Rewarding do-it-yourselfers for fixing their homes

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An abandoned parish hall is transformed into an elegant, energy-efficient home. A -dilapidated carriage house is restored to a sturdy modern-day garage. A ''disaster kitchen'' is molded to a sparkling replica of its owner's dreams.

These aren't ''dream projects'' out of a slick designer magazine. They are some of the winning entries of a real-life home improvement contest among average homeowners with average budgets, not the glossy creation of a hefty bankroll and an editor's fancy layout.

''That's My House'' - reportedly the first such contest sponsored by a bank - showcased these projects as examples of what a little ''sweat equity'' and ingenuity could do for Boston homeowners.

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Sponsored and heavily promoted for a year by the Charlestown Savings Bank, the contest was designed to spark interest in neighborhood redevelopment - by the neighbors themselves - as an alternative to the housing squeeze caused by high interest rates and slow, or no, construction starts, explains Robert Garver , president of the bank.

''In a city with a critical housing shortage and 46,000 units of abandoned housing it's a crime not to put them to use,'' he says.

Judges considered the overall merit of each project - including practicality and craftsmanship, but also resourcefulness in raising funds and manpower. Home improvements had to be made on owner-occupied residences and completed during the year between Oct. 1, 1980 and Oct. 1, 1981. Entrants competed for 16, $1,000 prizes, and a $2,000 grand prize was awarded to one of the finalists.

Winners announced recently included a broad cross section of Bostonians, many who previously had only a passing acquaintance with a hammer and nail. Among the winners, for example, were a housewife, a social-studies teacher, a medical researcher, and even an opera singer.

While many of the 257 entrants were for a single improvement or improvements on homes already being lived in, a significantel3l

number started with nothing but the skeleton of a building - often minus plumbing or even a roof.

For example, grand prize winner Mark Rogers scraped together $2,500 to pick up a two-unit shell of a building on a street of abandoned row houses in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood. Mr. Rogers, a carpenter, worked evenings and weekends on his renovation, and bartered for jobs he couldn't do himself.

''The bartering was intense - tons of bartering. But it was worth it. My kitchen cost $28,'' he says, adding that the wood for his deck came from salvaged railroad ties.

Mr. Rogers's total cash investment was $12,000. He has been offered $60,000 for the building - an indication that his work had a direct effect on improving the whole depressed neighborhood.

Mr. Garver admits that many of the projects were not initiated because of the contest - indeed, most were started years before the competition was planned. The awards themselves would only cover a fraction of the cost of most of the projects. But, he says, the ''That's My House'' awards successfully created an enthusiasm for home improvement that ultimately will improve neighborhood property values as residents realize they don't have to be architects or designers to mold a better, more attractive home.

This was evident in the Hyde Park neighborhood, where finalist Marion Aymie spent 270 hours renovating her kitchen. ''Neighbors come in and look at my kitchen and say, 'You did that? If you can do it, I can do it.' And they're right,'' says Ms. Aymie.

She describes the momentum of rehabilitation in her area this way: ''Everyone in this neighborhood was getting upset about its deterioration. The house next door to ours was little more than a pigpen. A contractor bought it and rebuilt it, we made our improvements, and now everyone has some project going.''

In Boston's South End, Paul and Mary Galvin say they hired ''a couple of neighborhood people who just knocked on the door and asked if they could help'' them convert a vacant 120-year-old town house into three apartment units.

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