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New homeowner, old house

The end of apartment living opened up a whole new world - some of it costly.

Wendy Kaiser and her daughter Molly Kaiser in Molly's bedroom. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Wendy Kaiser and her daughter Molly Kaiser in Molly's bedroom. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)Read more

As a college student, Wendy Kaiser called Philadelphia home, going to Temple University "because it was the best place to go to school to get a job in the media."

And like many in the media, she gypsied around, living in homes in Miami with views of the beach, then in a co-op in New York City with all the amenities. In her doorman building, she developed an obsession for trash-picking, and learned that refurbishing treasures with a hand sander neither endeared her to her neighbors nor helped her infant sleep.

That's when she started dreaming of home ownership. It was also right after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and she felt nervous about raising her young daughter in New York. Friends said coming back to Philadelphia to raise Molly would complete a "lap."

On a weekend visit with friends in Lower Merion, Kaiser says, "I said to myself if I found a house I loved, I would request a job transfer and move. I knew this area pretty well because I was a competitive figure skater and trained down in Ardmore. I drew a box on a map of where I would look."

It was the height of the market - she spotted signs and called agents, but many houses were already spoken for.

One caught her attention because of its French doors. As she passed, a man just happened to be hammering up a "For Sale by Owner" sign.

Kaiser asked to come in. Past four sets of French doors, she made her way to the foyer of the 1927 stucco beauty and announced: "I want this house, and here is a check to hold it."

"It was old, and I just loved it," she says. She asked to bring in her architect brother the next day. A transfer to the Philadelphia affiliate of the New York TV station where she worked sealed the deal, and she moved in September 2002.

She quickly learned that nothing about apartment living had prepared her for all that could go wrong with a house nearing its 90th birthday. Decorating plans fell to the very bottom of her to-do list, as she first installed new windows (the old ones were painted shut and the sashes were broken) and doors (the front door was so warped by weather, she couldn't get into or out of the house).

"There were no grounded outlets for plugging in hair dryers, and no electricity of any kind in the dining room" - hence those 1920s sconces - "so updating the electricity was next," she says.

Then a tornado hit, compelling her to take out about 15 trees for safety reasons.

But the true "money pit" moment came her first Christmas Eve in the house. Her parents were visiting. She had just finished tiling the upstairs bathrooms.

As if on cue, the cabinets in the galley kitchen fell off the wall, the ceiling started to leak, and the toilets backed up, spilling sewage into the kitchen. It turned out that a gas line cut through the sewer lines, and her backyard had to be dug up.

"Every two weeks after that, something else would break, and it would always cost $2,500," she says.

With the backyard torn up, she thought, why not fix everything and make a new kitchen and family room?

The house was wide but not deep, so she pushed out the back. A friend suggested pushing up, too, adding a fourth bedroom to help boost resale value. In all, she added 1,000 square feet.

The new bedroom was for Molly, who had a hand in its early decorating motif.

"When I was little, I liked princesses and pink, all of that cliché stuff," the 12-year-old now says. "I wanted high ceilings and pink walls."

So the loftlike space feels like a bird's nest and features beams in the ceiling and plenty of built-ins.

The now-turquoise walls may get another makeover - Molly is contemplating an all-purple room. "I can't decide if I want it modern or vintage, though," she says thoughtfully. "I like old things like my mom. I like vintage clothes and thrift stores."

Kaiser's love of vintage is seen throughout the house, but these are not pricey antiques. Rather, they're trophies from years of estate sales, thrifting, and trash-picking.

"I have a threshold of about $30 for most things I buy," she says.

A favorite find is a pair of maps from the 1800s showing the neighborhood and original owners' names, purchased at a local estate sale. They now flank her china cabinet in the dining room.

Almost 10 years later, Kaiser waxes nostalgic about her labor of love.

"I know every warped floorboard, not-quite-level ceiling joist, and unplumb wall, but warts and all, I love it. We also love the community that welcomed us - the people, the neighbors, and the schools."

Laid off from her full-time job a year ago, Kaiser is teaching as an adjunct at her alma mater and doing some consulting while looking for permanent work.

"This downsized economy makes remaining in Philadelphia a tough choice for an advertising media type," she says, "and cities with apartments and doormen at times look pretty appealing when the first snowfall comes in October, but I hold out hope of finding a way to keep my Philadelphia haven."

Is your house a Haven?

Tell us about your haven by e-mail (and send digital photographs) at properties@ phillynews.comEndText