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Selling a Tampa Bay house was supposed to be easy. Then I tried renovations.

A former Tampa Bay Times real estate reporter tries her hand remodeling a home she intended to sell and has an adventure.
Former Tampa Bay Times real estate reporter Susan Taylor Martin remodeled this St. Petersburg Home before putting it on the market earlier this year. It was an adventure. [Susan Taylor Martin]
Former Tampa Bay Times real estate reporter Susan Taylor Martin remodeled this St. Petersburg Home before putting it on the market earlier this year. It was an adventure. [Susan Taylor Martin] [ . ]
Published Jun. 8
Updated Jun. 8

In 2014, I used an inheritance from an uncle to buy a house near our St. Petersburg home. Prices were still recovering from the 2008 crash, and I got a pretty deal good on a three-bedroom, two-bath house that, though stuck in the ’50s, was perfectly livable and seemed like a good investment.

By last December, the tenants had moved on, housing prices were at record highs and inventory was tight. I figured it would be a great time to sell. After covering real estate for the Tampa Bay Times, I also thought I knew something about getting a house fixed up and ready to go on the market.

Ha. Look up “naive’' in the dictionary and there I am.

Over the past four months, I’ve learned that renovations, while never easy, are even more migraine-inducing during a global pandemic with its supply shortages, shipping delays and social distancing requirements. And while I was grateful to all the contractors, installers, and others who continued to work despite the threat of COVID-19, I was also thankful that I was retired and had the time to deal with a seemingly endless series of calls, texts, appointments and reschedulings.

It began so blissfully at Ikea. “Let us design a kitchen for you!” urged the sign as I wandered through the store’s Tampa showroom, admiring the sleek Scandinavian style cabinetry and fixtures. While I love all things mid-century, I knew a house built in 1957 needed a complete overhaul — the kitchen still had the original General Electric wall oven and the bathrooms were tiled in pink and forest green.

I paid $75 for an Ikea contractor to come out and measure in early January. “When can you start?” I asked.

“You’ll have to get this demolished first,’' he replied, sweeping his arm around the kitchen. Silly me, I had assumed that Ikea handled the renovations from start to finish. In fact, all it does is install the cabinets and countertops after the space has been gutted and prepped by someone else.

The kitchen had the original pink General Electric stove. [Susan Taylor Martin]
The kitchen had the original pink General Electric stove. [Susan Taylor Martin] [ . ]
It took a bit of work, but this is how the kitchen turned out after the remodel. [Suisan Taylor Martin]
It took a bit of work, but this is how the kitchen turned out after the remodel. [Suisan Taylor Martin] [ . ]

Thus began my search for a remodeling contractor. The first fellow who showed up spent more than an hour measuring the kitchen, then prepared to leave.

“What about the bathrooms?” I asked.

“Oh,’' he said, “we don’t do bathrooms. Too much trouble.”

Next came an estimator who arrived without a mask. Pointing to mine, I gestured for him to put one on and he went through the motions of looking through his car. When it was obvious he had none, I gave him a mask, which he grudgingly looped around his ears and pulled below his nose.

“You know these don’t work,’' he said.

That encounter continued downhill with a proposal for both the kitchen and bathrooms that involved moving and tearing out walls and a jaw-dropping estimate.

To pay for the renovations, I had planned on taking advantage of 12-month, no-interest financing deals from Lowe’s, where I was getting the appliances, three new windows and some doors at a total cost of $10,800; and a flooring company installing waterproof vinyl plank flooring ($9,000) that is all the rage now. For the kitchen and bathroom remodeling, I would tap into the credit line on our own house, but this guy’s estimate was so high it would have taken every last cent, leaving nothing for cost overruns or emergencies.

Check out the tile in this bathroom, before the update. [Susan Taylor Martin]
Check out the tile in this bathroom, before the update. [Susan Taylor Martin] [ . ]
The bathrooms got a modern makeover straight from HGTV. [Susan Taylor Martin]
The bathrooms got a modern makeover straight from HGTV. [Susan Taylor Martin] [ . ]

After interviewing two more contractors, I chose a Tampa firm that had good online reviews and a fairly reasonable price of $51,540 to completely redo the kitchen and bathrooms. Unlike the others, who were months backed up, this contractor had just had a cancellation and could immediately start.

By mid-January, work seemed to be progressing well. The kitchen and bathrooms had been gutted down to the studs. The windows and doors had been ordered and were supposed to arrive in early February.

Next came the fun part — picking out the granite countertops, backsplashes, vanities and cabinet hardware, all of which were included in the basic contract price. By the end of January, the Shaker style cabinets and glass backsplashes were in, the shower stalls had been tiled and it was time to think about painting the interior of the house.

I got several estimates, all of which seemed relatively high. To save money, I decided to paint the smallest bedroom myself and, for convenience sake, let the kitchen and bath contractor I already had do the rest of the house. Cost: $5,500.

One cool morning I got up early to paint. That’s when I discovered that instead of hauling off the construction debris or putting it in a dumpster, the workers had simply thrown it all in the garage as they went along. I had to climb over a mountain of shredded dry wall, broken tile and other junk to get to a ladder I needed. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was fire hazard.

The regular painters showed up unexpectedly on a Saturday. By the time I realized they were there, it was late in the afternoon and they were about to depart, leaving numerous holes in the walls where they had taken down curtain rods and vertical blinds. I got them to patch those up, but saw only after they left that they hadn’t bothered to put back the vent covers they removed while painting the ceiling. Those remained scattered on the floor for the next two weeks.

Another hint that this was not going to be as seamless as I thought came when it was time to install the floors. Workers for the main contractor had insisted on putting down the bathroom floors themselves so they could set the toilets and vanities and move on. But the contractor from the flooring company said they had not done it right, so he had to rip up dozens of vinyl planks and put them down again.

He also said that he would have to lay down a layer of concrete so the floors would be level between the family room and an adjoining room that had been added at some point Cost: $275.

Then, because numerous tiles had chipped off the front porch and could not be replaced, he had to retile the entire porch. That ran another $550 for materials and labor.

The less-than-inviting living area before Martin's update. [Susan Taylor Martin]
The less-than-inviting living area before Martin's update. [Susan Taylor Martin] [ . ]
Rather than hire a staging company, Martin used simple, clean staging that kept the focus on her updating. [Susan Taylor Martin]
Rather than hire a staging company, Martin used simple, clean staging that kept the focus on her updating. [Susan Taylor Martin] [ . ]

And let’s not forget the windows. At a total cost of $4,500, I was getting three new bedroom windows. My budget wouldn’t allow for replacing the original jalousie windows in the family room. That would have been at least $10,000.

Unfortunately, several of the large jalousie panes were covered with a film that had developed weird, unsightly swirls over the years. Because it was impossible to remove the film, I had to have the panes replaced for $740.

The expenses seemed to grow by the day:

· Replacing three broken window sills and patching up holes and cracks that for some reason hadn’t been included in the original painting bill: $1,500.

· Replacing an automatic garage door that had given up the ghost: $2,100

· Hauling off a large rusted shed and a deck with rotting boards: $920

· Repairing the sprinkler system and laying sod in the backyard: $1,800

· Miscellaneous items, including new curtains, curtain rods, ceiling fans, porch lights and repairs to a shower stall in the garage: $1,500.

By now, in early March, the new doors were in but the arrival date for the new windows kept getting pushed back. I had tapped into my savings accounts, run up thousands of dollars on a credit card and was perilously close to exhausting our credit line. I had trouble sleeping. My husband knew not to ask how my day had gone.

Strangely, though, I had begun to have warm feelings for this money pit of a house. We had been through so much together — like victims of a disaster — that we had bonded. It looked so good after all the work that had been done that I was sad at the thought of selling.

This lapse of sanity quickly passed, and the house went on the market March 12. Within a week it was under contract, to a New York couple whose St. Petersburg relatives had “walked’' them through it on Facetime during a Sunday open house. Closing was set for April 30.

Then came the dreaded home inspection.

The inspector found a long list of issues, several of which stemmed from work done by the main contractor, who hadn’t installed GFCI shock protection outlets near the kitchen and bathroom sinks, as required by safety codes. The contractor picked up the $1,939 tab to replace them and address other issues but I had to spend almost $400 for GFCI outlets in the garage and outside.

It cost me another $2,130 to fix various plumbing issues PLUS $1,000 to remove two rats that had taken up residence in the garage ceiling PLUS $325 to “aesthetically” seal up the hole through which the rats had entered.

Finally, all that had been taken care of. I began to sleep better and could go through an entire 24 hours without dealing with some issue with the house.

But the day before closing there was one last surprise. The buyers, in town to check out their new home, tested the washing machine. Water promptly backed up into the shower and ran out the garage. It cost $225 to address that.

I pre-signed the closing papers that day and the buyers signed the next. I still drive by the house every day and sort of miss it.

Nah, not really.

*********

TIPS:

According to the New York Times, the coronavirus pandemic has fueled a home renovation boom that saw spending on repairs and improvements rise more than 3 percent last year even as the U.S. economy fell by 3.5 percent. If you’re planning renovations, here are some tips:

· Be prepared for cost overruns. I expected to spend around $75,000 on renovations to a dated three-bedroom, two-bath house. The actual amount was closer to $90,000. Consider taking advantage of the six — or 12-month no interest financing plans offered by many companies. But be aware that you still have to make monthly payments that can be quite steep and if you don’t pay off the entire amount within the allotted time you can be hit with an exorbitant amount for interest charges.

· Be prepared for supply delays. The pandemic has wreaked havoc with supply chains, and the huge demand for materials means it could take months to get the items you want. I ordered windows and doors the first week in January; the doors didn’t arrive until mid-March and the windows didn’t come until mid-April. Try to order items that are in stock if possible.

· Get an independent inspection of major remodeling work, especially if it includes plumbing or electrical work.

· Do your own staging if you plan to sell. Though houses supposedly sell faster with professional staging, it can cost several thousand dollars and require months-long contracts. That can be a needless expense when houses are selling so quickly. If the house is still occupied, follow the old rule of cleaning and decluttering. With a vacant house, consider minimal staging with a few well-placed pieces of furniture and accessories. I staged a house with two leather chairs and some artistic posters from our own home; a patio set and ottoman I got from TJ Maxx ($350); a small dining table and hall console table that I bought online for less than $100 each; two inexpensive rugs and a few plants. After the closing, I kept some of the items and sold the rest at only a slight loss.