Does it make financial sense to spend more than $150,000 on a lavish, 1,100-square-foot outdoor kitchen and living room?
For Keith and Liz McLaughlin it did when a "perfect storm" of factors converged: The couple and their three sons needed more space for entertaining; they decided they would be living in the house at least until their youngest, now 11, graduates from high school; and the rising value of their Thousand Oaks home generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity.
So the couple set out in 2004 to create an outdoor great room that included a natural stone floor, stacked-stone fireplace, wood ceiling, recessed lighting, radiant heater, porcelain tile counters, multi-speaker sound system, flat-screen television and an extensive array of Viking appliances and accessories.
Although the McLaughlins had updated much of their two-story home when they bought it for $600,000 in 1997, the expense of the outdoor room initially put them off.
"I didn't want us to be the only people who bought a house in Thousand Oaks and didn't make money on it," said Keith, a recently retired mortgage company executive, who spent several years "cost-justifying" the expenditure. He worried that the 1980s tract house would be over-improved for the neighborhood. But as the value of comparable homes in the area topped $1 million, the upgrade finally seemed feasible.
The first step was to find a contractor to do the work. Liz, a homemaker, did not want a repeat of their earlier, all-encompassing whole-house makeover when she acted as general contractor. That project, during which the McLaughlins stayed with Keith's parents nearby, was slated to last three weeks but grew to five months.
"The first one really did me in," Liz said, recalling how each item, from bathroom fixtures to cabinet knobs, took time to decide on, shop for, locate and pick up. This project also would be complex as the couple planned to enlarge the master bedroom and family room at the same time. A contractor seemed like the way to go. "It would take such a load off me," she said.
The couple interviewed several before choosing Bob Sturgeon and his firm, Westside Remodeling in Westlake Village, with whom they had previous experience. They first met Sturgeon and his crew during the 1997 remodel, when the company installed several windows. The couple liked the quality of work and felt comfortable with the workers. "The whole crew is very easygoing," Liz said.
The challenge was to blend the new project with the existing elements of the home. The couple didn't want something that looked tacked onto the back of the house. The frontyard had an extensive redbrick scheme, the existing pool area in the rear yard used gray stone and the couple wanted brown stone.
The new great room combines all three. There are redbrick supporting pillars and a ribbon of gray stone around the patio floor. The majority of the natural stone used for the floor, the bar area and the fireplace is a mixture of grays and browns.
Achieving what they wanted didn't come cheap, however. The couple blew the initial $125,000 budget during the construction process with a series of orders to improve the ceiling, add lighting, reroute gas lines and make other upgrades.
According to Sturgeon, the McLaughlin project contained more changes than he usually sees on a job. "They are very discerning clients," he said. "They wanted top-of-the-line everything, and they got it."
One change actually saved the couple more than $10,000 when Sturgeon suggested a less expensive hardwood, Mangaris, to replace the teak they had originally wanted for the ceiling.
The Viking appliances they decided on included a barbecue, cook top, refrigerator, warming drawer, storage drawers and an under-sink storage area. The sink even has a garbage disposal.
For the fireplace, they opted for one made completely of masonry -- brick, block and stone -- rather than a prefabricated metal box, which is more common in modern fireplaces.
Since the 4-month-long project was completed, Keith has enjoyed sitting at the bar and watching baseball or golf on the flat-screen TV, which is under a ceiling in the most protected part of the outdoor room. Two of the boys like to pull lounge chairs over to watch TV, and one sets his laptop computer on the bar to do his homework. During parties, Liz said, the kids head for the pool and the adults head for the bar area.
But does all the 1,100 square feet ever get used? You bet.
Last Thanksgiving, the McLaughlins barbecued turkey for 50 people, including some 40 members of Keith's family who live nearby.
Now their plan simply is to relax and enjoy the home. According to Keith, this house will see no further major improvements. "We're done," he said.
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A cost-effective great room
Although the McLaughlins wanted a high-end outdoor kitchen and living room, homeowners can create similar great rooms for less. General contractor Bob Sturgeon, of Westside Remodeling in Westlake Village, offered these suggestions:
* Keep the dimensions modest. An outdoor room of 400 to 500 square feet (about the size of a two-car garage) will provide ample space for most families.
* Forgo natural stone. A cost-effective alternative for walls and a fireplace is cultured stone (manufactured to look real). For the flooring, stained and/or stamped concrete is cheaper than stone.
* Use a prefabricated fireplace. A high-quality, prefabricated metal firebox (faced with manufactured stone) will save on both material and labor costs.
* Keep a lid on ceiling costs. A cheaper alternative to teak or Mangaris hardwood would be a plastered or painted wooden ceiling.
* Choose appliances with an eye toward savings. Select less expensive brands, or forgo the warming drawers, storage drawers and other accessories that drive up the cost.
-- Kathy Price-Robinson
Kathy Price-Robinson has written about remodeling for 16 years. She can be reached at www.kathyprice.com. If you would like to have your remodel considered for use in Pardon Our Dust, please send before and after images and a brief description of the project to Real Estate Editor, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012.