This Old Money Pit

Renovating an old house can be rewarding, as well as stressful. Be prepared to work on your communication skills—especially where there’s a small explosion…

(page 1 of 5)

Renovation of Patrick Campbell and Diana Milburn’s  current home in Wilmington’s Midtown Brandywine neighborhood required updating all major systems, but the details remain true to the period of the home’s original construction. Photograph by Tom NutterThe 100-year-old home in Midtown Brandywine was not Rachel Simon’s dream house. It hardly came close. The house belonged to her fiancé, Hal Dean. She moved in five days before they married.

“I was a writer with no savings. I didn’t have a house,” says Simon, author of the hit memoir “Riding the Bus with My Sister.” “We got married by the justice of the peace, and we walked there from what felt like his house.”

That was in 2001. By 2004 the house had not grown on her. In fact, things had gotten worse. Sure, the home had glass transoms, large windows, wooden floors, wide baseboards and plaster walls. But it also had cramped, dark rooms, plumbing that clogged continually, and a kitchen and bathroom that were beyond redemption. Pipe repairs had led to a hole “the size of a coffin” in the dining room ceiling.

“When you took a shower, it rained in the dining room,” Simon says. The bathroom grew so damp that a mushroom sprouted from the floor.

Some might wonder why they stayed. Dean, an architect who’d bought the house in 1999 for $95,000, saw the home’s potential, and Simon found that endearing. “He could see something promising in something small and uninspiring. That’s how some people might see me,” says the diminutive Simon, who says her commitment issues had caused a six-year breakup of the two before they reconciled and got engaged.

But in 2004, when the house was burglarized, Simon had had enough. Dean talked her into staying with the promise of a renovation, which became the inspiration for her recent book, “Building a Home with My Husband.” In the story, Simon draws comparisons between renovating a home and mending fractured relationships. But as anyone who’s ever renovated an old property can attest, the experience is full of drama.

Page 2: This Old Money Pit, continues...