"It was an interesting, sort of scary thing" to try, Leon Vignes remembered of his decision to enter the 1989 lottery with partner Terry Woodard for a six-bedroom house in Columbia Heights.

"We thought, 'Okay, we'll try this one. It's big enough, it's got five fireplaces,' " Vignes said of the three-story Victorian at 2720 13th St. NW. The two, after all, had been living in a group house on Capitol Hill, and the idea of a huge building for $250 was very appealing.

"But it had been empty for 10 years and it was real scary. Like, there were hypodermic needles, like all around," said the 41-year-old landscape architect.

Today, the neighborhood has "improved, especially because of the brand-new Metro station that has opened two blocks away," said Vignes, but it's no nirvana. "There's a crack house across the street and other crack houses in the alley," he said. A building next door recently was boarded up after being used as a community-based residential facility. The house on the other side "is a nightmare," because of a noisy tenant that, he said, an absentee landlord has been unable to dislodge.

Vignes said he has not done much yet to improve the facade of the 89-year-old building, beyond replacing all the windows, the front door and the roof. But the inside has been transformed. The floors had to be replaced on the upper levels because of water damage, and all the the mechanical systems were shot. Reconstruction and related costs, including digging out a basement apartment, he said, totaled about $180,000. He bought his partner out in 1995 for $99,295. The property was assessed at $177,214 in 1998.

Vignes has high praise for the program, though he worries that new entrants may not be aware of the costs and time involved in doing major reconstruction. His house took eight months to restore. The homeowner classes, he said, were a great help: "I had thought, 'I went to college, blah blah blah, I can do all this stuff.' But the people they had talk to us included contractors and bankers and others who knew how to do this. I have high compliments for the orientation program: After all, that's where I met the people who gave me my financing."

CAPTION: Owners of this Victorian retained most of original exterior, but rebuilt the interior from top to bottom.