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The Golden Rules of Renovating a Home

Martha Stewart Living, February 2010

When Paul Ochs first saw the parcel of land in northeastern Pennsylvania that he purchased in 2000, he barely noticed the house. An 1840s Greek Revival farmhouse with a turn-of-the-century addition, it had boarded-up windows and interior walls gutted to the framing. "Everybody in the area considered it a teardown," says Ochs, who intended to build a new weekend home atop the adjacent hill.

Take a Tour of Paul's Renovated Farmhouse

As soon as he began poking around the old structure, however, "I fell in love with it," he says. Ochs, a New York-based interior designer, took measurements, drew up floor plans, and began experimenting with different room configurations. "It just sucked me in," he says. "I felt like there was great potential for it to be a very comfortable home." Before long, he put his plans for a new house on hold and began nursing the building back to health.

Because most of the original woodwork had already been stripped from the house, "there wasn't a lot left for me to preserve," Ochs says. He deduced what he could about the home's original details through a process he describes as an "architectural forensic science of sorts," before adding many of his own design ideas. Among the few remaining features intact were wide-plank hemlock floors, which had been buried under linoleum for decades. Ochs made them a focal point, and his crew spent weeks peeling off the linoleum and scraping adhesive from the wood. He created inexpensive replacement moldings around doorways and windows by using flat pine boards from a local lumberyard. Then he added an extra bead of wood around the perimeter, which he sanded by hand to give it an aged, imperfect look. Outside, Ochs considered replacing the asphalt shingle roof, installed by the previous owner, with cedar shakes. "It's more historically appropriate and warmer looking," he says. "But because the roof was fully functional, I had a hard time justifying such a large expenditure."

Elsewhere, he sought to prepare the house for contemporary living. He moved walls to expand the old kitchen, which had already been gutted, into a highly functional mudroom with open shelving, a peg rail, and a long custom bench. He carved out space for an expansive new kitchen, added bathrooms, and installed a fireplace (the house previously had a coal stove).

All told, the renovation was "a three-and-a-half-year labor of love," says Ochs, who moved in with his wife and dog once the house became habitable -- after about 18 months -- and continued to do most of the work himself for the next two years. So friends were surprised when he sold the property recently. But Ochs is not one for sitting still. A serial renovator, he is now at work on his next challenge -- restoring another needy home, in Athens, New York.

Paul Ochs knows a thing or two about renovating. He has restored a 350-year-old stone house in Greece, transformed a late-nineteenth-century bank into a fashion boutique in New York, and remodeled countless apartments for clients. Here is some of his remodeling wisdom.

Planning Is Everything 
A detailed, start-to-finish outline of your renovation will help you get there on time and on budget. One of the primary goals of any renovation should be to add value to the property, Ochs says, so view all structural and aesthetic fixes through that lens.

Be Bold, When Appropriate 
If you can make a major improvement by moving a wall or combining two rooms, go for it. Reorganizing a space will have a much bigger impact than many small decorative additions. Ochs also advises tackling all rooms at once. Even if you don't have the budget to, say, complete a bathroom right away, it's best to do any required demolition work while the house is already a construction zone.

Respect the Past 
When working on an old home, select a few details -- specific molding profiles, for instance -- and carry them throughout the house to create a consistent period look. Use high-quality materials in key areas, even if you use more affordable options elsewhere. Ochs believes in being mindful of history but not saddled by it. As part of his farmhouse renovation, he installed new thermal windows that are not historically accurate but that increase comfort and cut down on energy use.

Hire a Few Good People 
Although it's tempting to enlist a big construction crew to complete your renovation in record time, Ochs says it's often best to work with a smaller team. Hire a handful of skilled workers, and proceed at a pace that lets you oversee the changes taking place.