While showing off her new kitchen/dining room addition one evening, Lily Richards explained to me why she and her husband, Arnie, never considered hiring a contractor to oversee the project.
“We’re kind of conservative financially. . . ,” Lily began.
“We’re cheap,” Arnie broke in. And, he added, “We’re too egocentric.”
What’s more, the couple didn’t even hire subcontractors like drywallers, framers or electricians to do the work, choosing instead to take on every task themselves, including Arnie’s worst nightmare: plumbing.
“I detest plumbing,” said Arnie, a director of quality at Mattel toy company. “I’m no good at it. I’m lousy at it.”
Indeed, he cursed so furiously over his plumbing duties during the project last year that, Lily, a secretary in Mattel’s Hot Wheels division, said, “I can’t listen to this anymore,” and threatened to call in a professional plumber.
“Don’t,” Arnie implored. “I won’t let this beat me.”
With this kind of determination the couple was able to tear out the tiny kitchen in their 1930 Downey home in favor of a more spacious replacement with granite-tile counters, lavish moldings, new cabinets, new appliances, a custom-designed range hood and a stained-glass window.
Plus, they added a roomy dining room, accented with an alabaster chandelier topped with a ceiling medallion. And they did it all for $27,000 (mostly for materials, tools and tool rentals), about half what the couple figured it would have cost for professionals to complete a similar job.
Although six months passed from excavation day until the final approval by the City of Downey, the remodel actually began long before that.
“I have thought and dreamed about this kitchen since before we bought the house,” said Lily, referring to the day when she and Arnie first saw the kitchen at an open house. “Is this a load-bearing wall?” she asked Arnie at the time. “Can we take it out?”
For the most part, the house was already roomy, having been enlarged by previous owners from a compact, 800-square-foot rectangle to a more spacious 1,700 square feet home with a large master suite and a den, the latter converted from the original attached garage.
But the kitchen remained minuscule, and so bland that color photos of the room look like they were shot with black and white film. After moving in, the couple put off the remodel until last year, after two years of “great” bonuses from their company, and when they got a break from college tuition fees.
In the ensuing years, Lily gathered ideas from scores of magazines, including Romantic Homes, Renovation, Kitchen and Bath, Traditional Homes, and This Old House, from which she tore out pictures to add to her kitchen planning notebook.
From the beginning, the couple knew they wanted not only to remodel the kitchen, but to make it bigger, and to add an adjacent dining room so their rosewood dining table, and its six chairs, could come out of the small space off the kitchen where it had been squeezed for years.
Arnie felt confident he could pull off the addition because of several additions he had done in Los Angeles. Those projects, as well as an annex he added to the couple’s bedroom, all had concrete slab floors, and he considered that for this project, which would require a step down from the kitchen into the new dining room. Eventually, though, the couple settled on a raised wooden foundation for the addition, to match the rest of the house.
“We decided if we were going to do it, let’s do it right,” Arnie said.
In mid-April, Arnie took his plans for the project to the city of Downey, and expected to get a permit on the same day, as he had gotten for his Los Angeles project. When he was told it would be four to six weeks, he said: “You’re kidding.”
“I wanted to get started that weekend,” he recalled.
While waiting for the plans to be evaluated, then amended and finally approved, Arnie decided to start demolition on the concrete patio out back where the addition would sit. He and Lily sent out invitations to friends for a demolition party, on May 19, bought snacks for them, and rented a jackhammer. The event was such a hit that one friend, Michael Mis, “would not relinquish the jackhammer,” Arnie said.
By the time the plans were finally approved, Arnie had the forms for the foundation built, and he called the city for his first inspection. Except for tying the new foundation to the house with rebar, everything looked fine, and concrete flowed June 20.
To keep track of the project, Arnie made a detailed list called “Kitchen Remodeling Activities,” that was color-coded: Red for completed activities, blue for city inspections and green for activities in process. With “target dates” and “completion dates,” Arnie said, “It felt like I was at work.” Plus, many activities were broken down into smaller tasks, and each one was checked off when done. “We’re neurotic about checks,” Arnie noted.
When the floor joists were installed, the floor was insulated and sheathing added. When the walls started going up, Arnie threw his rickety wooden ladders into a dumpster, spent a couple hundred dollars at Home Depot on two quality replacements, one fiberglass, one aluminum. “Things went better after that,” he said.
After a marathon five-day Fourth of July weekend of labor on the house, when the walls and roof sections were starting to take shape, the couple recalls sitting outside in lawn chairs, drinking wine, eating pistachios and admiring the lumber they had just sawed and nailed into place. “OK, we’re almost there,” Lily said at the time.
Of course, it would be four more months before final inspection. The couple eschewed their typical two-week vacation to keep working on the project.
“That’s all we did,” Arnie said.
“That’s all we talked about,” Lily added.
Another work-filled weekend took place in late July, from noon on a Friday until late on a Sunday night, when the old kitchen roof section was removed, and the new section was tied into it. At 9:45 on Sunday night, the neighbors asked if they could help. Lily interpreted that to mean: ‘Will you please stop?”
While the structure was being finished, with Lily doing all the drywall installation and taping, decisions had to be made on colors and surfaces. For help, Lily turned to her daughter, Stephanie Humady, 27, an aspiring interior designer who studied fat UCLA. “I picked all the colors,” Stephanie said, but then corrected herself: “Well, we consulted. It was a group effort.” While Stephanie wanted a bold, contemporary look with lots of red, her mother leaned toward what Stephanie has termed a Tuscan look.
“It’s been very hard to keep my mouth shut,” Stephanie recalled. “You want to express your own style.”
On the other hand, Lily doesn’t have a name for the style of her kitchen. “It’s just me,” she explained. “It’s what I like.”
The wood cabinets came from Home Depot, where a designer helped with the layout, and Lily chose dark granite tiles for the counters, and light porcelain tiles for the back splash. She installed them herself, even renting a tile cutter for irregular sized pieces. Arnie installed the laminate flooring in just a few evenings. Lily designed the range hood, and Arnie built it for her. The final touches were the moldings and the paint, which had to be redone when it turned out to be too dark. The finished walls have an underlayment of a shade like suede with a chocolate/cinnamon color sponged over it.
Originally, Lily planned to make stained-glass inserts for some of the wall cabinets, but as the project wore on, she ran out of energy to do it. Deciding to put wire mesh inside glass in the doors, she found exactly what she wanted by asking one of the toy designers at work, who referred her to the McMaster-Carr industrial supply catalog.
Throughout the job, there were a few glitches. Rerouting the gas meter from the back of the house to the front turned into a week-long event, and the distasteful idea of crawling under the house caused Arnie to hire someone else to run the line. One day, a driver delivering a dumpster ran it into the side of the house, breaking the plaster. “Just give us a free dumpster and we’ll call it even,” Arnie told him. And then there was the day Arnie, who has an engineering degree from Caltech, miscalculated and filled a dumpster with 13 tons of concrete and dirt, only to be told by the trash company that it was illegal to drive such a heavy load over city streets. It took an extra day for Arnie to transfer three tons to another dumpster.
Between them, the couple had only a few disagreements, usually because of something that Lily wanted to have and that Arnie didn’t want to install. The medallion over the dining room light fixture was such an instance (“I just don’t see the point of it,” Arnie said.), as well as the alabaster chandelier itself. When Arnie resisted buying it, Lily simply said: “Fine, I’ll buy it myself with my bonus.”
“I usually don’t budge,” Lily said.
Now that the kitchen is done, the couple are thrilled with their creation. As Arnie often says:
“We have the finest kitchen on the face of the Earth.”
* * *
At a Glance:
Project: Remodel kitchen and add dining room
Duration: Five months
Cost: $27,642 (See where the money went)
Construction materials, cabinets, paint: Home Depot, Downey, (562) 776-2200, and All-American Home Center,
Downey, (562) 927-8666.
Granite tile: Bestway Marble & Granite, Los Angeles, (323) 266-6794
Tile for back splash: The Tile Place, Downey, (562) 861-4246.
Alabaster chandelier: Lamps Plus, Torrance, (310) 542-8682.
Appliances: Pacific Sales, Cerritos, (562) 356-2400.
Glass shelves and doors: Hal’s Glass, Bellflower (562) 866-7047.
Wire mesh for cabinet doors: McMaster-Carr, www.mcmaster.com.
Knobs and pull handles: www.MyKnobs.com.
Flooring: Americana Floors, Anaheim, (714) 780-0388.
Demolition and Sledgehammer Weekends – friends and neighbors.
(Photos: LORI SHEPLER / Los Angeles Times)