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Long Islanders share their home renovation stories

Former Green Bay Packer linebacker Gary Brown is in the process of renovating his home and he is realizing some of the pitfalls of a DIY renovation. (Credit: Barry Sloan)

We’ve all seen the shows. A celebrity real estate couple arrive to help a family renovate their home. The camera pans over a ramshackle structure built by a demented designer and landscaped by Tarzan. The nervous owners exit. Swarming workers turn the interior into a showcase and the outside into a wonderland. The owners reappear. There are gasps. Hugs.

Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy, right?

“Remember, a TV show is just a TV show,” says Gary Brown, who is renovating his Central Islip home and laughs at those who think such projects are easy. “You’ve got to be ready for the long haul.”

Home renovations are never easy, say Long Islanders involved in the process. But they can resemble TV shows filled with unexpected plot turns and dramatic tension.

“It’s a trip, but we’re rolling along,” says Corinne Scalici, 32, a sales representative for a pathology lab who with her plumber husband, Evan, 32, purchased a two-story Cape six months ago in Ronkonkoma.

The couple decided a renovation project was the only way they could afford a home in the expensive Long Island market. In January, they found a bank foreclosure on an acre of land with low taxes. Corinne Scalici’s real estate agent-uncle, who helped locate it, warned her not to “freak out” when he opened the door to reveal a jigsaw room configuration covered with a dirty green carpet. The home had been burglarized and stripped of its plumbing. 

“I looked around and said, ‘I love it,” she says.

The home had been on the market for six months and they jumped on it after the price dropped to $275,000, putting it within their budget range. Corinne’s college courses in interior design and architecture helped her see its potential, she says. Now, the carpet is gone and the interior gutted and ready for a makeover. Her plans include combining the downstairs dining and living rooms into a great room and revamping the bedrooms upstairs for their two children, Xander, 4, and 1-year-old Lyvia. They will occupy a master bedroom downstairs and hope to move into their “dream home” by Christmas, she says.

Which, of course, is nerve-wracking. Corinne recommends demolition — such as smashing through walls with a sledgehammer — as a remedy.

“It’s a good stress reliever,” she says. “I highly suggest it.”

Brown, a 6-foot, 4-inch, 315-pound former  offensive lineman for the Green Bay Packers, is tackling his home renovation project despite an injury suffered when he was working a construction job. He now uses a cane to get around.

“There are things I can still do,” he says. “It just takes me a little longer.”

His experience as a DIY home renovator evolved after he retired from sports. Money from his football days didn’t last long, which is when he turned to construction. He did manage to buy a ranch house in Central Islip as an investment and rented it out. Years later, when the occupants left, he discovered the property had been badly neglected. Brown, 48, decided to make it his own home and has been working on it ever since.

Friends helped with things he couldn’t do, such as electrical and plumbing work.

“That’s the beauty of New York,” he says. “There is always someone who says, I know a guy who can do that.”

He knocked down some interior walls to create a great room with a view of the new kitchen and redid the bedrooms and bathrooms. He plans to turn the two-car garage into a master bedroom and the basement into a rec room filled with his athletic awards. Last December, he finished the first phase of the project — the main living area — and moved in with his partner, Bernadette Rivera. 48, and her daughter, Gabriel Horton, 19, a college student.

“Every day, I do a little bit more,” he says.

Brown — who heads a foundation for disadvantaged youth in Central Islip, runs a football camp and does charity work — says he has spent “a boatload of money” on the renovation. He advises those facing similar projects to mentally add on 25% to anticipated costs. And be prepared for surprises. For example, after discovering the home had outdated electrical work, he decided it had to be replaced.

“Be patient. Be prepared. And have money,” he says.

But even those with experience in the field can encounter problems.

Joel Landstein, 58, thought he knew what to expect when he arranged for a renovation project in his Roslyn home last January.

“It was all lovey dovey in the beginning,” he says.

He and his wife have lived in their split-level home for 26 years and decided it was time to upgrade their master bedroom and two bathrooms. But Landstein, who builds cabinets in high-end homes both in Manhattan and on Long Island, says the work wasn’t up to his standards.

He decided to take over the project along with subcontractors.

Nine months later, the work is coming to an end and he and his wife hope to move back into their bedroom in a few weeks. “I’m happy with how things are coming together but I’m exhausted from the experience,” he says. “As long as we take a shower and the water doesn’t come through the ceiling, we'll be in good shape.”

One frequent complaint about renovation projects is that they turn familiar surroundings into construction battle zones, disrupting the lives of everyone in the family.

“I realize people do this sort of thing for a living,” says Carolyn Conkling, who has been staying with her family in a rental home while work on their two-story Manhasset residence is completed. “I’ll probably never do it again.”

Conkling, 38, says she and her family are hoping to move back into a residence with an expanded and updated kitchen, living room, dining room, an extra bedroom and another bathroom. She is a homemaker who is raising two children — Nicole, 8, and 12-year-old William. Her husband, Allen, 38, installs garage door systems.

“The house needed everything,” she says.

They bought the 80-year-old Colonial in 2010 and, after entertaining friends in the cramped kitchen for too many years, decided to fix things up. A sunroom and an office were  added along with an upstairs laundry room. The detached garage has been connected to the home through a “mud room.”

The process has gone mostly according to plan, but filled their lives with tension, she says.

“People said to us, ‘Wouldn't it be easier to just buy another house?’ Even if you did, there would always be something you would want to change,” Conkling says. “It’s probably cheaper to stay where you are and get everything done the way you want.”

EXPERT ADVICE

Why do people renovate their homes? Some because it is old or deteriorating, says Gary Zaccaro, owner of Ambassador Home Improvement based in Massapequa. Others want to add value with an expansion.

But the number one reason?

“Children moving back in with their parents,” Zaccaro says.

This is not unusual considering the paucity of starter homes on Long Island. Related to this is the fact that many had modest beginnings — like the Levittown residences or vacation Capes.

“It’s almost like Long Island was built to be expanded,” says Zaccaro. He estimates homeowners can recoup around 85% of the cost of an expansion. For redoing a kitchen, that amount would be about 70% and for a bathroom about 50%, he says.

As far as the bottom line, tacking an extension onto a home usually runs about $60,000 and adding another floor around $150,000, he says. Normally, the work takes between six and eight weeks, he says. That’s why his most important meeting with a client is the initial sit-down to determine desires and costs, he says.

“That way, everyone is on the same page.”

People in other parts of the country usually don’t renovate when they want a larger residence, says Evan Lewitas, a project coordinator with Center Island Contracting in Farmingdale.

They move, he says.

“Most people can’t afford to do that here,” he says. “The jump from an average house to a bigger house is too much of a leap financially.”

The solution many choose on Long Island is to improve their habitat. Most of the renovations his company handles are in the $150,000 range, he says. Home Improvement Magazine lists things like putting on new siding, remodeling a kitchen or adding an outdoor deck as good cost vs. value projects. But Lewitas says he believes the biggest bang for your buck comes from adding square footage.

“I always tell my clients to change the listing,” he says. “If you have three bedrooms and two baths, make it a home with four bedrooms and three baths.”

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