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Should you flip a house? One woman who has shares advice

Nearly one year after buying an Oak Park fixer-upper, first-time flipper Beth Franken earns a happy ending, and offers advice.

I’m going to break the rules of narrative craft and begin with my climax and denouement: I sold the house.

My first house flip went under contract five days before my one-year anniversary of buying it. Even more poetic, the offer came from the first homebuyers to walk through, on the second day it was on the market, at list price. Actually, slightly above list price. The house was as good as contingent before we even had the Sunday open house.

I hesitate to discuss this. Wary buyers and sellers know things can fall apart before closing. But the answer to your question is yes. I’m going to make good money — although all money is good, isn’t it?

So, things are coming up roses, but the run-up to getting the house on the market was the most frenetic couple of weeks of my life. An inverse correlation developed: As the rehab became more polished, my own home deteriorated. I cannibalized my house for the staging — a little bookshelf, my bedside lamp, a marble-topped sideboard.

"It looks like we’ve been robbed," said my son Casey, noting the contents of the sideboard now spilling out of a box in our living room. My grass was uncut, dirty dishes teetered in the sink. We ate hamburgers four nights in a row because that was all I had time to cook. In fact, this is how bad it got at home: Casey said, "Mom, can we please clean the house?" — words that surely have never before been uttered by a 17-year-old boy.

Meanwhile, the rehab was becoming picture-perfect. Burress Amish Furniture, in Wheaton, brought in beautiful solid-wood pieces to stage the dining room, study and master bedroom. Divine Consign, in Oak Park, lent pieces that gave the house a creative, eclectic touch. Sunlight streamed through large turquoise bottles sitting along the transom windows in the kitchen. A regal, brown maple table gleamed in the dining room. Bling sconces twinkled in the master bath. My real estate broker, Linda Rooney, pulled up the rosin paper I’d taped down to protect the floors and listed the house.

Then I stopped in the next day, midafternoonon a Friday, and it looked like Mount St. Helens had erupted. I’m still not exactly sure what happened. My workers were painting in the basement, and it must’ve stirred up all this dust, which flew up the back stairs and settled thickly all over the kitchen.

But it wasn’t just the kitchen. That dirt got drawn into the air return and redistributed throughout the entire house, through every vent in every room.

I didn’t know what to do, so I called my dear friend, Wendy Greenhouse, who has a doctorate in art history, a judicious eye for spatial compositions and a cleaning fetish. We cleaned every surface, upstairs and down. We got that place pristine again.

The next morning was my first showing, which must’ve gone well. But when I popped in that afternoon I found a fine layer of silt all over everything again. That dirt was on an eternal loop through my HVAC system, sucked into the returns and blown back out through the vents, world without end, amen.

I panicked. It was now 5 p.m. Saturday. The open house was 1 p.m. Sunday. Wendy and I had executed 11 man-hours of cleaning the day before. Was I supposed to do this every single day? I started calling a couple of cleaning gals I knew, but you can’t get someone out to clean your house on a Saturday night. And I couldn’t impose on Wendy again.

I knelt alone on the living room floor gazing at the white film covering the dark-walnut oak boards. This is your baby, Beth, I thought. You have to rock it.

So I cleaned the whole place again — counters, window ledges, baseboards. I was there till midnight, swiffering walls, mopping floors, vacuuming furniture. I checked the weather report — the day of the open house would be mild, so the temperature in the house would be comfortable. I texted my broker Linda and told her not to touch the thermostat on Sunday.

Then I left a message for a duct-cleaning service, which came out two days later with a vacuum the size of a small dumpster. I now have the cleanest, shiniest ducts in the Western suburbs. Those ducts even smell good.

What I learned

I learned to listen for good ideas. If this project is a success, it’s because I paid attention to the expertise of others — my architects, T.U. Ciesielski Architects, who understood how to marry old and new. My carpenter, Tom Dudek, can miter a corner like nobody’s business. My project manager at Semmler Development, Mike Depke, who was as emotionally attached to this project as I was, has a structural intelligence that tells him how to build a shower wall when there’s a window in the way. My electrician Rick Glorioso was my spirit guide, saying the most crucial things in the most offhand way, like, for example, "Um, Beth, you don’t really need that chimney anymore." My plumber, Ray Traynor, was as reliable as rain.

And then, help came from unexpected places. I’m pretty good with a flower bed, but my neighbor, Kathy Houser, is a gardening diva, so I asked if she’d take a look at the front yard. I really just hoped she’d help me figure out what to do with two ungainly forsythias and a boring rim of patriot hostas. The evening Casey and I were sinking in the shrubs she stopped by and said, "Wait, let’s move this rosebush here and that globe arborvitae there." She found old pavers in the backyard and made a winsome path of stepping stones to the spigot. She placed rocks by dwarf junipers in a perfect punctuation. She said, "Go get three flats of begonias, I’ll plant them tomorrow, it’ll take me 20 minutes." Her efforts took my breath away.

Should you flip a house?

I don’t recommend house-flipping. I feel the same way about it as I do about skydiving: It’s as scary as it is fun, and if things go wrong, it could be devastating. But if, like me, you’re bound and determined, and you have risk-seeking traits, then proceed with extreme caution. It’s not that it’s complicated, it’s just arithmetic. The sum of your costs — all of your costs, including the ones you haven’t thought of — have to be less than the eventual sale price, which is an important unknown. So it’s arithmetic with undefined variables. I guess that makes it algebra.

You also have to have good relationships with your people, which will sometimes be tested. Someone’s gonna steal wire when you’re not looking. Someone else is going to swing a ladder into a track light and never tell you about it — you’ll only figure it out when you look up and notice a glass shade is missing. Someone is going to scratch an antique door or paint over hardware. The village historic commission is going to try to tell you your new garage has to be stucco. An inspector is going to show up three hours early without notice and then fail your inspection because he can’t get into the house. The phrase "it’s not my job" is going to constantly hang in the air, like litter box odor.

You will be at pains to make decisions for paint sheens, light fixtures, faucets, grout colors, hardware, casements, tile patterns and toilet paper holders, and just because you think it looks good doesn’t mean others will.

You must take a huge risk with your personal assets, which you could never replace if the deal goes south.

But if, on the flip side, none of this scares you off, then I’ll look forward to seeing you out there … as we both try to snag the next one.

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