We bought our house ten years ago. I have told this story many times about how we put thirteen offers on twelve different houses and each time we were outbid. After searching online, going to open houses every weekend and having my heart broken for an entire year, it was a miracle when we bought our house. I remember going to the open house on a rainy day in January to see a small cute house with a large backyard. I was already skeptical walking in but the good news was due to the rain there wasn’t as many people there as it would be on a sunny day. The bad news was the house had one bathroom, old plumbing and was a few blocks from Eagle Rock, the neighborhood I wanted to live in. Despite the issues and feeling numb to the house hunting process, we put in our bid, wrote our standard letter to the owners explaining why we could only afford to offer full price, we didn’t expect any response. However, I was already falling in love with the backyard and making plans for the kitchen by that evening. Turns out there was two offers submitted and believe it or not our letter must have worked. Our offer was accepted. HOORAY!!
We went through weeks of torment getting the bank appraisal, the inspections telling us we would spend close to $35,000 in foundation repairs and my neurotic doubts that we would actually be able to buy a house in Los Angeles. We had already fell out of escrow before so every step was nerve-racking. Our amazing realtor was able to negotiate $15k in repairs taken off the price so that covered all of our closing costs. My Mom has always told me “Things happen for a reason.” and I couldn’t see back in 2006 that Highland Park would develop into the family friendly, most desired neighborhood it is today. That York Blvd would be dubbed the Abbot Kinney of Northeast LA or that our house would become the home we would raise our daughter in. I’ve had a love/hate relationship with this house over the years but the same can be true about most of my life’s relationships. You have to learn to appreciate something. It takes time, nurturing and patience to create a bond. I am grateful that we didn’t buy those twelve other houses that had major structural issues, were located in questionable areas and were well over our budget. This house was meant for us.
Antz and I have been talking about getting the foundation repaired for years but tuition, travel and our lifestyle have been priorities that have made it hard for us to start the work. We were able to tolerate the cracks in the walls and doors that stick when it rains but we both knew we needed to get the work done before something terrible would happen. (Like our house fall down the hill it sits on!) Our good fortune was buying in an up and coming area. Highland Park has become a hot neighborhood, so our equity skyrocketed and we were able to refinance. Lucky for me I had my friend, neighbor and talented contractor, Rene. Rene and his crew were awesome and I’ll enthusiastically recommend him to anyone looking for a contractor.
We had an moderately long list of things to repair but he worked with our limited budget.
Just an example of one of my weekly to-do lists. Rene and his crew ended up doing all this work:
Repair loose bricks on the porch
Patch/Paint the exterior of the house
Paint front door
Repair front door threshold
Repair roof leak
Remove iron bars on windows
Repair and straighten exterior wall
Remove popcorn ceiling/crown molding
Install new drywall
Repair and stain wood beams
Patch/Paint living room
Install built-in shelves
Paint back door
Repair back door threshold
Repair fireplace hearth tile
Build our new bed frame (I finally upgraded to a King size mattress because I couldn’t pass up their Black Friday sale and Antz and I are giants so sleeping on a queen was miserable)
**Electrical wiring/Repair and replace living room electric outlets/Install ceiling fan/light fixture
We hired a different electrician because our first guy was being shady and we weren’t happy with his work.
The entire project took about eight weeks but only because we had a minor delay which I’ll get to later. During the construction we lived in our small bedroom which we will never do again! Serious cabin fever set in due to the over crowding from having to shove all of our furniture and belongings into the kitchen, the hallway and Liv’s bedroom. In hindsight, I should have budgeted for a rental but I really wanted to stay on budget and that would have left me with zero money for new furniture. More than once during the remodel, I found myself quoting Lucy Ricardo complaining to Antz (Ricky) about how awful our furniture looked! Hint, hint.
Our living/dining room before the remodel
I liked our fun, colorful living room but it still felt cramped and dark. I longed for white walls and a popcorn-free ceiling. I love our original fireplace but the hearth was damaged and the tile was cracking due to the foundation moving. I was in denial that we owned too much stuff but as we were packing things to clear out the room, it was obvious, I needed to let go of half of our stuff. I donated books, knick-knacks and the clunky old bar we never used. We had boring beige colored walls, honey-orange, scratched hardwood floors and inherited two Tiffany-style antique ceiling fans which I think were purchased in the 1990s. They swung precariously on the high setting and the glass sconces were broken so the only thing holding them on was the light bulbs. I was afraid to even clean them because the tiny screws holding them up were warped and any pressure would have caused them to crack. It was time for an update. Out of all the work we planned, choosing light fixtures proved to be most stressful for me. I loved the 1920’s style ceiling fans from Rejuvenation but they weren’t quite right for the price. Then I headed over to one of my favorite stores, Schoolhouse Electric. I was surprised to find they don’t carry ceiling fans. So my final and best option was West Elm. I wanted a fan that had a dimmable light setting, in bronze to coordinate with our new ceiling. The only issue was the ceiling fan I chose was a special order and would take four weeks to be delivered. This held us up for some time but luckily, it only took two weeks to arrive. I even got 30% off thanks to Black Friday sales!
My painters were amazing, it was terribly hot but they worked non stop and serenaded me to 80’s tunes. They sanded every inch of the 93 year old wood.
Things were happening inside too.
For some odd reason, there were speakers hidden in the attic. After careful inspection we didn’t find a bag full of money or a treasure map so out they went. We also found disgusting insulation that I’m positive was unhealthy to breathe. After a few hours with a hammer, our ceiling was gone and these stunning attic beams were uncovered.
There was no way we could cover up these gorgeous wood beams with boring drywall. We told Rene that instead of our plan to install a new ceiling, we would rather expose the attic ceiling to give the space a dramatic feel. This meant adding more drywall to the walls and reinforcing the beams. We decided to keep four of the beams after a debate about keeping all of them. We also found random wires that didn’t appear to work so we needed to hire an electrician to rewire and reroute them. Timing is everything and by removing the ceiling we were able to see the beams moved from their original position which could have caused the ceiling to cave in. We were shocked and relived! The front wall of the living room moved four inches forward away from the house. We knew our house had many issues but this was very dangerous. Rene was able to move the front wall back in place.
Yikes, wasps nests in the attic! Our old HVAC ducts had to be rerouted since we no longer had a ceiling.
The most nerve-racking day of the project happened to coincide with Halloween! We weren’t even home when they moved the wall because Liv had a party at her school. By the way, we were Oktoberfest themed this year since Liv wanted to wear a costume we bought from her ballet school. Antz was not so keen on wearing lederhosen.
I found our costumes on Amazon. Liv is in heaven when she wears a corset and tulle!
Not being home was actually a good thing because I couldn’t stop envisioning our front wall falling down and all our beautiful windows shattering. I must have texted Rene fifty times that afternoon. By the time we got home our wall was straight again and only one small window pane cracked. Bravo Rene and crew!
The crew added new wood beams to support the roof. I learned that the older wood beams are actually stronger than the new wood but it was wise to increase the reinforcement because the old construction wasn’t measured with today’s codes. So we were on the fast track to finishing the drywall and prep for painting the interior when we got held up by the elephant in the room.
That eyesore you see was our 41 year old furnace. Yep, our central air and heat system was older than I am! I asked Rene if he could push it back into the attic so it wouldn’t stick out but that was easier said than done. Here is the major setback we faced.
This guy totally looks like an elephant’s trunk. Rene informed me the unit was hooked up to a gas line which would have to be rerouted, something he wasn’t capable of doing. Then there was an issue with the weight of the unit and moving it back would then push it directly on top of the ceiling of Olivia’s bedroom. There was no way I wanted a old piece of machinery sitting over where she sleeps so moving the unit was not an option. This meant we had two choices, leave it were it was and drywall around it or purchase a new unit. I didn’t plan to replace the HVAC but this is the joy of a remodel, you always have an unexpected expense. I received three quotes and chose the most environmentally friendly company and the second most expensive system.
The central air and heat work extended our timeline an additional three days. When the workers removed of our old unit we discovered the system was faulty, not up to code and hard wired which is a major fire hazard. The poor guy removing it said the unit began to spark and smoke when they took it apart. So, it was a miracle we decided to expose the attic or we would have just covered the ceiling and continued using our old system. The old unit was noisy and barely blew air through the ducts so we had to run it for longer periods which would make our electrical bill higher. So don’t cheap out folks, it may just kill you!
We chose a more efficient unit that was lighter yet sturdier, pleasantly quieter and new metal ducts that wouldn’t blow dust like our old plastic ones did. Hello, I am happy I no longer sneeze all day! We got an incredible deal, the new unit cost $7,600 with a ten year warranty. My favorite part besides the lower electricity bill and the peace of mind of our properly installed system, is we can program the thermostat from our phones. Hooray laziness! Our old unit would stay on all night because once we fell asleep we would be too tired to get up and turn it off. Now I can set it by temperature or timer from my phone or computer.
Our plaster walls were a hot mess. I can’t help but compare the work we got done to our house to a 93 year old woman getting plastic surgery. Thank goodness Rene is our skilled surgeon. He was so resourceful and he has the most talented crew I’ve ever worked with.
So while all this was happening indoors, our house was being patched and painted outside. Antz and I were so confident with our house paint color when we picked it at the store, we had no doubt about it when we painted a swatch. However, when the painters sprayed it on the wall of our house, my heart sank. It was the exact shade of blue as a Smurf. I cried, called Antz to come home and see the shockingly bright blue and we unanimously agreed to change the color. The color change was a slight hiccup because Rene had already purchased $600 worth of bright blue paint and we had to pay for the day of work lost to our two painters. It was an expensive mistake but there was no way we would be happy coming home to this Lego blue house!
So after my unnecessary meltdown, we went to the store, talked to the manager and he assured us he would darken our paint. We even walked around our neighborhood comparing the dark blue and grey houses trying to make up our minds. I originally voted to paint our house matte black like sf girl by bay but I was vetoed. Black works for Victoria’s house but ours has too much red brick and we are colorful folks. Antz worked his artistic magic and found the perfect shade of navy for our house.
Before, during and after. Isn’t that an insane improvement?! Please remember to test your paint swatches at different times of day! We tested ours in the front of the house which meant it was in the shade. Seeing the same shade of blue in the direct sunlight made a vast difference. I am in love with the cheery shade of yellow we chose!
We removed one of our two bougainvillea bushes to open the space next to the backdoor. I asked our gardener to stop trimming the tops before the summer and after six months flowers finally began to bloom. We recently had our glass windows replaced for free through a city program sponsored by Los Angeles department of water and power. They offer home energy audits to help homeowners make their houses more energy efficient and lower your monthly bill.
Due to our house’s bad foundation, our porch had loose bricks that everyone would trip over. Antz has repaired them many times over the years but Rene actually found the source of the problem and pulled up the entire section of the porch. He discovered that the bricks weren’t anchored into the ground and just floating over a broken foundation. I was so worried about replacing the original bricks but the guy who removed them didn’t break a single brick during the work!
This saw cut through the concrete like butter. They did all this work in like an hour!
I was so impressed with their work and was kicking myself for asking Antz to keep patching the loose bricks for all these years. The work only cost us $750 to repair the porch for the long term. This experience has taught me to stop just putting a Band-aid on a problem and just go ahead and get it fixed by a professional. I was so overwhelmed by how expensive I thought it would be, it stopped me from just getting the work done.
There is no better feeling than having solid floors and straight white walls. Our front door has slammed for ten years because our front wall was crooked and it is just mind-blowing that it no longer slams. Now all of our windows can open and it feels like we got a brand new house. We have had iron bars on two of our windows which I find to be odd because they are inaccessible and the smallest windows in our house. It was a bitch to remove them (they had to saw them off) but it makes such a huge impact now that the iron is gone.
I somehow squeezed a few extras into our budget which was mostly adult-boring work. I have wanted built-in shelves forever but with crooked walls and corners that were always moving because of the bad foundation, it wasn’t a possibility. I almost contemplated painting the fireplace mantle white to match the new built-in shelves but I am so happy we didn’t. Now I have ample storage space for my large art books that didn’t fit on our old bookshelves.
Rene graciously repaired our broken tiles on our fireplace hearth.
So on the last day of our two month project, I was elated at the transformation. Wow! look at this lovely blank canvas! Yet…don’t those floors look lackluster? When you are over-budget and having to figure out some way to create a budget to get our floors refinished, you brainstorm with your practical, spendthrift husband. Antz was able to sell our old couch, the coffee table, a mirror we no longer used and our old Ikea chair. I wouldn’t have thought that anyone would buy our old furniture but thanks to the Nextdoor app, we were able to fund our floors!
It took one day for the floor refinishing which meant we had to stay out of the house for 48 hours so the floors could dry. We spent the weekend at my Mom’s house and when we saw the result, it was the cherry on top of our remodel. I am so grateful to all our workers who handled my silly questions and requests (I literally drove them crazy reminding everyone to not touch the freshly painted white walls and I kept leaving post-its around the house with notes of things they needed to finish) with patience. They were respectful, reassuring and always smiling even during the hottest days. One of my guys told me, “I’d rather be here working and sweating than at home comfortable and broke.” We gave all our workers a small bonus because they were awesome and they deserved it.
Thank you so much Rene, you are the raddest contractor in Los Angeles. We are in love with our beautiful house. The photos of the remodel are coming soon.