Noe Valley Voice July-August 2003

Noe Valley Homeowners Catch Remodeling Fever

By Corrie M. Anders

A few months ago, John Crichton decided he'd endured the outdated bathroom in his classic Noe Valley workingman's home long enough.

The bathroom, located upstairs in a 1907 John Anderson­style home, consisted of a toilet in one room and a shower and basin in an adjoining room. The split bathroom was a popular concession to turn-of-the-century modesty, but is considerably less practical today.

There was also the less-than-flattering remodeling that someone undertook on the quick nearly two decades ago. That fix-up was beginning to show its true dime-store colors, with "so-called brass fixtures" turning black and stains that wouldn't come out.

"I thought, Wouldn't it be nice to have a nice modern bathroom?" said Crichton, an antiquarian bookseller who owns Brick Row Book Shop in downtown San Francisco. "I wanted to tear out that wall and make a larger bathroom."

So the 21st Street resident called in an interior designer, found a contractor, pulled out his checkbook, and got himself a totally new bathroom with all the bells and whistles. The makeover, completed earlier this year, sports marble limestone floors and a matching countertop, a large soaking tub, and top-end fixtures all around.

"I went very upscale," Crichton said. "If you do something [like this], you do it to last. It may cost a little more, but in the end you don't regret it."

Renovation Renaissance Spans Five Years

Crichton has lots of company, in a remodeling binge that has been going full bore for the past five years throughout Noe Valley. These days, you can't go more than a block or two without spotting a grime-encrusted Dumpster parked on the curb, its rectangular metal belly awaiting the next feeding of shaggy carpets, old toilets, laminated countertops, piles of lumber, plaster, and sawdust, and other detritus of a renovation in progress.

There's little mystery behind the renovation renaissance. Some homeowners find it more financially pragmatic to remodel than to trade up in a housing market that has become outlandishly expensive. It's also a chance for some nouveau wealthy to put their success on display.

"People who are buying into Noe Valley have more money, and they want their homes to match up to the quality that is consistent with their level of income," says Sue Bowie, a longtime Noe Valley resident and Prudential California real estate agent.

Then there are owners with either small homes, or homes frayed by time. While they are in the market for larger or more modern homes, they love the neighborhood and don't want to move. So they remodel or add on extra space.

"Noe Valley is a great place to live," says interior designer Sue Green of Sue Green Designs, who moved nine years ago to Alvarado Street from Pacific Heights. "Where else would you go in the city to find the type of housing we have, the weather, and the 24th Street environment without paying a lot of money? You'd have to go to Pacific Heights--and you'd lose the weather."

Bowie, for one, has watched the neighborhood continuously upgrade itself since she moved in 25 years ago. It's been a gradual process, she says, though the pace has picked up in recent years, as younger, well-heeled families have moved in and replaced older, working-class homeowners.

"The neighborhood has gone through a very rapid renaissance," Bowie acknowledges.

Victorians Are Aging

While Noe Valley is one of the priciest neighborhoods in San Francisco, its homes may seem like bargains compared to those across town in the gilded enclaves of Pacific and Presidio Heights. That differential makes the neighborhood an attractive alternative for dual-career families, gay couples, and other two-income households.

"They can buy a single-family home here, or a condo on the north side of town," says Bowie.

What they find here is an upscale community boasting homes with excellent pedigrees. The neighborhood is replete with late-19th-century, Victorian-era homes--from Queen Annes and Edwardians to Italianates--and century-old homes built after the 1906 earthquake and fire.

That also means Noe Valley has a lot of aging and unrenovated properties, or properties that have been partially remodeled--some in the minimalist style of the post-WWII period or in the avocado-kitchen mold of the 1960s and '70s.

In addition to being a bit creaky, Noe Valley's homes are relatively small when compared with homes in St. Francis Woods or Pacific Heights, or those in the suburbs. To maximize space, homeowners are adding both ground-floor and second-story additions, and finishing off their basements and garages, says Bowie.

Kitchens Will Set You Back $45,000

To get the home they want, residents can spend anywhere from a few hundred dollars on do-it-yourself projects, to six figures for complete makeovers. Before the year is over, homeowners across the country will have plunked down $175 billion on remodeling projects, up from $163 billion in 2002 and $160 billion in 2001, says Gwen Biasi, a spokeswoman for National Association of the Remodeling Industry, a trade group.

Noe Valley homeowners make a significant contribution to the national spending totals when it comes to the two most popular remodeling projects--kitchens and bathrooms. A completely new bathroom in Noe Valley can run $18,000 to $40,000, says Green, while a gutted and totally restored primo kitchen will easily cost $120,000.

"You're not going to get away with much less than $45,000 for a kitchen, no matter how hard you try," says Green.

So what does $120,000 buy in Noe? "You'd definitely get granite countertops throughout the kitchen, and high-end appliances, such as Miele, Bosch, and Viking, and Sub-Zero refrigerators. The cabinetry would be high-quality maple or cherry wood, with lots of hidden features, such as pullout pantries and Lazy Susans," says Green. Also expect to get a multilayered lighting system.

For $45,000, still an impressive sum of money, your kitchen would include mid-priced appliances such as G.E., wood cabinetry, and a basic lighting upgrade. The kitchen also would have either a countertop of granite or part granite, part wood and tile, says Green.

Green, who's been a kitchen designer for 20 years, says labor costs can eat up to 50 percent of a kitchen.

"Most people have sticker shock when I tell them," says Green. "They typically want to spend $20,000 to $25,000, and I say just your appliances are going to be $10,000. Eventually people come to grips with it--or they have to reassess what they want to do."

A Jewel of a Renovation on Jersey

When attorney Paul Goorjian and his wife Joanne "downsized" from their home in the Oakland hills four years ago, they resettled in the Noe Valley Victorian where Paul was raised. The home was a little Queen Anne that had been moved to Jersey Street in the months after the 1906 earthquake.

"The house was badly in need of work," says Joanne. "It had a toilet that was falling off the back porch." The house had two small bedrooms and one bath squeezed into a 900-square-foot frame.

With her creative juices flowing, Joanne took charge of the renovations. The couple insulated all the walls, modernized several windows, completely renovated the kitchen, added a second-story master bedroom suite, added a ground-floor garden room with French doors leading to a patio, a raised garden, and a hot tub.

"In the kitchen, we put in Italian stone tile on the countertop, wood floors, French and red birch cabinets," says Joanne. "We put an oversized tub in the master bathroom and Italian-style tile in the bathroom on the lower level. They were beautiful."

The remodeling project--which cost approximately $250,000--left the Goorjians with a three-bedroom, two-bath jewel that at 1,900 square feet was more than double the size of the original family home.

But the couple's enjoyment of their renovated home has been short-lived, not because they didn't love the changes, but because Paul Goorjian decided to retire soon after the rehab was completed. They sold the house in May to a young couple--and the renovations played a big part in the home's $1.2 million sales tag.

"We didn't move into the house with the intention of selling it. Selling was an unanticipated move," Joanne Goorjian said last month, as the couple prepared to relocate to Florida. "We realized we needed the money from selling the house for our retirement."

Work at the Goorjians' recently vacated Noe Valley home isn't over, however. To accommodate their more contemporary lifestyle, the new owners are going to remodel much of the Goorjians' remodel.

Here we go again.