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Ugly to Elegant

A Manhattan Beach couple turns an eyesore into a gem, and neighbors can't thank them enough.

September 13, 1998|KATHY PRICE-ROBINSON | Kathy Price-Robinson is a freelance writer who has written about remodeling for nine years. She can be reached at: kathyprice@aol.com

The two-story Manhattan Beach home that John and Tara Regan bought in 1996 for $310,000 had what they considered the three most important qualities: location, location and location.

Specifically, the home is in the "tree section" of the city, which is marked by gently rolling hills and is shaded by towering eucalyptus and pines. It's a neighborhood, Tara Regan said, where "people walk their kids and dogs" and "the schools are great."

On the other hand, the 1940s house, set on half of a normal-sized lot and situated less than 10 feet from the street, was "just plain ugly," John Regan said. The house had no architectural style or character, he said, and "was a giant, flat box looming over the street." All told, the house felt unfriendly and imposing to all who approached.

Other drawbacks stemmed from poorly thought-out and executed "improvements" made over the years.

For instance, the wide, rectangular home was fronted by a narrow planter made of cinder block that was, in Tara Regan's opinion, "gross."

But worse than the aesthetics of the planter was its position against the house. Over the years, the moisture in the planter's wet soil had worked into the home's stucco and from there into the framing studs, causing them to rot.

Another sordid spot was the exterior of the second story, where wood siding had been hammered over the stucco and wood moldings were installed around the aluminum windows. Besides giving the house a dated '60s look, the siding trapped rainwater and funneled it into the house.

The list of defects went on. A previous owner had bolted heating ducts along a hallway ceiling and installed a new ceiling under that, bringing the ceiling level down to 6 feet, 2 inches.

New plumbing ran along outside walls and entered the house through too-large holes cut through the walls. Struggling to be charitable to previous owners, John said he figures the plumbing "was done by someone who wasn't a plumber."

Eventually, as other surprises were discovered--including walls full of dog-food nuggets apparently stored there by rodents--Tara found herself thinking: "I hate this house."

But the couple had more faith than fear--they still felt adventurous following a 1995 worldwide backpacking trip--and so they embarked upon a major remodel with an estimated time frame of seven months and a budget of $50,000.

And 18 months and $110,000 later, they were done.

Today, the now elegant house is the pride of the neighborhood. Neighbors ride by on bikes giving thumbs-up affirmations or stroll by on foot saying, "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."

Here's how the Regans transformed their 1,700-square-foot house:

John, a computer consultant, came up with much of the design and acted as general contractor for the project. Tara, a technical writer, helped John do most of the demolition, nonstructural framing, molding, painting and landscaping.

The first step was to hire a draftsman-designer to help solve structural issues and come up with a remodeling design that would satisfy the city's strict building codes.

The couple hired Frank Swanson of Planning Concepts in Manhattan Beach, who was recommended by the home inspector, who had been recommended by the real estate agent.

The first design called for three levels of "buildouts," or architectural details, from 1 1/2 inches to 4 1/2 inches, to create the illusion of depth on the front of the house. However, the city ruled that because the house was already so close to the street, the facade could only extend 1 1/2 inches.

Plus, the house was classified by the city as "existing nonconforming," meaning that it met building codes when constructed but not current codes.

As a result, all city recommendations had to be followed, lest officials demand the house be brought up to current codes, which would happen if too many elements of the house were altered.

What this meant for the Regans was that all the hodgepodge collection of windows on the front of the house had to remain the same sizes and shapes and in the same locations.

Luckily, John Regan had a hidden talent for design, and when he sat down at his computer to plan their "new" house, he succeeded splendidly.

The house has a pale peach stucco exterior with white stucco trim around new French-look vinyl windows. The clever design includes 1 1/2-inch-thick moldings and "columns" around the doorways and windows. When pressed to describe the style, John and Tara said they have decided on Venetian.

"It looks like houses we saw in Venice," Tara Regan said. "They are flat and come right up to the canals."

That solved the exterior problems. The inside also needed help, particularly the entrance to the house, where a narrow, claustrophobic entryway led straight into a bathroom wall.

From there, the garage was to the left and a hallway to the bedrooms and a laundry room was to the right. Upstairs were the living room, dining room and kitchen.

For the couple, creating a more appealing approach to the home was paramount for the success of the remodel.

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