing the services and knowledge of a general contractor, and hiring a carpenter, Ron Clark of Heartwood Cabinets, to supervise the job. This meant they did a lot of research and footwork themselves.

For instance, Deborah learned about windows, about their features and benefits, and chose those on her own. Plus, she found the tile the architect had suggested at Home Base. Finally, the project was completed in April 1997 for $80,000.

Even with a final price tag nearly double their budget, the couple are thrilled with the kitchen.

“I’m really, really happy with it,” Deborah Searle said. “I come home from work and say: ‘Look at my kitchen.’ Every day. It never gets old for me.”


Source Book

Project: Remodel and enlarge small, dark kitchen, enlarge family room.

Cost: $80,000.

Architects: Wheeler & Wheeler Architects, Claremont, (909) 624-5095.


Carpenter-consultant: Ron Clark, Heartwood Cabinets, Montclair, (909) 626-8104.

Do It Yourself; Act as Your Own Contractor

“We’re not stupid people. We can do this.”

--Linda Scott



Just when Linda and John Scott realized they had to add onto their Torrance tract home or move to accommodate a growing family, they started hearing frightening tales about remodeling contractors.

“Bad, bad stories,” recalled Linda Scott, a chemist. In one co-worker’s remodel, for instance, the contractor failed to pay the window installer, who retaliated by removing the movable parts of the windows, during the rainy season, until payment was made. In another case, a co-worker sued the contractor over work not done properly.

This caused the couple to think: “There’s got to be a better way.” But moving wasn’t an option after they realized that all the homes they could afford to move into would still need remodeling.


A better idea, the couple thought, was to add onto and remodel their home and act as their own general contractors, directly hiring subcontractors to do some jobs and doing other jobs themselves.

Unfortunately, neither of them had any building experience. But, they figured, “we’re not stupid people. We can do this.”

Luckily, they had enough equity in their home to pay for the $110,000 remodel. Without this, they figured, the two neophyte builders would have had a hard time convincing a bank to give them a construction loan.

“You’re a chemist?” Linda Scott could imagine bankers saying. “That’ll help.”


To get started, the couple drove around their neighborhood looking for homes that were larger than the homes originally built in the area, yet were so well designed that it wasn’t obvious whether the owners had remodeled--or bulldozed the building and started from scratch.

Knocking on the door of one such home, Linda Scott asked the homeowner: “Hey, did your house get bigger by itself, or what?”

As it turned out, the house had been added onto, and the homeowners, who had acted as their own general contractors, were more than happy to supply the Scotts with the names and phone numbers of their designer and subcontractors.

The neighbor’s openness didn’t surprise her. “When you’ve gone through something that went well, or that went bad, you’re more than willing to share the good news and the bad news.”


Using the neighbor’s designer, the Scotts had the plans drawn and then they interviewed two general contractors. “I wasn’t impressed [with the contractors],” Linda Scott said. “I said, ‘Let’s just wing it.’ ”

Of course, to the Scotts, “winging it” meant reading how-to books, Sunset books and library books and asking questions of everyone they could think of.

Their own personalities played an important part in the success of their venture. “John’s a really fussy, meticulous person,” Linda Scott said, describing herself as “a very organized person. That’s how I’m oriented. That’s what I do all day in the lab.”

During the demolition and construction process, which took about a year, the Scotts had to decide what to do themselves and what to trust to professionals.


At the beginning, they tried their hand at demolition and they hand-dug the foundation for the new front porch. Because they were adding a second story, they hired professionals to shore up the home’s original foundation.

For the framing, they hired a carpenter. Linda Scott said she and her husband would have done it themselves if it weren’t so time consuming. They also hired out the roofing, stucco and drywall work.

Some jobs they hired out, she said, because she wanted expert craftsmanship. This included the complex tile in the master bathroom (she did the simple tile work in the other bathrooms) and an elegant wooden banister on the stairway to the new second floor. “When you see a poorly made one, it’s obvious.”

Linda Scott’s work schedule proved to be a real plus during the remodel. With one weekday off every week and a 2:30 p.m. quitting time, she had time to talk with workers on the job site, order parts and schedule subcontractors.


Most weekends were spent working on the house. John Scott installed the two furnaces and did all the plumbing and electrical work, taking weeks of vacation time off from his job as a thermal engineer.

He also installed the bathtub in the master bathroom, a tricky job for which he invented a hoist and pulley system. The couple invested in a $300 tool to hang the doors, and they installed all the moldings. Both did the landscaping, which included sprinklers, and John Scott built the new front porch railing.

One day, using his wife’s design, he installed the brick-trimmed steps leading up to the front door. When she arrived home from work, Linda was enthralled. “I thought: Wow. This is cool. This is beautiful.”

Acting as their own general contractor and doing half the work themselves, the couple figure they saved about $65,000. And eight years after completing their addition, Linda Scott brags, nothing has failed in their remodel. “It was really a good experience,” she said, but added: “I wouldn’t say it was something I would want to do on a regular basis.”


As for those who might want to act as their own contractor and do some work themselves, she said:

“You have to be fast on your feet. You have to be able-bodied. You have to be able to make decisions. You have to be bright enough to read plans, or learn to read plans. You have to think ahead and order things.”

Plus, she added, “you have to be brave.”