Do-It-Yourself Renovators Should Beware Of Mermaid Real Estate


Because my husband was a general contractor and because I own a shop that sells decorator items, we have many design magazines coming into the house. They are full of good advice and help keep us current on trends. Our favorites, of course, are the before and after issues that show how highly skilled builders and decorators, as well as “you folks at home,” can transform outdated, easy-on-the-budget houses into “your dream home.”

A few of these magazines even feature historic homes available for purchase that the editors feel are worthy of transformation. There will usually be a one-page story with a few photographs of the interior and exterior, together with the price, location and a brief description. Words like “heart pine floors throughout,” “sweeping central staircase,” and “original tin ceilings” call to wannabe renovators like mermaids from the sea.

But recently, one of the featured homes caught my eye. This dilapidated old mess of a mermaid seemed to be weakly begging for help from along a shoreline replete with cliffs, crags and broken glass.

Hailed as a “folk Victorian charmer in a small town,” the two-story house had a bowed-in roof, a teetering porch held up by two charmless square posts and a rickety staircase that had obviously been added on later. But still, one wants to believe that salvaging anything is possible. Silk purse from a sow’s ear and all that rot. So I read further, to ascertain what the home’s big selling points were. They were: 1) a bay window and 2) five decorative porch brackets.

Realtors say the three most important thing to consider when buying a house are location, location, location. This beauty was located in Illinois, a cheerful three-hour drive from Chicago through ever-deepening snow. But it was located in a “friendly” town of 726 residents surmised to be supporters of the project. More likely, you’d have 725 head-shaking doubters standing roadside, full of advice and running commentary, and one very happy local banker.

But wait, there’s more! As the proud new homeowner, you could look forward every day to living in your restored Victorian — after you changed it back from the two-family rental to which it had been converted. You’d need to remove the outdoor staircase, pull out a bathroom that had been installed on the second-floor landing and disassemble a makeshift kitchen.

The front and side porches need to be rebuilt and the house does need a few new “systems” (both electrical and plumbing). The walls have been clad in hideous fake wood paneling, so you’ll want to remove that, and the poorly installed and filthy carpeting will have to go, too. Doors (where they exist) have been painted orange. Drop ceilings from the 1970s need to be torn out, but other than the roof, staircase, porches, walls, floors, doors and ceilings, things look good!

Worth mentioning is the “solid foundation.” Thank goodness for small favors.

So, yes, this “charmer” is available. With nothing but rose-colored glasses, endless amounts of time and huge potfuls of money, you, too, can live three hours from Chicago among hyper-critical neighbors who may tell you the place is haunted.