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The ups and downs of an 'ugly duckling' home

The walls were wood-paneled, the floors were buried under green, gold and brown shag carpeting and, yes, bold floral wallpaper had been neatly applied to all vertical surfaces, as well as ceilings and door-backs. This four-bedroom time-warp home was one ugly duckling -- and we were in love.

So, one Sunday in March, my partner, David, and I bought it. And let's be clear here: we're not raging handy people looking to get our renovation kicks. The fact that the house's foibles got us $21,000 off the $239,000 list price was great, but that wasn't the reason either. It was the light, the rounded slope of the ceilings, the location and the fact we could envision ourselves making the place our own.

It might have been a nutty decision. We're two months into this experiment and we feel like we're camping in a construction site, but at least we know we aren't alone. Other brave Canadians of all home-buying pedigrees -- first-timers like us, empty nesters looking for smaller spots and growing families wanting bigger ones -- buy fixer-uppers every day.

There are definite risks, says Catherine Pulcine, owner of CPI Interiors in Kanata, Ont., but buyers of ugly-duckling homes can see big pay-offs. "People just have to have some vision," she says.

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Eyes wide open
That is exactly what Jennifer Park, 28, and her boyfriend, Richard, say they have. After seeing 50 or so "nice enough" places around Markham, Ont., they were completely seduced by a neglected 47-year-old bungalow on a giant 55-by-230-foot lot. Yes, the walls had been tinted yellow by cigarette smoke, the car port needed a new roof and the lawn was a virtual jungle, but they were smitten all the same.

Aside from the fact that a property of this size was difficult to come by in their price range -- they'd been looking in the $300,000 zone -- they loved that the home was near the city's old main street. "We thought we might as well get a cheaper house in a really nice area that needs some work," says Park.

Because even if they'd chosen one of the less-needy homes they'd looked at, they'd still have to spend money making it their own. Ironically, although their $289,000 gem had sat on the market for more than a month before they saw it, they still found themselves in a multiple-bid situation: a contractor unsuccessfully put an offer in on the property on the same day they did.

Contractors seek out homes like this, says Grant Staley, a real estate agent in Pointe Claire, Quebec, because, not surprisingly, they can be great investments. For renovation professionals, the resale potential their handiwork can fetch far outweighs the cost of gussying it up.

This is not to say that regular folks can't transform their new homes into swans; they just need to prepare themselves for some hard work, budget correctly and know when to turn to professionals. "It's important to become informed," he says.

Don't trust the television
One potential danger to home buyers these days is the popularity of do-it-yourself programs. "While they call it reality TV, it's anything but," says Pulcine.

There's no doubt the craze has inspired hordes of previously non-handy people to tackle home renovation jobs they may not have considered before. But if you don't proceed with caution, this has the potential to be a costly nightmare.

It's a problem Laura White, 27, of Halifax, knows about firsthand. Two years ago she decided to spend $200,000 on a Victorian-era semi on an up-and-coming downtown street. It had crown molding, fireplaces in every room, pocket doors between the living and dining room, a basement apartment for a tenant and a giant deck out back.

OK, it was also a rooming house and needed a ton of work. But with mountains of energy and the graceful TV-renovation people to inspire her, White dove in.

Then good ol' reality set in. She had no car, no family in town and she had only $10,000 left over from the purchase to work with. "I had no idea how expensive it would be to get people in to fix things," she says.

So, she had to learn to do it all herself. She ripped out a wall, painted and plastered and stripped floors. She also watched her cat roll in a pile of coal dust and run around the house.

She had to have her knob-and-tube wiring upgraded by a professional. Not only that, she spent two years coated in plaster dust and rung up about $35,000 in home improvement costs on low-interest-rate credit cards.

So while she's starting to see promising results and doesn't regret her adventure, White has decided she needs a break in a big way. She's setting her ugly duckling free and plans to rent an apartment.

But there is another big upside to her decision to sell: "The way prices have gone, I stand to make some pretty good coin," she says.

Big dreams
As for Park, fresh and bright at the beginning of her renovation adventure, she has no intention of flipping her new home. She and her boyfriend have socked aside $25,000 for professional cleaners, a new kitchen, bathroom and chimney work, and plan to save money wherever they can by learning some new skills. They've also made another wise decision: They'll be living in her mother's basement for a few months until the house is livable.

As for me and David, while none of our family members have offered to rescue us by taking us in (we're still debating moving into a tent in the backyard), they have all valiantly volunteered their time to help scrape and hammer and paint.

Are they professionals? Not by a long shot. But so far our amateur, but careful, efforts seem to be paying off. We now have gorgeously sanded hardwood floors, a huge brand new dining room window and freshly painted kitchen cabinets. They're baby steps, certainly, but Staley's experience with other buyers who've done the same as us is reassuring: "You'll look back in four or five months and be thrilled," he says.

We hope he's right.

Julie McCann is a writer in Ottawa.

-- Posted: Sept. 20, 2004
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