On Capitol Hill, A Race to Renovate

By Renae Merle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 18, 2008

For 11 Capitol Hill families, it's crunch time. Jackie Sink just finished a mural on her 14-year-old son's bedroom wall. Marie Connolly is getting the floors buffed. Rebecca Mertz's new kitchen backsplash was installed just in time, and Nikki Territo got a new dining room rug for the event.

The flurry of landscaping, decorating and cleaning in the historic D.C. neighborhood is in preparation for the Renovator's House Tour today. Before they allow their nosey neighbors to peek, these homeowners want to attend to every chipped piece of paint and wobbly floorboard.

All said they are enduring the pressure because of the tour's altruistic goal -- raising money for a local school. But it's also about pride in their homes.

The home tour has become a staple of life in many communities. Some tours are small, with perhaps a few dozen neighbors checking out each others' kitchen updates. Some are elaborate, raising thousands of dollars for charity. In May, the long-established Capitol Hill Restoration Society house and garden tour attracted more than 1,200 people. Its younger brother, the Renovator's House Tour, hopes to bring in 800 to 1,000. The eighth annual fundraiser is organized by the Parent-Teacher Association of the Capitol Hill Cluster School, a school with three neighborhood campuses. At $25 a ticket, the event allows people to tour recently renovated homes.

"The idea is to showcase what people who are living in these 19th-century homes do to these spaces to make them livable," said Laura Cantral, director of the tour. "It ranges from very high-end luxury type of renovations to sweat-equity type projects."

The tour comes at a time when many homeowners are delaying projects. Home-improvement activity fell by 4 percent last year, to $139 billion, and is expected to fall an additional 9 percent, to $126 billion, this year, according to Harvard University's Joint Center for Housing Studies. The data track homeowner property improvements but not spending on maintenance and repairs or on rental units.

Owners have watched their home values fall, making it less likely they can get a home-equity loan to pay for a project, said Kermit Baker, director of the Remodeling Futures Program of Harvard's joint center. One of the most popular times to remodel a home is in preparation for a sale, but with the sluggish market, fewer people are willing to put their homes up, he said.

"I think [home renovation spending] has been really caught in the crossfire of the broader housing industry," Baker said. "There is a lot of uncertainty there. With my house depreciating in value, is this really a time for me to be undertaking home improvements?"

But for homeowners who have managed to survive not only the turbulent housing market but also the stress of a renovation, the tour is a chance to display their efforts to a larger audience. It brings out the competitive streak in some -- there is already a waiting list of homeowners who want to be considered for next year's tour. Mertz flew in from Kentucky last year to help her daughter complete last-minute preparations for the tour. Now that she's moved to town, it's her turn.

"We have friends flying in from Kentucky to be part of it," she said.

There does appear to be one common concern among homeowners: rain. "I just really don't want it to rain because people will track mud through my house," Territo said.

After buying a porch-front 1918 townhouse nine years ago, Jackie Sink and her husband, Daryl, have used the tour for ideas on furniture arrangements and storage. They have renovated the house slowly over the years, tearing down walls to create more open space and picking up furniture from garage sales. The kitchen cabinets were a free find they happened upon on the way to Home Depot.

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