Thursday, October 7, 2010

REMODELING: Learning experience

Jamaica Plain couple find DIY limits and the benefits of pros in condo renovation

Julie and Todd Williams knew they would have their hands full with the condominium they purchased in Jamaica Plain several years ago. It had a long hallway that Julie Williams likened to a bowling alley. The kitchen floor was covered in laminate tiles. And much of the place bore the idiosyncratic imprint of the previous owner, like kitchen countertops with a boomerang pattern and the flock of birds stenciled over the bathroom walls and shower curtains.

But the couple wanted a place they could make their own. And though they didn’t consider themselves particularly handy, they were willing to use elbow grease.

It was then the Williams learned the limits of their do-it-yourself skills: While changing a light fixture, they learned the condo lacked some internal wiring; a circuit box did not have a protective cover.

“The electrician said if there was a short in the family room, the entire home could have gone up in flames,’’ Julie Williams said. “Taking one step forward would be like taking 30 steps back.’’

Since then, the Williams have taken many steps forward with the renovation of their condo — and not all of them by themselves. They discovered what they could handle themselves, and when it was time to call in the professionals. Other homeowners, beguiled by the home renovation shows on cable television or instructional videos on the Internet, would do well to learn from the Williams’ experience and not hesitate to call in specialists when the job risks getting out of hand.

“Often people call us in after the fact, after they’re in over their heads,’’ said Michael Battista, the owner of R&R Battista Services, a building company in Watertown. “People think they’re going to be saving money, but it ends up costing more because we’ve got to buy new stuff.’’

And often it’s the new homeowner who ends up bearing the expense of shoddy work done under the previous owner.

Case in point. Earlier this month, the owners of a Sudbury home wanted to replace a washer and dryer in the bathroom with a tub. “When we went in to give prices, we discover there’s no venting. That’s what takes out the methane gas,’’ Battista said. “It should have cost no more than $3,000. Now we’re talking about up to $10,000.’’

Indeed, real estate agents caution that large-scale do-it-yourself projects, though they may be a point of pride for homeowners, can be a major liability when they try to sell the house and their work comes under scrutiny from home inspectors and appraisers.

Westford broker Angela Harkins ticks some off: extra bedrooms that cannot be legally classified as bedrooms because they exceed the capacity of the home’s septic tank. “I’ve seen a case where a garage was twice the size of the house,’’ Harkins added.

For the most part she counsels homeowners, especially those planning to sell in the near future, to limit their handy work to cosmetic upgrades, such as repainting kitchens and bathrooms with modern colors, removing excess furniture and belongings, improving the landscaping and cleaning thoroughly.

And even those have their limits.

“I think HGTV is a great thing. But sometimes you see them painting over wallpaper,’’ Harkins said. “I’ve been in a few houses where owners have done this. Up close, it looks absolutely horrendous. You’re better off taking off the wallpaper.’’

Another area where homeowners should be able to manage on their own is in weatherizing the house.

“A lot of that work is not very sexy, and contractors tend to stay away from it,’’ said Matthew St. Onge, a former contractor who runs the Building Materials Resource Center in Boston, which sells recycled building supplies and offers home maintenance workshops. “Installing door kits, caulking around windows, installing storm windows, even putting in replacement windows,’’ St. Onge said, “these are things a homeowner can do, with proper training.’’

St. Onge advises homeowners to stay away from structural, electrical, or plumbing work.

As for Todd and Julie Wil liams, they still did some renovations themselves, but realized they needed help and a reality check. So they consulted regularly with their real estate agents about how particular projects and improvements would affect their ability to resell the condo.

They also brought in a ringer: Todd Williams’ brother, a carpenter in Maine. He would provide advice and guidance along the way, such as how to take down sections of the walls in the entry hall. In exchange he got removed materials. Those countertops with the boomerang pattern? They’re Down East now.

They were able to remove popcorn ceilings in several rooms themselves, and add a built-in shelf in the family room. For the heavy lifting, the Williams have learned to depend on the same electrician, plumber, or other contractors as they moved from project to project. “We’ve been slowly building a team people we trust,’’ Julie Williams said.

The electrician, for example, rewired the kitchen so that they could install new ceiling lights, and then worked with the couple on the rest of the room, where they reconfigured the layout and updated the countertops and appliances.

They’re still not done. But still, every morning the Williams can look at the shiny parquet floor in the kitchen and say, “We did that.’’

Well, kind of. They used a heat gun to take up the laminate tiles on the kitchen floor, revealing the beautiful parquet wood. But that needed refinishing, a tricky, messy job. The professionals did that

Ted Siefer Boston Globe September 26, 2010

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