The Price Is Right on Vacant Home

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Thirty-three years ago--when Luis Gonzalez was born and Heide Jenkins was a schoolgirl--the house they would one day buy and renovate had already been vacant for several years.

Surrounded by chain-link fencing, overgrown by shrubs and said by neighborhood kids to be haunted, the modest 1927 bungalow remained vacant through the '70s, '80s and '90s, until the couple tracked down the owner and persuaded him to sell.

"This house was meant to be," Gonzalez said of the two-bedroom, one-bathroom house the couple bought in 2000 for $150,000.

Jenkins, a teacher in South-Central L.A., and Gonzalez, who works in the clothing industry, had been looking for a fixer-upper a few years ago after outgrowing their tiny Venice cottage, minuscule lot and noisy neighborhood. That house had been fixed up by Gonzalez's Uncle Fernie, contractor Fernando Linares.

The couple wanted to live in Silver Lake, Echo Park or Mt. Washington, but they found prices too high and gave up the search. While going to visit Linares in the unincorporated Del Rey community near Culver City one day, they noticed a deserted house down the street.

"We'd seen it so many times before," Gonzalez said.

"And it never clicked," Jenkins added.

Jenkins' mother, real estate agent Margret Jenkins, looked up the name of the house's owner. No phone number was listed, but she offered to write to the Northern California address on the title.

When no response came, she wrote again. Finally owner Philip Padley called.

The house had been left to Padley by his aunt, Violet Keller, who had lived there for 40 years and whose husband built it in 1927 when nearby Jefferson Boulevard was a dirt road. As a youngster, Padley lived five houses away from his aunt, in the house now owned by Linares.

Padley made arrangements to visit and brought an album of photos. One showed his aunt in front of the trim white stucco house with an arched window, a wood gate leading to a small entry courtyard and wood French doors.

By Keller's later years in the house, however, the wood windows had been replaced with aluminum ones, and the French doors with aluminum sliders. Black iron bars covered every window, and black iron mesh enveloped the courtyard.

Padley wouldn't say why he had never sold the house, but a neighbor told Gonzalez and Jenkins that others had offered to buy it over the years. In the 1980s someone forged documents to take the title, and Padley went to court to get it back.

When Jenkins and Gonzalez saw the inside of the house, they were stunned, Jenkins recalled, both for its underlying '20s flair--wood floors, tiled kitchen, tiled bathtub cove, arches, coved ceilings, nooks and built-in bookcases--and for the damage the years had wrought.

"It's hard to describe how bad it was," Gonzalez said. Where the tile roof had leaked or fallen in, the plaster walls had turned to mush and floors had rotted. Fist-sized mold spots covered some walls. Old linoleum curled from the floors. And the house was gloomy behind the bars and aluminum awnings.

The couple wanted it nevertheless. "What we saw underneath all this," Jenkins said, "was all the things that we were looking for."

It took months for the couple to convince Padley that he should sell to them. Finally, early in 2000, he agreed and set a price calculated for the land value only, as the house was considered a teardown.

Rather than raze it, Jenkins and Gonzalez had one overriding goal: to bring it back to the way it was when Keller first lived there.

Their primary objective was aesthetic--install new wood windows and French doors. Vinyl and aluminum windows, Gonzalez said, "are not our cup of tea."

Other goals were fixing the rotten walls and ceilings, salvaging the wood floors where possible and protecting the antique tile during the construction phase. To make the house lighter, they removed the bars and awnings, and Linares suggested adding four skylights.

Linares also recommended taking space from one of the two bedrooms for a second bathroom and then extending that bedroom into the backyard. He suggested cutting an arch in the wall between the dining room and the kitchen to make the small kitchen seem larger.

To keep within a budget of about $75,000 for the major work, the couple made some concessions. An arched picture window would be inordinately expensive, so they settled on a rectangular one. They also left the jalousie windows in the bathroom and kitchen. Luckily, most of the old redwood framing was still in good shape.

The price was further kept down because Linares gave them a family discount and because he did much of the work himself with a few helpers rather than hiring subcontractors. This method of renovation can save money in subcontractor profits but generally takes longer. In this case, the project was slowed down by two events: a death in the family and a monthlong bus strike that made it necessary for Linares to pick up his main helper.

Construction started on the house in May 2000. Jenkins and Gonzalez worked on it too, scrubbing, cleaning and even hanging drywall. In August of that year, they rented their Venice house and moved into the front bedroom of the Del Rey house, living there during the last months of construction.

Many of the wood floors, hidden under black grime, could be salvaged. Where they were too far gone, slate tiles were used in their place. At only $1 per square foot, it was an economical yet elegant substitute. The fireplace and its tile could not be salvaged but a new fireplace matches the old one.

Safeguarding the existing tile during heavy carpentry and drywall phases took extra effort, including laying heavy planks over the pink-and-maroon kitchen counters and the green-and-black bathroom counters. The bathroom's original black pedestal sink was retained and the chrome on the old Thermador heater restored. One item was broken during construction: the black porcelain toilet tank cover.

Some tile was lost when the arch was cut through the kitchen wall, and more would have been lost if a side wall had been removed to incorporate a service porch into the kitchen space. Gonzalez was in favor of that but Jenkins couldn't bear to lose that wall of history, as well as the old icebox on the other side.

Outside, a small wooden gate was built to match as closely as possible the gate on Keller's house.

After Linares was finished in March 2001, the couple worked on the house for another year. They painted the exterior a dark gray-green, the bedroom tangerine and the bathroom its original lavender.

The landscaping design revolves around pathways of broken concrete and existing plants they chose to retain, including banana trees, castor bean tree, bamboo and creeping fig. The rest of the large lot is filled with drought-tolerant natives or Mediterraneans that attract birds and insects.

The couple invested about $225,000 in the house and its renovation, along with countless hours of labor. They have seen two other homes sell in the neighborhood for $450,000 or more. Gonzalez is already searching for another fixer. "It's a hobby," he said.

But he and Jenkins don't expect to sell this house. They haven't even sold their tiny Venice cottage. As Gonzalez explains it, "We get attached."

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

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Sourcebook

Project: Renovate a 1927 bungalow vacant for more than 30 years.

Contractor: Fernando Linares, Culver City, (310) 837-2548.

Duration: One year

Cost: About $75,000

Where the Money Went

Plans, engineering, permits, inspections... $2,000

Demolition and hauling... $2,000

Windows and French doors... $4,000

Plumbing repairs and fixtures... $7,000

Electrical, new... $7,000

Wood floors restored, slate, kitchen tile... $10,000

Plastic stucco... $1,000

Construction materials and labor... $37,000

Miscellaneous... $5,000

Total... $75,000

Figures are approximate, for house only.

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Buying Vacant Homes

If you've had success buying a vacant house, we'd like to hear from you for an upcoming article. Write to Real Estate Editor, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012 or e-mail real.estate@ latimes.com. Be sure to include your name, address and telephone number.

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