- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 9, 2006

If you’re about to sink thousands of dollars into remodeling a fixer-upper and wondering why you ever bought the wreck in the first place, take heart. The house could be in worse shape. Much worse.

Starring in tomorrow’s episode of the PBS home improvement series “This Old House” is a derelict, circa-1879 row house in the District’s Shaw neighborhood that even has the show’s master carpenter worried. “In the 25 years that we’ve been doing shows, this is right up at the top of the list as being one of the worst I’ve ever seen,” says carpenter Norm Abram. “This is a disaster.”

Surveying the burned-out shell on 6th St., Northwest, Mr. Abram and show host Kevin O’Connor lament the sorry state of the charred joists and water-damaged floors. Most of the windows, they point out, are missing glass and are boarded up. Plaster on the walls and ceiling is falling down. The living room fireplace mantelpiece is gone. Only half of the original staircase remains. Lying in the kitchen sink is a syringe.

The reason for the total wreck is that “This Old House,” in typical PBS do-gooder style, teamed up with the affordable housing developer Mi Casa Inc. (“my house” in Spanish) to create an eight-part series. This collaboration is no “Designed to Sell,” the HGTV show that spruces up homes so that the owners can make more cash from the sale. It’s nonprofit all the way.

Based in the District, Mi Casa specializes in renovating neglected properties and selling them at below-market prices to low- and moderate-income Latino families. The group bought the two-story house on 6th Street for a dollar, plus closing costs, as part of Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ Home Again Initiative, a program aimed at reviving vacant and abandoned properties throughout the city.

Once the rehab is complete later this month, Mi Casa hopes to sell the overhauled, three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom house for about $260,000, an unheard-of bargain price in the gentrifying Shaw neighborhood. The price covers the $230,000 being spent on materials and labor to fix up the house plus about $30,000 to pay for architectural and landscape design services, building permits, insurance and miscellaneous expenses.

The lucky buyer will be selected from the nonprofit developer’s list of eligible candidates. To qualify, the prospective homeowners must earn about $40,000 to $70,000 a year. Family size is also considered.

In selling the house, Mi Casa takes out a second “silent” mortgage to discourage the owner from immediately reselling the property for a huge profit in the still hot real estate market. “We hold a note on the property that’s equal to the difference between the discounted price of the home and its market value at the time of the sale,” explains Elin Zurbrigg, who hopes to seal the deal on the Shaw house this spring. “The buyer only has to repay the note if they sell the house before 10 to 15 years.”

Since 1992, Mi Casa has successfully applied similar tactics to renovate 33 single-family homes in the District’s Columbia Heights, Petworth and Shaw neighborhoods. Currently being renovated away from the camera lights is an old row house in Northeast that the group hopes to sell for $100,000.

With refurbishment of the 6th Street house still ongoing, the Boston-based crew of “This Old House” was back at the property last week, filming the progress since the first episode was shot last November. “Give us some house with that,” barked director David Vos to cameraman Steve “Dino” D’Onofrio as they followed Mr. O’Connor and landscape contractor Dan Barry through the newly fenced-in back yard.

Still hard at work is contractor Mahyar “Mike” Mahvi of Venus Construction & Remodeling, who, in the first episode, estimated 70 percent of the home’s charred framing could be saved. After starting the job, Mr. Mahvi said he quickly discovered that only 15 percent was salvageable.

The biggest challenge, he added, was the tight, three-month schedule of the renovation to meet the TV show’s production deadline. Typically, such a project would take at least twice as long to complete. The most time-consuming tasks were rebuilding the curved wall-enclosed staircase to the second floor and digging out the basement by hand to create a higher ceiling.

Ms. Zurbrigg said the benefits of hooking up with the PBS show are “the tons of expertise that the show has.” After finding an old photo of the Italianate-style house, the “Old House” team helped Mi Casa find specialists to reinstate the original architectural design. Decorative brickwork at the top of the front facade was repaired and all the mortar repointed. A replica of the cast-iron staircase leading to the front door is being made by a local metalworker. The details will be highlighted in future episodes of the eight-part show.

Donated and discounted materials and fixtures, including flooring, windows, kitchen cabinets and appliances, “enabled us to upscale the house in terms of quality,” Ms. Zurbrigg said.

As it turns out, none of the historic remnants shown in the first episode — the one surviving fireplace mantel, ornate ceiling medallion, hardwood flooring and old kitchen sink — made it through the renovation. From the inside, this old house looks pretty darn new.

WHAT: “This Old House”

AIRING: Tomorrow at 9 a.m. on WETA-Channel 26 (check local listings or thisoldhouse.com)

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