Carl Balton still remembers how he spent Christmas Day 2003 -- alone, miserable and working on his just-purchased first house, a 1928 Mar Vista fixer-upper.
On that day, the tiny, run-down house was vacant, cold and dreary. Rain puddled ankle deep outside, and winds blasted open the French doors he had just installed. Balton said he recalled staring at his 1-foot-high decorated pine tree and thinking: "So, Carl, how do you feel about the house you just paid half a million dollars for? How does it feel to be a homeowner?"
The answers to those questions would be much more upbeat by Valentine's Day 2004, when he moved in -- after completing a $25,000 remodel that included new paint inside and out, new landscaping, a new tiled porch and arbor, a new side porch and French doors, mended interior walls and ceilings, refinished floors, extensive moldings, new lighting fixtures, new hardware and a completely redone bathroom.
Balton had rented a unit in a Santa Monica triplex for 12 years, enjoying a garden and ocean breezes, when he decided to take the leap into homeownership. He looked at more than 100 homes during his six-month search and was outbid on several of them.
The day his real estate agent sent him to look at a 1,100-square foot, Spanish-style, two-bedroom, one-bathroom fixer, Balton wasn't optimistic. It was "caravan day," when local agents drive around to see homes recently put on the market, and he noticed the agents entering and leaving the house quickly.
At first, he thought it might have been the pink stucco that repelled them. Or the tilting front porch wall or cheesy awning. Inside, he figured it could have been the cracked ceilings or trashed bathroom.
But when Balton reached the darkened kitchen, he understood why the agents didn't linger. There, in the breakfast nook, were 12 large aquariums, four across and three high, housing snakes. The room's windows were taped up with aluminum foil to provide the snakes the gloomy habitat they prefer.
Balton, however, didn't run from the kitchen. Instead, he pulled out his tape measure, leaned over the aquariums and measured the nook. He realized that, at 12-by-16 feet, this was a pretty good-sized kitchen. In addition, other qualities of the home appealed to him: the tile roof, wood floors hidden underneath old carpeting and the barrel ceiling in the living room.
That evening he put in an offer, and by the end of the week the deal was done. Taking advantage of his stellar credit, Balton was able to buy the house for $505,000 with 100% financing. "It's the ultimate leverage," he said.
Being organized by nature and an accountant by trade, Balton applied those skills to his remodel. He has little sympathy for remodelers whose expenses and time frames spiral out of control. "That means you're not keeping on top of it," he said.
He decided to do the majority of the remodeling before he moved in and absorb the cost of paying both a mortgage and the rent on his apartment. This motivated him to get the job done on time. "My goals were lofty," he said, "but I could not afford to be paying rent and mortgage for more than two months."
To get started, Balton decided to use subcontractors on certain skilled tasks such as installing electrical wiring, plumbing, tile setting, stone fabrication, fireplace repair and floor refinishing. For the rest, he called in some favors and hired friends with home-improvement skills, including a stockbroker, a film editor and a real estate agent, who helped with carpentry, painting, pouring and finishing concrete, and other tasks.
The projects included repairing the front of the house, interior walls and ceilings and adding moldings, a French door from the dining room to the side of the house and a new deck.
The bathroom, which was in particularly sad shape, was taken down to the framing studs and redone. The toilet placement prevented the door from opening fully, and the tile floor was soggy. Balton has vivid memories of the day he removed the old floor. "I sat here with a hammer and a chisel and banged every tile off this floor," he said. To keep his spirits up, he repeated the mantra he used during the whole remodel: "You only have to do it once."
Considering Balton's limited overall budget, the new bathroom is lavish. It includes a travertine floor and counter, wood vanity, large mirror and Old World-style fixtures.
Besides doing much of the labor himself, Balton kept costs down in other ways. He drove to Baja for iron and wood pieces. He found materials for cheap or free from www.craigslist.org. He got a used gate from a friend.
One day he followed the sound of a jackhammer in his neighborhood to discover a free source of broken concrete for landscaping.
"Most people are putting things in bins," Balton said. "I'm taking things out."
Plus, he bartered a snake aquarium, left behind by the previous owner, for part of the plumber's fee.