Fall Real Estate 2000

Publication Date: Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2000 & Friday, Sept. 22, 2000

More than a facelift More than a facelift (September 22, 2000)

With a little love, and a lot of elbow grease, a rundown house becomes a gem

by Carol Blitzer

Hey mister: You're making my life a misery!," called the motorist passing 415 Middlefield Road in Palo Alto recently.

As John Lopes looked up from his work on the lush floral display in the front yard, the driver continued: "Ever since my wife saw this yard, she keeps asking why ours can't look this good."

The yard--as well as the exterior and interior--is a far cry from when owner Christina Luiz first saw it in 1998. Few of the people who walked through the crumbling mess could imagine paying more than half a million dollars for a place with peeling plaster, well-worn linoleum or $33,000 estimated termite damage.

Luiz, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker in Menlo Park, quickly saw the value of restoring the 1910 home's potential, rather than just valuing the dirt it sat on.

"The house was in despicable condition," she said. "The lath and plaster was hanging from the front. The linoleum was so old it was chipped; there were only fragments left. Everything was rotting, decaying. There was no closet in the master bedroom."

Originally from Portugal, Luiz says she loves older homes. "This was originally a grand old dame. The prospect of fixing it appealed. I felt sorry for the home," she said.

At first she did some stopgap measures--about $50,000 worth--that enabled her to rent the property for a while. But when she decided to move in herself the serious renovation began.

After contacting multiple contractors, she found John Lopes, of Beacon Development in San Jose, who had experience in both building new homes and restoring older ones. With Lopes, she no longer felt she had to fight over every little detail, such as whether or not to repair the banister or replace it with a new one. She had already waged a major battle over saving the front door with its unusual round beveled-glass window inset--and won.

Over a four-month period, Lopes took the house down to the studs, then put it back together piece by piece.

After clearing the rats' nests, he added insulation and new sheet rock. The hardwood floors--fir in the bedroom, oak in the living/dining room--were repaired and refinished. A new bathroom was built off the master bedroom.

In some cases, the original design was retained, but redone with higher quality materials. In the dining room, Lopes replaced the thin redwood paneling with rich cherry wood, including a built-in china cabinet with leaded glass from Germany and detailed moldings. Where the doors and their hardware simply could not be made to function, they were replaced with new ones made to resemble old ones.

"I tried to keep as true to the original as possible yet maintain more functionality," said Luiz. "I wanted to integrate the flavor of the Old World."

Instead of adding granite and marble to create a glitzy kitchen, Luiz chose tiles with colored grout that better suited the age of the house. She relied on her friend Mary Ann Hoffman, who has helped her stage a number of homes, to choose colors that moved easily throughout the home. For example, she chose a rich vanilla for the kitchen cabinets, with faux-finished walls that integrate the floor, counter and cabinets.

In retrospect, Luiz regrets doing the first-round fix-up to clean up for the tenants because she ended up redoing quite a bit of that work. "It's always better to do it right the first time," she said.

When she purchased the home, it had a master bedroom and half-bath downstairs and one large room upstairs. She quickly divided this into two bedrooms and added a full bath, as well as lots of closet and deep storage space.

Luiz says she doesn't know exactly how much it cost her to complete the renovation--only her accountant knows the whole awful truth--but she estimates at least $100,000. She tried to keep costs down by buying tiles on sale at Quality Discount Tile in Palo Alto and splurging on the few trim pieces.

She also traded out with her contractor, allowing him to fix up a basement office to use in Palo Alto while he worked on other local jobs, in exchange for doing the landscaping.

"It isn't always about buying the most expensive look," she said. "I bought the best that I could for the look."

The backyard had been almost completely cemented over. Today, it features a large grassy expanse, flagstone patio, a water fountain on the side that helps cloak the Middlefield street noise, and a charming bunny house.

Although she says she was not intending to sell it yet, Luiz recently put it up for sale, hoping to take advantage of the seller's market.

What's next for Luiz? She recently purchased a run-down Atherton ranch-style house and challenged Lopes "to make this look really old."