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A transformed trio: reno #1 

Two friends take a crackhouse and make it their urban retreat.

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From the outside it still doesn't look like much: a north end residence located on an unfashionable stretch of boulevard. But enter inside and your see what a little imagination and a lot of effort can do for you.

It was three years ago that Colleen Ritchie and her friend Tim Keenan, who run a catering company together, found the place. They paid $225,000, the full listing price. It was a rental property at the time, with tenants in both the upstairs and downstairs units.

click to enlarge SCOTT BLACKBURN

"The people that lived upstairs were definitely drug users," says Ritchie. "The neighbourhood can attest to that. When we came to look at it, it was quite an experience."

Getting an appointment to see the place was tough enough since the renters were not thrilled at the idea of the building being sold. When they finally did get into see it, Ritchie, Keenan and the realtor entered the main entrance, which was open, and came upstairs, shouting out, "Hello, hello!" A very friendly bull terrier came out to greet them.

"All of a sudden two people came out from the back of the apartment," Ritchie remembers, "saying, 'You can't come in here! That dog's gonna eat you alive!'" Once the intention of the "invasion" had been ascertained, the tenants showed the prospective buyers around, downplaying the features of the property and making little effort to hide evidence of their recreational habits. Of one of the bedrooms they reported, "Oh, this room has black mould in it." The back garden was a huge junkyard. The bathrooms were disgusting.

Now you have to use your imagination to conceive of what it used to look like, though Ritchie, who lives downstairs, and Keenan, up, share two terriers, just as friendly as the one they encountered the day of the first showing.

They gutted the building, doing the demolition themselves with teams of their friends, leaving one bedroom and one den on each floor, opening up the living and kitchen space and revealing the brick of the chimneys. The knob and tube wiring was replaced when the walls and ceilings were ripped out, but structurally the basement and plumbing were fine and left alone. All the floors were taken down to the original wood and stained.

"There were four layers of flooring," says Ritchie. "When people renovated every time they just added on. We had to take a crowbar and a circular saw to cut it out in sections and pry it up."

Now the it's 880 square feet in each unit, with the upstairs and downstairs nearly identical. "I didn't think I knew enough about the jobs to project manage it myself," says Ritchie, who also works as an event planner. "What I know now is, if and when we do it again I'll project manage it myself. We did run into some glitches. And we threw out five tonnes of debris from this house."

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The upper deck over the backyard was built with a door added to grant access, and a 400 square foot stone patio installed. The junk was removed and the garden created with a rock wall. A water feature is planned for this summer.

Then there was the junk in the backyard, which is gone but not quite forgotten, despite the new garden. "It still really grows glass out there, when you rake," says Ritchie. She says the building used to be owned by a taxi company and if the employees were having trouble at home, they'd crash upstairs. "They used to call it Heartbreak Hotel." The backyard was where they'd bring cars to die, hence the glass.

Since purchasing the home, their reno costs have been around $40,000 for the main reno, another $7,000 for the deck and patio and another $5,000 in the backyard. Ritchie estimates the house value to be somewhere in the $350,000 range now. "Especially because it has parking. And the backyard is huge. The patio is 14 feet and it's another 25 feet past it. For a city property to have that kind of yard is unusual."

She has more plans for the place, like maybe an outbuilding in the backyard with a kitchen for the catering business. "Renovations are addictive," Ritchie says, chuckling. "They're like tattoos!"

click to enlarge Ritchie and Keenan share a business, a home and a couple of dogs. - SCOTT BLACKBURN
  • Ritchie and Keenan share a business, a home and a couple of dogs.
  • Scott Blackburn

This is where much of the renovation efforts went. "It's where we spent most of our money," says Ritchie. The tub has recessed lights, turning a bath into a show. "You can change it to a solid colour. It's light therapy."

The Red Chair
"It's called a bucket chair," says Ritchie. She says the rocker is walnut and was made in the 18th century. She got it for $50. The cost of reupholstering set her back some $1,500, but she thinks it was totally worth it to revive a 300-year-old chair. "I've never seen another one like it."

The Barn Board
This is from the barn where Ritchie grew up in Musquodoboit Harbour. In her bathroom she has a photo of the barn. Her mother has one of the boards as a headboard to her bed.


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