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Gentrification travails
Getting what you want requires patience for some
(Published January 10, 2005)

Staff Writer

If you were to go downtown to Old Ebbitt Grill on 15th Street and then to Mark Pietrzykoski's house on Ninth Street NW in Shaw, you would notice the restaurant's bar has the same floor pattern as his dining room.

After spending countless hours deliberating over styles, designs and colors while completing major renovations in his home, Pietrzykoski said he had become accustomed to scrutinizing the interior design of every place he went to seek ideas he could use.

So, when he visited Old Ebbitt Grill with some friends after a company Christmas party one year, he saw that the restaurant's flooring of white marble with small black squares was exactly what he was looking for to complement his dining room and living room.

It's been two years since Pietrzykoski hired the first contractor to begin reconstruction on his home, a 2700 square foot, three-story brick rowhouse in which he said he remodeled everything except the exterior walls. The work is basically finished, except for some "fine detailing" in areas like molding.

As with Old Ebbitt Grill, Pietrzykoski said he found many of his home ideas from visiting other locations, and he advises other renovators to ride around their neighborhood with a camera and look at the designs of other houses and buildings. For example, he got an idea for a door trim pattern after snapping a picture of a house near Lafayette Park and the White House.

For other hard-to-find items and ideas, Pietrzykoski said he found home improvement magazines such as House and Garden or Architect's Digest to be helpful.

Pietrzykoski moved into the house in the middle of the renovations, when many things were still undone. Living his everyday life proved to be challenging while changes and mishaps were occurring all around him.

"There was a day I opened up my kitchen cabinets and looked outside," he said.


In another incident, a torrential downpour created a waterfall over his newly installed French doors leading to the backyard, because the exterior moldings hadn't been sealed.

"It becomes difficult because you have your work and you have your life that you want to live," he said.

A D.C. resident since 1995, Pietrzykoski purchased the house in August 2000 through the Homestead Housing Preservation Program, a program of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development that allowed D.C. residents to purchase dilapidated houses for cheap so long as they paid for the renovations. The program was suspended indefinitely in 2001 for being too inaccessible and complicated for residents.

Pietrzykoski said he was able to buy his home for $250 with cash that he took out of an ATM machine.

The house at the time was unlivable, he recalled, "very poorly designed" with bad systems and broken pipes. After demolishing the interior himself, Pietrzykoski searched for a contractor, which proved to be an extremely difficult part of the process. Because he bought his home before the real estate boom hit the Shaw neighborhood, many contractors weren't interested in the area and would outright reject offers or inflate their prices, he said.

Pietrzykoski said he went through two contractors while re-building his home, as both ended up being unreliable and inexperienced. The first, which he hired in January 2002, "spent more time fixing things than doing it right the first time," he said, and quit in July. The second, which he hired immediately afterward, also got overwhelmed and quit in mid-winter of 2003, leaving Pietrzykoski to finish the remainder of the work himself.

Fortunately, by then the major renovations were complete and the rest was just "cosmetic," he said.

Homeowners looking to remodel should definitely ask contractors for a list of references before hiring them, he said, and seek feedback from the owners of homes they are currently working on to get an idea of the quality of their work.

Pietrzykoski said he constantly monitored the contractors in every job they completed to make sure they were doing exactly what he wanted.

"I basically have the house I really, really like in the way I like it," he said. "It took kicking and screaming and yelling and hollering, but overall I'm excruciatingly pleased."

Neighbor Thomas Cutler said he did the same thing when he renovated his home, a two-story townhouse on Eighth Street in Shaw.

"I kind of rode everyone," he said. "I chose what went where."

Cutler, a four-year D.C. resident who previously rented a place in Dupont Circle, said he "got sick of throwing money away in rent" and spent six months searching all over the city before buying his current house.

For those looking for a home, finding the right real estate agent is key, he said. After growing up in urban neighborhoods of New York and England, Cutler said he knew he wanted to live somewhere downtown. He had gone through a couple of agents, before meeting Mandy Mills of the Hounshell Group, a subsidiary of RE/MAX Allegiance, a real estate agency serving the District, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina. Cutler said Mills seemed to know exactly what he was looking for, and when she showed him his current home, he put an offer in the same day.

Major renovations had already been completed by the previous owner by the time Cutler bought the house in May. The building, constructed in 1905, "had fallen into serious disrepair," he said, and the previous owner had installed a new electrical system, kitchen appliances, heating and plumbing.

Cutler hired contractors to install hardwood floors throughout the house, expand the basement, and refurbish the front and back yards. The renovations weren't major, but it took the contractors six months to complete them, much longer than Cutler said it should have taken.

"I think the key is to hold out on money," Cutler advises. Don't pay them 100 percent until the job is finished, he said. Cutler said the contractors took their time ordering materials and he finally had to call his lawyer to get them to finish the job.

"Once the deal is closed and they have their money, they move to the next job," he said. "If you know your contractor and you have a good relationship with them, you're probably not going to have this problem. But if you come in blind, it's more likely to happen."

Although Pietrzykoski said the renovations to his home came out better than he had expected, he cautions potential renovators about the stress and turmoil the entire process can generate.

"Just prepare yourself," he said. "It's not going to be easy. Just expect a year of your life to go to hell. You give up that year. You become much older. You become very jaded."

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator