Hector Sierra and Yvonne Durazzo bought a small rambler in Annandale, Va., in 1987 for $170,000.
Durazzo, who works for a federal agency, was pregnant when they moved into the dark little house, which was outfitted with thick carpeting and wood paneling. Twenty-six years later, after several false starts, they would embark on an elaborate renovation that they say didn’t make economic sense.
The home served as the model in the subdivision and, before the renovation, still had the original cabinets in the kitchen. “It was structurally sound. We loved the backyard, and the price was good,” said Sierra, now 65 and retired from the World Bank. “At the time, it was all we could afford.”
The couple stripped off the paneling, tore up the carpet, refinished the floors and built a deck off the back of the house. They began raising two boys and fretted about the quality of the local schools. In 1998, they made an offer on a bigger house in a better school district in Vienna, but their offer wasn’t accepted. “The whole thing fell through, and we lost the momentum. We ended up putting the kids in private schools,” Sierra said.
For the next 15 years, the family started and stopped renovation plans, as they wrestled with moving or renovating. The kids grew up and moved out. In 2013, while attending a home show in Chantilly, they met Jonas Carnemark of Carnemark Design + Build, based in Bethesda. “I was going to retire from the World Bank,” Sierra said, “and I said if we’re going to do something, let’s do something big.”
The three hit it off and began the design work by pointing Carnemark toward images of what they were looking for. “They wanted to fix up the kitchen, and when you walked into the house, the staircase was right in front of you, so they wanted to straighten that up,” Carnemark said.
The design team considered adding a perpendicular wing off the back of the house to get a new master suite, and other iterations that would double the size of the 3,000-square- foot, four-bedroom, three-bathroom, two-story rectangle.
The couple had set a rough budget of a half-million dollars, but when the estimates came in, things began to go horribly wrong. “That’s where we went into sticker-price shock, Sierra said. “We were out of control; we went crazy. It was $800,000 — $300,000 over what we wanted to spend.”
An emotional meeting with Carnemark brought things to a head, as design compromises were reached to chisel down the number. But even after the chiseling, the couple had to face the fact that they were putting more money into the house than it was actually worth. “This is not an investment; we’re not going to recoup the money,” said Durazzo, 60. “Houses here in the neighborhood are like $700,000, and that’s probably tops. We accepted the fact that we were spending the money, and we were going to enjoy it.”
At the same time, Carnemark was rationalizing the decision and hedging his bets. “People who travel stay in nice hotels, and they don’t get to take that feeling home with them,” he says. “When it comes to remodeling, if clients keep to what they want, I think it will really sell much better, as opposed to trying to do what the market wants. I’ve seen it over and over. where clients put in way more than what they wanted to, but when they sell, there’s a bidding war.”
The couple handed the house keys to Carnemark in December 2014. They had already made plans to rent an apartment downtown for the nine-month construction cycle. None of it really sank in until they returned from a trip and stopped by to visit the site.
“We went away for the holidays, came back and it was a barn,” Durazzo said. “I did not realize the enormity of what we were going to do until that very moment. I really did not get it. Everything was gone. There was no going back.”
With going forward being the only option, the back wall gently bumped out into the backyard to create 900 square feet of extra space. The interior walls were removed, and the rooms were reconfigured. The troublesome staircase in the front entrance was flipped and moved to the side. The kitchen didn’t move, but the appliances, cabinets and countertops, most of which were original to the house, were replaced.
To disguise the bump-out, Carnemark designed a tendril to connect the new spaces. All the flooring was replaced on the main level to a wide-plank oak to disguise where the old house ended and the new one began. Structural beams were hidden above the ceiling, and clerestory windows were added in the living area to bring in northern light.
By cleverly using the extra space that was created, the house got a new kitchen, a new master suite with walk-in closets, a basement study, a new deck and a back patio at ground level that nestles under the bump-out.
The house now flows effortlessly and is filled with light, and the addition remains virtually unseen from the street, which was not done by accident. “We wanted to keep the same look in the neighborhood. We didn’t want the house to stick out,” Sierra said.
The front door now opens to a view through the house and out to the backyard, and the new kitchen beckons to the right of the entryway. The kitchen cabinetry, rendered in a Wild Oak Gray finish, came from Siematic and features brushed nickel hardware. The appliances are all Miele, except for the dishwasher, which is a Bosch. The countertop is Caesarstone in a shiitake finish.
The master bathroom was reconfigured with a soaking tub and an oversize shower finished with field tile from Crag Castle in Tea Sands. Cabinetry in the bath is also from Siematic, and the countertops are also Caesarstone.
Although blowing through the budget was painful, everybody has made peace with the idea, and they did do their homework. “The choices were, we could either sell the house and find another one, and we did look around,” Sierra said. “We looked at new condos in Washington, but I never like the idea of living in a condo. A condo fee is like another mortgage. Plus, they have a lot amenities that we were never going to use.”
For Carnemark, the jury is still out regarding what could happen in the Annandale neighborhood, which is populated by mid-century ramblers and ranchers possibly in need of their own updates.
“Some neighborhoods have glass ceilings, and suddenly somebody breaks through,” he said. “We saw that in AU Park — it used to be you could not sell anything over $400,000, and then all of a sudden, it flipped to $800,000.”
The family might get their money back after all, but at this point, there are no plans to ever sell.