Quickie Renovation in Philadelphia


ONE OF THE BEST PIECES of self-help advice I ever read in a magazine was: “Savor your accomplishments.” Ridiculous that I had to read it in a magazine, but I did, and I took it to heart.

Here we are in deepest winter, and I’m savoring. There aren’t any laurels handy, so I’m resting on my couch in Brooklyn, pleased that I managed to sneak in a second Philadelphia apartment renovation in 2017. It’s in the same three-unit Queen Village building where I created a duplex at the top of the house, combining unused attic space with the one-bedroom apartment beneath it, early last year.

That first reno, which began in late ’16 and took six months, was long-planned. In fact, I’d wanted to do it since I bought the building in 2005.

This second reno, begun in September, finished in November and rented in December, was completely unplanned. But it became necessary after the hot water heater in the second-floor unit burst one midsummer’s night. It completely ruined the floors of that apartment — no great loss, as they were cheap carpet over plywood, but it also pointed up the need to re-do the whole place, which was super-shabby and not at all chic, and hadn’t been touched since the 1980s.

The flood also messed up the ceiling of the unit below, on the ground floor. The repair of that was covered by insurance, but the stress of the whole thing, for both tenants affected and also for me, was one of those times when being a landlord seems pretty dreadful.

However, it ended well. The downstairs tenant was a trooper and put up with the weeks-long repair work and painting in her bedroom and bath. The tenant on the second floor, who had been there for about ten years, found a new place quickly. And the results were worth it.

I used the same contractor and many of the same sources and materials as for the previous reno. There was one big design move: removing the wall between the former kitchen and the living room, which had made the living room feel very narrow.

The apartment has a new kitchen, new bath, new pine floors, new baseboards, new window sills, a thorough paint job, and a happy occupant.


The floors are Lumber Liquidators’ cheapest. Yellow pine, $2 and change per square foot. Almost all their flooring is manufactured and pre-finished. This is what I wanted: actual wood.


The kitchen is just appliances, really, with a Home Depot sink base unit painted black . A stainless steel work table from a restaurant supply store (seen in photo at top) provides extra counter space. 

For upper storage, I used a vintage wood/glass-door cabinet from Beaty American, a terrific architectural salvage store in Kensington. 


The bedroom has a closet with a washer dryer and a walk-in closet on the opposite wall.


The new pedestal sink is from Lowe’s and the floor is black commercial-grade vinyl. 

Below, a couple of ‘Befores’ for context:


3 New Q&As

I HAVEN’T UPDATED my Q&A page in a long time because… well, nobody’s asked me any questions! But all of a sudden, three came in within two days. I feel like singing Perry Como’s old theme song: Letters, we get letters, we get stacks and stacks of letters…

Here’s what readers wanted to know:

– how to go about renting out an apartment in Brooklyn

– how to assess a house on the East End of Long Island for purchase as a seasonal rental property

– what items, when considering the purchase of an older house, are likely to be expensive to fix or re-do

I had a go, and you can read the answers right here, on casaCARA’s updated Q&A page.

Got a question related to old houses, interior design, renovation, gardening, rental property management, or real estate in general?  E-mail me at caramia447[at] gmail[dot]com, and I’ll give it my best shot.

Period-Inappropriate Windows


CAPITAL IMPROVEMENT underway at my building in Cobble Hill — our former family home, now rented out to another family. I’m replacing three top-floor windows at the rear of the house — two in the master bedroom and one in a smaller bedroom next door.

Should be straightforward, right? Of course it’s not, because when we raised the roof in those two rooms, back in 1987 — it was originally attic crawl space you couldn’t stand up in — we created arched windows. Replacing them now requires either new, custom-fabricated all-in-one units or modified millwork so that the original fixed fanlights, which are fine and which I still like, can stay in place.

These arched windows are not accurate for the 1850s date of the house, but they’re in the back, so Landmarks was never an issue. And they sure looked pretty — before they started falling apart, that is. They’re not insulated, all wood, and perhaps they were never primed properly. They’ve virtually rotted, with panes falling out.

The rotting windows are six-over-six; at the time, I thought that was the proper historic configuration. Now I understand it’s likely they were two-over-two, and that’s what’s going in instead. That will line up properly with the mullions in the existing fanlight, which the previous sash never did (a neophyte’s design mistake). And instead of replacing the whole arch with a single unit, I’m having the fanlights at the top modified to accommodate new Marvin windows, which will be insulated, with ‘true divided lights’ (real instead of fake mullions) — aluminum clad on the outside, wood on the inside.

I’m using one of two contractors I met with, both recommended by Dykes Lumber, a local building-supply company: the one who showed up on time, took careful measurements, followed up as promised with an emailed proposal, and generally inspired confidence. The other guy was rushed, answered calls on his pager, took a few digital pictures but no notes or measurements, and gave me an on-the-spot rough estimate. It happened to coincide almost exactly with the one I received from contractor #1 a couple of days later, but his general demeanor made me not want to hire him.

I didn’t call any of the other names I had collected from neighbors and online resources. I’m going with my gut on this one. And even though the whole deal is going to cost six grand [frowny face], it feels good to be doing right by the house this time.

My Very Fine Ash


I’M JUST AS PROUD as can be. I’m all puffed up with pride right now. It’s not that one of my kids has done something extraordinary, or even myself. No, it’s the ash tree in the backyard of my building in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn.

I always knew it one of the biggest trees in the nabe. That tree is 150 feet tall, I’ll wager. A real monster. (You can see its trunk in the photo above.) I remember seeing it from above, high above — from the observation deck on the 29th floor of the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Building when the tower was sporadically open to the public in the early 1980s and my daughter and I used to go up there to eat lunch and view the bank’s big clock in close-up. I’d look down on my house, a block away, and see nothing but a green cloud of foliage emerging from the rectangle of the backyard, bigger by far than any other green cloud for blocks around.

What I didn’t know is that my ash is so very fine — practically worthy of landmarking. I found this out in the aftermath of Irene, when my tenant on the top floor sent me some photos. The ash — perhaps it too should be given a proper name — had shed a few large branches in the storm. Again. It has a habit of doing that. We’ve had it taken care of from time to time, and it always costs a bundle.

IMAG0613By utter coincidence, one of the leading arborists in Brooklyn, William Logan of Urban Arborists, happens to live adjacent to that backyard, and he knows the tree well. So I called him on Monday and he came to take a look. There was a 30-foot- long, Y-shaped branch straddling the brick wall of the building next door; another had landed on the roof deck of a neighboring building on State Street — a building that happens to be right next door to the house where Bill has lived for more than 20 years. He could practically reach over and dispatch that branch, which is why I called him and not the tree service in Staten Island, which tends to be less pricey.

Bill came to take a look, and a few hours later, emailed an estimate with this note:

Dear Cara, It was good to see you again and to look at the big ash. I am glad that it did not suffer too serious damage. It is a very fine ash, one of the best I know of in Brooklyn.

Well. Can you see why I am so very proud? And pleased. My property’s value has probably just shot up like the Dow every other day.

Then he went on…

We will repair the storm damage and inspect the tree to make sure that no other branches have been cracked or otherwise compromised. We will also remove any significant dead branches over the neighbors’ property.

Here is the proposal:

To prune as described above one approx 40” diameter ash to repair storm damage, examine branches and remove major deadwood  $895.00


Ugh. I hadn’t asked Bill to examine the rest of the tree or take any prophylactic measures against further breakage. But ya know, it’s a very fine ash — one of the best in Brooklyn, I hear. It needs special care. It’s probably quite old. Venerable, even.

That ash is worth any price. Yes, indeed. That’s my very fine ash.

BOOK REVIEW: Crash Boom! Rx for Real Estate Wealth

3d copyI’M NORMALLY EXTREMELY SUSPICIOUS of financial ‘gurus’ and of people who have their heads swayed by their often-dubious advice. But a new book by Greg Rand, a real estate entrepreneur who contributes to Fox News (maybe that’s why I hadn’t heard of him) and has a radio show on WABC, has come to my attention. Crash Boom! Make a Fortune in Today’s Volatile Real Estate Market speaks to me. Naturally I like what Rand has to say: he validates my own experience and makes me think I’ve been on the right track by investing in rental property and clinging to it for dear life.

I’ve bought six properties, but never sold one. I’m an accidental real-estate investor. It started in 1979 with a Brooklyn row house that has three units, then a re-finance and the purchase of another Brooklyn townhouse in the mid-’80s, with two units. Both were bought primarily as homes; they just happened to have these extra apartments, which we rented out. We then let years go by — years when we could have swept up brownstones for a song — without investing in any other NYC property. But let’s not go there; my blood pressure numbers have been good lately.

It wasn’t until 2005, when my son went to college in Philly, that my attention turned purposefully toward investing in rental real estate, and I bought two early 19th century Philadelphia row houses with a total of five rental units. One is in a solidly upscale area (Queen Village), the other in a fringe neighborhood (Old Kensington) that nevertheless seems to be improving at breakneck speed. Both buildings have had positive cash flow from the beginning — not hugely so, but most definitely in the black, while I build equity month by month. Perhaps most important, I enjoy owning them. For me, it’s like collecting antiques — very large ones.

Buy, Improve, Hold is Rand’s prescription for building real estate wealth. Of all types of investment properties, he’s most partial to two-to-four family homes. “An incredibly appealing property type,” he says, and I concur. More tenants paying rent. And desirable: people want a backyard, Rand points out (most of my tenants have them, either shared or private). Though Rand doesn’t specifically mention vintage properties, many of the examples he gives, including a Victorian mansion in Tarrytown, N.Y., with commercial space on the ground floor and residential units above, resonate with me much more than if he was solely discussing condos or suburban homes.

Almost everything Rand says rings true to my ears. Here are some of his main points:

  • It’s a great time to be a landlord. The current economic climate is providing investors with the opportunity to get a ‘deeply corrected’ price, and it also comes with a wave of new renters (800,000 new rental households in 2009 alone).
  • The ‘technical drivers’ of real estate wealth — appreciation, leverage, amortization and income — do not exist together in any other form of investment. He likens these elements to a mixing board in a sound studio, calling them ‘the four dials.’ “As you push each of them up a little bit, the volume gets exponentially louder. You don’t need any of them to perform off the charts to get off-the-charts results.”
  • Re appreciation, Rand points out that home prices are still above where they were ten years ago and the market is almost done ‘correcting.’ “In other words, the entire bubble has been erased. Poof! Gone.” In the long view, the historical upward trajectory is intact.
  • Leverage steepens the return as a percentage of investment. Because most people buy real estate by taking out a mortgage, the cash invested initially is smaller in real estate than in the financial markets, compared to the eventual return.
  • Amortization (paying off a mortgage) lowers the amount you owe as time passes.
  • Rental income is icing on the cake.

The book also delves into what, for me, is the most seductive, creative aspect of the whole real-estate game: fixing up an ‘ugly duckling.’ Rand advocates finding properties in need of upgrading, not turn-key ones. He loves long-languishing properties that have become stigmatized, as in “Something must be wrong with it if it’s been on the market so long.” Let others pass it up. That’s where you can often find bargains, he says — something I’ve intuitively understood for a long time, but am still heartened to see in black and white.

Mind you, Rand’s book doesn’t say you’ll get rich quick. “A good buy on a house means you set yourself up for even greater returns as you ride the cycle forward and mature the investment over time.” The biggest mistake people make in real estate, he says, is selling in order to realize the profit, adding “Don’t do that!” He views equity in real estate as liquid, which is refreshing. True, it takes a few months to get to it, but it’s still a good place for your money. Let it stay where it is “until you have another real estate play to make or your objective has been met” (say, when it’s time to send a child to college).

There’s lots more — from how to find a neighborhood on the upswing (“Home Depot and Lowes don’t open stores on a whim”), to owning near where you live and work, to buying distressed and foreclosed property. And there are quite a few surprises (Rand thinks Florida is still a great place to invest, for instance).

My one disappointment is that Rand is not terribly helpful when it comes to how to get the money for a down payment in the first place. I hope that’s the subject of his next book.

To see my archive of blog posts on Rental Property Management, go here.