Renovating Rather Than Moving - Milwaukee Dumpster

The Virginian-Pilot
© February 23, 2010

Nora Firestone Correspondent

While some lined up for the roller-coaster ride of a decade, others held onto their wallets and watched the housing market rise and fall from the comfort of their own abodes.

Three Virginia Beach couples who opted to renovate believe that staying grounded held their key to balance, despite today's economy.

Today, having rejected the trend toward high-end house-hopping, they've joined the ranks of hindsight trend setters.

Karen and Ira "Armie" Armstrong bought their 2,200-square-foot ranch for $175,000 in 1990. The lakefront lot in Thoroughgood offered them access to Virginia Beach's city life and wildlife alike, and seemed a perfect location to raise their then-10-month-old son.

"Basically, we loved the neighborhood; we loved the neighbors," Karen Armstrong said.

But the house - though affordable - lacked luster.

"It was a very funky, ' 50s house." She recalled a not-so-functional layout, little storage or sunlight, and scares like pink Formica countertops and cranberry-colored bathroom tile. In time the couple discovered rotting wood and water damage, and kitchen appliances began to fail.

By 2003, "we were down to one burner," Karen said, "down to using my son's camp stove. We were desperate for a new kitchen."

But the swarm of flying termites that had crashed a Mother's Day brunch arguably sealed the aging home's fate.

"It became apparent that the whole house was a goner," Karen said. The family wanted "a bigger, nicer, newer house," but they didn't want to leave their neighbors and knew they couldn't replicate the lot for the same money, she said.

But the trend to move up didn't add up to these fiscal conservatives, who'd "always had a plan to have this paid off by age 60," husband Armie said. So they tore the old ranch down that year and started anew.

Several months and $365,000 later, the Armstrongs re-inhabited their property. The new house featured a brick exterior and great flow and modern design throughout two spacious floors, including four bedrooms, a recreation room, 4 1/2 bathrooms, a first-floor master suite and a new kitchen with granite counters, stainless-steel appliances and abundant cabinetry. Elegant trim and steel railings added interest to the open floor plan.

Yet the couple, now 55, had minded their budget.

"Every subcontractor encouraged us to go bigger, bigger, bigger," Karen said. "The banks were dying to loan us money. But we tried to be moderate in our finishes and be realistic about what one could and should do here."

They took tips from the works of architect Sarah Susanka, author of "The Not So Big House" series, who advocates building "better, not bigger" with a no-excess, multi-function mindset.

"It's very easy to be seduced by all the beautiful things out there," Karen admitted.

In 2007, the Armstrongs had saved enough to add a 20-by-20-foot sunroom, flooding the house with natural light and bringing the grand total spent to about $615,000 for 4,300 square feet of modest grandeur on a prime lot.

"We were very lucky with our timing," Karen said. "We started this just before the building (trend) went crazy. We've run the numbers, and we're still (an estimated) $100,000 up."

Up the street, John Young and Renee Hudgins had been thinking along the same line. They'd paid $168,000 for their 2,000-square-foot ranch in 1997, but "the whole house was dated and ugly," Hudgins recalled. Lack of flow and adequate sunlight only compounded the aesthetic disconcert of 1950s design and materials.

The couple wanted a bigger, brighter home and had been "looking around" while others vied for more, Hudgins, 57, said, but they, too, would miss the neighborhood.

"And I wanted it 'more, more, more' in my brokerage account, not in our real estate account," her husband explained. "I don't like bills. I wanted everything paid off so I could retire.

Added Young, "Your home is a big liability. Every time you move up you up not only the mortgage," but the taxes, utilities and more grow.

In 2000, the couple renovated the kitchen, upgrading cabinets and counter tops, appliances, floor and lighting. They replaced a small window with a large one and opened one wall to the dining room. Seven years later they added a sunroom and multipurpose garage and enlarged the master bathroom, replacing the green tile, wallpaper and peach-colored fixtures with new elements in natural colors and modern materials. The entire remodel, including the addition of 950 square feet with garage, cost $120,000. Young, now 62 and retired, saved by contracting the work himself.

"We're very pleased with our decision," Hudgins said. "It's comfortable here."

Several doors east, the home of Edward and Sondra Rosequist reflects the couple's desire for simplicity and balance, combined with the influence of Asian culture. They bought their 2,700-square-foot ranch in the late 1980s for $180,000 but eventually needed more space to accommodate two growing sons. The family lived in Japan for a year, absorbing its Zen while America's housing market climbed.

"When we came back (in 2003), everything had sky-rocketed," Sondra recalled.

Moving wasn't an option. Financially they'd have defeated their efforts to pay off the house quickly, nor could they imagine leaving their tight-knit neighborhood.

So the Rosequists added a laundry room, small library and master suite with meditation niche, remodeled the kitchen and enclosed the adjoining sunroom on the other.

Sondra, a substitute teacher, and Edward, a retired Navy aviator, helped design the kitchen for minimal clutter, high functionality and personal expression. They tiled the backsplash together. Sondra designed the curvy shape of the raised granite counter and chose a zinc-look laminate for the others. Wood cabinets feature clean lines that help impart what Sondra calls "a modern edge with an organic feel.".

After completion the Rosequists initiated a " winter walk" - a tour of neighborhood remodels - "so that people who are thinking of renovating could see what other people have done... and to keep the neighborhood connected," Sondra said.

They hadn't borrowed any of the $150,000 to remodel, and they have paid off their mortgage.

"We feel very set," Sondra said. "It was always about living simply."

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