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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]
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