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'THE HOUSE' NEEDED HIM AND VICE VERSA

While grieving for his late mother, he buys a fixer-upper and starts rehabbing this Sears kit house.

One morning nine months ago, Norm Augustinus woke up, got out of bed and went into the kitchen. It was still dark. He tripped, lost his footing and fell on something.

It was his mother. She was lying on the floor with her eyes open. She was dead.

Augustinus fell apart. He and his mom had that special bond that only lucky mothers of boys know about.

Crippled by his grief, the satirist and fiction writer sold the Tarpon Springs house he shared with his mother - the house in which she died - but, the lost soul that he had become didn't look to find another. Instead, he lived in his car.

For a month, he sat, ate and slept in his car, behind a McDonald's. He would still be there, he said, if not for the kindness of his family - and "The House."

The House was a rundown Craftsman on Read Street. Although it was in the city's desirable historic district, not many would want this house. Built in 1925, it was owned by the same couple for 80 years. The house sat empty, deteriorating rapidly after their deaths.

Time was kinder to Augustinus. As it passed, he grew stronger, finally beginning to break free of the stranglehold grief had on him, thanks in large part to his 23-year-old niece and supporter Candice Blaylock, whom he raised.

He wanted his own house again. He started hunting and, in September, got the opportunity to buy this old Read Street house. By that time, it had been purchased by a man who had intended to fix it up but changed his mind.

Buying it wasn't a tough decision for Augustinus. He walked into the place and fell in love. He saw potential rather than ruin. The price? $120,000.

He threw himself into rehabbing the house, a diversion to keep him from thinking about his mother. He worked 15 hours a day, seven days a week for months.

"Every job I touched was tougher than the last. When you have an old home, it's an old home. Everything is tough," he said.

Then, he found a scrap of paper nailed to a rafter in the attic. It identified the structure as a Sears mail-order house, made from a kit that was shipped by rail in pieces to be assembled by the buyer.

The label was a tattered and yellowed scrap of paper but it made the house worth several times what he paid for it if the right Sears house aficionado came along. Not that it matters to Augustinus. He said he's not selling.

It's nearly impossible to determine how many Sears homes exist in the Tampa Bay area. Many have been drastically remodeled while the origin of others is hidden.

According to Sears archives, the retailer sold more than 100,000 kits through its Modern Homes program between 1908 and 1940. There is no official count of how many of the homes survive but they always have been a sought-after novelty. The largest cluster is said to be in the Chicago suburb of Elgin, Ill.

There were 447 house plans to choose from and each could be modified, including reversing floor plans and using brick instead of wood siding. The original owners of Augustinus' house had made some changes to their Elsmore model, which sold for $858 to $2,391 depending on modifications. A center vestibule on the house plans was eliminated to make the living room more open. About 40 years ago, an addition was put across the back of the house to make a modern kitchen, replacing the one located in the corner of what is now the dining room.

The renovation is just about finished. The only job left is replacing the hardwood floor in the guest bedroom that had been removed slowly over the years to patch boards elsewhere.

And, yet, there is still no furniture in the house - except a kitchen table and an area rug - even though Augustinus has been living in it since he bought it. He sleeps in a sleeping bag, waiting until the dirt and dust of renovation settles before moving in his furniture.

It's a moment within reach.

The finishing touch on a rebuilt house - and a rebuilt life.

* * *

The restoration

Here's some of the work Norm Augustinus did to bring his 1925 Sears kit house back to its former glory.

Roof

Replaced 57 broken shingles, removed old heater exhaust pipe, put down new roofing boards, added fresh tar paper and flashing where needed.

Cost: $2,700

Chimney

Demolished old chimney, laid 190 bricks with fresh mortar. Replaced chimney cap with new custom-made cap to resemble the original. Re-bricked firebox inside house using fresh mortar.

Cost: $3,500

Cedar siding

Replaced broken or rotting cedar clapboards (and other boards) on the exterior.

Cost: $1,700

Exterior paint

Scraped old paint off house, removing and replacing bad wood where needed; re-caulked (required 44 tubes) and primed house prior to painting with five era-correct Sherwin-Williams.

Cost: $4,100

Interior hardwood floors

Sanded, repaired - replacing boards where needed - and refinished all the floors in the house. He hired professionals to do this work.

Cost: Thousands

Exterior eave brackets

Rebuilt five of the 12 brackets holding up the decorative outer edges of the roof.

Cost: $1,000

Back porch

Rebuilt entire porch.

Cost: $650

Front porch

Replaced bad boards with boards matching the original on the large porch that extends across the front of the house. Rebuilt, sanded, primed, painted two decorative porch columns.

Cost: $2,000

Kitchen

Upgraded with new countertops, sinks, plumbing and cabinets.

Cost: Thousands

Exterior front columns

Added four new decorative columns.

Cost: $650

* * *

By the numbers

352 The Sears Modern Homes program offered an affordable way for first-time or money-strapped buyers to own a home. Sears estimated that it would take 40 percent fewer carpenter hours - 352 - to assemble a precut house with fitted pieces than the 583 hours it would take to build a conventional house.

6 Sears offered mortgage loans beginning in 1911 and by 1918 was even offering its customers credit for building materials and advancing them money for labor costs. The loans - given at 6 percent interest - ran for five to 15 years.

12 These liberal loan policies backfired when the Depression hit. Sears hit the high point of housing sales - more than $12 million - in 1929 but almost half of that was in mortgage loans. Sears ended up liquidating $11 million in mortgages in 1934. Even though the housing market picked up in 1935, Sears was only selling houses and not financing mortgages by that point. The program was doomed. Modern Homes sold its last house in 1940.

Source: Sears archives

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