Do-It-Yourself Wizardry


Lily and Arnie Richards never considered hiring a general contractor to oversee their kitchen/dining room addition.

“We’re kind of conservative financially,” Lily said.

“We’re cheap,” Arnie broke in. “We’re too egocentric.”

The couple didn’t even hire subcontractors, such as drywallers, framers or electricians, choosing instead to take on every task themselves, including Arnie’s worst nightmare: plumbing.


“I detest plumbing,” said Arnie, a director of quality at Mattel Inc. Indeed, he cursed so furiously over his plumbing duties during the project last year that Lily, a secretary in the toy company’s Hot Wheels division, threatened to call in a professional.

“Don’t,” Arnie said. “I won’t let this beat me.”

This kind of determination enabled the couple to tear out the tiny kitchen of their 1930 Downey home and replace it with a more spacious one with granite-tile counters, lavish moldings, new cabinets, new appliances, a custom-designed range hood and a stained-glass window.

They also added a spacious dining room, accented with an alabaster chandelier topped with a ceiling medallion. And they did it all for $27,642 (mostly for materials, tools and tool rentals)--about half what the couple figured it would have cost for professionals to complete the job.


Although six months passed from excavation day until final approval by the city in November, the remodel actually began long before.

“I have thought and dreamed about this kitchen since before we bought the house,” said Lily, referring to 1994, when she first saw the kitchen at an open house. “Is this a load-bearing wall?” she asked Arnie at the time. “Can we take it out?”

Most of the house was already roomy, having been enlarged by previous owners from a compact, 800-square-foot rectangle to a 1,700-square-foot home with a large master suite and a den, the latter converted from the original attached garage.

But the kitchen remained minuscule, and so bland that color photos of the room look as if they had been shot in black-and-white. After moving in, Lily gathered ideas from scores of magazines, including Romantic Homes, Renovation, Kitchen and Bath, Traditional Homes and This Old House, from which she tore out pictures to add to her kitchen planning notebook.


Last year, after two years of bonuses from their company and a break from paying their children’s college tuition fees, they were ready to start.

The couple wanted not only to remodel the kitchen but to make it bigger, and to add an adjacent dining room so their rosewood dining table and its six chairs could vacate the small space off the kitchen where they had been squeezed for years.

Arnie was confident he could pull off the project because he had done several additions before on homes he had in Los Angeles. Those projects all had concrete slab floors. He considered a slab floor for this project, but it would have required a step down from the kitchen into the new dining room, which he wanted to avoid. Eventually the couple settled on a raised wood foundation to match the rest of the house.

“We decided if we were going to do it, let’s do it right,” Arnie said.


When Arnie took his plans for the project to the city of Downey, he expected to get a permit on the same day but was told it would take four to six weeks.

“You’re kidding,” was his reply, and he added, “I wanted to get started that weekend.”

While waiting for the plans to be evaluated, amended and approved, Arnie decided to start demolition on the concrete patio where the addition would sit. He and Lily sent invitations to friends for a demolition party, bought snacks and rented a jackhammer. The event was such a hit that one friend, Arnie said, “would not relinquish the jackhammer.”

By the time the plans were approved, Arnie had the forms for the foundation built. He called the city for his first inspection. Except for needing to tie the new foundation to the house with rebar, everything looked fine.


To keep track of the project, Arnie made a detailed color-coded list titled Kitchen Remodeling Activities: red for completed activities, blue for city inspections and green for activities in process. Many tasks were broken down into smaller ones, and each was checked off when done. Said Arnie: “We’re neurotic about checks.”

Once the floor joists were installed, the floor was insulated and sheathing added. When the walls started going up, Arnie threw his rickety wooden ladders into a trash bin and spent a couple of hundred dollars on two quality replacements. “Things went better after that,” he said.

After a marathon five-day Fourth of July weekend spent working on the house, the walls and roof sections were starting to take shape. The couple sat outside on lawn chairs, drinking wine, eating pistachios and admiring their work. “OK, we’re almost there,” Lily said. Still, it would be four more months before final inspection.

While the structure was being finished, with Lily doing all the drywall installation and taping, decisions had to be made on colors and surfaces. For help, Lily turned to her daughter, Stephanie Humady, 27, an aspiring interior designer who studied at UCLA.


“I picked all the colors,” Humady said, then added: “Well, we consulted. It was a group effort.”

While Humady wanted a bold, contemporary look with lots of red, her mother leaned toward what her daughter termed “a Tuscan look.”

Lily, however, doesn’t have a name for the style of her kitchen. “It’s just me,” she said. “It’s what I like.”

The wood cabinets came from Home Depot, where a designer helped with the layout, and Lily chose dark granite tiles for the counters and light porcelain tiles for the backsplash. She installed them herself, renting a tile cutter for irregular pieces. Arnie installed the laminate flooring in just a few evenings. Lily designed the range hood, and Arnie built it for her.


The final touches were the moldings and paint. The finished walls are painted in a light mocha shade with chocolate/cinnamon color sponged over it.

Originally, Lily planned to make stained-glass inserts for some of the wall cabinets, but as the project wore on, she ran out of energy. Deciding to put wire mesh inside glass in the doors, she found exactly what she wanted by asking a toy designer at work, who referred her to the McMaster-Carr industrial supply catalog.

There were a few glitches along the way. Rerouting the gas meter from the back of the house to the front turned into a weeklong event, and, not wanting to crawl under the house, Arnie had to hire someone else to run the line. One day a driver delivering a dumpster ran into the side of the house, breaking the plaster. And then there was the day Arnie, who has an engineering degree from Caltech, miscalculated and filled a dumpster with 13 tons of concrete and dirt, only to be told by the dumpster company that it was illegal to drive such a heavy load over city streets. It took an extra day for him to transfer 3 tons to another dumpster to stay within the 10-ton limit.

The couple had only a few disagreements, usually over something that Lily wanted but that Arnie didn’t want to install. The medallion over the dining room light fixture was one such item, as was the alabaster chandelier. When Arnie resisted, Lily simply replied, “Fine, I’ll buy it myself with my bonus.”


“I usually don’t budge,” Lily said.

Now that the kitchen is done, the couple are thrilled. Arnie calls it “the finest kitchen on the face of the Earth.”


Kathy Price-Robinson is a freelance writer who has written about remodeling for 12 years. She can be reached at





Source Book


Project: Remodel kitchen and add dining room in Downey house

Duration: Six months

Cost: $27,642

Owner-builders: Lily and Arnie Richards


Interior design consultant: Stephanie Humady, (562) 776-0352 or

Construction materials, cabinets, paint: Home Depot, Downey, (562) 776-2200, and All-American Home Center, Downey, (562) 927-8666

Granite: Bestway Marble & Granite, Los Angeles, (323) 266-6794

Porcelain tile for backsplash: Tile Place, Downey, (562) 861-4246


Alabaster chandelier: Lamps Plus, Torrance, (310) 542-8682

Appliances: Pacific Sales, Cerritos, (562) 356-2400,

Glass Shelves and Doors: Hal’s Glass, Bellflower, (562) 866-7047

Wire mesh used for cabinet doors: McMaster-Carr, Santa Fe Springs, (562) 692-5911,


Knobs and pull handles:, (866) MY-KNOBS

Floors: Americana Floors, Anaheim, (714) 780-0388

Demolition and sledgehammer weekends: friends and neighbors

Where the Money Went


Appliances... $2,466

Cabinets... $8,044

Concrete... $539

Drywall... $220


Electrical... $1,601

Flooring... $1,191

Hardware/Misc.... $336

Insulation... $305


Lumber... $2,246

Molding... $560

Paint... $411

Plumbing... $624


Roofing... $390

Stucco... $261

Tile... $1,392

Tool rentals... $221


Tool purchases... $779

Windows/doors... $896

Sales tax... $1,799

Dumpster rental... $1,195


Gas/plumbing service... $1,445

Permit/documents... $721

Total... $27,642