View Full Version : who else has rehabbed an urban house?
09-04-2008, 05:17 AM
Just curios. My wife and I bought a rowhouse in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington DC in 2003. It was built in 1927 and needed a lot of work. The family that had been it it had really let it go to crap and made some strange choices. They had painted over all the hardwood molding (that’s actually pretty common in DC rowhouses, at some point natural wood grain fell out of fashion). We were the typical white folk moving into a mostly black neighborhood. Most of the people on our block had been there a long time and knew each other from elementary school onwards. Nevertheless, most people have been very nice.
The house needs a lot of work, we’ve broken it down into phases. One of my neighbors told me “I knew the people who lived there, you have your work cut out for you.” I didn’t want to insult the previous owners as I thought he was probably friends with them, so I said “they seemed really nice.” He said, “they were nice, but they were also junky.” If they had taken better care of it, we never would have been able to afford it.
There was the kind of expected city stuff: a SWAT raid across the alley and the city used a rowhouse on the block and turned it into some kind of housing for some pretty scary people (no one was sure who they were, but one man walked in circles and screamed obscenities). Then there was some stuff I didn’t expect in the city like frequent problems with possum and deer.
We're still working on the house, although we're both in Indonesia for the short-term (saving up money for more work on the house.)
09-04-2008, 07:07 AM
We had similar experiences and that's what THE BARN HOUSE is all about, so I'll let other people tell their own stories. I have to say, though, that for all we've been hearing for the past 30 years about the back-to-the-city movement and all, books about fixing up an old house in the city (as opposed to a small town, the exurbs, etc.) were unknown till recently - at least I never came across one. Now three have been published in the space of six months. First was ALL THE WAY HOME by David Giffels, about a house in Akron, Ohio; next was HOME GIRL by Judith Matloff, about a townhouse in Harlem, NYC; and finally THE BARN HOUSE, about a house in Chicago. Why this is a hot topic all of a sudden I don't know, but one of the points I make in the book is that there's a maturation process that some cities go through; gentrification is the outward sign of it. Chicago turned the corner in the late 1990s; places like New York, Boston, San Francisco and Georgetown had done so earlier. So you can make the case that writers are just catching up with the phenomenon. If you read any of the three books mentioned here, you realize that none of the authors (including me) had any time for writing until recently.
Oh, and while we didn't have deer, we did have possums. It's in the book.
09-04-2008, 07:31 AM
I'm not a "rehabber" per se, but I am an infill developer in the Atlanta area. I guess I rehab lots rather than houses.
I felt like there was a niche in the area within the ATL perimeter for homes that didn't look like the architect had entered a contest to see who could fit the most gables on the front elevation. For my first lot, I found a contemporary (made out of styrofoam) that was built in 1980 & was in terrible shape. It had a huge triangular window on the front that make it look like the Millenium Falcon. In its place I built a traditional painted-brick 5 over 4 that really fit the neighborhood well.
Sorry for rambling, but a lot of the market forces you touched upon seem to be relevant to what I'm trying to do with my company. I love old homes, and look forward to reading your book.
We renovated a "sub"urban home before my folks moved in some twenty-five years back. Built in 1851, the original construction was performed by the owners, a father and son who participated in the Battle of San Jacinto, and by slaves on the plantation it was to preside over. Generations later Doug McArthur played in it as a boy while it stored hay for horses as a barn in a WWI training camp under his father's command. Needless to say, preserving what was historically important was of great concern to us and much of the work was geared towards additions to the structure rather than altering the old. Sure wish Ed's book had been available back then.
09-04-2008, 08:07 AM
I wrote in the announcement thread that we're on our second. First in the Blue Ridge and second in a small town in Ohio. Lotsa work and I'll bet there's a lot of us out there.
09-04-2008, 09:51 AM
My husband and I have been renovating an old rowhouse for the past 8 years. It wasn't in terribly bad shape, so we didn't need to rush...we've been more or less doing a room at a time. A lot of the work is cosmetic, such as stripping paint from the woodwork, repairing cracked plaster, refinishing the floors and such, but my husband has also been working on upgrading the systems (putting in copper pipes, redoing the wiring whereever he can, etc.)
Our house had been through a lot of changes over the years...it was a boarding house in the 30s, then a two flat, and finally the previous owners (who had lived in one of the condos) bought out the other one and restored it back to a single-family. Because of all of this, walls had been removed, doorways had been moved, fireplaces plastered over, and that kind of thing. Our main focus in the rehab has been to restore the original layout of the rooms and try to gain back some of the period details that have been lost. Luckily, the rowhouse next door is much more in its original state, so we have been able to see what is altered or missing (plus, we have been able to do some detective work inside the walls and such).
It's been very rewarding to see the old girl slowly regaining some of her old glory, even though the work has been backbreaking at times. The very worst (for me) was when I was 8 months pregnant with my first, and we were desperately trying to get the kitchen rehab done before she arrived (we didn't quite make it...she was about 3 days old when the counters were intalled, which was the last thing). Washing dishes in the bathtub really sucked with that big belly! (Luckily, there is a full bath right off the kitchen, though...that helped a lot.) I was trying to help where I could, such as pulling up the old floor and stuff, but my husband pretty much did the demolition himself. It was crazy!
09-04-2008, 09:53 AM
First was ALL THE WAY HOME by David Giffels, about a house in Akron, Ohio;
Highly recommended. If yours is as good, you'll have earned your own forum.
09-04-2008, 12:18 PM
I once rehabbed a house in St. Louis. It was a 2 1/2 story brick foursquare in the Shaw area. It was severely thrashed and trashed when I bought it from the neighborhood bookie (there were hasps and padlocks on interior doors; between the closing and my move-in a week later, the ceilings were torn into and searched by an unknown intruder). I did a gut rehab on it, inside and out. The original front staircase was the only surviving woodwork when I bought it, and that got stripped and hand-sanded. I did all kinds of structural repairs; we jacked up the house one floor at a time to rebuild everything, and it was solid as a rock when we were done. Footings, joists, pillars, bearing walls, brickwork...all kinds of structural stuff. It was nearly done when I unexpectedly retired: needed carpets, finish surfaces in the bathrooms and kitchen, and the interior doors (new, solid wood prehung 6-panel doors) needed to be installed. But I didn't care any more, so I sold it and moved.
Honestly, nowadays I'm more interested in what I can do to a certain rural house, but I think that might still be allowed under the forum rules.
09-04-2008, 01:43 PM
Although it wasn't an urban house, auntie em and I were seriously considering rehabbing a two-story, 1926 house in historic Prairie Village (part of J.C. Nichol's famed Country Club District (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Country_Club_District)). The outside of the house was largely okay, but the inside--with its gorgeous wood floors buckled, cracked walls, sagging ceilings, and dingy basement--was a wreck. Still, when you buy real estate in Prairie Village, you pay top dollar no matter the shape of the house, so we decided the eventual combined cost of the purchase and the fix-up wasn't worth it to us. Pity, though, because it would have been quite the education in rehabbing and insanity.
09-04-2008, 04:06 PM
We've been fixing up a Victorian rowhouse north of Capitol Hill near the H Street Corridor in NE Washington DC. The place was built between 1890 and 1900.
We've been in the process of doing work every spring and summer for the last three years. Most of the work needed was cosmetic. We covered and replaced some plaster that needed fixing, we had crown molding, base board, and shoe trim installed.
We had air conditioning installed and we replaced the roof which really needed replacing. We had installation blown into the attic and we replaced the windows and doors.
Some things I regret not doing earlier such as replacing the windows. In my opinion, it was the best investment we could make in terms of livability. We had the cheap contractor special from 1982 when we bought the house and putting in new windows cut the noise by a huge amount as well as making the rooms easier to cool and probably to heat.
Most of the cool original woodwork was ripped out by a prior owner. What little we had, we preserved such as the original post on the stairs.
09-04-2008, 08:54 PM
Caffeine.addict I take it you are outside of the Cap. Hill historic district? I've heard horror stories on trying to get them to approve any changes to a house. With your airconditioning, did you install ducts? We still have window units, but I've heard good things about smaller, less intrusive style of ductwork that runs through closets, and had an Ikea sounding name.
The best feature of our house is the flooring. Underneath this really old carpeting was an amazing hardwood parquet floor. We used DC Floors and they did a great job bringing it back. Mostly though, I can tell you through bitter experience what contractors NOT to use.
The next big job we want to do on the house is to restore the retaining wall out front. It's one of those typical DC granite walls and it's been surprisingly hard to find a contractor who does those; almost all of them want to replace it with brick.
09-04-2008, 10:43 PM
madmonk28, Mercifully yes. Living in the historic district would be a nightmare because it is an extra layer of bureaucracy in a city where the bureaucracy doesn't work all that well. The only place that would be worse would be Old Town Alexandria. Are you thinking about SpacePak?
With the A/C we already had the ducts in place because a previous owner installed forced air heating and removed the radiators. It isn't the greatest set up but it works OK.
When I can, I tend to use handymen types for jobs. I've had nothing but trouble from larger companies and they tend to sub out the work anyway. We had all of our windows replaced and sure enough when I talked to the guys doing the work, they were subs.
Good luck on the retaining wall. Do you need to get permits for that? That tends to be a nightmare although you might not need one since you are fixing an already existing wall. Its funny, I see that exact style that you are talking about in a lot of houses but it is always in pretty bad shape. Is yours really granite or is it that fake stone that was popular in the 30s? I've seen both. My neighbors house is covered in that fake stone stuff.
09-05-2008, 01:45 AM
The wall is, or rather was, real granite. The blocks are laying around the yard. The previous owners let it just fall down.
Permit? In Petworth? The trick is to not piss off your neighbors and they won't call the city on you. We've done all kinds of work and never asked permission because I've heard how that process works (it doesn't).
The one company I have had good experience with was Case. I've used them for smaller stuff because they are expensive, but you make an apointment, and the guy shows up right on time. They call the next day to make sure you're happy with the job. For plumbing, I've had good experience with Magnolia.
The handymen are real hit or miss. We had a great guy when he was sober, but the more we paid him, the less often that happened.
Right now, it's pretty embarassing because our house is one of the worst looking ones on the block. We've done a lot of work on the inside, but the outside looks pretty bad. We painted our front porch and several neighbors came over and thanked us (like I said, it's pretty embarassing). Neither my wife nor I are green thumbs types so the yard is pretty basic compared to some of the other ones on our block.
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