As Betty Frazier approached her 80th birthday last year, no one would have questioned it had she downsized her living arrangements.
Instead, the Leisure World resident did the opposite, opting to sell her one-bedroom place for $170,000, move up to a two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit she bought for $250,000 in the same Laguna Woods community and embark on an all-encompassing, five-month, $45,000 remodel.
"I took off like a sail in the wind," said Frazier, who used part of her savings to finance the project. By the time the remodel was complete, Frazier was so pumped up she decided to go back to work as an interior designer after an eight-year retirement.
It was concern for her future that motivated the change. Frazier thought the 19 steps leading to her old second-floor unit could be a problem -- someday. Plus, should she ever need live-in help, a second bedroom would come in handy.
But the two-bedroom place Frazier bought, built in the 1970s, did not look particularly inviting with its bland walls, grimy carpeting and overall lack of pizazz. With a modest budget and queen-size dreams, she set out to change all that.
"I was the general in charge," said Frazier, who has tackled several remodels during her lifetime.
To find a contractor, she asked around, got referrals and interviewed several, but none felt right. One told her the kitchen redo alone would eat up $25,000 of her budget. "I thanked him and showed him the front door."
Her solution arrived one day when handyman Herb Rashon, recommended by friends, stopped by.
"When I opened my front door, here stood a young man," Frazier recalled, "very good-looking, very neat-looking, and I thought: 'My heavens, he isn't even dry behind the ears yet.' But did he prove me wrong."
Frazier felt an immediate kinship with the thirtysomething Rashon, who has since moved back East.
"It's not the price tag," she said of the most important criterion for selecting a contractor. "It's the camaraderie between you."
As the job went along, Frazier said, their catchphrase became: Whatever Betty can dream up, Herbie can make happen.
With Rashon and two helpers, the first goal was gutting and redoing the dreary kitchen with its tired tile counters, darkened grout and plastic dropped ceiling. It felt gloomy, even in the daytime, because the two windows over the sink looked out on a covered breezeway.
Using $12,000 of her budget, Frazier had the kitchen fitted with a giant skylight that bathes the room in a natural glow, raised-panel cabinets, black Corian countertops and black-and-white appliances. To accessorize, she found pewter drawer and cabinet pulls in hen and rooster shapes, and laid down a red-checked rug with a rooster motif that she got from a friend.
For the kitchen windows, she made roller shades in a raspberry-colored pattern, and topped each with a red valance. Having a sewing machine is a necessity for Frazier. "Couldn't live without one," she said.
The next big job was reconfiguring the master bedroom suite. In the original floor plan, there was a 4-foot-square hallway with doors to a tiny closet, the cramped bathroom and the bedroom. By tearing out that hallway and the closet, Frazier created enough space for a very large and luxurious bathroom.
After spending hours dreaming up the floor plan for her new master bathroom, she got word from Leisure World that moving the location of the bathtub or toilet would require architectural drawings and permission from the association. "Forget that," she said.
Going back to the original placement of these fixtures, Frazier had her handyman build a cozy nook around the tub. She replaced the standard vanity with an antique-looking buffet with black marble top, and used space next to the tub for a stackable washer and dryer, as well as storage shelves precisely configured for her needs, all behind mirrored sliding doors.
For the bathroom floor and the wall around the tub, Frazier got a deal on leftover tile from a friend in the construction industry and made several car trips to pick it up and haul it home.
"I did a lot of running around," she said, recalling her searches through consignment shops, thrift stores and, in one instance, a big trash container -- where she found a framed print.
When a friend asked Frazier if she worried about getting lost on her forays, Frazier explained that getting lost is how she finds otherwise unknown shops.
To make up for the lost closet, she sacrificed 2 feet along the length of one wall in her large bedroom for a new 15-foot-wide closet. She added pale green carpeting and painted the walls a raspberry that picks up the hues in the crape myrtle tree outside.
"I love this color, this raspberry, it's so restful," she said. "I sleep good here."
The final stages were paint, crown moldings and wide-plank wood floors in the living room, kitchen, dining room and hallway. Most walls are a light mustard, and one living room wall is a deep red.
"I became bolder than I have been in a while," she said.