Your dream house is bought. At a good price. In the best location. All it needs is a rethink. Open up the kitchen. Put in a door to the back yard. Take down two walls. Not a big deal.
Well, actually, it’s a very big deal. “Homeowners don’t realize how complicated renovations can be with literally hundreds of decisions that need to be made. A renovation project can certainly benefit from an adviser,” said Theo Adamstein, sales associate at TTR Sothebys International Realty and founder of Adamstein Consultants.
That’s why using a multidisciplinary approach to real estate investing — melding sales with design services by serving as a client’s real estate agent and architect — is something several firms are beginning to do.
“This hybrid advice is starting to bud and becoming a new path,” said John Coplen, co-founder of the Alter Urban Group + Evers & Co. Real Estate with John Sage.
Adamstein, Coplen and Sage are real estate agents with years of experience in architecture, design and construction. All three have architecture degrees and started their professions as architects. Then they added real estate licenses. They help buyers find a home and help sellers get one ready for sale. Plus, they offer design services for construction and renovation.
In the consultant role, they serve as the homeowner’s representative by stepping into the renovation process and helping every step of the way. They explain the blueprints, offer opinions on design and construction, moderate conflicts or misunderstandings with contractors and keep the renovation process moving and on track.
Just ask Manu Gayatrinath and Anthony Cruz, who looked for a house that needed to be renovated.
“We were in New York and saw a beautiful three-level historic property in Georgetown, online, and called Theo [our agent]. He said, ‘If you want this property, you’ve got to come immediately,’ ” said Gayatrinath. “So we drove back, looked at the property, put in an expiring bid as suggested by Theo [good for 12 hours] and we got the house.”
“We hired a design-build firm. They gave us a plan, but we didn’t understand the drawings. We didn’t speak the language. We were overwhelmed with the number of decisions. ‘Let’s ask Theo,’ we said,” Cruz recalled.
“At first it was casual. He came by, walked in the front door and in a glance suggested opening up the first-floor space, which was a collection of small rooms. ‘If you break down all these walls you’ll have a straight sight line from the entrance into the back garden,’ he told us,” said Cruz.
“Then he walked upstairs and into the master bathroom. In 20 seconds he redesigned the space in a way we’d never imagined,” he said.
“Clearly, he could add a lot of value, so we asked him to be our renovation consultant. Now we’re in the middle of our renovation, and I can say we wouldn’t recommend anyone buying and renovating without hiring a professional expert with a design background and vision. He’s our advocate in this process,” said Gayatrinath.
Ron Ginsburg hired the Alter Urban Group to identify an empty lot in Upper Northwest Washington, handle its sale, help design the house and shepherd construction.
“I believe brokers are gatekeepers when it comes to providing buyers and sellers aesthetic advice. It’s not unusual anymore for one broker to recommend everyone you need to fix up your home,” said Ginsburg.
Consultants can step in for a one- or two-time assessment or be on call from concept through completion. They provide referrals for the entire renovation team, including general contractor, painter, electrician, engineers, carpenter, sound and lighting specialists, permit facilitators and landscape architects. “I also provide a list of furniture showrooms, recommend appliances, color schemes, furniture placement and room design,” said Adamstein.
“You end up with a team that speaks the same language as you because they understand what you want. That’s what the Johns did for me,” said Ginsburg. “We could speak in shorthand, and it was all very efficient. If you’re able to save time and not go on a lot of lookey-looks [for individuals to do each job], everyone benefits,” he said.
“Also, a lot of people don’t want to get into the weeds of decorating details like drawer pulls and doorknobs, so you ask the people you hired because you trust them to make those decisions for you and the less work it is for you,” Ginsburg said.
The Alter Urban Group found and sold Shea Van Horn and his husband, Andy Papp, their house in North Bloomingdale in the District.
“Then we had problems with flooding,” said Van Horn, “so John [Coplen] put on his architect hat and said, ‘Let’s come up with a plan to redesign the basement,’ which was a big open space, not aesthetically pleasing, with an old-fashioned bathroom we never used and an old furnace that looked like an octopus.”
“We also wanted to renovate and open up the kitchen, move the back door and change another door to a window. We decided to do it all at once, and that became our renovation project,” he said.
“The Johns came up with designs based on a picture we liked. They brought in a few general contractors, each of whom provided a bid. We chose one,” he added.
“At each stage of work that we’d established with the general contractor, they came in to approve and tell us we could move forward, or, if there was a problem, they’d suggest what to do and discuss it with the contractor,” said Van Horn.
Adamstein recommended design changes in Cruz and Gayatrinath’s house throughout the renovation.
For example, he proposed using a steel beam rather than wood to support the first-floor ceiling; he advocated two HVAC systems — upstairs and down — instead of one and said it could be placed in the hallway rather than in a closet as designated in the plans; and, he wanted to install a washer and dryer in the upstairs hallway. “To the eye it looked like there wasn’t enough room, but Theo measured the space and showed that a stacking system could exactly fit,” Cruz said.
“People underestimate the bandwidth of time, money and the decisions that’ll have to be made when they do a complicated renovation job,” said Bruce Irving, who was executive producer of the PBS show “This Old House,” a series on home renovation. Now he’s a real estate agent and home renovation consultant in Cambridge, Mass.
“I come in if you’re sort of scratching your head about what to do, when to do it, how to do, how to get started. I don’t have a dog in the race so I can be totally honest,” he said.
“I’m hired to give unvarnished advice. I tell people point blank ‘You’re looking at one-and-a-half-years of work and a million bucks,’ ” said Irving.
He also tells them to move out during renovation. “Living in a house under construction is a terrible idea. It slows down the work because the place can’t be treated as a true construction site but rather it’s a home where a job is being done,” he said.
Said Ginsburg: “What we’re really talking about is creating a home, not just a place to store your stuff. This means many details, great and small, have to come together. Why not start with professionals who understand your aesthetics, have multiple skills and can help you reach your goals?”