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Remodeler's Diary : It Was a Dark and Stormy Night . . .

September 24, 1989|LARRY A. MULLER | Muller is a Woodland Hills homeowner

The night of Dec. 15, 1988, was quite possibly the worst night of our lives.

With the entire roof removed from our house and a blue plastic tarp the only barrier between our bedroom ceiling and frigid, torrential rains, the recurring question was whether my wife, Lynn, and I had made a mistake in gambling our financial future and testing our relationship in trying to rebuild a 34-year-old Woodland Hills house.

Actually, the more pressing question was whether we would make it through the night without the ceiling caving onto the bed in which we huddled, sleepless and shivering.

Only one week earlier we had designated this bedroom as our sole enclave during the months of construction that lay ahead, stacking all of our furniture and possessions into every cubic foot of space, except for a 1-foot buffer zone around the bed.

As the seemingly eternal night dragged on toward morning, huge pockets of water collected in wind-stretched areas of the tarp, supported only by the central ridge beam, with no rafters or roofing plywood.

Can Laugh Today

If not for a brief morning respite in the storm and the assistance of the contractor in pushing the water out of its holding areas in the tarp, our bedroom surely would have been awash in a sea of wet rubble.

As with all emotion of the moment, time tends to soothe the lasting impressions and, we are here to laugh about it today.

In fact, when we complete our year-plus project, we will have a beautiful home in a great area, worth about $750,000 (we purchased the house for about half that), accomplished by the only method that allowed us to jump several rungs on the Los Angeles housing market.

In effect, we created what we never could have afforded.

It all began with a simple plan: buy the worst house in the best neighborhood, redesign and rebuild it to create the house of our dreams.

Walls Moved, Altered

Although some may prefer the term remodel to rebuild, I find the latter to be far more accurate and descriptive. After all, only one room remains the same and every other interior and exterior wall has been moved or altered.

For example, the original living-dining room of about 350 square feet has been expanded and transformed into a living room of over 600 square feet and 80% of the original kitchen has been expanded to create a new dining room. The well-situated, but poorly designed, three-bedroom home that we purchased had 1,700 square feet, aquamarine toilets and a "Leave It to Beaver" kitchen. We are slowly turning it into a showplace of more than 3,000 square feet and abounding with extras--three fireplaces covered with marble, a gourmet kitchen, coffered and raised-beam ceilings.

Perhaps the clearest remembrance is of the day in December when, upon returning from work, our house was completely roofless, with doors that previously had led to bedrooms now opening to the great outdoors.

I think it may have been hardest of all on our cat, which was forced daily to take refuge at a neighbor's house, returning each evening with trepidation, only to find that his newest sleeping place of the previous night was again displaced by the addition or deletion of a wall, or some other intrusion of construction mayhem. He has only recently begun to regain his sanity.

Of course, Murphy's Law reared its ugly head as we chose the worst winter in seven years to build. The impact of the first snowfall in the Valley in 40 years was overshadowed by the nightly dinners in our future kitchen.

In Good Area

As we stared up to the roof rafters, biting wind found its way through cracks in the plywood sheer wall, which provided our only defense against the elements. We often required two electric heaters on our eating table, pointed at each of our faces to stay warm.

Still, I do highly recommend reconstructing a house in a good area (but perhaps not living through it) for people who want to custom build what they can't find or afford to buy; are hands-on, want to participate and be intensely involved, and are adventurous, patient and creative.

In our case, my wife and I built much of the house ourselves, thereby cutting down on our per-square-foot cost from $90-plus for upgrade construction to about $45. It is this saving that enabled us to build our current dream house.

While not professional, my somewhat seasoned abilities and my wife's newly learned skills are several notches above the amateur level. We did most of our own plumbing, electrical, cabinet-making, tiling, flooring and many other tasks in helping to complete the project.

Willingness to Try

For most people, the prospect of doing one's own work is probably unthinkable. Yet much of the work in remodeling is not that difficult and involves only a willingness to try.

Tasks such as painting, cabinet finishing, wallpapering and even finished plumbing and electrical work are within the capability of most people who are ready to learn. The saving can be dramatic. After all, labor costs are the major expense of any job.

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