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The East Boston House

A worn out 1916 two-family house gets upgraded for two descendants of the original owners

Everyone is going back to their roots this season on This Old House. For Liz Bagley and her aunt Christine Flynn, co-owners of the two-family house a block from the water in East Boston, those roots are familial: Chris and her siblings, including Liz's mom, were raised in the house, originally owned by Chris's grandparents. Now the women will take on the task of updating the two parts of this tired 1916 house.

For This Old House TV, going back to our roots means taking it down a notch, executing a small-scale renovation like the ones so many homeowners and viewers of the show face. Aside from two complete kitchen remodels, most of what's happening to Chris and Liz's separate apartments is everyday stuff, from replacing a sewer line collapsed by tree roots to repairing the cracked stucco siding and upgrading the insulation. "This is a pretty straightforward job," says TOH general contractor Tom Silva. "The house is plain and simple, but just worn out."

However, like a lot of homeowners, Chris and Liz have a very limited budget to work with—only $250,000 to divide between the two places, which is not a lot by Boston's expensive standards. That means there will be many tough choices, leading to more repairs and fewer replacements, and several things that will have to be left for another time. The owners will have to decide whether to upgrade their old heating systems or replace them, deal with insulating and rewiring the house without tearing out the walls, choose kitchen and bathroom finishes that look updated but don't break the budget, and see what they can sell or trade for salvage.

But in reality, this project is twice as much for half the price. Two homes, two owners, two plans—and Liz and Chris have decidedly different styles. Chris, 53, an incentive travel director, has traditional tastes, so she hopes to leave much of her 5-bedroom duplex intact, except for stealing a bedroom to expand her kitchen and cutting into some attic space for a master bathroom. She'll choose finishes that reflect her style, including a country kitchen and refurbished built-ins original to the 1916 house. "I'm into function and cosmetics," says Chris. "I don't need teak. I don't need cherry. I like the basics."

Liz, 35, a systems analyst, considers her style more modern, and will prove it by blowing out a few walls in her single-story apartment to create a large open-living area out of the current kitchen, dining room and living room. "I'm going for the loft look," she explains. "I'll be able to see the water from my kitchen at the back of the house."

Both women are eager to get in and get their hands dirty, especially if it means saving some money and getting the chance to learn from the pros. They're not afraid to pick up a sledgehammer or a finish hammer, and plan to put the wisdom of the show guys to good use. "I said to the crew: 'Teach me anything you can,'" says Chris.

Liz echoes this sentiment. "I'm looking for lots of input and ideas from the crew," she says. "And then just a job well done." And how about working side by side with her aunt? "She's my godmother, so we're really close. It's going to be great working and living with her."

Read Liz and Chris' ongoing accounts—and see the photos—of life inside a TOH House Project, on the TOH Blog, Old House My House.