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Saturday, July 29, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Remodel survivors: Ballard dream home was worth the pain

Special to The Seattle Times

This was a drink to remember.

We were celebrating the culmination of a six-year — and at times painful — home remodel that my friends, Jenny Joyce and Rob Crampton, took on so they could afford to live in Ballard.

I arrived at dusk and took a long look at the house, clearly the nicest on the block. The once run-down, single-story building with the illegal first-floor duplex and rotting interior now was a stately, historic home.

Both from upstate New York, Jenny, 36, and Rob, 38, grew up in old rambling homes.

More than six years ago, while still finishing his masters degree in environmental engineering at the University of Washington, Rob convinced Jenny to move west to Seattle.

They both were drawn to the spacious wood-frame homes in Ballard, much like those they grew up in.

Passionate about old houses, Jenny soon joined the Ballard Historical Society. An artist and part-time landscaper, she feared they could never afford one of their own. Rob convinced her otherwise — as long as they bought a fixer-upper with the capacity for a rentable apartment to ease mortgage costs.

Where to go


Jenny Joyce and Rob Crampton hit these stores for "green" building materials during their six-year remodel:

• Earthwise Building Salvage: 2462 First Ave. S., Seattle, 206- 624-4510, www.earthwise-salvage.com

• Environmental Home Center: 4121 First Ave. S., Seattle, 206-682-7332, www.environmentalhomecenter.com

• Limback Lumber Co.: 2600 N.W. Market St., Seattle, 206-782-3487, www.limbacklumber.com

• RE Store: 1440 N.W. 52nd St., Seattle, 206-297-9119, www.re-store.org

• Second Use: 7953 Second Ave. S., Seattle, 206-763-6929, www.seconduse.com

Finding a fixer

A Realtor friend told them about a listing on a dead-end street off a main Ballard artery.

In 1901, Swan Hanson built the home without bathrooms, electricity, insulation or plumbing. From receipts found in the attic, Rob and Jenny learned that Hanson exchanged gold nuggets for cash to buy housing supplies from the Stimson Mill Co., which no longer exists.

Essentially left to rot in recent years, the house became an illegal duplex with a crumbling foundation.

Despite this, it immediately appealed to Rob and Jenny, owing to the combination of ideal location, low price and the potential for an apartment.

Planning to put sweat equity into it, they bought the house for the value of the land — $225,000.

To get the mortgage, the city required that they assume responsibility for the illegal duplex and remodel it to legal standards. This meant raising the house to build a basement apartment.

They jacked up the house 12 feet above the ground, which is where it stayed for almost five months while they lived in it and remodeled during the winter.

Thus began six years of sweat, bartering, expenditures and emotional strain.

They both agreed a major remodel can be dangerous to a relationship — and it could have destroyed theirs. (Why didn't it? See related story.)

A little help from friends

To pay for the remodel, the couple bartered rent for work or traded labor with friends.

While the house was elevated, as many as eight people lived in it without insulation or heat.

The rotted foundation had caused the floor to buckle, so pocket doors in the center of the living room did not close properly. To trap in heat from the single kerosene heater, they tacked a piece of insulation over the doors and used duct tape to keep the front door shut.

"We'd come home at night, put up the insulation, tape the door closed, and just sit up in the air with the wind whipping through the floorboards," Rob said. "People would walk around or the wind would blow and we would sway. It was like being on a ship."

Jenny reminisced about how muddy they often got during the remodel, and how they used to climb — literally — out of the house.

"To go to work, I'd climb down the ladder, walk through mud and take a bus to work," she said. "By the time I got there, I'd walk across the carpet and leave mud piles everywhere."

At the end of the day, she would return home to find a crew of tired, hungry, dirty men.

"I felt like Wendy with the Lost Boys," she said. "We had a cooking schedule. You could cook on your night or take everybody to the Sloop Tavern and pay. Most of the time people opted to pay because it was better than working in the kitchen."

Rob and Jenny still marvel at how helpful their friends have been on the remodel — and at how they could never have completed the project without them.

"There were plenty of sacrifices for sure, but in the end it was the only possible way we could afford to buy and stay in Ballard," she said.

Time and money constraints

Rob and Jenny's limited budget forced them to tackle projects at a slower pace than many remodels.

That slower pace allowed them the time they needed to search for recycled materials for their eco-friendly remodel. When they could not find green products, they tried to support locally owned businesses in Ballard.

At all times, Jenny carried a list of items they needed for the house, complete with dimensions, so she could search for goods on the fly.

"We would go home to a wedding on the East Coast, fly into Sea-Tac and literally have our suitcases in the car while we dropped by a salvage yard to see if we could find something on the list," she said.

Having very little money meant tough choices from time to time. Rob once phoned Jenny from the store Second Use to tell her that a 13-piece kitchen cabinet set made of stained cherry was marked at $500. Knowing it would be perfect for the downstairs apartment, Rob wanted it.

"The guy told me I should get it now because they under-priced it. We got the entire kitchen, all the uppers and lowers [cabinets], the trim, plus extra pieces to make other things," he said.

The hard part was buying it when they weren't ready for it. One of the live-in carpenters used the pantry as a closet for two years.

"When you do it this way, you have to figure out how to store things and not ruin them," Jenny said. "Our bathtub was out on the driveway for a year."

Waking up in a dream

The couple's work went over well with the Ballard Historical Society, which plans to include their home on the society's home tour next year. Author Caroline T. Swope also recently included it in her book, "Classic Houses of Seattle: High Style to Vernacular 1870-1950" (Timber Press, 2005).

Both Rob and Jenny find it strange living in their gracious new home.

"It's surreal," she says. "I feel like we're house-sitting for people who have a great home. I could see it all along, but I never thought I actually would."

Their three-story, 4,750-square-foot home is now appraised at more than $750,000 — after buying it for $225,000.

After walking into the spacious 1,850-square-foot first floor the night I raised a glass celebrating the remodel's end, I was treated to a tour of the 1,100-square-foot, three-bedroom apartment downstairs.

To say the remodel is complete, however, would be inaccurate. Rob and Jenny left another 1,800 square feet of attic space untouched.

They figure they'll enjoy their extensive remodel for awhile, and leave the attic to another time.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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