Make us your home page
Instagram

Contractors and renovators find big business in old homes

ST. PETERSRBURG — Bryan and Savannah Smith's 1920s carriage house hovered 3 feet off its foundation, lifted by wooden towers stacked like Lincoln Logs above a moonscape of dirt and debris.

From what was once the garage, the Smiths stared up through rotten pine floorboards at their bathroom's pink floral print. Concrete-block walls stood crumbling around them, the mortar dissolved into sand.

The Smiths, who make and sell soy candles, had bought this Old Northeast carriage house and bungalow in July for about $150,000, half the value the property fetched five years ago.

They had expected their charmer would need some structural work, but not like this, with the foundation falling apart. "I try not to come over more than once a week," Bryan Smith said. "It makes me cry."

You won't find any tears, though, among the contractors running the job. That's because projects aimed at restoring old homes, like the Smiths' $100,000 renovation, are driving big business amid a construction market hobbled by the building freeze and housing bust.

For Diane and Grady Portelli, the St. Petersburg couple fixing the Smiths' bungalow, the repairs and renovations to Tampa Bay's historic homes has lead to one of the housing industry's rare bouts of recent explosive growth.

Three years ago, their small business, Quality Home Renovators, squeaked by with $60,000 in revenue. This year, they've already grossed $1 million, with more projects on the way.

The Portellis moved to Florida in 2000 following tall tales of beachfront fixer-uppers selling for $1,500 a piece. Instead, they joined the hordes of house flippers buying homes past their prime and reworking them for a profit.

After speculation soured, the Portellis redirected their fixup work to restoring old homes in Tampa Bay, including their own in St. Petersburg's Old Southeast. But they weren't optimistic about their prospects.

"When we started this, I didn't know if we were going to make it," Diane Portelli said. "We had people telling us, 'You are absolutely nuts to get into construction.' "

But while home builders fell apart and new subdivisions collapsed, old homes and fixer-uppers were selling for a steal. And when the work those homes need exceeds the skills of a weekend craftsmen, these contractors are brought in to start the heavy lifting and reap the rewards.

Time is the greatest ally for contract firms specializing in old homes: A timid homeowner has little choice but to pay for fixes when an old home falls apart. But even general contractors are seeing a reawakening of new work.

Tom Simmons, whose Simmons General Contracting, works across Tampa, St. Petersburg and the beaches, said the remodeling market has drastically shifted since February.

In recent years, nearly all calls were for small jobs like hanging cabinets. Now, they are working on nearly a dozen kitchen, bathroom and full home remodels. "I'm five times as busy right now," Simmons said.

Contractors in historical renovation like the Portellis say their traditional materials and use of old reference books, like the Sears mail-order catalogs used in building many of the local craftsman-style bungalows, set them apart from other handymen and remodelers.

But it's not all about the tender touch. On 13th Avenue in St. Petersburg's Old Northeast, the Portellis' firm has torn 100,000 pounds off the front of a Mediterranean-style home. That project remains under way.

The work doesn't come cheap. The "total gut" and rework of a home on 12th Avenue, including widening the home by 5 feet using hard pine harvested from the old porch, cost $350,000 — on top of the $150,000 the homeowners paid for it last year.

That project took seven straight months, eight hours a day, to finish. When the Portellis visited last week, one neighbor, sounding apprehensive, asked whether they were back for another job.

What might worry customers most, even more than noise, is the price. Restoring a fixer-upper might lose its sheen if the price were to soar closer to a new home.

But the Smiths, who plan to turn their reworked carriage house into an office for their candlemaking company, Smith Wicks, say the $100,000 and four months of work will be worth it for a home with character and a neighborhood they adore.

"All of those new massive developments, you start to see problems with those after 10 years. And then there's a new one popping up next to it that devalues it," Bryan Smith said. "No new value grows in those new homes."

That sentiment, more than ever, is what keeps the Portellis' business booming. Said Grady Portelli: "Nothing beats an old home."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 893-8252 or dharwell@tampabay.com.

Contractors and renovators find big business in old homes 09/21/12 [Last modified: Friday, September 21, 2012 10:36pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Last steel beam marks construction milestone for Tom and Mary James' museum

    Growth

    ST. PETERSBURG — Tom and Mary James on Wednesday signed their names to the last steel beam framing the 105-ton stone mesa that will be built at the entrance of the museum that bears their name: the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art.

    The topping-out ceremony of the James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art was held Wednesday morning in downtown St. Petersburg. Mary James (from left), husband Tom and Mayor Rick Kriseman signed the final beam before it was put into place. When finished, the $55 million museum at 100 Central Ave. will hold up to 500 pieces of the couple's 3,000-piece art collection. [Courtesy of James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art]
  2. Heights Public Market to host two Tampa Bay food trucks

    Business

    TAMPA — The Heights Public Market announced the first two food trucks for its "rotating stall," which will feature new restaurants every four months. Surf and Turf and Empamamas will be rolled out first.

    Heights Public Market is opening this summer inside the Tampa Armature Works building.
[SKIP O'ROURKE   |   Times file photo]

  3. Author Randy Wayne White could open St. Pete's biggest restaurant on the pier

    Food & Dining

    ST. PETERSBURG — The story begins with Yucatan shrimp.

    St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin, pilot Mark Futch, Boca Grande, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, and author and businessman Randy Wayne White,  Sanibel, exit a Maule Super Rocket seaplane after taking a fight around Tampa Bay off the St. Petersburg waterfront, 6/28/17.  White and his business partners are in negotiations with the City of St. Petersburg to build a fourth Doc Ford's Rum Bar & Grille on the approach to the St. Petersburg Pier with a second event space on the pier according to White. The group met near Spa Beach after a ground breaking ceremony for the new pier. "We want to have our business open by the time the pier opens," said White. Other Dr. Ford restaurants are located on Sanibel, Captiva and Ft. Myers Beach. SCOTT KEELER   |   Times
  4. Guilty plea for WellCare Health Plans former counsel Thaddeus Bereday

    Business

    Former WellCare Health Plans general counsel Thaddeus M.S. Bereday pleaded guilty to one count of making a false statement to the Florida Medicaid program, and faces a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison. A sentencing date has not yet been set, acting U.S. Attorney W. Stephen Muldrow of the Middle District …

    WellCare Health Plans former general counsel Thaddeus M.S. Bereday, pleaded guilty to one count of making a false statement to the Florida Medicaid program, and faces a maximum penalty of five years in federal prison. A sentencing date has not yet been set, acting U.S. Attorney W. Stephen Muldrow of the Middle District of Florida stated Wednesday. [LinkedIn handout]
  5. DOT shows alternatives to former Tampa Bay Express toll lanes

    Transportation

    TAMPA — State transportation officials are evaluating at least a half-dozen alternatives to the controversial Tampa Bay interstate plan that they will workshop with the community over the next 18 months.

    Florida Department of Transportation consultant Brad Flom explains potential alternatives to adding toll lanes to Interstate 275 during a meeting Wednesday at the DOT’s Tampa office. Flom presented seven diagrams, all of which swapped toll lanes for transit, such as light rail or express bus, in the I-275 corridor from downtown Tampa to Bearss Avenue.