Daniel Curet was a contented apartment dweller looking for an Eastside investment property a few years ago when his plans took a sudden turn on a narrow, winding road in Lincoln Heights.
There, he and his partner, Andrew Zygmunt, came across a bland, worn-at-the-edges duplex perched on a weedy hillside lot.
The house was so large, at nearly 3,000 square feet, and the views of downtown so striking, that a new idea emerged:
"We could really live here," Curet recalled thinking.
And so began a two-year, $300,000 remodeling odyssey that started with a $459,000 purchase in January 2005 and culminated this year with two colorful, contemporary, upscale, bamboo-floored units -- one for the couple and one for their $1,700-a-month tenants.
Although the fluctuating market has left Curet, 46, a bit upside-down on his investment -- he owes more than the property is worth today -- he's not concerned.
"We're not looking to sell," he said, "so it doesn't matter."
To orchestrate the remodel, Curet, a hairdresser for the entertainment industry, acted as general contractor, hiring the various subcontractors to do the work. He ended up with a crew that brought an intercontinental flair to the project: Architect Marcelo Ciccone is Argentine; carpenter Nigel Bruce is English; mural artist Alvino Najar is of Jordanian, Mexican and Spanish descent; interior designer Cheryl Gardner is from New York.
The strategy was to remodel the rental unit first and then remodel their own unit with slightly higher-grade materials and an expanded floor plan.
When the duplex was built, each 1,300-square-foot unit -- mirror images sitting side by side -- had an upstairs consisting of a living room, kitchen, two bedrooms and a bathroom, and a downstairs with another bedroom and bathroom.
However, in what would become the owner unit, the previous owner had dug back into the hillside downstairs and created a fully permitted den adjacent to the existing bedroom. It was in this larger space that Curet decided to create a new kitchen and dining room and to turn the bedroom into a living room.
Upstairs, at street level, the plan was to use the original living room-kitchen area as a den with a wet bar and to transform the two bedrooms into one larger bedroom with a walk-in closet. Essentially, Curet said, they turned a three-bedroom unit into a one-bedroom unit. That setup might be troublesome for a family in the future, but it could be quite desirable for a couple or a single owner.
Although Curet said he thinks it's generally a good idea to retain the style of an older house, that didn't pertain here. "This didn't have that much original charm," he said.
So he and Zygmunt, 39, applied their own crisp, colorful style, with a lot of help from designers.
Rental unit is upgraded
To start, they gutted the tiny U-shaped kitchen of the rental unit and reconfigured it to open up into the living room. The kitchen was upgraded with bamboo floors, stainless-steel Frigidaire appliances and the upscale look they hoped would attract renters.
The whole building was given a new roof, drywall and insulation, windows, doors, exterior stucco, subfloors, electrical wiring, fixtures, plumbing, on-demand water heaters and cabinetry.
Curet estimated he was able to be on site while 70% of the work was being done, but if he does a big project like this again he said he would arrange to be there 100% of the time to supervise and make decisions.
With the rental unit done in July 2005, the couple moved in and worked to complete their own unit. Then progress came to a halt for many months because they ran out of money.
But time and appreciation were on their side. By August 2006, the property was appraised at $650,000, and Curet applied for a cash-out refinance and had the money to finish.
In the new downstairs kitchen, where the previous owner had dug out the hillside, the sloping concrete foundation that had once been boxed in was exposed to the room and painted a contrasting color. This gives the room a vaguely cave-like feeling, which contrasts nicely with the Viking stove and refrigerator and light cabinets. Silestone counters were chosen instead of granite, Curet said, because of their low-key appearance. "They don't become a show unto themselves," he said.
Other details are pocket doors with wavy glass, a bay window in the living room, bathroom accent tile made of glass and stone, and base molding made of stone and bamboo stalks.
With their unit done, Curet and Zygmunt moved in, rented out the other unit and eventually turned their attention to the hillside backyard. With the help of landscape designer Bob Marcum, they have transformed the yard with Moroccan tents, a sweeping wood stairway, terracing and a broad patio area surrounded by greenery.