Most potential buyers looked at the small, rotting, Spanish-style house and saw big headaches. John Jennings and Sasha Tarnopolsky saw design freedom. "We lived next door in a Craftsman-style home that had so much original detail, we felt we couldn't alter it," says Jennings, a designer. "This house had deteriorated to the point that it had to be changed. We thought it was a great opportunity."
The house is just 1,100 square feet, but Jennings and Tarnopolsky, a landscape architect, decided against a significant expansion. "We were tempted to add square footage," says Jennings. "But two things limited us: our budget and our desire to preserve the large back garden." To make the house work for a family (including baby Josephine and two rambunctious dogs), the couple made the most of the interior space by beefing up storage and opening it to the front and the backyard.
Originally, the home had only two exterior doors-one in the front and one on the side. Now there are seven sets of doors-four in the front, two at the back, and one on the side. All are framed glass, brightening the interior while making the yard accessible. Two of the front doors are Dutch: One acts as a pass-through from the kitchen, the other opens the living room to a dining patio. "People never use their front yard, and it's such a waste," says Tarnopolsky. "We eat on the front patio a lot. It's amazing how much of a connection it's given us to the neighborhood. People stop by and chat or say hello."
At the rear, both bedrooms open onto a new deck made of Ipe wood. Set three steps above the lawn, the deck is a private backyard retreat that creates a graceful transition to the garden. Light now flows unobstructed through the house, allowing a view from front to back.
Jennings and Tarnopolsky say a major key to living small is adequate storage. "We studied our closets and made the most of them," Jennings says, "by installing metal closet systems from the Container Store ( www.containerstore.com or 800/786-7315). We also put in large, simple shelves in the bedrooms. It keeps the house uncluttered." A small ledge built into the wall under a living room window is perfect for displaying photos but can be cleared to make a narrow bench when the family entertains.
In the baby's room, Tarnopolsky drew on her gardening background for storage inspiration. "I went to look at baby furniture and could see it all ending up in a garage sale someday," she says. "Instead, I used a potting table from Restoration Hardware (similar potting stands available at www.restorationhardware.com or 800/762-1005) as a changing table. It's durable, it has a lot of storage, and we can use it after Josephine grows up." To convert it, Jennings simply added a changing pad and pots that hold diapers and other baby supplies.
Reuse and recycle
To save money and add character, the couple recast interesting old features of the house in a modern way. Most of the interior doors were saved, stripped, and reinstalled on barn-door track. "The old wood is as well made as anything you can buy today," says Jennings. "The grain is beautiful, so why not use it?"
The couple added a small bath off the master bedroom and piled dirt from the excavation in front of the house to make the new dining patio. "The lawn was as flat as a pancake," says Tarnopolsky. "Adding some undulation in the yard brought the meadowlike lawn up to house level and made it a lot more attractive."
Advice from the trenches
Remodeling on a budget has been a learning experience for Jennings and Tarnopolsky. Here are their words of wisdom for others considering a fixer-upper.
• To meet your budget, consider painting or staining to update the look without altering the layout. "No matter how terrible a house looks, just changing the finishes can make a radical difference," says Jennings.
• Big windows make a big change. Jennings suggests replacing windows with glass doors where possible. They add light and can improve the flow of the house relatively inexpensively.
• Be realistic about your garden. Tarnopolsky chose tough native grasses out front and durable Bermuda grass in the backyard. The yards require very little water and can take the worst that dogs and a toddler can dish out.
• Celebrate your small space. "Having a smaller house means we have less to clean and less to worry about," says Tarnopolsky. "Every purchase we make is weighed carefully. It keeps everything simple."
• Design: John Jennings and Sasha Tarnopolsky, Dry Design, Los Angeles ( www.drydesign.com or 323/954-9084)