Renovating parents’ house prompts writer to update her own home

Joanne McFadden's childhood home in California undergoing renovations.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Joanne McFadden's childhood home in California undergoing renovations.

Categories: Fall Home

I keep a running list in my head of “the things I never thought I would be doing.” It includes experiences like spending seven hours in the cardiac surgery family waiting room at Johns Hopkins Hospital while my husband underwent a valve-sparing aortic root replacement, and watching my daughter “walk” down the aisle on crutches with her father trailing alongside, holding her bouquet and taking care not to step on the train of her dress.

During the pandemic, we could all make our own lists of things we never thought we would see or experience — the shutdown, a toilet paper shortage, the masks, travel restrictions and civil unrest, to name a few. One huge item on my list turned out to be bicoastal home renovations, of my parents’ California house and my own Capital Region home, the former prompting the latter.

My father passed away with Alzheimer’s more than two years ago and my mother, also a person with Alzheimer’s, lives in an assisted-living facility. As trustee, I am legally responsible for their home, my childhood home. My trip to check on the house in February ended unexpectedly with the decision to sell the house. Little did I know the process would be upended a few weeks later when the COVID lockdown began.

My parents were humble, hardworking people. In 1971, purchasing a 2,149-square-foot new construction home in Newbury Park, part of the Conejo Valley region of Ventura County, was a stretch for them. The price tag was $38,000, but they made it work, living frugally and even paying the home off early.

I have memories of my 4-year-old self sitting on the bare, wooden staircase of this new house and picking out “my room.” When they put a patio in the back of the house, my parents took my tiny foot and made an imprint in the cement, and inscribed my name alongside it. My family made many memories in that home, but I know now that it is time to pass it along to a new family who will make their own memories there.

Releasing a childhood home is what lifestyle designer and coach Kerri Richardson calls a “spiritual graduation.” I have clung to that phrase during this process. I thought I had released all attachments to the home a few years ago after I witnessed how a hoarding family member living rent-free with my parents had trashed the place. The house no longer resembled the happy childhood home I remembered. I evicted the family member and spent weeks attempting to clean out the house, balancing time there with my family and work responsibilities in New York. I even found human teeth in the garage. (No worries: They turned out to be wisdom teeth, and yes, finding human teeth in my parents’ garage went on my list of experiences I never thought I would have.)

I honestly believed I was ready to let go of the home. I just hadn’t pictured that I would not be physically present to do the final emptying out and getting it on the market. That job ended up in the hands of a real estate broker.

PHOTO PROVIDED BY JOANNE MCFADDEN
Joanne McFadden’s kitchen, which will soon undergo a complete renovation.

A few years ago, when I had initially begun the process of cleaning out the house and making repairs, I became acquainted with Realtor Craig Burritt of Aviara Real Estate. His approach was dramatically different than other brokers who, out of the blue, mailed notes to my father telling him they had a buyer for his home or others who were ready to give him cash for the house, as is. Why, I wondered, would they assume he wanted to sell? When I received correspondence along those lines after he died, I became incredibly angry.

Burritt never made assumptions about what I might want or not want to do. He simply offered assistance, from contractor recommendations to clarifying my options for renting and selling based on the current market. He recognized that selling a home was different than selling anything else. There are myriad memories and life experiences attached to a home. “There is no other possession in the world that someone could buy and sell which has the potential to hold so many emotions,” Burritt said.

“Therefore, I want to do everything I can to honor and respect that seller and the emotions they’re going through during the process. It’s important to me that those people feel I understand what they’re going through, and that we proceed at whatever pace and timeline they need to help complete the process along the way.”

More from Fall Home 2020

When I was determined to sell the house, I reached out to Burritt. The big decision I had to make was to sell the house as is or to renovate it. Two factors drove this choice: the desire to respect my parents’ hard work and pride in homeownership rather than just “dumping” the house; and how COVID was affecting the current market. In my parents’ neighborhood, with COVID and telecommuting, people do not want to endure renovations, Burritt said, and they have the resources to afford a house that is in “turnkey” condition.

“Buyers in the Conejo Valley are willing to pay top dollar for a home that they can move into without having to go through the renovation process on their own, even if this means it might cost them an extra 10 to 15 percent to do so,” he said.

Like the Conejo Valley market, homes in the Capital Region are selling quickly. “The demand far outpaces the supply,” said Frances Callahan, associate broker with Berkshire Hathaway in Clifton Park. “If things are priced well, they’re moving.”

However, unlike southern California, buyers are not necessarily looking for a home in turnkey condition. Callahan is an advocate of pricing a home for the condition it is in and getting it sold quickly. If sellers want to make improvements, she suggests what they can do that would have the most impact and cost the least.

With a seller’s market and the chance to have the California home move quickly if renovated, I chose that route. But everything, from the final emptying out through the rehab and sale, will most likely all be completed without me present due to the coronavirus.

I might not even be able to see the finished product, although I hope for gracious buyers who would allow me one final farewell walk-through.

Changes at home

What took me by surprise was the profound sadness I experienced when I realized that my parents’ home would be torn apart and updated when they weren’t around to appreciate it, if even for a few years.

My parents had the resources to renovate, but for whatever reason they chose not to, and now they will not enjoy the beautiful results, an experience they certainly deserved.

This mobilized me. I was determined that I would not do this in my own home where my husband and I have lived for 24 years and raised our family. It needs updating, but instead of waiting until we want to sell it upon retirement, we decided to start now so that we can benefit from beautiful new spaces.

I reached out to interior design consultant Marianne Clifford of Marianne Ashley Designs, whom I had previously interviewed for an article. I decided I wanted to put this project in the hands of a professional rather than stumbling through it ourselves. While I have written hundreds of articles about interior design and remodeling, I do not have the interior design gene.

I saw an outdated and dark space, hard-to-clean tile countertops that are the bane of my existence, a poorly installed textured laminate flooring that was equally hard to clean and cabinets with little functionality.

She saw great opportunities for the space, moving things around, adding more storage and creating a place for family and friends to congregate.

She also was highly aware of doing all this while keeping in mind that we planned to sell the home in a decade.

I would say this has been COVID’s silver lining. The pandemic prompted me to renovate and sell my parents’ home. Experiencing the deep sadness that I did when I looked at pictures of stripped rooms as the contractor prepared to completely remodel the spaces motivated me to renovate my own home.

Rather than doing it solely for the next owners, we are doing it now so that we can experience the joy of living in a beautifully updated space.

“I would say that the biggest buyer’s remorse people have when doing their kitchen is waiting to do it because they want to sell their house,” Clifford said. “There’s a lot of moving parts, and they wish that they had done it for themselves and not for someone else.”

I am taking a couple of souvenirs from my childhood home. I have cuttings of my mother’s favorite cactus to cultivate in pots.

And my little footprint? It’s being saved for me, and I’ll be retrieving it to use in my garden as soon as the pandemic permits.

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