This Old Money Pit

Renovating an old house can be rewarding, as well as stressful. Be prepared to work on your communication skills—especially where there’s a small explosion…

Renovation of Patrick Campbell and Diana Milburn’s  current home in Wilmington’s Midtown Brandywine neighborhood required updating all major systems, but the details remain true to the period of the home’s original construction. Photograph by Tom NutterThe 100-year-old home in Midtown Brandywine was not Rachel Simon’s dream house. It hardly came close. The house belonged to her fiancé, Hal Dean. She moved in five days before they married.

“I was a writer with no savings. I didn’t have a house,” says Simon, author of the hit memoir “Riding the Bus with My Sister.” “We got married by the justice of the peace, and we walked there from what felt like his house.”

That was in 2001. By 2004 the house had not grown on her. In fact, things had gotten worse. Sure, the home had glass transoms, large windows, wooden floors, wide baseboards and plaster walls. But it also had cramped, dark rooms, plumbing that clogged continually, and a kitchen and bathroom that were beyond redemption. Pipe repairs had led to a hole “the size of a coffin” in the dining room ceiling.

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“When you took a shower, it rained in the dining room,” Simon says. The bathroom grew so damp that a mushroom sprouted from the floor.

Some might wonder why they stayed. Dean, an architect who’d bought the house in 1999 for $95,000, saw the home’s potential, and Simon found that endearing. “He could see something promising in something small and uninspiring. That’s how some people might see me,” says the diminutive Simon, who says her commitment issues had caused a six-year breakup of the two before they reconciled and got engaged.

But in 2004, when the house was burglarized, Simon had had enough. Dean talked her into staying with the promise of a renovation, which became the inspiration for her recent book, “Building a Home with My Husband.” In the story, Simon draws comparisons between renovating a home and mending fractured relationships. But as anyone who’s ever renovated an old property can attest, the experience is full of drama.

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Knowing what to expect and gleaning insight from others can help prepare you for the process—or, at least, prevent surprise and shock when you encounter the worst.

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So why buy an old house that needs renovation? Location, for one. “An Alapocas buyer might have kids at Wilmington Friends School. People who buy near Rockford Park might have children at Tower Hill,” says Tim Dewson, president of Dewson Construction, which has offices in Wilmington and Lewes, as well as Chesapeake City, Maryland, and Avalon, New Jersey.

Location includes the lot. Old neighborhoods often have mature, leafy trees. Landscaping is lush and full, and lots are often larger than those in newer communities.

For some, the appeal is in the details. “Older homes have a lot of charisma,” Dewson says. “Craftsmanship was high when they were built. To duplicate some of that today would cost so much more.”

As with Dean, the location and the design of Midtown Brandywine’s homes appealed to Diana Milburn and her husband, Patrick Campbell. “Patrick showed me this street, and I said, ‘I have to live there,’” says Milburn, director of audience development and group sales for the DuPont Theatre, who wanted to live close to work. She put letters in mailboxes, asking if homeowners were interested in selling.

The owner who responded lived in North Carolina and rented the row home, which had been turned into two apartments. Because the owner used a property manager, she was unaware of the home’s less-than-stellar condition or the cleaning habits of her tenants.

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“The people who lived here were disgusting,” Milburn says. The sewer tank emptied into a bucket in the basement. The outdated systems were in poor repair, and the kitchen had orange Formica countertops. Milburn was undeterred.

“We knew what it could be,” she says. The couple had previously renovated three homes, including one in Trinity Vicinity. And she craved the house’s view of Brandywine Creek.

Milburn and Campbell hired the best home inspector they could find. By pointing out the faults—some of which were hazardous—the couple got the house for $30,000 less. Reductions or below-market-prices, however, do not always translate into bargains, Dewson warns. “You can’t lose sight of the improvement costs or the cost to maintain an old house.”

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Dewson Construction often works with prospective buyers to determine any potential renovation problems, including the impact the renovation could have on the structure. Buyers get an idea of how much it might take to improve the house.

Before securing estimates, determine exactly what it is you want to do and what’s required to do it, says Karen Helme, an interior designer with Dunbarton Designs. By itemizing the planned improvements, Simon and Dean discovered that their wish list was cost-prohibitive. They wound up dropping the budget to $171,000—“way more for far less,” Simon says.

Their project included demolishing walls to let more sun enter the house, extending the kitchen wall, remodeling the bathroom and kitchen, new wiring, new plumbing, new insulation, new windows, central air, new cabinets—and that’s only a partial list.

Milburn can relate. Her home renovation required new systems and the removal of walls erected to create the apartment setup. A wall in the living room, for instance, formed a first-floor corridor to steps leading to the second apartment. There were two furnaces, both of which were dangerously in disrepair. The couple wanted three bedrooms and three-and-a-half baths, which meant reconfiguring rooms.

Padding the budget is imperative. Simon and Dean’s costs topped out at $187,000. Working on an old home is like opening Pandora’s box. “You can’t see through walls and ceilings,” says John McMahon, vice president of Dewson Construction.

Though Helme was careful while budgeting for renovation of her 1940s-era Greenville home, a waste pipe ended up coming through what was supposed to be a doorway. A reroute was required.

Your choice of contractor depends in part on whether you want a restoration or a renovation. Restoring typically refers to bringing the property back to a specific historical period, which requires specialty craftsmen. About 20 percent of Dewson’s clients do a restoration. The rest are into renovation.

“Usually people are modifying the flow of the house for the way we live now,” Helme says. Homeowners no longer need a living room isolated on one side of the house or a tiny kitchen. When Helme first toured her current house, she commented on the small kitchen. The Realtor replied, “It’s the maid’s kitchen.” Helme shook her head. “That’s not how this girl lives,” she said of herself.

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She turned the garage into a family room, opened the kitchen and expanded the master bedroom over the screened porch. She also enlarged the bathroom. “We used to joke that we could brush our teeth, go to the bathroom and shave our legs in the shower without moving,” Helme says.

Because she didn’t substantially change the footprint, she didn’t destroy the character of the house. “You have to think about how it will all look together.”

Yet an up-to-date renovation can still keep in character with the house’s birth date. Farmer sinks, for instance, are stylish and retro. Today’s soapstone countertops suit older houses.

Milburn and Campbell’s master bath boasts white tile that looks as though it had always been there, and Campbell has gone out of his way to find doors and banister spindles that suit the house’s original era. But the couple went totally modern in the kitchen, installing stainless steel appliances, a stainless steel backsplash, cabinets with clean lines and granite countertops.

To get bids—and you should get at least three—ask neighbors for names. Contractors who have worked on older homes, especially in your area, are familiar with local building codes and regulations.

Make sure the contractor is fully insured, says Simon, who learned firsthand how important insurance is. She and Dean were finally seeing their house come together—the insulation was installed and the drywall nearly done—when workers accidentally triggered a natural gas explosion. Suddenly, windows blew out, the new drywall came tumbling down, and cracks appeared all over the house. Debris crushed the baby tree the couple had planted in the backyard to celebrate their progress. “It was a miracle people didn’t die,” Simon says. Though the damage caused delays, it was covered by the contractor’s insurance.

When choosing a contractor, a good rapport is vital, Helme says. You’ll spend a lot of time with that person, so you need to communicate.

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That became a problem for Milburn and Campbell, who clashed with their contractor partly because he wanted to do the entire job. Campbell, however, is handy, so after three previous renovations, he knew when to speak up when a job was not done to his liking.

“I worked as hard as the contractors did while they were here,” he says.

Now that systems are in place, Campbell is doing much of the remaining work, running to Home Depot up to three times a day. When the time comes to do the outside, the couple will go back to getting bids.

Be prepared for the long haul. Milburn and Campbell purchased their home in October 2008. They didn’t move in till last May, and there’s still more work to do. The process can put stress on a marriage. Be willing to talk about your feelings, Simon says. Know that, at times, one of you will be stubborn, so the other has to give.

And keep your priorities in order. “As it turns out,” Simon says, “you need to value the relationship more than the house.” 

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