Real estate is about buying and selling houses. As we talk to readers, though, we're finding that it can also be about just staying put.

It's about being in love with your neighborhood, your street, your neighbors or your schools. It's about cherishing the view from your back yard or the quiet of your cul-de-sac. It's about being near the Metro, the schools--whatever it is you want to be close to.

So we've discovered that real estate can be about getting comfortable in the house you're in, the one you knew wasn't perfect when you bought it. It can be about staying in that house, and trying to make it what you want it to be.

The National Association of the Remodeling Industry estimates that Americans will spend $135 billion in 1999 remodeling their houses, up from $130 billion in 1998. And although there are no specific figures available for the entire area, we rediscover, every time we try to find a contractor, that Washingtonians are right up there with the best spenders in this nation.

We look at five Washington area owners who knew their houses weren't right when they bought them--but still didn't want to leave them. Here's what they did to turn those houses into what they wanted--and needed--for themselves and their families.

A Dream House On a Hillside

Bruce and Barbara Tully knew when they bought their Chevy Chase house in 1982 that it had no curb appeal. It looked small, plain and ordinary from the front, they thought.

And it had one other major flaw for the Tullys, a professional foreign service couple with no children who liked to entertain. "Because of the way it was situated on the hill, you entered on the bedroom floor," Barbara Tully said. "There was no place to bring guests graciously into the house."

From the outside, the house looked like a single-floor rambler. But it actually was a two-story house built into a hill with the bedrooms on the main floor and the living and dining rooms and kitchen downstairs.

But there were some things about the house that were more than right for the Tullys. It sat on a great wedge-shaped lot that fanned out into the woods, giving the couple one of the best backyard views on the street. The rear wall of the house was all windows, taking full advantage of the private, woodsy backdrop.

And then there was the Somerset neighborhood, which Bruce Tully calls "first-rate . . . and convenient to everything."

So when the Tullys came back to Washington in 1996 from Indonesia, their last foreign posting, they decided to turn their $218,000 (in 1982) rambler look-alike into their dream house.

Using Jendell Construction Inc. and spending more than $160,000, the Tullys put a large great room onto the front of their house to take care of their entertaining needs. Now, guests enter into the great room, and the bedrooms are behind that.

They completely redid the landscaping and added a brick walkway to a peaked, almost temple-like entrance, reminiscent of their Asia days. Under that entryway there's a brick patio.

Beneath the great room, as part of their two-level addition, they planned ahead for their old age. "The downstairs part of the addition could become a bedroom, so that as we got older, if one of us had problems, we could use the downstairs bedroom where the kitchen, living and dining rooms are," Barbara Tully said.

Now, the couple couldn't be more pleased with their house.

"This house is forever," Bruce Tully said. "There is nowhere else on earth where we would be happier."

CAPTION: Before (This photo was not available)


PROJECT: New facade and great room upstairs, new bedroom below.

BALLPARK PRICE: $160,000 (in 1998)

REMODELER: Jendell Construction Inc.

THE OWNERS SAY: "There is nowhere else on earth where we would be happier."

Badly in Need of an Upgrade, Town House In Kalorama Goes From 4 Bedrooms to 2

Marco Zlatich has lived in his Kalorama town house overlooking Rock Creek Park since 1969, through one marriage and two sons, now grown.

Seven years ago, Zlatich, now 67, married Nancy Ahern. Zlatich, now retired from the World Bank, didn't want to move but did want his second wife to feel "that this is the place we are living our lives together in."

"This is such a wonderful marriage," he said, "and my wife wanted the house to her specifications and plans, to suit her needs."

So they gutted the top floor, guided by Silver Spring-based Wentworth-Levine Architect Builder Inc.

"It was a four-bedroom top floor," Zlatich said. "Now it's a two-bedroom top floor with a great master bedroom suite and a master bath." The master bath, made from the third bedroom, includes two sinks, a whirlpool tub and a shower stall. The fourth bedroom is now a study.

The redo meant a clean new look for the rear of the house, because the master bedroom suite includes what was originally an outdoor back porch. Zlatich had previously suffered a break-in through the porch, one of the reasons he wanted to close it in.

The rear addition also created a breakfast room on the first floor. And for a total of just under $200,000 two years ago, Zlatich and Ahern also put on a new roof and installed central air conditioning. They also updated the kitchen with new appliances.

The fireworks of this redesign come from the articulated parapet Wentworth-Levine designed, which "recalls the architectural details found on the front of the house." The design was approved by the D.C. historic preservation board.

"The house badly needed to be upgraded," Zlatich said. "When we tore the bathroom apart, we found newspapers from 1918, the year it was built, lining the [bottom] of the toilet, which had been leaking from the day I moved in."

And the retired couple never plans on moving.

"This is our retirement home," Zlatich said. "Washington is a wonderful city. It has everything that both of us love.

CAPTION: Before (This photo was not available)


PROJECT: New master bedroom and bath upstairs. Enclosed back porch for new breakfast room. New rear facade.

BALLPARK PRICE: Just under $200,000 (in 1997).

REMODELER: Wentworth-Levine Architect Builder, Inc.

THE OWNERS SAY: I wanted my second wife to feel that this is the place we are living our lives together in."

Taking the Bedroom and Bath Beyond the Usual With a Super Suite

Jill and Paul Martin used to toss old things into the attic space over their garage until the area was filled with junk.

At the same time, they were crashing into each other in the bathroom near their bedroom every morning as they got ready to go to work at their Interior Department jobs.

The couple had their Reston house custom built for them in the early 1980s, before sweeping master bedroom suites, complete with palatial bathrooms and walk-in closets, came into vogue.

"We had a fairly small bathroom," Jill Martin said. "And the bedroom wasn't that big either."

But the Martins liked everything else about their house, especially the fact that it backed onto a nature center.

"We considered moving," Jill Martin said. "But we really liked the area. And the house had appreciated significantly in value. When you like the house, and you're sitting on a valuable piece of property, it seems more cost-efficient to remodel and get what you like."

Using Glickman Signature Designs & Remodeling of Rockville and forking over about $55,000 (in 1993), the Martins made themselves a super master-bedroom suite by knocking down the wall between two bedrooms, combining the two rooms and adding a dressing room. The junk in the garage's attic was thrown out and the space converted into a master bathroom.

They solved the morning banging-into-each-other problem by putting in two separate vanities.

But they didn't install a whirlpool tub. In fact, they put in no tub at all. Instead, they installed a massive 6-by-7-foot shower with dual shower heads and a "real nice bench you can stretch out on."

"If we had put in a Jacuzzi tub--that neither of us would've ever used--we would have had to put the vanities together on one wall," she said. There are bathtubs in the other two full baths in the house.

The Martins may have solved their space problems, but they aren't planning to stay in Reston forever. "My husband is going to retire in about three years, and we're planning on moving to South Carolina," she said. "But I wish I could take my bathroom with me."

CAPTION: Before (This photo was not available)


PROJECT: Turn garage attic into new master bathroom and dressing area.

BALLPARK PRICE: $55,000 (in 1993).

REMODELER: Glickman Signature Designs & Remodeling

THE OWNERS SAY: "When you like the house and you're sitting on a valuable piece of property, it seems more cost-efficient to remodel and get what you like."