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Pardon Our Dust

Do-It-Yourself Wizardry

Couple spent less than $28,000 on kitchen and dining room additions.


Lily and Arnie Richards never considered hiring a general contractor to oversee their kitchen/dining room addition.

"We're kind of conservative financially," Lily said.

"We're cheap," Arnie broke in. "We're too egocentric."

The couple didn't even hire subcontractors, such as drywallers, framers or electricians, choosing instead to take on every task themselves, including Arnie's worst nightmare: plumbing.

"I detest plumbing," said Arnie, a director of quality at Mattel Inc. Indeed, he cursed so furiously over his plumbing duties during the project last year that Lily, a secretary in the toy company's Hot Wheels division, threatened to call in a professional.

"Don't," Arnie said. "I won't let this beat me."

This kind of determination enabled the couple to tear out the tiny kitchen of their 1930 Downey home and replace it with a more spacious one with granite-tile counters, lavish moldings, new cabinets, new appliances, a custom-designed range hood and a stained-glass window.

They also added a spacious dining room, accented with an alabaster chandelier topped with a ceiling medallion. And they did it all for $27,642 (mostly for materials, tools and tool rentals)--about half what the couple figured it would have cost for professionals to complete the job.

Although six months passed from excavation day until final approval by the city in November, the remodel actually began long before.

"I have thought and dreamed about this kitchen since before we bought the house," said Lily, referring to 1994, when she first saw the kitchen at an open house. "Is this a load-bearing wall?" she asked Arnie at the time. "Can we take it out?"

Most of the house was already roomy, having been enlarged by previous owners from a compact, 800-square-foot rectangle to a 1,700-square-foot home with a large master suite and a den, the latter converted from the original attached garage.

But the kitchen remained minuscule, and so bland that color photos of the room look as if they had been shot in black-and-white. After moving in, Lily gathered ideas from scores of magazines, including Romantic Homes, Renovation, Kitchen and Bath, Traditional Homes and This Old House, from which she tore out pictures to add to her kitchen planning notebook.

Last year, after two years of bonuses from their company and a break from paying their children's college tuition fees, they were ready to start.

The couple wanted not only to remodel the kitchen but to make it bigger, and to add an adjacent dining room so their rosewood dining table and its six chairs could vacate the small space off the kitchen where they had been squeezed for years.

Arnie was confident he could pull off the project because he had done several additions before on homes he had in Los Angeles. Those projects all had concrete slab floors. He considered a slab floor for this project, but it would have required a step down from the kitchen into the new dining room, which he wanted to avoid. Eventually the couple settled on a raised wood foundation to match the rest of the house.

"We decided if we were going to do it, let's do it right," Arnie said.

When Arnie took his plans for the project to the city of Downey, he expected to get a permit on the same day but was told it would take four to six weeks.

"You're kidding," was his reply, and he added, "I wanted to get started that weekend."

While waiting for the plans to be evaluated, amended and approved, Arnie decided to start demolition on the concrete patio where the addition would sit. He and Lily sent invitations to friends for a demolition party, bought snacks and rented a jackhammer. The event was such a hit that one friend, Arnie said, "would not relinquish the jackhammer."

By the time the plans were approved, Arnie had the forms for the foundation built. He called the city for his first inspection. Except for needing to tie the new foundation to the house with rebar, everything looked fine.

To keep track of the project, Arnie made a detailed color-coded list titled Kitchen Remodeling Activities: red for completed activities, blue for city inspections and green for activities in process. Many tasks were broken down into smaller ones, and each was checked off when done. Said Arnie: "We're neurotic about checks."

Once the floor joists were installed, the floor was insulated and sheathing added. When the walls started going up, Arnie threw his rickety wooden ladders into a trash bin and spent a couple of hundred dollars on two quality replacements. "Things went better after that," he said.

After a marathon five-day Fourth of July weekend spent working on the house, the walls and roof sections were starting to take shape. The couple sat outside on lawn chairs, drinking wine, eating pistachios and admiring their work. "OK, we're almost there," Lily said. Still, it would be four more months before final inspection.

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