When Rocco DiFrancesco changed the color of his Dana Point tract house from ho-hum white to a startling blue, his neighbors were alarmed.
"What are you doing?" one incredulous neighbor shouted out from his car.
Others drove by and gave the project a thumbs down.
Even DiFrancesco, a fire captain in Westminster, doubted his unusual color choice, having arrived home from work shortly after his firefighter buddies started applying the paint.
"I was breathless," he recalls. "I wasn't sure."
But once DiFrancesco painted the trim a crisp white and added a charming trellis and flower-infused brick patio to the front, the neighborhood's scorn turned to approval.
"I'm used to it," one neighbor told him. "I'm over the shock. This is what the neighborhood needs."
Inside, the house underwent an even more radical transformation during a six-month $45,000 remodel, which DiFrancesco undertook with the help of some fellow firefighters and a handful of skilled professionals.
A remodel wasn't in the cards in 1996 when DiFrancesco bought the 1960s-era three-bedroom, two-bathroom 1,400-square foot home. He liked the location--
a quarter of a mile from the ocean and from his daughter, Angelina, 7, who lives with him half the time--and he appreciated the home's spotless condition.
"Firemen are very domestic," DiFrancesco explains. "We keep houses clean. We keep cars clean."
"It definitely wasn't a fixer-upper," he says. All it needed was carpeting in the bedrooms and new interior paint.
But over time, some of the home's features started to grate on DiFrancesco. The white exterior, especially a long, white wall leading to the front door, was boring.
"That wall was so barren," he says. "It bothered me every time I walked by it."
Inside, the wood-look laminate floors were incompatible with DiFrancesco's growing collection of wooden antiques.
"It's a great floor if you have a lot of kids," he said, "but not if you have antiques. It was the antithesis to the antiques."
Grabbing a Crowbar, He Ripped Up the Floor
DiFrancesco's accumulation of antiques and his aversion to the floor grew in equal proportion until one day: "It happened. I decided, 'That's it. I'm done with this floor.' " Grabbing a crowbar from the garage, he started ripping the laminate off the concrete foundation, moving furniture out of his way as he made his way from room to room.
"I felt such a sense of relief," he recalls. "That's always the hardest part for me, just to start."
And so the major remodel began. DiFrancesco rented a dumpster and filled it first with the laminate flooring and later with the hollow-core doors, the aluminum windows, all trim, bathroom cabinets, fixtures and old plumbing.
"It was exciting," he says.
What remained was a shell of a house: little more than framing studs covered with drywall, the roof overhead and the foundation underfoot.
Though DiFrancesco had virtually no remodeling experience before this, he had spent three years reading remodeling books, magazine and newspaper articles and watching home and garden television shows. His favorite shows are "Home Time" and "Home Again," the latter with Bob Vila, but, he adds, "I watch all of them."
He also had access to the skills of his fellow firefighters--masonry, carpentry and painting--who tend to help one another with their homes. (DiFrancesco's contribution is usually helping people move, he says, " 'cause I have the truck.")
Before he started reconstructing the house, DiFrancesco had the interior walls re-textured. Though the most recent owners had taken care of the house, there had been several other owners and re-texturing could cover the various patches from picture hangers and nails that painting couldn't.
After that came new double-pane windows and sliding doors from Home Depot. Though he did most of the work himself, he hired a professional to install a new bay window in the living room. The tricky installation involved fastening the window frame to the roof as well as to the foundation.
The new vinyl windows, which include glass treated to repel the sun's harmful rays, made "a big difference in the quality of life," he said. The house is quieter and stays cooler in the summer and warmer in winter; fabrics and rugs don't get sun-bleached. The windows were covered with tab-top curtains on wooden rods.
Skylights were added to improve light in the two small bathrooms, and the shower and tubs were re-glazed and new glass doors installed.
DiFrancesco laid the bathrooms' tile floors. In the first one, he laid out tiles of various sizes and colors in an attractive pattern, then numbered the tiles and indicated on a schematic which ones went where. By the second bath, he realized "This is easy," and choose the tile sizes and colors as he glued them down.
Cabinets made from antiques, as well as new toilets, gave the bathrooms their finishing touches.
DiFrancesco is not sure where he got his sense of color and design. Visitors have asked if a girlfriend decorated for him. But to him, tasteful decor comes naturally.
Demolished Original White Tile Counters
"It's simple stuff," he says. "The curtains are from Target. The rods are from the lumberyard. I have no special talents."
In the kitchen, DiFrancesco demolished the original white tile counter but regretted that when he realized how durable it was.
"I hate taking apart anything that's tough and strong," he says. "It goes against my own good sense. Maybe I should have tried restoring it first."
That became his plan for the cabinet boxes as he noted their sturdy strength. He painted them a sage green, added oak doors and an expensive Corian top and back splashes in a sand color. He planned to put glass inserts in the upper cabinet doors, but because open cabinets are so easy to get to, he never got around to it.
After that, he invested in new appliances, all GE, including a stove, refrigerator, washer and dryer.
For the floor, DiFrancesco wanted something extraordinary. He got that in solid Asian rosewood by Americana, which was installed in 715 square feet of the house--all but the bedrooms and bathrooms--for $6,400. He calls it "a steal." Then he added solid-core doors throughout.
The fireplace was redone by a colleague who knows masonry, and DiFrancesco built a simple mantel. One of the biggest and most frustrating jobs was adding yards of crown and base molding, which gives the house a feeling of elegance.
"It's definitely a skill learned by trail and error," he said.
Throughout the job, DiFrancesco suffered from periodic qualms and worries as he chose the materials, products, colors and surfaces that he hoped would coordinate in the end--and happily they did.
"It really came together well," he said. "When it was done, I was ecstatic."
Project: Whole-house remodel
Designer-builder: Rocco DiFrancesco, homeowner
Duration: Six months
Kathy Price-Robinson is a freelance writer who has written about remodeling for 10 years. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.