Before she stumbled onto her first home in Passyunk Square in South Philadelphia, Caroline New had already toured her share of cookie-cutter houses. But the 600 block of Earp Street, between Reed and Wharton, within smelling distance of Pat's and Geno's Steaks, had everything she desired - and an architect's aesthetic, to boot.
On her list of must-haves: a rowhouse; one to two bedrooms; natural gas; a renovated kitchen, and a price under $225,000. This property had all that, and more: The interior had been fully remodeled and rehabbed by the former owner, a Drexel architecture professor.
"It was move-in ready, and it was within my budget," New recalled. Plus, it had a garden and a backyard for her dog, McBaine, and cat, Miss Kitty. It was convenient to Center City, the waterfront, and the Ninth Street market, and a short commute to her job at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
But, as many new homeowners quickly discover, things happen that require immediate attention and outlays of cash.
"The [existing] roof was 20-plus years old, and while it had been patched, there were leaks during the heavy rain," said New, 30, who sometimes shares the space with boyfriend Michael Cappon, 33.
"The A/C [expense] I had anticipated, but the roof I had not. I did have additional room in my budget to cover that unexpected expense. It helped, of course, that I did not need to purchase any additional furnishings for the house, and that everything from my one-bedroom apartment fit well into the new space."
She bought the rowhouse in February 2013 for $195,000 from Paul Schultz, an assistant professor at Drexel University's Department of Architecture and Interiors who also taught at the Charter High School for Architecture and Design in Philadelphia. He was moving out of town.
New said Schultz had installed wood floors, double-paned windows, sliding doors, and a skylight in the loft space accessible by a wooden ladder. As the structure began to bow, he also reinforced the 1923 house with architectural star bolts and repointed the brickwork facing the street.
After settlement in March 2013, New got to work planting her garden (she blogs at http://phillygardengrow.wordpress.com). But heavy summer rains blew into every crevice; the roof leaked, and she worried about rot.
"The only option was to replace the roof," New said.
A devotee of Angie's List, she searched local contracting and construction companies to compare prices. She chose GC Family Contractors, which ripped the asphalt roofing down to the plywood and replaced it with a silver granulated torched-down rubber, finished with aluminum metal edging.
The skylight remained in place, and the leaks stopped - all for $2,500.
While the roofing job was underway, a heat wave scorched Philadelphia, and New realized the previous owner had already had ductwork and exhaust outlets built into the house. Why not install central air conditioning at the same time?
"I got three estimates from contractors for the air-conditioning installation, and weighed the options of ductless, or wall-mountable, versus central air, and went with the latter, as the existing ductwork could accommodate it," she said.
Again, Angie's List turned up a mom-and-pop contractor that estimated the job at $3,300 - which New considered "a very good investment."
"I wanted to improve the overall value of the house and also be comfortable. I see myself living here indefinitely, and these are essential improvements," she said. The two projects cost nearly $6,000.
Finally, she installed an ADT alarm system as an added security measure for $250, plus a monthly fee of about $45.
"I got a special price from having met a sales guy at the Philadelphia Home Show at the Convention Center," New recalled.
"Yes, the dog barks at strangers, but he can't do everything. He's busy digging up the dirt in the backyard!"