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Building on reality: Older homes beckon

Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m., homeowners in seven St. Petersburg neighborhoods are issuing this invitation:

Welcome to our house.

They'll be opening their houses for free tours designed to show visitors what the city's neighborhoods and older homes have to offer. These homes aren't for sale, but they can give tour-goers an idea of what renovation and loving care can do.

Also on Sunday afternoon, real-estate agents will hold open houses in those neighborhoods of homes that are for sale.

"You have to get past the chicken-and-egg problem that people see an old house in bad shape and have trouble envisioning how it can be an old house in good shape," said Karl Nurse, who is coordinating the tours of his Old Southeast neighborhood. "Our hope is that people will look at houses in some stage of renovation, or renovated, and then look at houses that are for sale, and say, "We can do that, what we saw somewhere else.'

"

The tours and open houses are part of Homecoming Weekend. Today from 10 a.m. to noon, workshops are being held at the Heritage Hotel, 234 Third Ave. N, where city officials and renovation experts will talk about how to find, finance and fix up older homes. The weekend is co-sponsored by the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, the St. Petersburg-Suncoast Association of Realtors, and seven neighborhood associations.

The map on Page tells where these neighborhoods are and shows where to pick up maps of the tour homes and open houses in each of the neighborhoods Sunday. But here's an advance peek at three homes that will be on the tours.

Bartlett Park: "The Lord has blessed us'

Just about everything was wrong with the tumbledown house on 17th Avenue S in the Bartlett Park neighborhood when Tom and Sheila Huttman of St. Petersburg Affordable Housing started renovations in April. Now the three-bedroom, 1{-bath home is spanking new: new roof, new siding, new drywall, new heating and air-conditioning, new appliances, a porch, attractive landscaping.

Two months ago, Norris and Sonja Russ moved in. Their mortgage payment on the $53,000 home is $50 a month less than they were paying in rent.

"The Lord has truly blessed us," said Norris, 34, an operating-room assistant at Bayfront Medical Center. Sonja, 30, is a dietary aide at Greenbrook Nursing Center.

The Russes praised their real-estate agent, Pauline Russell of Lou Brown Realty, and Joyce Grogan, manager of the Jamestown apartments, where they formerly lived, for assisting them in the home-buying process. They credited the city's WIN program _ Working to Improve our Neighborhoods _ with making home ownership possible for low- to moderate-income buyers like themselves.

Through the WIN program, they learned how to buy a house, got help cleaning up credit problems, found help with their down payment, and were supported through the lengthy and sometimes discouraging process of getting a mortgage. The people at WIN "really believed in us," Sonja said. (Contact the WIN program's 24-hour hotline at 892-5565.)

The Russes are in love with their neighborhood: "People greet you with a "Hi' and a smile on their face," Sonja said. The Russes like to sit outside in the evening and listen to birds, crickets and frogs, and Norris appreciates the peace after a high-stress day in the operating room. "We heard negative stuff about the neighborhood before we moved over here," he said. "It isn't true."

Improving a neighborhood happens one house at a time, and the Russes are happy to be part of that process in Bartlett Park. "When the neighbors see a house that's beautiful," Norris said, "they start keeping theirs up too."

Kenwood: "We knew this was it'

Susan Winger and her husband Bill Heyen looked "for three solid months, every night after work and every weekend," Winger said, before they found the house of their dreams on Seventh Street N in Kenwood. They'd gone to that neighborhood to look at another house, which was a disappointment, "then we came down this street, saw the for-sale sign, backed up, and wow," she recalled.

"We walked in, just looked at each other and we knew this was it."

The one-story home with 1,250 square feet "looks like a little New England cottage," she said. It has a pointed gable roof with a rounded, louvered eyebrow window in the peak; dark-green awnings; and a rounded door. They paid $57,000.

Since they moved in last December, they've refinished the hardwood floors, repainted the fireplace in the living room and added a white tile hearth, and built bookshelves. They've also modernized the kitchen with a dishwasher, new Formica countertops and new cupboards.

"Our friends in Clearwater and Largo are always totally amazed at the houses and the street and how quaint and old-fashioned it looks, and yet how comfortable and nice the houses are inside," Winger said. She agreed to put her house on the tour to "get other people involved and let them see what these houses can look like, how neat they can really be."

Old Southeast: "A lot of variety'

Since they moved into their two-story, 1925 home in the Old Southeast in 1979, Nancy and Blaine Herring have redone the place: adding and subtracting walls, redoing the bath and kitchen, including a kitchen ceiling with 500 squares of wood tile. They refinished the floors by hand, and she used a toothbrush to strip the mantelpiece.

One of the charms of the neighborhood, which is bordered on the east by Lassing Park on Tampa Bay, is "the thought of having every house different," Nancy Herring said. The Old Southeast has homes that range from "the 1925 era to the nostalgic '60s era, a real hodge-podge, a lot of variety, the people as well as the residences."

Herring sees money being spent in the neighborhood and values rising. If that continues, she predicts, the neighborhood "has got to be the next Old Northeast. . . . I not only live here, I own several properties here. . . . I could have bought anywhere, but I've put all my eggs here and it was for a reason."

The neighborhood, she says, is "definitely coming up."

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