When David Kean set out to buy his first home, he was looking for two things: old and charming. He envisioned thick crown molding and hardwood floors.
But there was a glitch in his plan.
"Old and charming was too expensive," said Kean, 36, who works as a real estate agent.
Plus, he explained, he was concerned that an old house would have expensive electrical, plumbing and structural problems.
So he did the next best thing.
"I decided to buy new and add the charm," he said.
The two-bedroom, two-story condominium Kean bought near downtown L.A. in 2001 for $270,000 was remarkable for its lack of personality. The living and dining rooms were combined into one bland rectangle with beige carpeting and identical picture windows at each end.
"You could literally walk in the front door and see all the way through," he said.
However, it was the views out those windows that Kean said made the condo worth purchasing and upgrading. Situated on a hill near Chinatown, the living room side of the condo overlooks Chavez Ravine and Dodger Stadium, while the dining room side has views of downtown L.A. skyscrapers, the Music Center, Disney Hall and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
Kean achieved an old-world look for $11,500 by adding columns, moldings, faux painting, stencils and luxurious draperies and fabrics he tracked down on the Internet.
"I'm in love with Craigslist," Kean said of one of his favorite Internet shopping sites. "I'm an EBay freak too."
To spread out the cost and the hassle, Kean did the work in three phases. In early 2002, he built a partial wall with columns to separate the living and dining areas, and he added crown molding in those rooms. He also walled in the open stairway to the second floor and added pocket doors that allow him to close off the kitchen from the dining room during dinner parties.
In mid-2002, Kean installed red walnut flooring in the downstairs. For the third phase, in 2003, he added doors to close the stairway off from the living room and put in crown molding upstairs. Because he was not making exterior changes or doing major structural work inside, such as removing walls or adding a bathroom, he did not need permission from his homeowners association. However, rules dictated that construction work could start no earlier than 8 a.m. and end no later than 8 p.m.
Although Kean asked several designer friends for their advice, some of which he implemented and most of which he ignored, he did not hire a decorator or designer, relying instead on his own research in design magazines.
A somewhat bold change was dividing the living and dining areas into two distinct rooms by adding a partial wall -- with openings on each side to allow for easy flow. This goes against a decades-old trend toward open floor plans. But the two smaller rooms have a grander feel than the larger space did, due in part to the columns Kean placed on each side of the partial wall, providing a royal entrance into the dining room. The columns were an extravagance at $200 apiece, he admitted, but added, "That's a lot of drama."
Kean's biggest investment was the floor, which at $6,850 cost more than half the budget. Kean bought 800 square feet of red walnut flooring from a liquidator, and then hired an installer. What would normally have cost up to $15 a square foot at a home store cost just $5 a square foot.
"I looked everywhere trying to find a deal," Kean said. "Everywhere."
Much of the floor budget went toward leveling the subfloor, which turned out to be sloped.
"You could feel it," Kean said. "I wanted it level."
He doesn't hold the flaw against the developer, acknowledging the imperfect science of home building. "There's always something," he said.
After the construction work, Kean finished the job with paint, antiques and fabrics. He stenciled and painted faux finishes on the eye-catching dining room ceiling himself, after learning how through a UCLA Extension course.
To complete the look, he added antiques, accessories and furnishings from area thrift stores. At one store, he bought an unattractive painting inside an ornate frame, replaced the painting with a mirror and hung it in his guest bathroom. During his shopping outings, he noticed a trend: "A lot of really ugly pictures have really good frames."
He has been collecting furniture -- not included in his upgrade budget -- for 15 years.
As a real estate agent, Kean now advises clients looking at bland homes and wanting more charm to add it themselves.
"People go nuts over a good wood floor," he said. "Everybody goes wild over crown molding."
Kean also suggests looking through high-end magazines for appealing ideas, as he did.
"Find out what speaks to you," he said. "Don't worry about what it costs. Figure that out later." Noting the upscale brands of fabrics in design magazines, he then searched for them on EBay. That is how he was able to buy lined silk drapery material, which wholesales at $70 a yard, for just $15 for 4 yards.