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WolfebeforeCheck out this story to find out how Twila Wolfe turned a ragged, wretched Mission Viejo backyard into a natural-looking grotto on a small budget.

Here is her secret: "I never pay full price for anything. Never."

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(Photo: KEN HIVELY / Los Angeles Times)

You know you’re headed for a challenge when your real estate agent says: “I’ll show you this house but I know you’re not going to want it” and then, when you do want it, cautions: “You don’t know what you’re getting into.”

That’s what happened to Twila Wolfe when she was looking for a house to buy in Mission Viejo. Looking inside one 1960s trilevel tract house, she told the agent: “If I had this house, I’d add skylights here and French doors there.” In fact, the agent knew of a house with the same floor plan and those very additions.

But there was a big problem — the house was a wreck.

Its paint was peeled, its plumbing was clogged, a drywall ceiling sagged and the yards were crab grass, weeds and ancient, woody shrubs. Worst of all was the dreary backyard pool and a set of concrete stairs–ridiculously enormous for the yard–that reached from the house to the cracked, stained deck. All this was accented by three rangy palm trees.

Undaunted, and attracted by the price, Wolfe bought the property and set out to transform it into her dream house–a gracious paradise that would be perfect for living (for her and her two silky-haired Maltese puppies) and for entertaining (especially her musician friends).

“As soon as I saw those steps and palm trees, I knew they were going,” Wolfe said. “I didn’t know how it was going to happen, but I knew it was going to happen.”

Indeed, Wolfe, an actress an singer, had no reason to think she could overcome any of the home’s problems, especially as she wanted far more than $100,000 worth of improvements with a budget of only $40,000. Her previous remodeling experience? “Zilch.”

“I didn’t have much income, but I had a lot of desire,” she said. “And I’m just a hard worker.”

With the help of her then-boyfriend and a hired handyman, she began with the house, fixing the ceiling, adding glass blocks, painting all the rooms and replacing a kitchen counter that was previously so out of kilter a banana would roll off the counter and into the sink.

Many of Wolfe’s home-improvement supplies were purchased on sale, some were discontinued products or models and many were from flea markets and yard sales. The labor came from herself, friends and the handyman, or was bartered.

“I never pay full price for anything,” Wolfe declared. “Never.”

Taking a break from her labors inside the house, Wolfe swam laps and planned the backyard transformation. “It drove me crazy,” she recalled. “Every day I designed something new.”

But when she compiled her dreams–turn the pool into a natural-looking grotto and waterfall, install new filtering equipment, redo the existing deck, add a deck near the house, redo the offensive stairs, install new landscaping and add a built-in barbecue–Wolfe was shocked to find estimates as high as $100,000.

With $22,000 for this portion of the remodel, Wolfe resorted to her customary methods: sales, finds, bargains and bartering.

The primary job was creating the waterfall and boulders surrounding the existing pool. While they look like real rocks, they are actually rebar, cinder blocks and sandbags covered with latex “skins” and stained a rich rock color. Wolfe modeled the waterfall after a similar feature created by John Allen of Boulderscape, which she saw photographed in an Orange County magazine. Wolfe hired professionals for this complex job, and then topped the faux boulders with real rocks she handpicked at a building supply.

The cracked deck was likewise covered with more concrete and with skins and stained to look like flat stones. Much of the deck was completed by Wolfe and her boyfriend, with advice from Allen. Wolfe paid extra (although she says she got the best price possible) to have thousands of small pebbles embedded in a translucent concrete added to the floor of the pool. This product, called Pebble Tec, gives the pool its deep blue-green appearance.

To create more usable area, a part of the yard sloping away from the house was leveled and turned into lawn and a patio covered with green flagstone tiles.

The cumbersome stairs were fixed thanks to the skills of mason Bob Wolfe, Wolfe’s dad, who came in from Annapolis, Md. To save money, the steps were not removed but were reduced in size by half their width, then rounded with wood framing and covered with cut flagstone tiles.

The barbecue was bought at a discount — “As usual, it was the floor model and had been out in the sun for three years,” Wolfe explained — and the installer agreed to exchange his labor for hers if she’d paint rooms in his house.

For landscaping, Wolfe removed all shrubs, ground up the crab grass with a borrowed tiller, and had the three large palms removed. This revealed a graceful, previously hidden ficus tree.

Finally, Wolfe amended the anemic backyard soil with several yards of mulch she had delivered to her front driveway. Although she had “never planted an herb or plant before,” she now has a thriving garden that includes trumpet trees, bougainvillea, morning glory, roses, palms and other tropicals.

There were a few glitches in Wolfe’s quest for cheap labor and bargain materials. One craftsman was fired. And the original low-cost railing on the top deck rusted after a few months. It was ripped out and better quality railing–costing twice as much–was installed.

When she’s not swimming laps, Wolfe’s favorite perch is at an iron table and chairs on the upper deck. “I have my cappuccino here in the morning and a cocktail in the evening,” she said. “How could you not?”

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At a Glance:

Project: Transform dreary pool, deck and yard into natural-looking grotto with waterfall.
Homeowner: Twila Wolfe, Mission Viejo.
Advice on deck resurfacing: Boulderscape, Capistrano Beach, (949) 661-5087.
Pebbles on pool bottom: Tony Marquez Pool Plastering, Sylmar, (818) 362-2554 (more info at http://www.pebbletec.com).
Deck railing: Saddleback Iron, Lake Forest, (949) 830-9513.
Barbecue, slate for barbecue, real rocks for waterfall: Valley Building Materials, Lake Forest, (949) 855-9994.
Flagstone: Modern Builders Supply, San Marcos, (760) 591-4570.
Paint: Home Depot, Mission Viejo, (949) 364-1900.
Duration: 10 weeks, not including landscaping.
Cost: $22,000.

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