Like many newlyweds, Charlie and Kevin Dumais turned their attention to real estate soon after they married, in 2014.
They wanted to buy a home of their own, but they had a rent-stabilized studio in Manhattan that they weren’t ready to give up. So they began hunting for a weekend house in Litchfield County, Conn., enamored with the area’s bucolic green hills and charming clapboard and brick buildings.
They searched online listings, contacted numerous brokers and spent months touring houses. And the more they saw, the more they felt inundated with questions.
Kevin, 39, is an interior designer and Charlie, 36, is a lighting designer, so they were confident they could transform the look of any room. But they were less sure about judging the quality of furnaces, septic systems, roofs and other unglamorous but critical components of a house.
“We didn’t know anything about homeownership,” said Charlie, a principal at Brian Orter Lighting Design. “We had been living in apartments for a decade. We’d go into homes with water in the basement and say, ‘Well, that’s not a lot of water — is that bad?’”
“We had money to invest in a property,” Kevin added. But if the house had serious problems, he said, “I knew we didn’t have the money to renovate.”
After seeing a string of rundown houses, they grew discouraged. Then one day they took a break for lunch in New Preston, picked up a local real estate magazine and were casually leafing through the pages when they spotted it: a listing for a freshly renovated 1941 Cape Cod-style house in Litchfield.
“It was in one of those little booklets of dreams, where everything’s too good to be true,” Charlie said. “And it seemed way to good to be true, for the price.”
Nevertheless, they texted the listing agent, and learned that the 1,500-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bathroom house was still available, with an asking price of $295,000.
When they arrived for a tour, there were aesthetic choices they didn’t like, including recessed LED ceiling lamps with a frigid quality of light; a new kitchen with cheap cherry cabinets, mosaic tile and a portly fridge; and an awkward replacement banister.
“It was a lot of Home Depot,” Kevin said.
But those elements were fixable, they decided. And they were delighted that the house had a new roof, insulation, basement waterproofing, septic field, windows and electrical and plumbing systems. They negotiated the price down to $260,000, and closed in September 2015.
Looking to put their own stamp on the house while keeping costs to minimum, they began more than two years of labor, completing the renovation largely on their own.
“It was every weekend, nonstop,” Kevin said.
Outside, Charlie sawed off the lower limbs of dozens of trees to open up a yard that was mossy and dank (a neighbor also helped fell some trees). When he discovered that removing the wood cost about $500 a truckload, he saved the lumber and used it to build a rustic fence instead.
Inside, he took apart the LED lights and used some of the parts to make his own brass replacements with warm incandescent bulbs.
Kevin struck a deal with a floor refinisher: The contractor removed and kept the kitchen cabinets and counters in return for a discounted rate on ebonizing the hardwood floors.
Then Kevin designed his own kitchen using Ikea cabinet carcasses, Semihandmade doors, whitewashed V-groove paneling and Calacatta marble counters. When quotes for a small custom island seemed unreasonable, Charlie made one and topped it with a piece of leftover marble.
They converted the garage into a studio for Dumais Made, their new company that produces ceramic lamps, candleholders and other accessories.
As for the banister, “it just didn’t feel right,” Charlie said. “So you have a couple glasses of wine, get out a hammer and then — ”
There were, however, some limits. When they needed to excavate the dirt driveway and backyard, and add gravel, they called in a professional. When the garage required a new floor, they found a concrete company. And when the installation of the kitchen proved too daunting, they hired a handyman.
But by doing much of the work themselves, they kept the total renovation cost down to about $70,000.
Along the way, they scoured local flea markets, vintage stores and the Brimfield Antique Show to find furniture like a timeworn Danish leather settee, a Mies van der Rohe tubular-steel-and-leather chair and a farmhouse table that was soaked in a rainstorm while strapped to the roof of their Hyundai Santa Fe.
“Our concept was country house meets Bauhaus,” Kevin said.
Their final patch-and-paint job was completed last month.
“That’s it. We’re done,” Charlie said, sounding relieved.
Or are they?
“My one regret is not having a fireplace,” Kevin said, musing that it might still be possible to install one. “I would also like to add a pool.”
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