The goal: Make the most of every square foot from ground floor to attic. The result: A beautifully renovated home with an open and modern style.

With some houses, it's easy to see potential. With others, however, the potential isn't just slightly hidden--it's buried under layers of unfortunate design and benign neglect. Although located in a desirable in-town Atlanta neighborhood, this house languished on the market for a long time. Many prospective buyers couldn't get past the fact that it hadn't been updated since the 1930's, had no central air-conditioning, and felt cramped at every turn.

But future owners Chris Wilson and John Culbertson saw what many did not--a great basic structure, huge front and back yards, and unused space upstairs. They gambled with a low-ball offer, and when it was accepted, it was time to start digging out from those layers.

Reconfiguring the Downstairs

Frustrated with the cramped feel, John ripped apart the lower level before the renovations even started. "It was therapeutic, even though none of my 'improvements' amounted to much," he says. "The rooms were so broken up. I knew that with some smart changes, the house could live much better."

So an unused front bedroom was turned into a study and office. French doors open it up to the living room and make both rooms airier. The renovated room includes built-in bookcases and two closets that are used to store coats and games. The old bedroom's door to a bath was closed in, providing a more private feel.

The existing kitchen was expanded by incorporating the breakfast room. A farm sink and old stove rescued from an upstairs kitchenette give the space an authentic feel and contrast nicely with the other stainless steel appliances. Fortunately, the stove was in working condition and just needed a little steel wool to make it shine.

The renovation also created room for storage in a stylish built-in butler's pantry, which is convenient to the adjoining dining room. "The hall used to end in several doors to various rooms, so we reconfigured the space to make it much more functional," says Tiffany Barcik, the architect who worked with Chris and John on the renovation. Now the other downstairs bedroom on the back of the house is a family room that opens up to the kitchen.

Finding Space Upstairs

Tiffany and the owners found renovating the cramped rooms upstairs to be the biggest challenge. "The layout was really odd," says Tiffany. The kitchenette took up a lot of valuable space, and some rooms weren't finished out. Chris adds, "It seemed like the upstairs hadn't been used in decades. We found newspapers from the 1930s serving as insulation."

After the renovation, the upstairs is expanded and open. A reconfigured landing created two walkways on either side of the stairs for easy access to the primary bedroom and other rooms. The two enlarged dormers accommodate a bigger primary bath and a guest bath.

Unused attic space became a convenient laundry room, allowing the washer and dryer to be brought up from the basement and put near the bedrooms.

The Front Updates

The home's facade wasn't bad; it just had a little too much going on. An awkward gable on the left was removed, giving the front a more streamlined look. A new door with an upper portion made of glass lets more light into the interiors. These minimal changes made for a more inviting entrance.

The Back Updates

The rear exterior involved more extensive changes designed to open uyp the home and make the upstairs interior spaces more usable. A small one-window dormer was replaced with a larger three-window dormer. Asbestos shingles were removed; white oak shingles took their place. A small dormer on the side of the house was removed and replaced with a larger dormer; a matching one was added to the opposite side of the house.

Other improvements included a new deck with a side entrance to a renovated garage and deck terracing down to the back garden. The back door was also moved so that it aligned with the front door, giving an uninterrupted view all the way through the house.

The renovations were extensive but well worth it. Both the interior and exterior feel fresh. In fact, the whole house is living up to its potential, perhaps more than anyone could have imagined.

Watch Out for Hidden Costs

  • Include landscaping in a renovation budget. Get estimates on plants, sod, and other materials. Existing plants and grass are often damaged during construction, so plan for their replacement.
  • Set up a budget for furniture and accessories, because your new space will need to be furnished. Even if you plan to use furniture you already have, you'll still need a few items: lamps, rugs, artwork, and window treatments.
  • As the value of your house goes up, you can expect an increase in your annual property taxes. Check with your city and county tax assessors for an estimate of the increase.
  • You should increase your homeowners' insurance coverage to reflect the new value of your renovated home. Your mortgage holder often pays home insurance premiums and property taxes. In that case, your monthly house payment will increase to cover the added tax and insurance expenses.
  • A bigger house will usually cost more to maintain, so expect increases in your monthly utility bills.

Tips for Working with a Contractor

  • Spell out the schedule of payments in the contract. Don't pay for work that hasn't been done or for materials that haven't been delivered. Always check the work before writing the check.
  • The contract should detail the starting date and estimated completion date. Penalties for late completion should be clearly spelled out, as should legitimate reasons for delay, such as bad weather.
  • Before work begins, make sure your contractor has obtained the necessary building permits and that he has sufficient insurance coverage.
  • Make sure that your contractor pays his suppliers and subcontractors for materials and labor. If the subcontractor is not paid, he can file a mechanics lien on your property. This lien will have to be satisfied before you regain clear title to your own property. Require lien releases or waivers from all the subs and suppliers before you make final payment to the contractor.

Questions to Ask Before Adding On

  • Do you really like the neighborhood? Are real estate prices going up or at least remaining stable? Unless you are committed to the neighborhood, you may be able to find a house somewhere else that meets your family's needs for a lot less than adding on.
  • Is your house in good structural shape? You may want to bring in an engineer or building inspector to check for any major defects. It isn't prudent to add on to a house that has major structural problems. Even if you decide to go ahead, it's helpful to know what you're facing.
  • Are there rooms that you never use? If so, you may be able to reorder the space you have instead of adding on. Changing the usage of one or two rooms can make the whole house more livable. (For ideas, check out the renovation on page 172.)
  • What about the yard? Will the addition leave enough usable outdoor space? Will some larger trees have to be taken down to make room for the addition? What about parking places?

Living Through Remodeling

If living elsewhere during your remodeling isn't an option, use these tips--along with a sense of humor--to help you make it through.

  • Discuss the following issues with your contractor before work begins: How much cleanup can be expected each day? What time will workers arrive and leave? What are your responsibilities for moving household items?
  • Prepare your family for the expected disruptions. Living in a messy, mixed-up environment is stressful, but understanding the overall plan in advance can help even young children cope more easily.
  • Make sure children and pets are kept away from dangerous chemicals, tools, and construction hazards. Post emergency numbers near each phone, and install smoke detectors in several key locations.
  • Store irreplaceable valuables with family or friends for the duration of the job, or rent a safe-deposit box. Use discretion when giving out keys to your home. Install secure locks on all doors and windows, and if you must be away for several days, ask a neighbor or other family member to keep an eye on things.

This article is from the May 2005 issue of Southern Living.