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HOME DESIGN ISSUE

Why Size Doesn't Matter

Bigger isn't necessarily better in Los Angeles County, where the median price for a single-family house has crossed the $500,000 threshold. The number of square feet you can afford does set physical boundaries, but creating a home has never been about just space. As Barbara Thornburg finds, it's all about following your inner decorator. There aren't any limits when it comes to personal style.

May 21, 2006|Barbara Thornburg | Barbara Thornburg is a senior editor for West and the author of "L.A. Lofts," to be published in June.

BUNGALOW

It took a lot of patience to land a house with a yard in Venice. Now they're living large.

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Chelsea can be a dream neighborhood, but not if you can afford to rent just 500 square feet--and there are two of you. For artist Maggie Hill Ward and her husband, Mal Ward, an agent for TV-commercial directors, three years in a tiny apartment were enough of Big Apple living.

So in 2000, Maggie, 33, and Mal, 35, left New York and headed west, dreaming of a place close enough to the coast so that Mal could surf every day. "We had both grown up in houses near the ocean," Maggie says. "And we didn't want anyone living below or above us any longer."

Easier said than done. They looked at more than 80 houses over the course of 10 months before they fell in love with a 1928 Spanish bungalow that was a five-minute bike ride from the beach and boasted a deep yard planted with palm and citrus trees. Then the crazy real estate market threatened to stand in the way. The asking price was $539,000 on a Tuesday morning; there were five bids by that afternoon. They offered $549,000, then $4,000 more, and won the war for 1,185 square feet. Ten percent down, and they had their first nest.

That was three years ago. With the house now appraised at more than $900,000, the couple recently refinanced their mortgage at a lower 4Aº% rate and banked $80,000 for an expansion. But they didn't proceed as you might expect: The main house is basically as it was, while the two-car garage became a whole new living area.

After redirecting the entrance off the back alley, Maggie and Mal pulled down walls, reconfigured the footprint and more than doubled the 350 square feet of space. Within, they created a den/media room, a guest bedroom and bath and an art studio that reverts to temporary housing for automobiles when they leave town.

The overgrown yard was cleared out, and a swath of lawn and concrete pavers was installed to create an outdoor living area. "In New York, we had no green space and could never have more than four people over at a time--even that seemed crowded," Maggie says. "We can throw a party for 100 here."

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TOWNHOUSE

They chased traditional homes, but got more for their money in a South Pasadena complex

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When graphic designer Jane Fitts and her husband, John Bennett Fitts, tried to buy a single-family house, they came up $80,000 short. The asking price was $430,000. They offered $450,000; it sold for $530,000. "We were devastated," Jane, 33, says. Their Realtor then imparted this advice: There is more bang for the buck in a townhouse. And there's an additional bonus: The insurance is less than on a detached residence.

The bungalow they lost was 1,000 square feet; the South Pasadena townhouse they bought is 1,100 square feet and cost less than the house had sold for. Even better, the sellers were architects who had recently renovated, installing handsome bamboo floors, built-ins and a new IKEA kitchen.

There is a living area on the first floor, a kitchen/dining mezzanine and two baths and two bedrooms upstairs. John, 28, a fine art photographer with the Paul Kopeikin Gallery, turned one bedroom into his home office, which allows them to deduct 10% of the mortgage from their taxes.

For the couple, the best part about owning is not having to call the landlord when they want to make a change. "I swore if I had my own place the first thing I would do would be to paint the walls," John says. After nearly 10 months, the walls are still white. No matter. "It's nice at a certain point in your life to know you can afford a place. It feels good."

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TOWNHOUSE

A West Hollywood dwelling is stripped down to reflect a minimalist's tastes

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Arvind Manocha, the Hollywood Bowl's vice president and general manager, had been house-hunting for three months when his real estate agent called about a '70s-era West Hollywood townhouse. "I knew the asking price, $330,000, was a good deal," Manocha says. He put down 20% and--this being four years ago--got a mortgage at 4.5% interest.

Although he loved the arrangement of contiguous units that allowed him to have his own front door--"like a real home"--he was less than enthusiastic about the fussy decor. A minimalist, he began to strip away layers. The cottage cheese ceiling went first; then the heavy wood moldings, the pink-and-yellow floral wallpaper and the peach carpet were ditched. He painted the space art-gallery white, stained the hardwood floors ebony and added a few choice pieces of furniture: a pair of Mies van der Rohe chairs, Arne Jacobsen- inspired dining chairs, a Le Corbusier dining table. There's not a knickknack in sight.

The monochromatic palette and minimal furnishings make the 1,300 square feet feel spacious, as does the repetition of materials: stainless-steel sinks and concrete countertops in the bathrooms and kitchen; brushed stainless-steel handles on cabinets as well as closet doors; slate on the fireplace surround and shower stalls; white paper shades and wood-and-glass doors in each room.

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