When Deb Mabari bought the 1930s bungalow she grew up in, she was finally able to pull a stunt she could never have gotten away with as a child.
First, she rode her bike around the living room and down the hall. Then, her skateboard. After that, she called her mother in Colorado and said: "Mom, guess what I'm doing? Bouncing the ball in the house!"
That giddiness soon faded for Mabari, 34, who bought the house in 1996 with Diane Dingman, 39. Before long, the first-time homeowners grasped how difficult it would be to transform the house from the dump it had become to the jewel they hoped for, an enterprise completed last year after a massive $150,000 remodel.
"We realized this was going to be an expensive endeavor," says Mabari, an advertising and marketing consultant.
The three-bedroom, two-bath house where she lived with her parents and sister in the '70s and '80s was then a neatly tended bungalow, just off Melrose Avenue in a quiet neighborhood. More than a dozen neighbor kids played ball in the street.
But after the house was sold in the late 1980s, it began to decline. Paint peeled. Foil covered the windows. Tenants parked cars in the frontyard and let their three large dogs trash the backyard. Once-tended rose bushes, their overgrown vines tangled in security bars, died.
Even though Mabari lived in an apartment nearby, she avoided the house.
"When you drive by and it looks like [that]," she says, "it breaks your heart."
In 1996, though, Mabari was looking for a house to buy after her accountant told her she needed a tax write-off. One day, she took a shortcut to work, drove past the distressed house and saw a "For Sale" sign. The asking price: $227,000.
She called Dingman, who works in television production, and said: "I found the house we're going to buy."
After making an offer of $187,000, Mabari and Dingman agreed to buy the house for $208,000.
Even though the two homeowners had neither money nor equity to pay for a big remodeling job, they nonetheless started planning one.
For help, they turned to Dingman's two best friends, Los Angeles designers Rick Spooner and Everardo H. Garcia, who proclaimed that they had "fabulous" ideas for the house.
By the end of the year, the four had come up with a set of blueprints, but it would still be several years before the work began.
"There's nothing wrong with dreaming," Mabari says, "and having those dreams come true. Patience is a virtue."
The plans called for removing the wall that separated the kitchen from the living room to create a great room. The modest kitchen would be expanded into a small family room and would include a granite-topped island and deep pantry.
The home's ancient plumbing and electrical systems would be replaced, and the closets would be outfitted by a closet-organizer company. To bring more light into the hallway, the doors that led from there to the three bedrooms and main bathroom would be single-light French doors with frosted glass inserts. The wood floors would be restored or replaced as necessary.
On the exterior, the Moderne style would be restored to preserve the rounded entry porch overhang and divided-light windows. Any new windows would be custom-made to match the originals, and the house would be replastered.
"We wanted to keep it in the same style," Dingman explained.
While remodeling plans were being developed, the women set out to make the house livable: The first task was to have "cottage cheese" acoustical material scraped off the ceilings. They took down an overgrown tree in the frontyard, which brightened the house considerably.
Assisting them was handyman Willie Offer, Mabari's childhood chum, whose parents still live in the neighborhood. In all, six families Mabari knew as a child still live nearby.
In 1998, the couple, tiring of the long wait for the remodel, repainted the kitchen as a stopgap measure so that "we didn't kill each other and blow up the house," Dingman explained. "We couldn't deal with it anymore."
By 1999, thanks to several years of a booming real estate market, the house had appreciated enough so that $96,000 could be borrowed against the equity. The rest of the money for the remodel, about $50,000, came from personal earnings. When it came time to find a contractor, the women looked no further than John C. Cran, a contractor they had met when he was sent out by a fireplace shop to repair the handle on the flue. Mabari was amazed at his punctuality.
"He showed up on time on the day he said he would," she says, still sounding surprised. "That's why he got the [remodeling] job."
Another contractor bid on the plans, and though the two contractors' bids were nearly identical, the homeowners chose Cran primarily because of his respectful attitude.
"He never blew me off," says Dingman, who oversaw the remodel. If the references are good, she suggests this simple gauge for deciding on a contractor: "If you have a problem, do you feel comfortable calling him? If the answer is yes, you have your contractor."
The major part of the remodel started in September 1999 and lasted four months. The crew arrived every day at 7 a.m. and, though Dingman was not a morning person then, she says: "I am now."
Even with a set of design plans, Dingman found out, scores of decisions needed to be made as the remodel moved forward. She recalls asking the contractor many times: "Do we really have to tell you today?"
Finding the perfect cabinets, for instance, was daunting.
"We looked everywhere," Mabari recalls. "Everywhere."
In the end, the cabinets were custom-made of maple, accented with walnut insets and walnut crown moldings. The doors on the upper cabinets are outfitted with "Coke-bottle glass" that looks handmade. Still not decided even by the time the remodel started in 1999, was how to remodel the home's main bathroom.
"We didn't know what to do with it," Mabari says. It had its original corner vanity and tile counter, which was cracked, and a tiled shower that was small and dark.
One evening, the homeowners and the two designers went out to dinner and inspiration struck; they sketched out a new bathroom design on the paper tablecloth. It called for a claw-foot tub at the end of the room, a glass steam shower to the left and a soapstone counter with bowl-type sinks. The final touch was the landscaping, which includes a slate walkway, sod lawn, queen palms, drought-resistant plants and accent lights.
The homeowners have few regrets. Based on sales of other homes, they figure their home is worth around $600,000.
"We could talk about our house forever," Mabari says. "We're so happy with it."
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Project: Whole house remodel off Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles
Homeowners: Deb Mabari and Diane Dingman
Designers: Rick Spooner, Everardo H. Garcia, SK Associates, Redondo Beach, (310) 937-1494
Builder: John C. Cran, John C. Cran Contracting, Marina del Rey, (310) 823-5548, firstname.lastname@example.org
Landscaper: Gayle Martin, California Landscapes, Los Angeles, (323) 930-0808, http://www.californialandscapes.com
Handyman: Willie Offer, La Crescenta, (818) 248-6048
Duration: four months
Cost: $150,000 (including appliances and furniture)
Kathy Price-Robinson is a freelance writer who has written about remodeling for 10 years.