The 3,100-square-foot California contemporary house in Falls Church, Va., is ideal for Utpal and Kinjal Shah’s tastes and needs. But that was hardly the case when the couple first saw the then-1,460-square-foot rambler before its major makeover.

“When we first came to this house, I walked in the front door and right out the back because it smelled so terrible,” Kinjal Shah said.

“The people who owned it must have smoked packs of cigarettes every day for decades,” she added. “The place smelled like cats and dogs, too.”

The Shahs told their real estate agent, Genevieve Concannon, director of the custom homes division at Smith │Schnider real estate development in Arlington, that the house wasn’t for them, although their plan was to buy a fixer-upper.

“The house was in bad shape and even had a gap in the floor that you had to jump over because beetles had eaten through the floor joists,” Concannon said. “But we eventually ended back there after months of frustration because I knew that the footprint of the house and the beautiful back yard would work for them.”

Like many millennials in the Washington area, the Shahs were ready to move out of their one-bedroom condo and start a family in a larger home. Although they had a healthy budget for house hunting, they also had some very specific ideas of the type of home they wanted. They were open to a fixer-upper that they could convert into a California contemporary-style place. Utpal, 36, works at the U.S. Patent Office and Kinjal, 34, is a federal contractor. Both work in Northern Virginia.

“We hoped to stay in North Arlington for the schools and because we liked living there,” Utpal said. “We couldn’t find a contemporary home in that area that fit our budget, and everything that we did see was either an old Colonial or Craftsman-style place that wasn’t our style.”

Kinjal grew up in Beltsville, Md., in a neighborhood of traditional homes and yet has been drawn to contemporary-style homes when looking on Web sites such as Houzz.

Said Uptal: “I went to the University of Texas and lived in Austin for a while, which is a really progressive city, and that’s where I got a taste for contemporary style. Our biggest priority was an open floor plan with an open kitchen, because we both love to cook. We also needed to be in a place with good schools.”


Utpal Shah, center, wife, Kinjal Shah and their son, Kabir Shah recently moved into their home in the Donna Lee Gardens neighborhood of Falls Church. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Concannon, who has experience in custom home building, helped the Shahs recognize that they needed to broaden their search beyond North Arlington to find a home that fit their budget and space needs. Utpal said they met with a lender and established a budget of $480,000 for the home purchase and $500,000 for the renovations.

“We lost out on so many homes because we were competing with all-cash offers,” Kinjal said. “When Genevieve brought us back here, we couldn’t believe the house was still on the market. I waited outside while Utpal looked at the inside and I realized that the back yard was exactly what we wanted, with these huge oak trees and a level lawn, perfect for kids.”

Utpal said that if the house had been in better condition or in North Arlington, it would have cost at least $100,000 to $200,000 more.

The Shahs, along with their 8-month-old son, Kabir, recently moved into their home in the Donna Lee Gardens neighborhood of Falls Church, which is close to the East and West Falls Church Metro stations; the Dunn Loring Metro station; the Mosaic District for shops, restaurants and entertainment; and two farmers markets, all of which are enticing to the Shahs. In addition,. Utpal said the neighborhood is assigned to Timber Lane Elementary School, McLean Middle School and McLean High School, which met their priority for a good school district.

Year-long renovation

The purchase of the property in June 2014 was just the start of a year-long journey to transform the three-bedroom, one-bathroom home into a four-bedroom, three-bathroom home.

“We wanted a comfortable house, but not one that was as big as 4,000 or 5,000 square feet,” Utpal said. “All the rooms are good sized, but none of them are huge.”

The Shahs had chosen architect Mike Stevens, owner and principal at MCS Architects PC in Herndon, Va., and Jan Spence, owner and principal at Pearl’s Design Solution in Merrifield, Va. Concannon recommended several builders for them to interview. Ultimately, they chose Andrew Moore, president of Arlington Designer Homes in Arlington.

“We liked Andy’s experience with green building, which is important to us, and he was really honest with us throughout the process,,” Utpal said. “He helped us figure out where to cut costs so we could put money into our priorities like the kitchen and master bath.”

Concannon said the Shahs were careful to make sure the home they ended up with was in the price range for the neighborhood.

“The Shahs had a great vision, so it was my job just to break that into smaller pieces to achieve what they wanted,” Moore said. “They were realistic about the budget, the process and the timeline.”

The Shahs were able to save some money by keeping the foundation and all four exterior walls of the original 1950s brick rambler. They gutted most of the interior to expand the living space, eliminated an old sunroom to extend the back of the house and added a second floor. Opening up the roof to add the second floor helped eliminate the odors in the house, as did ripping up all of the flooring and installing all new windows.

“The biggest mistake a lot of buyers do is to design things they can’t afford to install, but the Shahs were great at balancing what they wanted with their budget,” Moore said. “For example, they were looking at a very expensive material for the second-floor exterior and the back of the house, but they went with Hardie plank when I showed them it could save them $20,000 to $40,000. They were able to spend that money on other things they wanted.”


This is what the house looked liked before Utpal and Kinjal Shah remodeled it. (Courtesy of Utpal and Kinjal Shah)

Kinjal chose a bright red front door and a bright red side door to add pops of color and to complement the solid gray Hardie plank panels on the front of the house. The couple opted to keep the back wall of the original home as an exposed brick interior wall with a window into the stairwell. Utpal chose an accordion-style wall of glass that allows the kitchen and family room to open to the back yard.

“Landscaping isn’t in our budget yet, but we love the space and the trees in the back yard and we made sure to put in as many windows as possible across the back of the house,” Utpal said.

Inside, the Shahs opted to create a completely open living and dining area, kitchen and family room. They added a narrow set of vertical slats of wood to define the foyer, which has a stone floor to separate it from the living area, which has red oak hardwood flooring.

The Shahs paid the most attention to their kitchen, which has pale gray tile flooring bordered by the hardwood on the rest of the level.

“We both love to cook with a lot of spices and oils, so we decided we wanted a tile floor that was easier to clean,” Utpal said.

The Shahs chose a Silestone quartz center island with “waterfall” sides that extend the surface to the floor for a clean, modern look. They selected professional-grade stainless steel appliances, including a convection microwave oven that works especially well for cooking vegetables, a plus because they are vegetarians. They also chose contemporary-style white cabinets with mostly open shelving and deep drawers, and an oversize steel sink.

“We had made a lot of selections ahead of time and then finalized them in the two months we had after choosing our builder and the December due date for Kabir,” Kinjal said. “We knew it would be harder to go to design centers with a newborn baby, plus it helped us stick to our budget to keep the timeline short.”

The family room, which originally had a brick wood-burning fireplace, now has a gas fireplace raised a few feet above the floor and surrounded by a sleek wall of tile that complements the kitchen on the opposite side of the room. Overhead are square recessed LED lights.

The main level also includes a walk-in pantry with extensive shelving and a sliding white contemporary barn-style door with steel hardware.

“About the only part of the house that we kept is a small bedroom on the main level at the front of the house,” Utpal says. “We gutted the adjacent bathroom to make it bigger and added a walk-in shower.”

All the bathrooms in the home have contemporary-style vessel sinks and a clean palette of gray and white tiles. The main level also has a coat closet and a large laundry room next to the side entrance and mudroom. The stairs to the upper level feature steel cable railings for a modern look, with matching steel cable placed inside the original window frame on the exposed-brick wall. The window lets natural light filter in from the back of the house, while a skylight at the top of the stairs adds more light.

The Shahs opted for an open den with a TV at the top of the stairs. “We didn’t want a TV downstairs since we like entertaining there,” Utpal said.

The upstairs has an office that can be used as a guest room. Two other bedrooms share a connecting bathroom that can be accessed from the hall. This bathroom has a bathtub with a brightly tiled niche to add color. The dual-flush toilets in each bathroom save water and have a sleek contemporary style.


The Shahs chose a Silestone quartz center island with “waterfall” sides that extend the surface to the floor for a clean, modern look. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The master suite, separated from the rest of the upper level by the den, includes French doors that open onto a private balcony with a view of the treetops. The walk-in closet has two sections of built-in shelving and a window.

The Shahs’ master bathroom, a serene room with a wall of pale gray and white patterned tiles, white sinks and tile flooring, is one more space where the couple spent a little extra.

“We decided to put in a steam shower with a bench because we thought it would be great for when Kabir or we get a cold, plus we love all the different showerheads,” Utpal said.

They also have an air-jet whirlpool tub, oversize windows on two sides of the room and a double-sink vanity with numerous drawers.

Energy efficient features

In addition to creating a contemporary house that meets their needs, the Shahs wanted an energy-efficient home with healthy air for their growing family.

“We did a blower test on the house when they bought it and the result was a score of 220, which is way above the norm of 100,” Moore said. “We’ll do another test soon, but we think it should be around 75 or so with all the energy-efficient features we put into the house.”

Moore said that many of the green features in the Shahs’ house didn’t cost more to install, such as sealing the ductwork and adding extra insulation. He said that many small energy-efficient building techniques add up to as much as a 20 percent increase in energy efficiency. The Shahs chose a tankless water heater for energy efficiency because it’s more compact than a conventional water heater. The home also has LED lighting, high-efficiency Andersen windows, and a high-efficiency heating and air-conditioning system.

Although the road from January 2014, when the Shahs first seriously began house hunting, to moving into their home last month may have seemed long at times, the couple is completely satisfied that the compromises they made have been balanced by their joy in their new modern home and their neighborhood.

Michele Lerner is a freelance writer.

Tips for turning a disaster into a dream home

Genevieve Concannon, director of the custom homes division at Smith│Schnider real estate development in Arlington, has several tips for buyers who want to follow the Shahs’ path.

• Talk to someone in the custom home and remodeling business who can help you prioritize your needs and estimate a budget.

• Find a lender who can help you understand the financing options for buying and remodeling a home.

• Meet with several builders to discuss your plans before choosing one.

• Make sure the home you want to build is consistent with the property values in the neighborhood; the home will need to appraise based on comparable homes in the area for your lender to approve the loan.

• Understand the space constraints of different properties and what you can and cannot do.

• Anticipate surprises — unexpected challenges often occur once you start remodeling.

• Be ready for a long process — it could take a year or more before you can move into your home.