In November 2004, I sold my old house and rented temporarily, so I could afford my $300,000 dream. Even I thought this was too much money for such a dump, and people tried to convince me I would be better off tearing it down and building new. But there were so many wonderful things about the house, I just couldn't. In fact, I felt guilty throwing away even materials that were beyond hope—like every inch of plaster.

I spent the better part of the late fall tackling the renovation's biggest project: demolition. I've remodeled other houses, so I was pretty used to the dirty work, which left filth in my nostrils and hair every day for a month. But this time the broken windows and lack of heat had me shivering underneath the layers of dust. Filling the six Dumpsters parked one after another out front didn't make me a favorite on the block either. But one neighbor was kind enough to let me use his garden hose to wash my hands, since the new plumbing had yet to be installed.

Teaming up with Todd Pritchett, a designer I had worked with before, I started to plan how I could keep the integrity of the house while making it more comfortable. I wanted to create guest rooms for family and friends on the second floor, but at the time the only way to get up there was a rickety homemade ladder nailed to rafters in the back of the house. I wasn't sure where to put a new staircase. Todd recommended widening the center hall for the new stairs and putting a powder room underneath them. With his help, I added two more baths upstairs as well as three bedrooms. I also hired an engineer to help me bring the second floor up to code, which meant replacing the existing 2x6 floor joists with 2x10s and 2x12s.

I got behind schedule and had to stay in my interim rental for a few more weeks than I had planned. It ­couldn't last much longer, though, since I was driving 12 miles each way for my night job, managing a restaurant located just blocks from my new house. So, in May 2005, six months after starting the renovation, I moved in. With only partial use of one bathroom and minimal use of the kitchen, I was stuck brushing my teeth and washing the coffee pot at the same sink and eating dinner at work for another couple of months.

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