Jennifer Bauder has been eating lots of sandwiches, and not because she loves Warren Zevon. Bauder and her family are renovating their Boxborough ranch while living in it. They’ve temporarily turned a bedroom into a makeshift kitchen, and they wash dishes in the bathtub. Low-maintenance meals are key.
No, this is not HGTV. But such is their commitment to the community and neighborhood, within walking distance of the library and Blanchard Memorial School. And, like many people put off by high mortgage interest rates (the average for a long-term, 30-year fixed was 6.79 percent on June 1), Bauder also figured it was smarter to renovate an existing home than hunt for a new one.
“The housing market here is expensive, and we came to the realization that, if we were to buy a new house, it would still be a fixer-upper that we’d be putting money and time into anyway,” Bauder said.
The project is set to end in July. It will add two bedrooms — her 9- and 11-year-old daughters won’t have to share anymore — as well as an expanded kitchen, entry, bathroom, and garage. In the meantime, the family is scrunched into half the house. For the most part, it has worked out fine, except when the refrigerator wouldn’t fit through the bedroom door.
Resourcefulness is key. Bauder and her husband, Jon Roland, hired Brian Griffin from Boxborough’s M&M Home Services. Griffin is a neighbor, and they have kids the same age.
“I liked working with someone right in our community,” she said.
The family also received a construction loan from Middlesex Savings Bank, a local business with a branch right down the street from their home, rolled into the existing mortgage. The payments are disbursed in stages, which can be a “money juggle,” Bauder said, but it’s still easier than starting over.
That’s how Needham’s Kellan Ponikiewicz feels, even though her pandemic renovation was taxing. After living in a Watertown two-family for a spell, she was delighted to find a solidly built 1920s Cape in Needham nine years ago. Her family loves their dead-end street and the easy commute into Boston, but the home was small, with low-slung 7-foot ceilings. They looked for a new home, with no luck.
“The price of our own Cape had gone up about $400,000,” Ponikiewicz said. “It was insane. You couldn’t get anything in Needham.”
So the family decided to renovate, right before the pandemic. Like Bauder, Ponikiewicz found a contractor, Brookline’s Lockwood Carpentry, through word of mouth. And while she now loves her home, the COVID-construction experience was intense.
“It was an absolute nightmare, the whole process, because it was done during a pandemic,” Ponikiewicz said. “Try finding a building permit when the entire world is shut down. Our contractor was great. He just kept bringing the building inspector coffee.” (Finding a well-connected contractor who often works in your area is key.)
In the meantime, her husband, daughter, dog, and two cats crammed into an apartment above a doctor’s office. Like Bauder, the family funded the overhaul using a construction loan. They also used a local bank, Rockland Trust, which made the requisite on-site inspections easier to schedule. A loan also made scope creep easier to navigate because the family could increase the amount as needed. They originally budgeted $300,000, a number that escalated due to unanticipated costs.
“If you’re paying out of pocket, you’re kind of stuck with what you have — and then you’ll probably eventually have to get a loan anyway,” Ponikiewicz said. “It was much easier to work with a bank.”
There are still remnants of the original Cape, such as a preserved staircase, but now there also are niceties like a second-floor laundry room, a primary suite with a bath, and an attic — all in the same close-knit neighborhood.
It’s reminiscent of days of yore, where people stayed put and made connections.
“From what I see from my clients, they don’t want to leave and pack up,” said Charles Nardone, a third-generation builder with Needham’s Edgehill Construction. I have a bunch of clients in Scituate. None of them are ever going to leave! Same thing in Sudbury.”
Of course, staying put and renovating doesn’t come cheap. In addition to getting referrals via word of mouth, Nardone advised bidding out a renovation job to at least four contractors for price comparisons. But in many cases, it’s still less expensive than trying to score a new abode in an impossible-seeming market.
“We ran the numbers in various different ways,” said Megan Burns of Arlington, who’s on the tail-end of expanding her 1,600-square-foot Gambrel to accommodate two growing boys. “Having to bid between $100,000 and $200,000 over just didn’t make sense at a 4, 5, 6 percent interest rate, especially if we weren’t sure how much our house would go for. We’re getting between 75 and 85 percent of what we wanted out of a renovation.”
So she and her husband, Fred Heger, made decisions large and small (“I’d go to friends’ houses and take pictures of their door hinges,” Burns said) while renting nearby. Throughout, she consulted with interior designer Caitlin Sweeney, who helped rework the home’s layout within its existing footprint. Sweeney advised on where to squeeze in new bedrooms, how to accommodate stairs to a third floor, and improve the home’s flow.
As for Bauder? She can’t wait to take full occupancy of her home this summer.
“I love to cook, and the temporary kitchen is the biggest challenge,” she said. “I can only run one appliance. I can microwave or make a cup of coffee. It’s problem-solving, creative thinking, and having a good sense of humor.
“And a lot of sandwiches.”