WE WANTED A FIRST-HAND EXPERIENCE ON HOW TO RENOVATE YOUR HOME IN YOUR MID-TWENTIES SO WE REACHED OUT TO SMALL BIZ OWNER, NATALIA TORTORA, OF NATALIA TORTORA DESIGN, LLC, AGE 28. NATALIA IS A GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PHOTOGRAPHER BY TRADE AS WELL AS AN ASPIRING INTERIOR DESIGNER. BECAUSE OF HER LOVE OF OLD HOMES AND DETROIT, SHE DECIDED TO BUY HER FIRST HOUSE (A 1937 BUNGALOW) IN NORTH DETROIT IN APRIL OF LAST YEAR, AND RENOVATE IT!

WE MET UP WITH NATALIA LAST WEEK AND SHE SHARED HER TRADE SECRETS ON HOW TO DO IT:

From when I was a little girl, I was fascinated with old homes and IKEA magazines. I would spend my summer days drawing floor plans for new furniture and lighting that would come out in the seasonal catalogs, (nerd, I know) and was obsessed with interiors. My parents were both in the arts, my father being a lighting designer and my mother being a stage manager and costume makeup designer, and it was inevitable that I become some sort of designer as well. Having a BFA in studio art with concentrations in graphic design and photography from Michigan State University, this gave me the aesthetic sense I needed since I always loved the idea of rebuilding a home to make it my own!

Post-college, I moved down to Detroit (where my family was from) and after a few years of renting apartments all over the city (first starting at $260 a month in midtown in 2014 for splitting a three-bedroom, to paying nearly quadruple digits monthly for a one-bedroom apartment in midtown three years later), I knew I was done throwing my money down the drain for a rental, and wanted to BUY. I also wanted to get ahead of the curve that I already missed around 2010 when the townhouses by the Little Caesar’s Arena were 100K (now nearly 500K), and buy before everything inflated astronomically, so house hunting last January was a stressful nightmare. After I found the home that was livable but needed work, I went to work before my apartment lease was up, and so the journey began.

SURPRISES AND PLANNING FOR THE WORST

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I live in one if the cutest, safest communities and I’m very fortunate to have snagged a home in Green Acres, Detroit. After having my offer accepted, I had an inspector come in to observe  the property to prepare for the contingencies for the home loan and close. What I didn’t know is besides a dry basement, nice natural lighting, and hardwood floors, DO YOUR RESEARCH on HVAC. That being said, know going in that not everything (if anything) will run perfectly. Breathe, laugh, fight, get sh*t done, and cherish it too. Here’s what happened and what I’d advise when handling surprises:

  1. My HVAC had what was called “Detroit Spidering” where when the economic crash hit, contractors were not installing HVAC properly (and everyone was doing anything to make money). Because of this, I needed the entire house redone with a new furnace and A/C unit which was about 10k. Not fun on time, nor my wallet. Check the year of the furnace and A/C unit -- anything around 30-years is too old. You need new gear, so budget for that and ask for that cost off of your original offer in your inspection/contingency and hopefully the current homeowners will honor that price and drop it for you.

  2. The other surprise was the plumbing which was roughly 3k. The kitchen and bath needed gutted, but once you get behind plaster walls, the truth comes out. We ended up needing to replace all of the plumbing and most of the electric in the house, because once you open up walls, you need to do it right from the inside out and neglecting that would only cost us more money, time, and mental sanity in the future. Redoing everything also added more value to our home, so keep that in mind.

3. Make sure you budget for time, money, and contractors who don’t know how to finish jobs AKA MY ELECTRICIAN (I know you’re out there). Also, whatever the previous owners attempted to do, it was either wrong, incomplete, or never remodeled. Ever. So be prepared to redo things that have already been “done.”

DEMOLITION (HOUSE) DERBY

Demo takes a while, and is pretty exciting and rejuvenating, being one of the first projects you’ll do in your home. Getting all of the gross tile and wood out of the house, finding layers of old linoleum, and even the permit for the home under the thick plaster walls is pretty awesome. My now fiance (boyfriend at the time during this raging mess, bless his soul) and my cousin helped with this, and really helped take the stress out of the day. Nothing like slamming a sledgehammer into a wall on purpose to get the blood going!

Here’s what you need to know:

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  1. Wear a dust mask and goggles. Seems like a given but going without it for a day wrecks havoc on your lungs and sinuses. Not fun at all.

  2. Map everything out with a sharpie of which walls we were demoing with an “X” to make sure you destroy anything you don’t want to, including which doorways you wanted to expand into large cased openings. I was always at work all day, so it was important to make sure these were clearly mapped out for my cousin/contractors to execute. Since we were expanding the original kitchen into the bedroom behind it, we had to bust through a large wall and connect the two rooms together. That also meant ripping up the flooring all the way to the subfloor from both bedrooms, and getting all new electric (and proper outlets) to handle a stove, oven, and fridge, as well as the height for kitchen counter equipment, etc.

  3. For the debris, I had a portable dumpster out in my driveway. Once you fill it (I recommend having someone on “organizing” duty to make the most of the dumpster) call the rental company to pick it up -- it’s super easy.

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Everything on this end took about 2-3 weeks to get it all completed. Then a bunch of contractors came in to install HVAC, plumbing and electric.  After plumbing and electric were done, it’s time to hang drywall and mud the joints to make it all smooth to actually have a wall. Then you tile the floors, and paint which is where the real fun begins!

EYE OF DESIGN

Since my home is an 80-year-old structure, I wanted to keep the vintage feel and style of it while keeping it clean, modern and cost-effective. All of my materials were from The Home Depot, because I had their credit card and could use deferred payments on large purchases such as tile, countertops, and even gardening supplies. Be careful tho, because now I’m paying those deferred payments AND the mortgage so its a double whammy.

KITCHEN:

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I stuck with white subway tile, and wanted the kitchen to have a warm feeling to not leave it too stark, and using a wood-printed tile was perfect for us. The modern pop on the backsplash is the dark grout in pewter, which my expert tile worker (who was also head of the Union) Peter and his son (my cousin) Adam tiled by hand. This with the direction of the floor tile being the long orientation elongated the room and made it feel less commercial and more comforting since it is a residential space.

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At the time, my uncle was flipping a home in the burbs and gave me the cabinets and appliances from that project. I pieced them together to have a format that worked with what he had, and it somehow fit functionally. Since I didn’t like the color, instead of not using them, I painted them white (with the Sherwin Williams color Pure White) and gave the cabinets new hardware for an instant makeover AKA RECYCLING and beggars can’t be choosers. The countertop was one “splurge” we got on sale at Home Depot, and it actually fit perfectly snd was unique and is gorgeous. We picked quartz in Pietra which gave it a little more sparkle, and wasn’t as expensive as the high-demand white granite or marble. That ended up being a solid 3K with install, but it instantly brought the value up for the home with cosmetic and usability purposes.

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BATHROOM:

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Originally with lucious rotten walls and a falling tub, I decided to keep the original bath tub. You don’t want to pay to have that cast-iron mammoth removed, and to have someone install a new one on top of the product is higher cost) so I bought a special tub paint reglaze. I recoated the tub with this special epoxy-acrylic to make the tub look like-new. Although this glaze almost killed me from the fumes, it is beautiful once done and the finished product really adds character to the home.

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We also put in new flooring, a toilet, sink and vanity, and knocked out two closets that stuck into the bathroom, giving the only full-bath in the house more space. The remodeled wall paint is Frost White from Behr, with hex tile from Home Depot and pewter grout. Definitely get the curved shower rod if you have a small tub to add more space to the tub. With the demo, we also had to fix the framing of the doorway and we installed a new door which gave it an instant makeover.

LIVING ROOM:

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  1. I used white with colored accents to keep the room looking bigger. With the fireplace mantle being white, I wanted contrast with paint, and a new harth did wonders. The living room wall paint is eggshell Glidden Diamond with Sherwin Williams’ tint of Pure White. The navy color is Behr’s Poppy Seed which I used in the vestibule and dining room, as well as the basement stairs.

  2. Refurbished floors throughout the first floor did the trick on this and made a huge difference. I rented a big drum sander and an edger sander for a day which was reasonable and bought sand paper (about $200 dollars worth total) to use for the floors. Make sure you start out with a 60 coarse grit and work your way down 3 stages to hit 220 or something similar. If you don’t, you will see every grit scratch when you apply the stain and polyurethane. For the stain, I used one coat of 50% Minwax Ebony and 50% Minwax Jacobean with a Semi-gloss polyurethane to see the grain of the wood. For staining, use a lambswool applicator with a broomstick attached and wipe off with a clean cotton cloth. It’s a great arm workout, too.

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TIME SPENT ON THE RENOVATION

I honestly think that working full-time, living at my moms in Warren, having a boyfriend that lived in Corktown, and having a home that needed renovated, I was a great project manager but I was stressed as hell. Deadlines were going great until my mudding guy decided to bail for three  weeks at a time, leaving me unable to paint or install any cabinets, which delayed my countertops, sink, faucets, and general kitchen use, which delayed my move in time by two months. From beginning to end (while also doing the exterior when the interior couldn’t have any gain) took from April to October.

Here is a photo of the before and after garden, and a screenshot of what my list looked like last year:

HELP WANTED

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Never be afraid to ask for help. I cannot believe how much help my family (my mom especially), fiance, some friends and neighbors were willing to help out on the project. It is fascinating and it’s even more fun when you’re not the one paying for it! We paid my cousin Adam hourly while I was at work so he could get a lot of the remodeling done. Although I have an eye for design and am rather handy from helping my uncle all of these years, I definitely do not know how to install a sister joist to a falling bathtub by myself.

PAINT GOES A LONG WAY

The living room fireplace was nasty. My fiance wanted to redo all of it or paint if black (inside joke) but making the decisions we did it’s gorgeous and is like new. Also, for the kitchen cabinets, we used paint. Paint is a cheap and easy way (if you have a steady hand and patience) to make most things look great without a complete overhaul.

IT’S DEFINITELY WORTH IT AND THE MOST REWARDING THING BESIDES HAVING A CHILD OF MY OWN.

Now we can look back and relax. We still have some painting, wallpaper to put up and some other little projects, but overall, I can’t wait to sit back and enjoy my garden this summer, because last summer did. Not. exist. Our neighbors are very happy that we have invested in the neighborhood, and we grew a lot from this experience personally and emotionally!

FINAL COST:

WIth labor and materials, we prolly out in around 35K collectively for this renovation. Luckily, 6K of it is on a credit card that we can pay off, but working/physical labor was a big expense. Make sure you factor that in when you’re planning to renovate a home. It’s ok to halt some projects until you get the funds to continue, unless it’s a new roof or your toilet!

Best of luck to all of you that wish to do this! It’s a great experience and with more time, I would love to do it again.

In loving memory of my Uncle Rocky. xo

- Natalia Tortora

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