Renovation Goes Mainstream

Restoring a house was eccentric 20 years ago; now many first-time homebuyers opt to do so. HOME FIXUP

DARIA REAGAN and her husband, Oliver Bouchier, temporarily moved into their neighbor's house to avoid breathing the fumes from their freshly refinished wood floors. Then nature came knocking. Ms. Reagan went into labor - and their first child was born in their neighbor's bed. ``It was a race,'' she says, referring to the grand finale in a 10-year ordeal. ``Could we finish the house before the baby was born?''

The couple is one of an apparently still-growing number of first-time homebuyers who purchase older, more affordable houses and infuse them with sweat equity for economic as well as aesthetic reasons.

They don't just want to remodel, they want to restore.

``When our magazine started 18 years ago,'' says Gordon Bock, senior editor of Old House Journal, ``restoring a vintage building ... had been an eccentric project. It's more of a mainstream idea today, and there are more resources available today.'' Membership in the Washington, D.C.-based National Trust for Historic Preservation has gone from ``negligible'' 20 years ago to a quarter million members today, says Trust president Jack Walter.

The pocketbook side of the renovation equation is simple: ``First-time buyers are being priced out of the market for new construction,'' says John Pfister, vice president in charge of marketing research at Chicago Title & Trust Co. His company just reported that, for the 14th straight year, real estate prices outstripped personal income.

``Brand-new houses with quality detail and building materials are beyond the reach of a lot of young families,'' says Mr. Walter, while Victorian-era homes, built during a period of expanding population, are plentiful and often in need of fixing up.

But restoration can be tricky, as the Reagan-Bouchiers discovered when they bought their 100-year-old ``bargain'' 12 years ago in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. The abandoned house cost them $5,000.

``The ceilings were down, the wiring was exposed, the plumbing was going - but the main roof was intact,'' says Bouchier. ``It was a total wreck, and the thing is, we didn't recognize it. We just thought we'd paint it, or something. We thought we'd have it done in three or four months.''

Bouchier brought only basic woodworking experience to the project - he had built theater sets in London. Reagan, who owns a vintage and costume clothing store, brought virtually none. Ten years and tens of thousands of dollars later, the couple finally finished the house.

`We were living in utter chaos'

``I'm glad that we did it, because at the time we couldn't have afforded any other house in Jamaica Plain,'' says Reagan in retrospect. But ``we made a lot of mistakes in the order in which we chose to do things. We started with the outside of the house, and in the meantime we were living in utter chaos on the inside.''

If you're planning a major renovation and will be living in the house, Bouchier and Reagan recommend having one or two ``finished'' rooms for some semblance of order. Plan ahead, don't be too meticulous, and don't try to do the whole house at once, they say.

Finish the project you start before you move on to the next one, says Bouchier. ``The major mistake I made in the first house was to go from exciting idea to exciting idea. ... There was only one area that was habitable, and much to my wife's chagrin, I just upped and ripped it up one day. And it was at least eight years before I got back to finish that one.''

Realize every project will take four times longer than you think, and leave the finish work for last, is their advice. ``You have to know what your skeletal needs are, and add the frills later,'' says Reagan.

Although they describe their first renovation project as a grueling ordeal, the couple recently bought a second fixer-upper. But they are better prepared now. Mr. Bouchier became a self-taught craftsman from the first renovation experience, and today is a partner in a fine carpentry and antique wood restoration business.

Hiring others to do the big renovation projects for you may be equally challenging, Lisa and Dana Draper discovered when they bought a late-1800s house in Winterport, Maine, 3 1/2 years ago.

The Drapers's first contractor claimed to be a ``renovations expert,'' but they ``kindly terminated'' him when he tried to rearrange the molding in the kitchen, says Ms. Draper. They hired a second contractor who came highly recommended by a friend, and were pleased with the results. ``Go with someone that you know people have used, and can show really good references,'' she says now.

She also recommends being at home as much as possible. ``With any old house, there are always things that are hidden that are nightmares to be dealt with,'' she says. ``A lot of times a contractor will just go ahead and pick the most expensive way of fixing it.''

Tips from a pro

If you choose to do some, or even all, of the renovation work yourself, consider these tips from George Stephen, author of ``New Life for Old Houses'':

Do research. Potential renovators should educate themselves thoroughly about their homes before wielding crowbars.

Be honest about how much work you're prepared to do: A little wallpapering and floor sanding? Will clouds of plaster dust be a regular house guest? Renovation can be disruptive to home life. And if your house requires extensive work, you may want to hire an architect and contractors.

Never make the building look older than the original structure. Inappropriate windows, shutters, or detail can destroy the character of the house.

Whenever possible, don't do anything irreversible. ``Obviously, if you're doing something big to your house, you might be removing things that can't be replaced,'' he says. But if you remove molding or detail, store it in the basement.

Be moderate. Try to repair something before replacing it.

Mix old and new carefully. Modernizing kitchens and bathrooms can be especially challenging, he says. It requires good taste. Sometimes a Victorian flavor can be maintained by the choice of kitchen cabinets, light fixtures, or the installation of a claw-foot tub in the bathroom, for example.

And remember, restoration projects need not be drudgery. The Drapers found it was fun and built camaraderie. A sense of humor is an important tool, they add.

Even Bouchier and Reagan found time to enjoy their construction-zone surroundings. ``Eight, 10, 15 people would come for dinner, and we'd have tablecloths laid out, and candlesticks, and glassware - it was like something out of Brecht,'' says Bouchier. ``The walls would be crumbling down, and there would be nowhere to cook, nowhere to wash up, but we'd lay these beautiful tables and have these great dinners.''

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