Better Than New

Better Than New

With the economy slumping, many Bethesda-area homeowners are choosing to remodel their homes rather than buy new ones.

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Framed by Nature

The house shook as the 75-year-old sycamore fell precisely between the birdbath and the magnolia tree. With her husband in Iraq and her then 9-year-old, ecologically-aware son inveighing against the felling of a proud old tree, Anne Cannard focused on the practical: The tree was a danger, and plans to remodel around it did not meet the county’s setback regulations.

“Remodeling was in some ways more stressful than six months in Iraq,” says Kevin Cannard, a retired Army physician who volunteered for a six-month tour of duty in 2003.

Cannard’s remodeling priorities differed from his wife’s. Anne focused on a much-needed family room, kitchen and another bathroom for their Chevy Chase View home. Kevin concentrated on the details of blending the old character of the house with the new. In fact, the unassuming, soft yellow facade of their 1926 Dutch colonial belies the existence of the 2,200-square-foot addition in the back. Admittedly a frustrated architect, Kevin loved working with John Mangan of Mangan Group Architects in Takoma Park.

Kevin advises finding an architect whose style matches yours and checking references for architect and builder compatibility. “Pay a flat fee [for the plans],” Kevin says, “rather than a percentage of the project.” He also suggests using an architect who designs with computer software such as AutoCAD because changes are easier and faster. “My architect often e-mailed me revised blueprints the same day we discussed a change.”

Together, they designed a stacked, three-story addition: a ground-floor garage,workshop and utility room; a second-floor family room, expanded kitchen, mudroom and powder room; and a third floor with a master suite, among other renovations. A screened-in porch and open decks capture the view of the surrounding greenery: majestic Norwegian spruces, pine oaks, magnolia, dogwood, cut leaf maple and crepe myrtle trees and a backyard curtain of bamboo. They later altered the front landscape, transplanting old azaleas, rhododendron and boxwoods, and planted an English garden with day lilies, hostas, butterfly bushes and cherry trees in front of the remodeled circular driveway.

The design phase was complete before Kevin, 48—a neurologist specializing in Parkinson’s disease—left for Iraq. Overseeing demolition fell to Anne, 46, a child psychiatrist who, fortunately, was transitioning between jobs during the summer of 2003. “I didn’t feel overwhelmed because it was already in motion—the demolition, excavation…and building the infrastructure— but the demo was stressful,” she says. Anne maintained continuity as temporary single mom to Andrew and Grace, now 14 and 11, along with Lani, their Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, but living on the third floor during construction provided challenges. Dust swirled through the ventilation system, getting into everything.

Construction blocked their inside path to the only functioning bathroom, forcing them to access it from outside. And one evening water poured from basement pipes. Their contactor, Jim Wolohan of Windsor Construction Group, had it under control by midnight.

“You want a contractor who is responsive,” Kevin emphasizes. “You also have to be a co-manager of the site.”

After returning from Iraq, Kevin did just that. He suggests maintaining a list of issues, revising it weekly, and reviewing it regularly with the builder and site supervisor. “Divide the list by the trades (plumbing, electrical, tiling), area (exterior, roof, foundation), and room…Keep your eye open for issues and speak up. If caught early, it may be easy to fix. This will allow you to ‘co-manage’ the build to the extent you want to,” Kevin says. Kevin also oversaw the interior transformation, ensuring a seamless bridge from the old to the new through color, texture, molding, coffered ceilings and subtle features, such as footings and brackets, to evoke a pre-World War II feel—influenced especially by his grandmother’s kitchen in Portsmouth, Va. One concession to modernity is the generous lighting.

“Lighting is like the jewelry of the house,” Kevin says. “[And] don’t forget outdoor living. One of the best things I [added was] a very large screened-in porch.” It has become their year-round, outdoor family room. But remodeling often brings unintended consequences. Kevin loves pine, which he used on the porch. The wood is now rotting.

“Never use wood on an exterior surface if you don’t have to,” Kevin says. “It rots and peels and gets eaten by termites and can catch fire…Always use synthetic materials like AZEK trim, manufactured wood railings and cement clapboard siding [Hardie Plank].”

For a basement drainage problem caused during roof remodeling, Kevin compromised with his builder, splitting the cost. What matters most, Kevin advises, “is having a builder who stood by his work and would be part of the solution, not just pass the cost on.”

Another unplanned necessity was a back retainer wall that resulted from shifting their driveway to the right by cutting into a steep part of the hill—something no one foresaw. The builder’s estimate for the wall was $30,000, but Kevin hired his own stone mason at half that price.

Now when the Cannards are in their new master bedroom or on their porch, it’s like living in the treetops.

‘A House to Grow Into’

Married for seven years and in their mid-30s, Karen and Avi Galanti didn’t want to settle for another starter house like the one they owned in Celebration, a planned Disney community in Orlando, Fla.

“It was scary perfect,” Karen says. The five-bedroom colonial they found a year and a half ago in Bethesda’s Greenwich Forest community was the reverse. It was perfectly scary—and had frightened away all previous potential buyers.

Abandoned for three years, the house had peeling and cracked walls, buckling hardwood floors, broken windows, blackened toilets and green mold. Leaves and dirt were scattered throughout the interior, and there was no heat. But there were guests: Birds were living in the walls, and ominous droppings littered the floors. Despite the condition, the Galantis turned to each other and said, “This is it.”

They saw “a house to grow into” with their family. Ella is 5, Maya, 3, and Leo, 1.And the Galantis loved the 1930s brick and Tudor homes in a neighborhood where bicycles, American flags, screened porches, strollers, basketball hoops and huge oak and pine trees rule.

“In all the other houses we looked at, we would turn around and bump into each other,” says Karen, who grew up in Rockville. “We saw charm, the bones of the house were there, and we saw ourselves living in here. It was a little intimidating at first, but exciting.”

Karen, a graphic designer, was eager to transform space she described as “drab, no color, no personality. ”One month before moving in they set priorities: floor, roof and lighting replacement; then new heating system, mold removal, bathroom repair and painting. After that: a six-month renovation. The couple received rough estimates on each of the projects from many contractors.

“We knew from the get-go that the house needed many things done,” Avi says. “We also knew that there’s no way we can tackle everything at once, so we created a very detailed spreadsheet [and prioritized]. Expense was also a factor in determining what [we were] going to do and when.”

“Once we got the quotes [for the big renovation],” Karen says, “we realized what our budget was, but as you go along, you discover other things. When they were taking out the old siding, they found rotting plywood that had to be replaced, so that added costs to the original estimate. The worst part was being eight months pregnant and sleeping on a mattress in the baby’s room on the floor.”

Inconveniences and extra costs not withstanding, Avi, a Realtor, knew the value of remodeling in this location. Builders were picking up lots from $600,000 to $750,000, razing the old houses and selling new homes for $1.7 to $2.2 million. The Galantis hired freelance architect Michael Holland of Bethesda, an old family friend of Karen’s, and used contractor Jeff Sarris, owner of Bethesda Home Improvement, a firm Avi knew through work connections.

“Go with a recommendation from friends or reliable sources,” he says. “We wanted a high quality, thorough job.

He also suggests writing a detailed contract with a tentative timetable. Get estimates from subcontractors like roofers, electricians and plumbers and compare them to the contractor’s estimates for the same job.

During renovations, the Galantis added a wraparound front porch with columns; altered the roofline with dormers (which gave them interior window seats); and replaced the compressed paper siding with Hardie Plank.

Construction trucks intrigued the girls, and Avi monitored the transformation.

“I used to stop in twice a day, looking at a dump and seeing it come along,” he says.

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