Mom Sees Horror, He Sees Dream Home
After four years of remodeling weekends, this DIYer and his partner have made the 1919 bungalow into an inviting home that even a mother could love
We weren't in the house five minutes before tears started rolling down my mother's face, as she took in the kitschy stenciling on the walls and the orange-and-green shag carpets. I tried to comfort her, detailing all the potential the nearly 100-year-old bungalow had—original beadboard ceilings and horsehair plaster walls, for starters—but she wasn't having it. The second floor of the 2,200-square-foot home was unfinished, and the first was filled with shoddy, half-done remodeling projects and had a musty smell.
Shown: Homeowner Charles McAfee relaxes in the living room.
My partner, Jimmy, hated it too. I had convinced him to take a leap of faith on the home, which is in an up-and-coming part of Greer, South Carolina, but down deep he thought it was a money pit. While neither of us had done much remodeling, he at least had some carpentry experience. I, meanwhile, had done little more than paint. Looking back, I can understand why he thought I had gone insane.
Shown: The living room was once filled with large cracks in the walls.
At the time, though, all I could see was the wraparound porch and 7½-foot-wide hallway that first caught my eye. I knew that behind the heinous facade were good bones and restorable hardwood floors. An unenthused Realtor, who hadn't expected me to make an offer, had pulled up a section of the rug for me. The boards were scuffed and scarred, but they were solid heart pine.
Plus, I thought the place was a steal. I bought it in December 2004 for $70,000, and we managed to set aside $20,000 for fixing up the house, a project we jumped right into. For two months before moving in, we spent our free weekends—Jimmy's a nurse, and I work for the local theater company—ripping out flooring, repairing cracked plaster, and knocking down walls. It's amazing: It costs $500 to have someone demo just one wall but you can do it in 10 minutes with a sledgehammer and little know-how.
Shown: The 1919 bungalow sits on a one-acre property and is wrapped on two sides with a porch.
Our toughest project ended up being the first one: the master bedroom. Walking into that room was like visiting a fun house. There were at least five different paint colors going on, and the previous owner had thrown up a wall in the middle of the 15-by-16-foot room in an attempt to add a bath. While he hadn't done any plumbing, he had knocked out the chimney and fireplace. Jimmy had to cover up the Mother Goose mural painted on the closed-up box.
To bring back some of the charm, we strained a few back muscles moving a two-tiered oak mantle from a closed fireplace in the guest room to top a new ventless gas one in the master bedroom. While we would have preferred a traditional wood-burning fireplace, I like how the ventless model we put in warms up the room 10 degrees in 10 minutes. Chill-free showers were nice to have during the sawdust-filled six months we spent sanding and refinishing the house's original pine moldings.
Shown: Abbie, the homeowners' Boston terrier, makes herself at home in the master bedroom, which opens onto the side porch.
After earning our first stripes with that project, we tackled the dining room. It had not one, not two, but three layers of flooring on top of the hardwood: shag carpet, vinyl tile, and a thick backer board. Normally, that would be annoying but not a huge problem. Unfortunately, the previous owners decided that anytime a piece of the flooring curled or popped up they could fix it by nailing or screwing it back down. It had at least a thousand fasteners tacked in! After about a week of six-hour days getting them out, my hands were cramped from working with the hammer, screwdriver, and pry bar, and there were holes everywhere. We were sure we'd have to cover the floor again.
Just for fun, though, we decided to take a drum sander to it to see what would happen. Honestly, we were hoping for a miracle, since we hadn't budgeted for a new floor. Thankfully, once we refinished it and put down a coat of glossy polyurethane, the holes made it look purposefully distressed—or, as Jimmy says, "pickled." Now we laugh when people ask how we managed to get the effect.
Our luck continued in the kitchen. Jimmy finally went a little crazy one day and pulled up the old vinyl floor while I was at work, to see what lay beneath. Sadly, it wasn't beautiful hardwood. I figured we'd have to shell out for tile or new linoleum to put over the pine, but Jimmy had seen someone paint a floor on TV and decided to give it a try. For two weeks, he painstakingly taped off the floor and created a diamond pattern with several shades of $5-per-gallon "oops" paint that had been returned to the home center. It looked great, so we decided to just install a new light, buy a restaurant supply cart for an island, and finish painting the space. Word of warning: Be sure you have enough "oops" paint before you start so that you don't end up trying to match it at full price. Jimmy nearly ran out before he finished the walls.
The kitchen didn't look complete, though, until we went window shopping for cabinets we couldn't yet afford. While looking at some Shaker-style doors, Jimmy suddenly turned to me and said, "You know, all this looks like to me is a piece of trim laid on a slab door." Sure enough, when we got home, he took down a cabinet door, found a piece of lattice trim to cut and lay on top, and managed to replicate the look. It's hard to believe those are the same cabinets now.
We don't consider the room finished yet. We'd like to add a dishwasher and new counters, but for less than $300 in materials and a lot of work from Jimmy, it looks much, much better.
We've been working hard to scrimp and save where possible—$20,000 only goes so far in a whole-house renovation, and we busted that initial budget doing our new bath. Early on we had to pay someone to jack up the former laundry room, which was originally the back porch, and replace the rotting support beams. Later, when we finally got around to working on the space, we also contracted out the electrical and plumbing.
Bath contractor and tub refinisher: Sam Lewis, Haven Renovations LLC, Greenville, SC; 864-360-1664
We thought about trying to do it ourselves but knew it would take us a year to do what they did in two months. To offset costs, we scoured sales and outlet stores for fixtures. I knew I wanted to mix vintage with modern finishes, so when we saw a rustic table in an antique store, we bought it and put a vessel sink on top. The claw-foot bathtub, meanwhile, came at a discount from a friend who refinishes them for a living.
Shown: The new guest bath occupies what was the back-porch-turned-laundry-room, which had settled into an off-kilter slope. An antique table and a 100-year-oldtub now mix with more modern touches, such as nickel-plated hardware.
New beadboard wainscot in the bath echoes the original ceilings found throughout the rest of the house.
The generous 7½ -foot-wide main hallway, with its heart-pine floors and original beadboard ceiling, was a major selling point for us.
After we bought the house, we spent many hours doing major refinishing work and painting and are thrilled with the results.
The hardest lesson I've learned in the past four years is patience. You can't take on a project like this and get it done in a year. There's a lot we'd still like to do. We hope that when we strip off the vinyl siding outside we'll find the original wood clapboards in decent condition. Whatever happens, though, I know this home is worth all the sweat and tears. We love this house, and now my mom is more than happy to stop by for a visit.
The 1,800-square-foot first floor of the 1919 home, which had no indoor bathroom until the 1980s, had been chopped up in recent years. The new owners restored much of the original plan.
Remodeling cost: $30,000 so far.
Time frame: Four years and counting.
Where we saved: Using discounted fixtures, a restaurant cart, and "oops" paint to redo the kitchen.
Where we splurged: Hiring contractors to help turn the rotting laundry room into a luxurious guest bath.
What we would do differently: Nothing! It was all a learning experience.
Biggest challenge: The dining room's hardwood floor looked like Swiss cheese after we removed fasteners from the top layers of carpet, linoleum, and subfloor.
How we solved it: We embraced the flaws as "character," running a drum sander over the boards and topping with a fresh coat of glossy polyurethane.