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Persistence Pays Off : Pair Restoring Home Finally Become Owners, Survive Mushroom Factor

This is the second in a series of articles documenting the couple's work in progress.

June 06, 1992|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — Rolinda Biscotti was talking to a friend on the telephone a few weeks ago when she heard a terrible noise.

She stuck her head around the corner and gazed into the dining room, where she spied husband Jeff's foot and part of his leg poking through the ceiling that the couple recently paid $600 to have replastered.

It seems Jeff had slipped off a beam in the floor of the upstairs bathroom and crashed through in a cloud of splintered lath and crumbled plaster.

The beam hadn't been exposed a week earlier--the bathroom floor had been whole until a leak in the shower he was building forced Jeff to tear it up.

It's been that kind of spring for the Biscottis as they move forward in their herculean effort to restore the 1905 Colonial Revival home they acquired in Santa Ana's historic French Park neighborhood four years ago and moved into in November.

"I'm telling the truth," Rolinda said. "I just looked up at his foot and turned around and went back into the kitchen and finished my phone call."

When Jeff came downstairs, the Biscottis' 3-year-old daughter, Victoria, looked at him and solemnly pronounced that he had to be more careful, Rolinda recalled.

"And then I asked where he wanted to go for dinner, and we locked up and walked out of the house and didn't mention the hole in the ceiling or the problems in the bathroom or anything else about the house the rest of the night," she said.

It gets like that when you've tackled a formidable task.

But the Biscottis laugh about the moments of despair and the occasional mild breakdown--like the day in the middle of the home improvement warehouse when Rolinda announced she was tired of fixing things up. The resulting argument could be heard three aisles away.

They are passionate about what they are doing, and passion is never quiet and uneventful.

The Biscotti home is 3,000 square feet of stained and varnished wood, oak flooring, hand-troweled plaster and custom carpentry spared from the wrecker's ball by concerned citizens in 1986 and moved into French Park in 1987 through the combined efforts of the city and the Historic French Park Assn.

It is officially known as the Duggan House after its builder, early Santa Ana insurance executive William Lee Duggan. It is a measure of the Biscottis' love of the fine old structure that their home answering machine tells callers they have reached not the Biscotti residence but "the Duggan House, home of the Biscottis . . . "

But as of three months ago, the Biscottis still were waiting for escrow to close.

They actually acquired rights to the home in April, 1988, in a complex deal that didn't give them title. For that, the Biscottis had to get a real mortgage from a real bank, and that took almost four years. The bank had difficulty justifying a loan on a 87-year-old unpainted wooden house that had no functioning bathroom and a kitchen that was in violation of just about every city building and safety code.

By the time the Biscottis actually moved in, almost 40 months after taking possession, they had spent nearly $80,000 on the house--including $12,000 in credit card debt they wanted the bank to wrap into the mortgage loan.

They had installed new plumbing, an electrical system, an entirely new kitchen and a downstairs bathroom and performed many minor repairs.

And they still didn't own the place.

Ownership happened on March 12, when the Biscottis were able to close escrow after being informed that their bank finally had funded a $205,000 mortgage loan. After expenses, they now have about $12,000 to spend.

"After we had made the place habitable, we hadn't wanted to spend much more of our time and money until the loan came through and escrow closed," Jeff said, "so we slowed down and didn't do much. But once escrow closed, oh boy! Then the money pit really opened up."

When they listed their plans for the next three months during an interview in February, the Biscottis said the first priority was to wallpaper the downstairs and finish the upstairs bathroom Jeff was building from scratch. They also said they hoped to have the exterior of the house painted.

But in the ensuing three months, the couple has run up against what experienced old house restorers call the mushroom factor--every little job uncovers a bigger one, which leads to an even bigger one.

So the bathroom is still a shell, and the outside of the house is still unpainted.

But the Biscottis did get the rest of their kitchen and service area cabinets built and installed. And the downstairs rooms except for one of the two parlors were wallpapered.

And until the disaster with the leaking shower, work was proceeding smoothly on the upstairs bath--if you don't count the fact that the Biscottis had to move the plumbing three times to satisfy the demands of two different building inspectors, or the disaster of the missing inch, which involved just that: A building inspector determined that the shower Jeff had framed was one inch narrower than the city code allowed.

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