With housing prices rising

Real-Life Renovations

Ron Hazelton is taking a rotor saw to a part of the wall in his first-floor foyer, trying to widen the initial sight lines that greet people when entering his house. Behind him two camera operators in facemasks angle for position, zooming in while a director voices instructions inside their headphones. A boom operator captures the sounds of a whirring blade and flying plaster. Klieg lights blaze overhead, bleaching the scene almost white to the naked eye.

Across the bucolic and orderly acres of lower Fairfield County, home renovation has become big business. And inside Hazelton’s light-colored clapboard house in the Greenfield Hills section of Fairfield, just a few mailboxes from the Westport line, it has become show business as well.

Welcome to another episode of Ron Hazelton’s HouseCalls, viewed by an estimated 800,000 households across the United States every week, including some 40,000 presumably bleary-eyed do-it-yourselfers in the greater New York City area. Hazelton has been published by Time/Life Books, featured on the History Channel, is the home-improvement editor for ABC’s Good Morning America, and since last July, has made his newly purchased Fairfield manse into the main set for his weekly show. Segments he has shot for the cameras include modernizing his circa 1970 kitchen, touching up his living room and replacing old bathroom plumbing, his team of carpenters and video technicians in tow.

There is an audience for this kind of programming, he says. “I think there was a period of time when there was a greater tendency to sell and buy a new house,” he explains. “Now more people are renovating.” That appears to be the case around his neighborhood. According to Realtors, architects and builders, the renovation market is in play in Westport, Weston, Wilton and Fairfield like never before. Today, adding features is often the first thing people do when moving into a home rather than the last thing they do before selling it.

“As property values have increased, home owners are finding it costs more to move from their current location than it is to add to an already-done home,” says Westport architect Peter Cadoux. “Also, people are traveling less. This concept of being home more has actually fueled construction.”

For many, like Hazelton, renovation projects can be fairly simple in nature, like replacing a kitchen window or screening off a porch. But the growth in home improvement is especially strong at the higher end, where architects are hired to draw up floor plans and builders toil for months, if not years, to complete a project. Elisabeth Wadsworth, a partner in the Byram-based architectural firm Jones Footer Margeotes, estimates the average renovation project she and her associates handle in towns like Greenwich, Darien, New Canaan and Westport range in price between $500,000 and $13 million. “Those large projects have always been there, but we’re probably seeing more now because of the value of real estate,” she explains. “It makes sense to put that kind of value in a piece of property. They think it’s a smart investment.”

Westport architect Anne Sellars Lathrop agrees: “Everyone seems to want to improve their house and has the money to do it. What has slowed down is new construction.”

Precise figures on just how much renovation work is being done remain elusive, but many who make their living in the real estate business agree that building on or extensively refurbishing an existing home is at least as popular as it ever was. “It’s been steady for the last decade,” says Kelly Wright, a contractor and co-owner of Wright Brothers Builders in Westport. “Maybe it’s been a little more since the amount of available new land has decreased.”

While Wright notes that some renovations are simple, like adding a dormer window or finishing a basement room, he adds that most are elaborate projects that require an architect and six to nine months to complete. “In order of frequency, it’s generally improving a kitchen/family area, creating a master suite and then a total upgrade with new moldings, electricity, plumbing and modernizing.”

“Sometimes a home is too small and they need more room,” says architect Jonathan Wagner of Westport. “That’s the driving force. Anyone who has lived in a house around here generally finds their property appreciates in value and, therefore, they can borrow money to do a renovation.”

Pete Muller wanted more space for his seaside beach house, just 1,300 square feet inside. Built on wood pilings, with no insulation and minimal heating, it had been designed to be a summer retreat, but Muller wanted a permanent residence with more elbow room. At the same time, he didn’t want to lose the character that first attracted him to the property: simple, cozy, bucolic.

“I wanted a big airy living room and kitchen area, and a room with a peaceful view where I can write music,” says Muller. “I was very proud of how it came out. It was definitely worth it.”

The renovation involved gutting the original structure. In its place, a twin-gambrel roofline with a sloping bell-shaped second floor that creates a setting reminiscent of a captain’s cottage, but with a modernist twist. Looking out the living room window, one of many that take advantage of the ample natural light, one’s field of view is filled out by the yawning expanse of Long Island Sound. In the summer one is reminded of a Bali hut; in the winter, of a whaling station off the Arctic Ocean.

Architect Stuart Disston of the agency Austin Patterson Disston in Southport worked on the Muller expansion along with interior designer Kathryn Hood: “The aesthetic is what I’d call Shaker minimalist,” Disston says. “Very clean lines, not a lot of decoration or over detail. The house bridges the warmth of the traditional and the feel of a contemporary.”

The Muller home was nearly doubled in size, but still, at 2,300 square feet, is about as small as a remodeled house will get. In addition to maintaining the feeling of the original home, Muller opted to keep several floor and ceiling beams and a seagull carving from the house as he found it.

An interior designer who runs Sterling Design Associates in Fairfield, Julianne Sterling remembers the early 1990s when business was dead: “I didn’t see a dump truck for three years.” Not so now. She says people are looking at their homes as retreats. “They want to come home to something that is relaxing. They are looking for a place of peace in their lives.”

Much of this has to do with the outdated nature of much of the existing housing stock. A house built as recently as the 1970s is often not equipped for the needs of dual-income families. Maybe it’s the one-car garage or the lack of a home office. Parents want special computer rooms for their children so homework and online activities can be supervised. Entertaining is no longer a matter for one richly appointed living room or dining room but can entail everything from wine cellars to hot tubs to media rooms with wide-screen televisions.

“A lot of it will be, ‘We need the flow of the house to work better,’ ” says architect Mac Patterson, another partner at Austin Patterson Disston in Southport. “We need a bigger kitchen and a nice seating area off the kitchen.”

Patterson has been around long enough to remember the 1980s, the much-mocked era of the spawning “McMansions.” It’s different today, he insists. “In the 1980s, the typical McMansion renovation project was when they bought the property for the land and for one old piece of the house,” he recalls. “The plan was to expand the square footage tremendously. Now, you’re expanding, but not hugely.”

Kitchens tend to be a magnet for renovation projects. Nearly every project outlined by an architect begins with a redone kitchen. A master bedroom suite is also high on most people’s wish lists. Wadsworth explains that a master suite is a bedroom, sitting room, closet and bathroom — in all, “a self-contained area for the husband and wife.”

“The kitchen usually drives it,” Julianne says. “The second factor will be an aged master bedroom. Those are the things that drive renovation. When you get into that, you might as well do something else.”

Tear Down the Walls
To hear people talk, teardowns were more common in the late 1990s than now. “The market dynamics have created this,” says Westport architect Roger Ferris. “People get used to living where they are. They want to realize the maximum potential they can have from living in their house. If there is any way to get 80 percent of their wish list from their existing house, they do it.”

When Ellen and Rick Spear purchased their Westport home in 1997, they were just happy to be where they were, in a large-lot residential cul-de-sac close to the railroad station. But over time, they decided changes were in order. The house had been built in the late 1960s. The flow from room to room was awkward. The kitchen was cramped and full of failing appliances. The frontage was faux-Colonial with a second floor that jutted out over the first, forming a bulky overhang. “Aesthetically, we never liked that look,” says Rick, a former management consulting executive who now devotes himself to organizing and competing in bicycle races.

The pair worked with Anne Lathrop on a redesign that would add more than 500 square feet to the 3,000-square-foot house, widening out the kitchen and creating an adjoining family room, designing a porch in front that would conceal the overhang and adding windows, lots of windows. “We didn’t want to make the house bigger, we just wanted to improve the flow,” adds Ellen, who devotes herself to raising two children. “The bones of the house were good. Other than cosmetically, we didn’t change much except the kitchen and the family room.”

In 2000 Ellen was the mother of a preschooler, Phoebe, and a newborn, Hallie, and was nursing a broken leg when contractors John Ditullio and Gary Duffy of Norwalk were supervising work on the home. “Certain parts go fast,” Ellen says. “Details take forever. The granite for the kitchen countertops — they promised it would be ready in two weeks. Then they had to wait for the cabinets and the sinks. Then they have to measure. Then the granite guy is sick.”

But the couple has no complaints with the results. The Spear home does not look like the typical Westport home, not even a remodeled one. It has a feeling of a contemporary California ranch house, albeit one grounded in a New England aesthetic. Visible rafters and light-beige flooring create an informal atmosphere enhanced by the sunlight streaming through unmullioned windowpanes. Lathrop, a protégé of famed architect Philip Johnson, calls the result “not so much a style, but a renovated Colonial open plan.”

The Spears just know what they like. “It sounds crazy, but the things that are important to us aren’t big rooms, but windows, moldings, framings — the details,” Rick says.

While home owners most often opt to renovate because of lifestyle issues, a new kitchen or an additional bedroom does have a way of paying for itself. Some Realtors in the area agree. “Say you spent $1.2 million on a house, then did a $100,000 renovation for your kitchen,” says Emily Gordon of Coldwell Banker in Westport. “Could you get back $1.3 million for it on resale? Probably. Maybe you could get $1.5 million. But there’s no science to it. A lot depends on the size of the house. Ultimately, the enjoyment factor is more important.”

Even the best renovations come with a cost beyond the dollars spent on construction. Much of it comes in the form of disruption. “I’m very much in favor of renovating homes, but it’s more traumatic than people think,” Emily cautions.

Westport architect George Dumitru estimates the typical renovation can take from nine months to a year and recommends the homeowner live elsewhere while work progresses. If too many parts of the house are changed, he says, “it becomes expensive and disruptive to the home owners’ lifestyle if they are living there while you work on it.”

Underbidding or Overcommitting?
Horror stories of renovations gone sour have become the stuff of suburban legends, and, in many cases, they have the additional chilling factor of being true. “There’s a real effort to manage the expectations of the clients, and then you have to work with the builders,” Ferris says. “Home building is the last province of cowboys and outlaws in our country.

I have a saying: “Tool belts have replaced gun belts.” You have some good builders in this area, and then there are others who aren’t good.

And who’s good this year may not be good next year. Do the subs owe them money? Are they underbidding or

Wright agrees that new market dynamics have crowded the field of area contractors, and home owners need to be careful who they choose. “What I see are an awful lot of guys that start projects and are not able to complete them,” he says. “They don’t understand the costs, and they don’t understand the scheduling. Maybe they don’t mean to take advantage of the client, but they really do not know what’s entailed in the business.”

Another pitfall many encounter is straying too far from the prevailing aesthetic. Westport architect Ken Kraus says he built one stone-and-shingle house on Green Acre Road with craftsman-style paneling and a tower that Realtors flocked to see but then sat on the shelf a long time. “I was under the impression people were getting tired of the center-hall Colonial McMansions, but I’m not sure that’s the case,” he says. “People still gobble them up. It’s safe. People don’t like to take risks with newer-style homes, either financially or emotionally.”

Architect Patterson says respecting the tradition of a house is integral to a final design everyone can live with. “People bought these homes for a reason,” he says. “When you start renovating, the question you ask yourself is, How do you keep the soul of a house intact?”

That was a question he took on with  a Wilton couple, Jay and Margaret Ahstrom, in 1998. The house they bought, a two-story farmhouse in northern Wilton, was more than Colonial in style alone. The left-most part of the house was built in 1765, and the section next to that in the early 1800s. It had been occupied for the previous six decades by a widow and antiques collector who had faithfully kept the house exactly as she found it, with an asphalt roof, a poorly insulated shed dormer and a central staircase with steps steep enough to ski down. The Ahstroms replaced all that.

They also added new floor area to their home, pushing it out from 3,800 to 4,800 square feet. They could have added much more than that if they chose. Size was not a goal. “We weren’t looking to make it big,” Jay says. “We wanted to make it look like an older home. We wanted to renovate it in a style consistent with the time it was originally built.”

Features of the original home that might horrify the more contemporary-minded please the Ahstroms. Windows are not spaced evenly apart. Single steps between rooms draw notice to the less-than-level floor, where dark and curving oak planks creak with age. The foyer is dominated by a fireplace that is set at an angle from the front door — a reminder of earlier days when chimneys were built in the middle of the house rather than at the ends of it so as to retain warmth.

Some concessions were made to fit modern amenities. Margaret credits Patterson with striking a balance. “Mac was very enjoyable, very practical,” she said. “He designed the kitchen. Obviously, they didn’t have cabinets with glass knobs in 1760, but we wanted something consistent with the rest of the house. Spaces we added, like the laundry room, the mudroom, the sunroom, weren’t going to be in keeping with the original period. Mac’s feeling was, Don’t make it look like it’s too Colonial.”

Still, the interior décor is straight out of Currier & Ives, with plates on a Welsh dresser commemorating such events as Pocahontas’s wedding and Washington saying grace in woodcut motifs. Pink-tinged toile curtains drape the windows, and the dining room walls are hand-painted with scenes of period Wilton life, featuring horsemen and pinafore-clad goodwives. One suspects the home’s security system is set for “Mohawk Attack.”

Three different sections were added to the house, at a cost of $350 a square foot. The process took two years, made endurable only by the fact that the Ahstroms and their two daughters, Emily and Sarah, were able to live in a guest cottage on the grounds. Even that is now in the process of being renovated, along with the garage.

Unlike other home owners, the Ahstroms don’t expect to recoup all they spent on refurbishing the home. “We put in plaster walls, not plasterboard,” Jay says. “No one will pay us for that.”

“Had resale been on our minds, these rooms would have been larger,” Margaret adds. “We wanted it comfortable and cozy, because one day it will just be the two of us living here.”

How much was resale a factor with the Muller beach house renovation? “Zero,” Muller says. “Even if I move, I won’t sell it.” Mark Basile is both an interior designer and a Realtor with Country Living Associates in Westport, so he has some idea when renovation makes economic sense. “A split-level house or one close to the highway is a questionable lot to put money in,” he says. “Or a lot where you have wetlands in the back. It’s hard to add to that. You’d be the most expensive house on the street. Wait for the value of the rest of the street to come up to you. If you should need to sell, being the most expensive house on your street is a bit chancy.” One nice trend he notes in renovation is greater interest in curb appeal: “People are paying more attention to landscaping and the exterior as well, adding porticos and brick walls.”

Ron Hazelton plans to spend the next six months living in his Fairfield home with his wife, Lynn, and their two young children. Then there’s just one last decision — whether to renovate again or not. He thinks they probably will — though with the camera lights off and the TV crews off the payroll. Working with Southport architect Pat Miller, Ron is quietly eyeballing a serious addition with new bedrooms and bathrooms.

There’s something seriously satisfying about remaking one’s home in one’s own image, he says. “I have a vision of how I want to live in this house,” he says. “How I want to hang out with my kids, how I want to socialize with my friends, how I want to relax with my wife or by myself. I imagine myself and how I want to live in this space. Some of the things I can do with the house the way it is, and for some of it, the house would have to change. The most gratifying projects for me are those where you create a home or part of a home that fulfills that vision and it works.”    

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