Exactly when a house becomes a home can be hard to say sometimes, but it's often family that clinches it.
When Jason and Anh Brown found a place that fit their needs - lots of room to grow in, for a good price in the right neighborhood - they enlisted the help of several relatives to convert it into their dream home.
"I have a very close-knit family," said Anh Brown, a teacher in the Philadelphia School District, whose father, uncle and cousins helped with the renovations. "Anytime someone needs help, we all jump in. . . . It's what we do."
The Browns' house-hunting took them throughout Philadelphia and Montgomery County. A promising - and spacious - eight-bedroom house with three full baths and two powder rooms presented itself, though it needed a good deal of work.
But because it was in the East Oak Lane neighborhood where Jason and Anh have lived most of their lives, they decided to buy the fixer-upper instead of a house that was move-in ready.
"We weren't looking for a project house, we were just looking for a big place to live," Jason Brown said. "In this area of Philly, they have some nice big homes but not a lot for sale, and some that were for sale were out of our price range.
"This one, we saw what it had, we saw the potential, and everything matched."
With two young daughters and a baby on the way, the couple needed more elbow room. The size of the house was a double blessing, with space enough not only for their children, but also for Anh's parents.
"In Vietnamese culture, after parents raise their children, kids take care of their parents," said Anh, whose parents emigrated when she was young. "It's going to be great to have my mom around to help take care of our kids, too."
They bought the house in a foreclosure sale in May; it had not been inhabited for more than a year. Although the foundations were strong, extended nonuse had left leaky pipes and other repairs that needed to be addressed before moving day.
In addition to the family helpers who work in construction, carpentry and home remodeling, Jason worked on the house evenings and weekends. It was a new experience for him, so he relied on relatives for guidance and instruction - and the Browns settled in at the new address this month.
"My father-in-law is a carpenter, that's his business, and my cousins who fixed the floor, that's their business," Jason said. "I was just doing whatever they told me to."
The remodeling has been beneficial while she is expecting their third child, due in early November, Anh said. "I actually kind of like it because it keeps me going. I find I had more energy to help paint or in whatever other way I could."
Surprises were part of the program, naturally - when the Browns bought it, the house didn't even have a thermostat. They opted to replace the old heating system, and with the help of a small army of family and friends, they managed to get a new boiler down to the basement.
Hardwood flooring was one of the best features, but it needed a makeover on all three stories. Anh's cousins helped sand down and refinish the floors on the second and third levels, but the main level needed new hardwood installed.
Giving the walls a fresh coat of paint meant scraping old wallpaper from almost every room in the house. The project turned out to be quite a bit more time-consuming than Jason thought: "I took a week off work to work on the wallpaper and was only able to do the first floor."
Perhaps the biggest undertaking was the kitchen. The Browns installed new cabinets and granite countertops, as well as new flooring. They rotated the large center island 90 degrees, to take full advantage of the space.
More projects lie ahead. Next up: finishing the unfinished basement.
"There's a bar down there with taps and a little raised platform, so we imagine there was some kind of stage or dance floor," Jason said. "We don't know what they did there. It could have been some kind of speakeasy."
Today, the 4,800-square-foot property allows plenty of room for Jason and Anh's daughters to run around in, and an extra bedroom has been converted to a playroom. Jason, a computer programmer and project leader for Independence Blue Cross, finally has a home office.
Anh's mother, who loves to entertain relatives, will have plenty of room for that in the large dining room, sitting room and living room. A garden out back will let her work out her green thumb.
Family has helped make the Browns' home, well, a place for family, where three generations can live happily together.
"Helping family out is sort of an underlying principle for us," Anh said. "But even though it's a given, it's still always appreciated."
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