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Posted at 04:47 AM ET, 01/30/2012

Renovating an old D.C. home? Know this first

Special to The Washington Post


Pat Kennedy’s home in the Crestwood neighborhood of the District. These rowhomes were built in 1915 and some are still in need of repairs and upgrades. (Pat Kennedy)

Historic old houses are notorious flirts, and in many District neighborhoods, homes dating back to the turn of the last century are the norm.  You walk in and they grab you with beautiful old woodwork and light fixtures.  Oh, and the claw foot tub will seduce you every time.  But before you say “I do” to one of these charmers, remember that renovating an old house can be daunting.

My civil engineer father raised his family in new construction.  So when I bought a funky 1915 row house in Crestwood, a downtown DC neighborhood, he took it as my little rebellion.

I walked into my dream house and ignored the flaws, envisioning the huge rooms with a fresh coat of paint and newly sanded floors.  My father walked in and envisioned the walls being opened up to replace the old galvanized plumbing and Thomas Edison-era wiring.   And he looked at Dante’s Inferno in the basement and shook a wise finger in my face with predictions of my heating bills.


Pat Kennedy’s “during” photo of her bathroom renovation, which took four months to complete. (Pat Kennedy - Pat Kennedy)

But the place had  history. Former D.C. mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon Kelly grew up in the place.  That sounded pretty cool to me!

After moving in, I painted and sanded the floors.  Then, when I wanted to finish the basement and kitchen, the fun began. 

Turns out, father knew best.Over the years, each part of the renovation has been like pulling a thread on an unraveling hemline. 

Since the initial paint and flooring work, I’ve renovated the basement, gutted the kitchen and baths, replaced the roof and rusty old pipes, upgraded the old electrical system, and installed central air and a new heating system.  And I’m about to start the cycle all over again. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I love my home and my neighborhood, but my next move is likely to be new construction!

If  you’re househunting and anold house grabs your imagination, here’s what I’ve learned:

**Good contractors are hard to find, and even the good ones can go bad in the middle of your job.

**You’ll spend two to three times what you initially think it will cost you on almost any project.

** If you are renovating with a spouse or partner, any unresolved control issues will bite you where it hurts.  You will have passionate arguments about silly things. My ex-husband and I came to blows over what kind of stove to put in — and the man never went into that room, except to grab a beer from the fridge!

**You have to be very careful to avoid doing work that will make your home particularly “buyer specific,” which is a term we real estate agents use to mean changes that will have an appeal to very few people, while it would turn off the majority of buyers when it comes time to sell.  You should take special care to make sure that the changes you make improve the functionality and appeal of your home to most buyers.

**If you are in an historic district, there may be limitations to what you may do, at least with the façade of your home.

Of course, there are rewards.  The end results are your choices, done in your taste, exactly how you want it. 

And so much of the housing inventory in the District includes little pieces of history. Those historic tidbits are appealing enough to make almost anyone throw caution out the single-glazed window, as it leaks cold air into the dining room where some ex-president once sipped champagne at a previous owner’s dinner party. And that’s hard to resist . 

The trick? 

If you’re going to renovate, it’s best to do the work before you move in.  And working with an architect who knows his way around historic renovations is crucial.

Next: An historic renovation done the right way! 

Related: Georgetown sales report

Neighborhood guide: Crestwood

Pat Kennedy is a real estate agent at Evers & Co. and a blogger on Active Rain.

Are you a real estate or neighborhood blogger who would like to contribute to Where We Live? E-mail us at realestate@washpost.com.

By Pat Kennedy  |  04:47 AM ET, 01/30/2012

 
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