Margaret Lawson's remodeling adventure began one night in 2000, when a rainstorm left 6 inches of water standing in her Fullerton Hills home.
The quick-falling rain had nowhere to run but into the house, which had minimal drainage and was surrounded by thick turf that had built up over the years.
"At first you're in shock," Lawson said of the aftermath, recalling the ruined carpets, walls and furnishings. But as a restoration crew pulled up her soaked carpets and ran giant fans to dry out the concrete slab, she recalled, a thought passed through her mind: "Maybe I should make a few changes."
Three years and $198,100 later, the charming courtyard-fronted California casita barely resembles the once-bland 1972 tract house. Because her homeowners' insurance didn't cover acts of nature and she didn't have flood insurance, she sold stocks earmarked for retirement to pay for the work.
Situated in an area of other homes that have been updated, the house was a good candidate for major renovation. Plus, a real estate agent pointed out, single-story homes will bring a premium as the population ages.
Were it not for the flood, Lawson's investments might still be tied up in stocks and her home unchanged. "It was fine for me," the chemist said of the three-bedroom home she bought in 1998 after years of living and working in China, Japan, New Zealand and Mexico. Except for the drainage issues, the Fullerton home was in near perfect condition and had some nice features, such as French doors in the family room and a tile roof.
But it wasn't the ideal house for her. It lacked a formal entryway save for a tile-covered platform inside the front door that she found annoying, the bedrooms were too small and boxy to accommodate the spacious home office she wanted, there was no access from the master bedroom to the backyard and its mountain views and she wanted a soaking tub in the master bathroom, a luxury experienced during her travels. It took what she calls The Flood of 2000 to shake her out of her complacency.
To begin the process, Lawson said, she let herself imagine what the house could be like "if I had all the money in the world." She took inspiration from a collection of magazine articles she had clipped over the years and filed according to subject. "I'm a scientist," she said. "I'm 'Little Miss Organized.' " An article clipped from Sunset magazine gave ideas for reclaiming the frontyard into an outdoor living area. Another article was on fireplaces. One featured Mission Tile West in South Pasadena.
As she drove around Old Town Fullerton, she took note of the houses that appealed to her most: 1930s Mission-style bungalows with courtyards, turret entryways and heavy, arched front doors.
To get some of her ideas on paper and to get more ideas from a professional, she called designer Daniel Dascanio, who had designed his brother's remodel on Lawson's street. She had visited that house on a YWCA fund-raising home tour, was impressed with the design and quality and had filed the designer's name.
From the beginning, Lawson decided that her priority would be hiring skilled, highly regarded professionals in her area rather than searching for a cut-rate price. "I want quality and I want it done right," she remembers thinking at the time. "I'm only going to do this once."
Dascanio's organized approach matched her own, so she hired him. Her goals were to enlarge the master bedroom and bathroom and to combine and enlarge the other two bedrooms into a large office that would open into the new front courtyard and adjacent living room.
Dascanio suggested builder Chuck Smith of Smith Builders in Orange County, and Lawson hired him to build the shell of the remodel. Smith in turn suggested the various subcontractors Lawson hired separately for doors and windows, tile design and installation, roofing, cabinets and painting.
Each subcontractor had worked with Smith before, and in some cases, their subcontractor fathers had worked with Smith's father, also a builder.
As the scope and costs of the project were determined, and with the cost approaching $200,000, Lawson decided to postpone improvements to the kitchen and dining room.
When construction began in January 2002, Lawson initially considered moving herself and her Maltese dog, Missy, to another location. "I had moved so many times I didn't want that option," she said, deciding to stay there during the massive remodel and store her furniture in a freight container out front.
This was fine with Robert Delaney, project manager with Smith Builders, who was charged with coordinating the ordering and delivery of materials, and the various workers and craftspeople.
"I think the communication on this job was key," Delaney said. "We like the owner around every day."
For the first two months, Lawson lived in the house while the garage was enlarged, then she moved into the garage while the crews started work on the house.