Home & Garden

Why we tore down our house

From left Mary Elizabeth DeAngelis with her children Vincent Williams 14, Allison Williams 12, and the family dog Aurora at their home under construction. DeAngelis and her husband decided to tear down their old home in the Chantilly neighborhood and build a new one in its place – a popular trend in areas close to uptown.
From left Mary Elizabeth DeAngelis with her children Vincent Williams 14, Allison Williams 12, and the family dog Aurora at their home under construction. DeAngelis and her husband decided to tear down their old home in the Chantilly neighborhood and build a new one in its place – a popular trend in areas close to uptown. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

I know I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but I hated my house.

The scruffy blue rancher with the dicey green kitchen was supposed to be a single girl’s cheap fling – we’d have a little fun in the city then go our separate ways. But nearly 20 years later we were still together, our relationship strained by a husband, two kids, a dog and our cascade of clutter.

My family constantly bumped into each other and winced at wrinkled ceilings and sagging floors. Tiny closets couldn’t hold our spreading girth. The dinner parties dwindled, and beloved out-of-town visitors ended up in hotels.

I couldn’t take it anymore so I called a neighborhood guy who knew a guy that makes problem houses disappear. And on a miserably hot muggy day in July, I gave the hit man the order to kill mine.

He used a bulldozer and left no traces. A few days later a crew covered the gravesite with concrete – the foundation for a custom home that’s smarter, better looking and more suited to the lifestyle I’d like to become accustomed to.

Yes, we knocked down our house and are building another. This is now common in my Chantilly neighborhood and others close to downtown Charlotte, and is spreading to Cotswold and the SouthPark area. Demolition is the new renovation.

“It’s happening a lot more than it was a few years ago,” said Genevieve Williams, Chantilly’s top-selling Realtor, who can name six neighbors who’ve recently torn down their homes and rebuilt. “And at least once a week I have a conversation with a buyer wanting to know if I have anything to tear down.”

Like neighboring Elizabeth and Plaza Midwood, Chantilly’s a real estate darling and prices are soaring. Williams says a few new homes now under construction will command prices in the $700,000 range.

Investors and aspiring residents cruise the streets and troll social media searching for a “two-one.” That’s two bedrooms and a bathroom, the standard for an early 20th century neighborhood that boomed after World War II then flirted with seediness as middle class Charlotte fled to newer, farther suburbs.

But now younger generations want Chantilly’s quick commute to downtown and easy walk to restaurants, stores and nightlife. They also want houses designed for comfort, entertaining and growing families.

Like many long-time residents I found some of the changes awful, especially when cute little houses disappeared and big, boxy or castle-like (“Taj Matilly’s”) surfaced, dwarfing their smaller neighbors. And I don’t want our lovely older neighbors pushed out by higher taxes or taken advantage of by investors out to make a buck. On the other hand, some thoughtfully planned renovations and new houses are vast improvements over eyesores that once stood.

The awful basement

I bought my house for $74,000 in 1996. Four years later I was married and pregnant with our first child when we renovated, adding another bedroom and bathroom. Big problems followed. A poorly installed roof caused extensive water damage. Old termite holes created new issues. Ugliness abounded: Gutters bent during storms. Vinyl siding faded. And when a brick veneer tile came off the front stoop, the kids chiseled more away so we had half-fake brick and half-concrete.

Its worst feature was the unfinished basement, which had a second refrigerator and at one point, our washer and dryer. To get there, you had to walk out the back door, down a flight of stairs, then duck under the deck. I can’t count how many near-concussions I gave myself walking under that deck with a laundry basket full of clothes or a freezer bag from Costco.

But I loved the neighborhood, and since new homes were too expensive, we felt stuck in our hard-knock house. Then about two years ago, a third big house sprang up on our street and sold for almost $550,000. It hit us then that we could turn our house into a much nicer home and a smarter investment.

We talked to builders, architects and neighbors who said we could expect to pay up to $200 a square foot to completely renovate and add on to our 1,600-square-foot home – depending on what surprises lurked below the surface. They priced new construction at about $115 to $135 per square foot, including demolition.

At the time we started planning, our house might have fetched about $250,000 if we sold it as is. But after we paid off our mortgage that wouldn’t give us enough to buy a house we wanted. Tearing down our 1,600-square-foot home made more sense.

A plan, a builder

We called our close friend and talented neighbor, architect Geoff Haskell, who listened to our vision and made it so much better. He designed a charming, four-bedroom Craftsman-style bungalow with lots of windows, a spacious open floor plan and eye-catching architectural details.

The steep-pitched roof, dormers and sloped lot make the house seem smaller than it is, which is what we wanted. It will span about 2,600 square feet on two floors. We’ll also have a 1,300-square-foot walkout basement with plenty of natural light and a full bathroom. Everybody in my family and a few friends have already staked claims to that basement.

We selected custom home veteran Ben Brookhart, who owns Timberline Homes. Ben has a solid track record in Chantilly, where he’s completed 24 major projects, including his own home. He now has our house and a few others in various stages of construction.

We heard repeatedly that he delivers on promises, doesn’t take on too many clients, and cares about quality.

He and construction manager Kelly DeWeese have walked us through each step. Their crews and craftsmen show up and work hard. Their creative thinking has given us a few bonuses, such as an unplanned loft near the kids’ rooms.

They’ve also helped us through dozens of mind-numbing decisions about everything from selecting appliances to tile to floors. So far, we’ve had no construction stress.

Enduring delays

Financing is another story. We had to take out a construction loan to pay off our old mortgage and building costs. When the house is finished, the loan converts into a fixed mortgage.

Our new bank loved us at first sight; they found our credit scores dreamy and their profit potential potent. Then they held us hostage.

We waited through a series of miscommunications and backlogs that delayed two closings. What we thought would take about a month ended up spanning three. Workers waited on us, and we almost lost the apartment we planned to rent. (A little advice here: If anyone ever gives you a choice between say, selling a kidney or getting a post-recession construction loan, consider the kidney option.)

For now, we’re temporarily calm and living in the apartment. Some days we wonder why anyone would want to own a house. Then we visit ours and can’t wait to go home.

We hope that happens in early December. Please stop by. Bring a chair because we shed a lot of old furniture and it’ll take us a while to afford new. A bottle of wine would be nice. And maybe something to nibble on. We’re going to feel broke for a while, but that’s OK. This one’s a keeper.