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Six lessons learned from a major remodel

I nervously knocked on the door of my former home. I had no idea who lived there now or if I'd be welcome.

Story by

Marni Jameson

Special to|The Times-Picayune

What I did know was that a package, an early wedding gift, had been delivered there for me. And I wanted it.

I also knew the new homeowners had no idea where I lived, so couldn't forward it.

One of the many rules in the world of live-in home staging is that you are not to talk to buyers, sellers or agents. When the home sells, you are to leave without a trace. It's like being in the witness protection program.

A kind looking if wary man opened the door. I awkwardly explained my existence.

"Ahh, this must be yours," he said, opening the door wider, so the box and much more of the house came into view. I practically fell in.

"Wow," I said. "The place looks fantastic."

He puffed up a little. "We've been working on it."

"I'll say," I said, as I put my neck on periscope mode and craned to get a better look.

BEFORE THE RENOVATION: This outdated kitchen was ready for a major facelift. Photo courtesy of Marni Jameson

"Would you like to come in?"

Good sense would dictate that a lone woman should not enter a strange man's home, but some forces are just too strong. Amazing remodels are one of them.

AFTER THE RENOVATION: In a few short months, Tom Zogiab and Steve Braun renovated their home, transforming the kitchen and other rooms. Photo courtesy of Marni Jameson

In each of the six homes I've lived-in and staged, I've played a fervent game of: If This Were Mine. While I decorated with my art and furniture, I couldn't change anything major, like wall color, flooring, cabinets or fixtures, which kind of feels like wearing a curb bit.

I had given this house a major mental makeover. And now here it was, transformed, in just a few months.

I needed to talk about this. Next thing, I'm sitting in my old family room while Tom Zogiab and Steve Braun, who are married partners, shared their story of what we'll call the Birdsong house.

When Tom first saw Birdsong, he recalled, "I didn't like anything about it except getting there. I loved the sense of arrival."

To get to the house, which is set back from a narrow road behind a thicket of tropical trees, you go over a bridge and around a bend. "Though close to the city, you feel far removed," Tom said.

What struck Steve, whom Tom credits as "the one of us who has the decorating gene," was the work it would take. "I saw the possibilities," Steve said, "and I saw them as being overwhelming."

On his first walk-through, Steve, who works in hotel sales, knew the kitchen and bathrooms would need a complete gut; and the popcorn ceilings, the huge almond-rocha-like rock fireplace, the fixtures and the dilapidated air conditioning system would all have to go.

Plus, the house wasn't what they were looking for. Their aim was to sell their current 2,900-square-foot house and downsize. Birdsong was a 4,800-square-foot, one-story rambler.

They walked away and kept looking. They found a smaller place that fit their criteria.

Then one night, after a bottle of wine, Tom, a pharmacist who works in IT consulting, told Steve that if they got the smaller house, "It will be my house, but it will never be my home. When I return from a trip, it will not be where I want to be."

Bottom line, it didn't feel like Birdsong.

At which point Steve uttered the now immortal words: "If you want Birdsong, we can buy Birdsong, and I will jump in with both feet."

Two days after they closed on the property, workers ripped it apart, and Steve and Tom were living in a dust bowl with open ceilings, no air conditioning and only one working outlet. Eight weeks later, their vision began to emerge through the dust.

Today the formerly burnt-orange faux finished walls are a uniform shade of mocha. A new sleek fireplace with a clean white mantle and modern tile surround graces the corner, and a chic built-in bar stands beside a spectacular gourmet kitchen.

"I love coming home now," Tom said. "Everything else goes away. It's an oasis. It's where we belong."

Of course, beyond the proverbial question: How did you do it? I also wanted to find out what they learned in the process. Here's what they said:

Ways to save: Their contractor itemized every item they would need, including price. Then Tom and Steve decided what they would buy directly and what they would have the contractor buy. By buying kitchen appliances and faucets direct from retailers like Lowe's, Home Depot, eBay and Wayfair, "we saved easily $15,000," Tom said.Rely on friends: Use your friends in the business. A friend of Steve's owns a tile store and gave not only great advice, but also a break on materials and a referral to a terrific installer.Take advantage of opportunities to upgrade: Look at the downstream affects of renovation, Tom said. If there were ever a time to replumb or rewire, it's when walls are open and workers are there.Brace yourself: "Contractors are have little regard for your life or your things," Steve said. For instance, the fact that the cabinets didn't come in the day they were supposed to, but were delayed two weeks, meant little to the contractor. But to Steve, who had been living with a kitchen in boxes for two months, it meant a meltdown.Step away: Come to terms with the fact that you are not in control. Every day when Steve came home from work, he would sweep. Eventually he gave up imposing order. "Give over to the force, to the fact that for now it's not your life," he said.Design your life: Not many people get the chance to design for their life, Tom said, to pick the exact faucet they want, and not just live with what someone else picked. "If you get that chance, take it."

Syndicated columnist Marni Jameson is the author of two home and lifestyle books, and the forthcoming "Downsizing the Family Home: What to Keep, What to Let Go" (Sterling Press). Contact her through her website.