First-time homeowner Greg Kohout has mixed emotions when he thinks back on the eight-month remodel that turned his frightful Pasadena eyesore into the pride of the neighborhood.
"It was exciting," Kohout said, and "it was horrible."
The horrible part was the 1895 Victorian home's wretched condition after years of neglect. The house wasn't habitable when Kohout and his partner, Bob Curbelo, first saw it in May 2000, but people were living there nonetheless--without electricity, water or a functioning plumbing system. Fortunately for the neighbors, the dirty house with its peeling paint was partially hidden by overgrown oleander hedges 20 feet high and 20 feet thick.
The exciting parts of the remodel were looking for decorating ideas, asking remodeling questions on Internet chat rooms and hiring subcontractors to take the interior down to the bare studs and then build it back up to a pristine condition. And most exhilarating of all, said the homeowners, was the shopping.
"We're great shoppers," said Kohout, who lists their best sources as EBay (where they found, for instance, 100-year-old brackets from Indiana), salvage yards (fireplace mantels), auctions (antique furniture), Recycler classified ads (kitchen cabinets, columns), thrift stores (book cases, bureaus), and at least one trash can (hanging lamp).
Indeed, prudent purchasing is how the two kept the cost of the all-encompassing remodel down to $135,000. When added to the $170,000 purchase price, that equals an investment of $305,000 for a house that was recently appraised at $500,000.
"I love doing it," Curbelo said of remodeling. Added Kohout: "We might do it again."
Still, Kohout and Curbelo became homeowners only reluctantly after they learned they would have to move from the 900-square-foot, $1,000-a-month Silver Lake home they had rented for the previous three years.
"We were fine renting," said Kohout, an actor, who was touring in Europe as the lead in "Grease" when Curbelo called him in March 2000 with the news: "We have to find a new place."
At first, the two figured they'd just rent another small house, but this time with a yard for their dog, Lola. They soon learned that in the last few years, rents in Silver Lake had spiked dramatically.
"Every place wanted at least two grand," Kohout said. "And with a dog, they wanted $2,500. I was totally surprised."
For those prices, they realized they could pay a mortgage. But the two were frustrated when they found that home prices in Silver Lake started at $400,000 for something "decent" (rather than the $250,000 price range they hoped for) and rose into a half-million and up for something extraordinary.
When Kohout returned from his tour, he and Curbelo started looking for a house with real estate agent Tom Murray of Jim Dickson Realtors. Curbelo, a physical therapist who travels to clients all over the Los Angeles area, hoped Kohout would consider other areas, including Pasadena.
As an actor, though, Kohout "didn't want to be that far from the business." Finally, he agreed to look at houses in an old Pasadena neighborhood that Curbelo said was "coming around."
Murray first showed the pair houses that were already fixed up, but not to their liking. Then just three days into the search, the agent showed Kohout and Curbelo the battered Victorian, even though it wasn't the Craftsman or Spanish style his clients requested, and even though other clients had been horrified by it.
Once Curbelo got past the oleanders, he took in the dirt yard, ragged porch without rails and overall gloom of the place. He also saw the original wood siding, second floor balcony, and bay windows on either side of the house.
"This is our house," he thought. Beside him, Kohout was thinking the same thing.
Inside, they saw beyond what turned out to be truckloads of trash to the mostly intact original moldings and pocket doors that were painted but otherwise fine. Most heartening was that in the 2,500-square-foot home's 105-year lifespan it had never been chopped up into smaller apartments.
The pair offered $170,000 against the $190,000 asking price, and their offer was accepted.
At first, Kohout and Curbelo followed the traditional remodeling method of hiring a general contractor, who had been recommended by friends. When problems arose, the homeowners decided to hire subcontractors (framers, plasterers, plumbers, electricians, etc.) themselves, as well as laborers. After that, Curbelo said, the process changed from worrisome to "wonderful."
Part of the remodel's success is because of the fact that one of the homeowners was on the job site almost all the time. "It was more important that we have a home than me going on another tour," Kohout said.
The job was enormous. All the interior walls and ceilings were stripped down to the studs, which were made of redwood and had virtually no termite damage.
Before the walls and ceilings were closed back in, modern electrical and plumbing systems were installed, plus high-speed Internet capacity, sound system, vacuum system and alarms.
Perhaps the most important aesthetic improvement was replacing a 32-inch unremarkable front door with a wide, stately, dark-wood door flanked with antique sidelights and topped with three leaded-glass accent windows.
To create a focal point for the living room, a fireplace was installed and fronted by an antique mantel, which Curbelo stripped and refinished. Indeed, Curbelo, an avid hobbyist, stripped and refinished much of the furniture, doors and moldings in the home.
Beyond the living room, to the left, lie a library and a den. To the right is the dining room and kitchen. When the owners bought the house, the kitchen was little more than a few cabinets and a peninsula tucked into the rear of the house. To create a larger kitchen, the space from a large adjacent utility room was incorporated. To create a formal dining room, a separating wall was built between it and the kitchen.
For the kitchen, Kohout found nearly new maple cabinets with crackled glass inserts through the Recycler. The original owner had taken the cabinets out of a house that was going into foreclosure and stored them for a year before advertising them for sale. Though he said he paid $16,000 for them, he advertised them for $1,600, and Kohout got the price down to $1,200.
After he "puzzled it out," Kohout hired a carpenter to install them. Dark green granite counters were installed for $2,200, and the original wide-plank floors were refinished.
Upstairs, the master bedroom got another fireplace and antique mantel, and an adjacent bedroom's space was preempted to build a luxury master bathroom with a large whirlpool tub and a slate-lined shower that feels like a cave.
Outside, new porches were built front and back, a picket fence added, the house repainted and a new roof installed. The investment also included a new two-car garage, oversized to make room for furniture refinishing. Leftover cabinets from the kitchen give the garage an elegant feeling.
Months after the remodel was completed, the Victorian was included in a tour of historic Pasadena homes and the homeowners were able to tell many of the 550 visitors, "You can do this, too."
The pleasure of living in the house has not abated. "We're happy every morning we wake up," Kohout said, who added he often thinks, "Who are we? Why do we have this house?
"We're so lucky," he said.
Electrical: Chris Meredith, Pasadena, (626) 337-5505
Roofing: Rivas Roofing, Pasadena, (626) 797-5718
Fencing: Van Dell Fence Co., Pasadena , (626) 449-9244
Floor refinishing: Classic Hardwood Floor Co., Rosemead, (626) 571-7388
Leaded glasswork: Horizon Art Glass Co., Pasadena, (626) 398-5167
Cabinetwork: The Wood Shop, El Monte, (626) 350-4350
Appliances: Pacific Sales, Burbank, (818) 391-2800
Real estate agent: Tom Murray, Jim Dickson Realtors, Pasadena, (626) 795-9571
Framing ... $10,000
Electrical ... $10,000
Plumbing ... $10,500
Drywall and skimcoat ...$10,000
Paint in and out ...$10,000
Leaded glass ...$1,500
Brick porch ...$1,800
Foundation and beams ...$3,500
Tile work ...$7,200
Kitchen cabinets and granite ...$6,000
Alarm and vacuum ...$2,000
Kathy Price-Robinson is a freelance writer who has written about remodeling for 12 years. She can be reached at www.kathyprice.com.