Ugly to Elegant

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

The two-story Manhattan Beach home that John and Tara Regan bought in 1996 for $310,000 had what they considered the three most important qualities: location, location and location.

Specifically, the home is in the "tree section" of the city, which is marked by gently rolling hills and is shaded by towering eucalyptus and pines. It's a neighborhood, Tara Regan said, where "people walk their kids and dogs" and "the schools are great."

On the other hand, the 1940s house, set on half of a normal-sized lot and situated less than 10 feet from the street, was "just plain ugly," John Regan said. The house had no architectural style or character, he said, and "was a giant, flat box looming over the street." All told, the house felt unfriendly and imposing to all who approached.

Other drawbacks stemmed from poorly thought-out and executed "improvements" made over the years.

For instance, the wide, rectangular home was fronted by a narrow planter made of cinder block that was, in Tara Regan's opinion, "gross."

But worse than the aesthetics of the planter was its position against the house. Over the years, the moisture in the planter's wet soil had worked into the home's stucco and from there into the framing studs, causing them to rot.

Another sordid spot was the exterior of the second story, where wood siding had been hammered over the stucco and wood moldings were installed around the aluminum windows. Besides giving the house a dated '60s look, the siding trapped rainwater and funneled it into the house.

The list of defects went on. A previous owner had bolted heating ducts along a hallway ceiling and installed a new ceiling under that, bringing the ceiling level down to 6 feet, 2 inches.

New plumbing ran along outside walls and entered the house through too-large holes cut through the walls. Struggling to be charitable to previous owners, John said he figures the plumbing "was done by someone who wasn't a plumber."

Eventually, as other surprises were discovered--including walls full of dog-food nuggets apparently stored there by rodents--Tara found herself thinking: "I hate this house."

But the couple had more faith than fear--they still felt adventurous following a 1995 worldwide backpacking trip--and so they embarked upon a major remodel with an estimated time frame of seven months and a budget of $50,000.

And 18 months and $110,000 later, they were done.

Today, the now elegant house is the pride of the neighborhood. Neighbors ride by on bikes giving thumbs-up affirmations or stroll by on foot saying, "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."

Here's how the Regans transformed their 1,700-square-foot house:

John, a computer consultant, came up with much of the design and acted as general contractor for the project. Tara, a technical writer, helped John do most of the demolition, nonstructural framing, molding, painting and landscaping.

The first step was to hire a draftsman-designer to help solve structural issues and come up with a remodeling design that would satisfy the city's strict building codes.

The couple hired Frank Swanson of Planning Concepts in Manhattan Beach, who was recommended by the home inspector, who had been recommended by the real estate agent.

The first design called for three levels of "buildouts," or architectural details, from 1 1/2 inches to 4 1/2 inches, to create the illusion of depth on the front of the house. However, the city ruled that because the house was already so close to the street, the facade could only extend 1 1/2 inches.

Plus, the house was classified by the city as "existing nonconforming," meaning that it met building codes when constructed but not current codes.

As a result, all city recommendations had to be followed, lest officials demand the house be brought up to current codes, which would happen if too many elements of the house were altered.

What this meant for the Regans was that all the hodgepodge collection of windows on the front of the house had to remain the same sizes and shapes and in the same locations.

Luckily, John Regan had a hidden talent for design, and when he sat down at his computer to plan their "new" house, he succeeded splendidly.

The house has a pale peach stucco exterior with white stucco trim around new French-look vinyl windows. The clever design includes 1 1/2-inch-thick moldings and "columns" around the doorways and windows. When pressed to describe the style, John and Tara said they have decided on Venetian.

"It looks like houses we saw in Venice," Tara Regan said. "They are flat and come right up to the canals."

That solved the exterior problems. The inside also needed help, particularly the entrance to the house, where a narrow, claustrophobic entryway led straight into a bathroom wall.

From there, the garage was to the left and a hallway to the bedrooms and a laundry room was to the right. Upstairs were the living room, dining room and kitchen.

For the couple, creating a more appealing approach to the home was paramount for the success of the remodel.

Together, Swanson and the Regans came up with a winning idea, which was to move the bathroom down the hall to the former laundry room and move the laundry facilities out to the garage.

With the bathroom moved and the offending wall removed, the entry hallway was opened up and now gives visitors a view straight through the house to a set of French doors and onto a small, manicured backyard.

Lavish use of Saltillo tile in the frontyard, hallways and back patio ties the whole space together and gives it a more spacious feeling.

The low-hung heating ducts were removed and reinstalled between joists, and the ceilings were brought up to normal height. The plumbing was repositioned inside the walls. And the addition of a bay window provided enough space in the new bathroom to install a large tub.

Though the exterior and entryway were the couple's initial priorities, they decided to transform the upstairs as well, which accounts for the more than doubling of the original budget.

Most offensive in the upstairs area was a centrally located closet that broke the space into small rooms: the kitchen, dining room and living room.

By removing that closet, the space was opened up into a "great room." And because that involved removing supporting beams, expensive retrofitting to shift the weight of the roof was required in the walls, ceiling and foundation.

Once the building was complete, the couple hired interior designer Timme Gunderlock for a few hours to help decide on colors. She brought over hundreds of swatches and, using the Saltillo tiles as a starting point, the couple chose the peach color for the exterior, cottage white for interior walls, white for baseboards and a rich chocolate cinnamon for a living room wall.

Throughout most of the remodel, the Regans lived in the living-room portion of the home, with plastic sheeting tacked up to keep out the dust. Still, Tara developed respiratory problems because of the dust, and she said if she had it to do over again, she'd move out for the remodel.

There were also ups and downs with subcontractors the Regans hired. They said most were excellent, including Krikorian Construction of Manhattan Beach, which did the concrete; Cook's Lumber and Hardware in Lawndale, which supplied the windows; and Wilson Floor Co. in Manhattan Beach, which masterfully integrated new hardwood floors with existing floors.

But a few subcontractors, including an electrician who would work for an hour or so and then disappear for a week or two, caused Tara a lot of grief. She occasionally implored John to hire a general contractor to free them from those hassles.

When the house was finished in December 1997, the couple invited family members to visit and celebrate. A few months later, John and Tara discovered she was pregnant with twin boys, to whom she gave birth three weeks ago. For Tara, getting the house completed before the babies arrived was perfect timing.

"Somebody," she said, "was looking out for us."

Source Book

Drafting/engineering: Frank Swanson, Planning Concepts, Manhattan Beach, (310) 545-7027

Interior Design: Timme Gunderlock, Timme G. Designs, Torrance, (310) 534-1317

Concrete: Larry Krikorian, Krikorian Construction, Manhattan Beach, (310) 546-1144

Windows: Jim Cook, Cook's Lumber and Hardware, Lawndale, (310) 679-2212

Flooring: Bill Wilson, Wilson's Floor Co., Manhattan Beach, (310) 545-7750

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