‘This old house shines again’: A nine-month journey to renovate a 1924 farmhouse in Hyattsville, Md.

As featured in The Washington Post 

Nigel F. Maynard is an architecture and design writer/editor living with his wife, Stephenie, and their 140-pound harlequin Great Dane, Yeager, in historic Hyattsville, Md. From December to February, he chronicled their experiences on The Post’s Where We Live blog renovating the 1924 farmhouse. Now he writes about the finished product.

When my wife, Stephenie, and I decided that we wanted a single-family house with a front porch and a bigger yard, we set out to find a fixer-upper in a good neighborhood within walking distance to restaurants and easy access to Washington.

The task proved difficult, but after a long search, we bought a neglected 1924 Colonial farmhouse in Historic Hyattsville. After nine months of extensive renovation work, challenges and inspection corrective orders, this old house shines again.

With its collection of late-19th and early-20th-century homes and its friendly atmosphere, our neighborhood is the ideal place for us. The people are welcoming, dogs abound and the city is very much engaged with the community. Our house had seen better days, but there was much to love. You just had to see past the neglect.

Measuring just about 1,500 square feet, the house has high ceilings; a decent-size lot; a large wraparound front porch; an open floor plan; large windows; and a great location near the burgeoning Route 1 corridor with restaurants, shopping and a new Whole Foods just down the street. Still, we had our work cut out for us.

The renovation loan required us to use a general contractor to oversee the project. This was new territory for me. I’ve renovated three homes, and I’ve always done most of the work myself.

We met with six contractors and selected one that specializes in 203K renovation loans, figuring he would be familiar with the highly unusual process. The FHA-back instrument allows buyers to fold the cost of repairs into their mortgage, but contractors who do such loans are required to use their own funds and submit reimbursement draw requests throughout the project. Needless to say, not every contractor will be game for this arrangement.

My wife and I sat down with him and outlined our goals, the scope of work, product specs and design choices: First and foremost, we wanted to update the structure and the systems, and we wanted to achieve a seamless and consistent look from room to room. We advised him that some of our selections may be unfamiliar to him. Moreover, we wanted quality work and believed items behind the walls are just as important as the finishes.


The homeowners furnished the living room with a combination of existing pieces and new pieces. A wireless module in the Haiku fan offers smart phone control. (By J. Loren Photography)

The renovation was extensive, touching almost every part of the house. The interior was in tough shape, so we ripped out the kitchen cabinets, bathrooms, lighting and doors. Other items — HVAC system, windows, plumbing, water heater and appliances — were long past their prime, so they had to go, too.

Once demo was done, workers restructured the second-level floor, replaced some bad joists and installed all-new vinyl windows from Pella. (Aluminum-clad wood with a black exterior was our preference, but it did not work with the budget). They redid the plumbing, replaced the water heater and added a high-efficiency gas furnace. And rather than force the system to reach the third-floor loft, we specified a Mitsubishi mini-split system with its own thermostat.

Though Hyattsville is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, we didn’t really have limitations on what we could do to the outside. Still, to be respectful of the neighborhood aesthetic, we left the exterior intact — with a few minor exceptions.

We improved the curb appeal by removing the three-foot-wide concrete sidewalk and laid an eight-foot-wide redbrick path that’s more appropriate to the era of the house. We repaired and painted the front porch — including a new beadboard ceiling — and added new farmhouse-style lights. We also rebuilt the crumbling back deck with cedar, enlarging it by 10 feet.

The interior of the house is a mixture of traditional elements contrasted with modern details. We refinished the oak floors, kept the ornate staircase, and added six-panel wood doors paired with contemporary lever handles.

This modern/traditional balance is evident throughout the project, especially in the kitchen, one of the two rooms where we increased the budget. After all, kitchens and master bathrooms are the two most important rooms in a house.

We selected flat panel, gray-painted cabinets and combined them with Silestone Calacatta Gold quartz and modern pulls from Top Knobs. A custom two-inch-thick walnut countertop from my friends at local firm Pfunk Furniture sits atop the island and warms the space, while a burgundy gas range from Italian brand Verona adds a jolt of color. (Normally, a colored stove is pricey, but I found out from one of my sources that Verona had discontinued the burgundy color and had slashed the price, so we jumped on it.)

To give the kitchen a built-in look, we selected a true counter-depth, 30-inch fridge from Liebherr, and installed a Viking dishwasher behind a cabinet panel. (My wife found the brand new dishwasher for a great price on Craigslist.) Finally, a restaurant-style faucet from German manufacturer Hansgrohe adds a professional look and completes the space.

The contractor did the heavy lifting, but we intentionally held some things back as a cost- saving move. I built the wall-hung vanities for two of the bathrooms, the mirrors for the three baths and shelves for the closets. I painted the entire second level and installed the kitchen cabinet hardware and the interior door hardware.

The master bathroom is the other space that was important to us, so we made concessions in other areas of the project to afford the desired finishes, such as Italian tiles on the shower walls, marble floor tiles, a Kohler wall-hung vanity, and a wall-mount faucet and shower system from Hansgrohe. We also added a floor-warming system.

We toyed with the idea of adding a tub and shower in the master, but we are not bathing people. Instead, we requested a custom shower measuring about 84 inches long and used affordable Home Depot marble tiles on the floor — mosaics in the shower and 12-inch on the rest of the bath.

Part of ushering the house into the 21st century included adding some “smart home” features. In the living room and master bedroom, we selected two Haiku ceiling fans from Big Ass Fans and opted for the wireless module in the living room unit, which allows us to adjust the speed and dim the lights from our iPads.

Additionally, a smart thermostat from Schneider Electric adjusts the heating and cooling automatically based on the temperature outside. It learns our behavior and comes with an app that also allows us to control the system from halfway around the world.

Water and energy efficiency matter to us, too, so we chose Santa Rosa Kohler toilets that use only 1.28 gallons of water per flush, low-flow sink and shower systems, and three-inch, LED recessed lights for the kitchen, living room and master bath.


The writer made the dining table from Douglas fir doors that were salvaged from a Baltimore row house remodel and paired it with their existing collection of Eames side chairs. (By J. Loren Photography/By J. Loren Photography)

The house is decorated mostly with items we already had in our possession, including a leather sofa from Crate & Barrel, an Eames lounge chair and ottoman, a knockoff George Nelson Platform bench that my older brother made, a dining table I made a couple years ago from salvaged doors, Eames DSR side chairs and vintage-style prints. We filled in the gaps with new textiles and an orange sofa from West Elm. (Clearly, we are not afraid of color.)

But no matter how elegant a house looks, it needs landscaping to add curb appeal. We found a way to have the front yard done while supporting a worthy cause in the process.

Our new neighbor and friend, Dave Roeder, told us about a program called Changing Perceptions where he serves as a mentor. The nonprofit works with individuals coming out of incarceration to develop entrepreneurship. We wanted to support the organization, so we hired a young man named Andre Wonson, who started a Riversmart landscaping firm called Making a Difference. He focuses on green infrastructure that reduces storm water runoff into local waterways, as well as native plants and natural gardening techniques.

With assistance from Roeder, Wonson prepared the beds and organized our front yard with knockout roses, holly shamrock weigela, sedums, and a Japanese maple. We’ll gradually work our way around to the rear, where we’ll have a vegetable garden, gravel walkway, a parking pad, and evergreens for privacy screening.

The house is largely done, but we’re sourcing more art and looking for someone to restore a Florence knoll sofa that my old editor and friend gave us. Other projects — such as a new closet system in the master bedroom and painting the loft level — will come later.

In the end, we spent about $100,000 on the renovations on top of the $328,000 we spent to acquire the property. Still, the appraiser says we are way under what the property could sell for — if we were selling.

We faced a number of challenges during the project, including structural work on the second floor, plumbing issues and water infiltration in the crawl space. We have no regrets, except our choice of contractor. We wish we had selected someone more engaged, progressive when it comes to new technologies and systems and a stickler for detail, craft, and quality work. I half-jokingly tell people that the house looks good despite the contractor.

There were things I wanted — a breadboard on the deck, a linear drain, a no-threshold shower — but could not get because of poor project management. My wife and I had to serve as quasi project managers to make sure some things were done — and redone — correctly. Return calls, follow up and schedules fell through the cracks, which is partly why we failed a few inspections along the way.

Still, the house looks awesome. Would we do it again? The answer would be a resounding Yes!

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