Marygrace and Steve Carpenter survived two major remodeling projects in their Westchester home last year by trying to follow their own golden rule: Whoever has the gold makes the rules.
The first remodel -- of the kitchen -- was orchestrated by Steve and financed using cash he'd stashed away. Working with a handyman, laborers and a self-employed cabinetmaker, Steve spent more than $40,000 and took six months to finish the job.
The second remodel -- of the master bedroom and bathroom -- was bankrolled with a Roth IRA that Marygrace cashed in. She completed it with the help of a decorator for about $35,000, including furniture, in two months.
During the kitchen renovation, Marygrace found Steve's freewheeling, make-it-up-as-you-go style too unruly and unpredictable.
"It took on a life of its own," Marygrace said. "It kept building and growing."
So for her remodeling project, Marygrace chose a different strategy: hiring a decorating consultant.
With decorator Kathy Good as her guide, Marygrace found a reliable faux-finish painter and an out-of-the-way shop where she discovered lamps for her bathroom and bedroom. The Carpenters benefited from Good's decorator discount on fixtures. She met the couple at stores to make selections, and even settled arguments.
"Once you meet her," Marygrace said, "you think, how could you live without her."
Steve was in total agreement. "Let's let Kathy make the decision" became the salve when opinions clashed, he said.
Another point on which the couple, who are both retired teachers, agreed was that the two remodeling jobs on their 1945 house were long overdue.
Marygrace bought the house in 1964 with her first husband. In the subsequent four decades, she raised three children there, earned an advanced degree at nearby Loyola Marymount University, got divorced and married Steve.
The house underwent some changes in those years, with the addition of a second story, a bonus room out back and the creation of a den off the kitchen, which Steve built, aided by a handyman, in 2000.
By last year, the aged kitchen, with its laminate counters and vinyl flooring, had started to bother Marygrace. When she suggested selling the house and moving, Steve asked what it would take for her to love the house again.
Her answer: a new kitchen. Steve readily agreed to pay for it.
Rather than hiring a contractor to oversee the job, Steve approached the upgrade the same way he handles repairs on the rental properties he owns: by acting as his own contractor with some help from his longtime handyman-carpenter, German Blas.
Although Steve was the project leader, Marygrace had a big role in determining the kitchen's style. For inspiration, she cut out a magazine article of a Tuscan-inspired bathroom. Marygrace circled the text that spoke of the "warmth of the Tuscan look that was achieved with marble, ceramic tile and distressed cabinetry to create a welcoming retreat."
The biggest challenge was finding the right cabinets. One big-box store charged the Carpenters $100 to create a cabinet layout but then failed to return their calls. Another big home-improvement retailer had cabinets with braided trim that Marygrace loved, but she decided that, at about $20,000, they were too expensive. At a kitchen-furnishings store, the couple felt they were victims of a bait-and-switch scam when the price for cabinets was raised just before they were going to sign the contract. They walked out, furious.
"It was a terrible experience," Marygrace recalled.
Finally, they found an independent cabinetmaker, Jose Mateo, who worked out of his garage. He didn't speak English, and so all communication was through his English-speaking children. He turned out to be a master craftsman.
Each item for the kitchen required hours of research, mostly on the Internet, and then was followed by the hit-and-miss search for local vendors.
Eventually, the couple completed the kitchen of Marygrace's Tuscan dreams with a tumbled-marble backsplash and under-cabinet lighting, Junipero granite counters, brushed-bronze hardware, a textured ceiling and a wood floor to match the floor in the den.
Steve put his mark on the project when he opted to replace the kitchen table with a large bar-height island made of matching cabinets and covered with the same granite.
Although the remodeled kitchen was everything Marygrace had hoped for, she wanted fewer headaches when it came time to remodel the bathroom and bedroom.
"I didn't think I could live through that again," she said.
So she hired Good to help her for $75 an hour.
At the first meeting, the decorator suggested color schemes and gave Marygrace the names and phone numbers of vendors she'd worked with over her 17-year career.
Within two months, the bathroom went from a tired room with a pale vinyl floor and old-fashioned bumpy tiles that Marygrace hated to an upscale one with ceramic tiles that look like travertine, burnished bronze fixtures, iron lamps and a whitewashed open-beam wood ceiling.
The bedroom got new windows, plantation shutters, faux-painted walls, new carpeting and luxurious Tuscan-style furniture and lamps.
Although Marygrace had major input on the kitchen that Steve paid for, he kept quiet on the bed-and-bath project.
"I stepped back," he said. "I figured it was her money, let her do what she wanted."
He did fight for two things: He forestalled whitewashing the wooden bedroom ceiling and lobbied to keep the large armoire where he stores his clothes.
"I chained myself to it," he joked about the armoire, "so they couldn't take it out."
Now, there is no more talk of moving.
"I can't believe how easy this has been," Marygrace said of the second remodel. "I can say we are very blessed and peaceful in our little abode."
Kathy Price-Robinson has written about remodeling for 15 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.
The project at a glance
Project: Kitchen; bathroom and bedroom remodels
Carpenter-handyman: German Blas, Inglewood, (310) 674-0126
Cabinetmaker: Jose Mateo, Mar Vista, (310) 390-0316
Design consultant: Kathy Good, Good Advice Decorating, (310) 216-7367
Duration: six months (kitchen), two months (bathroom, bedroom)
Cost: $40,000-plus (kitchen), $35,000 (bathroom and bedroom, including furniture).
-- KATHY PRICE-ROBINSON