June 2011: Repo man

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 There’s an old saw about renovation—that it always takes twice as long and costs twice as much as you expect. But Scott Wiley, who’s fixed up several Charlottesville houses, figures it somewhat differently: “For every dollar I spend, I save a dollar.”

Wiley stands before the spiffed-up front door of his Rose Hill house. Photos from the renovation in progress show the scope of the work he’s tackled.

Wiley and his wife, Christy Riebeling, just moved into their most recent renovation project, a 1920 house in the Rose Hill neighborhood that Wiley’s been working on for two and a half years. If you visited, you’d enter through a salvaged front door with salvaged sidelights. The entryway is paneled with tongue-and-groove boards from the Habitat Store. The bathroom countertop is from the Habitat Store. The medicine cabinet doors are from the Habitat Store.
You get the picture: Wiley has filled the house with old materials—recycled, reused, repurposed.

“I’ve been accused of being a scrounger,” he says. This is scrounging as art form, and as serious building strategy. Wiley estimates he’s spent $50,000 at the Habitat Store over the years.

He considers that an excellent investment. Even if the savings is only 50 percent over new materials—and he believes it’s sometimes more like 90 percent—that means he’s saved at least $50,000.

For Wiley, renovating affordably also means putting in some major sweat equity. He earns a living as a nurse at the Blue Ridge Poison Center, but makes another full-time job out of D.I.Y. renovation.

His secret to enjoying the process? “We haven’t had any deadlines,” he says. “Hard work when you’re under pressure is no fun at all.” When the inevitable snags arise during the work, he explains, he can “throw a bunch of hours at a problem” rather than worry about paying a contractor for extra time.

A tiny elephant

Before this house, Wiley’s last project was renovating what he calls “the little house.” That’s an understatement—it’s about 400 square feet. Its owner, Aimee Hunt, occupies the Belmont dwelling with her two kids, Charlie (12) and Jane (9). She’d had her eye on the house when she noticed Wiley fixing it up. 

Aimee Hunt and her daughter Jane cook in their Belmont kitchen, where everything but the fridge was salvaged.

Though he’d bought it intending to renovate and then rent or sell it, he resists the description “flipping” for the 16 months of work it took. “It’s like flipping an elephant,” he says. 

Habitat Store materials fill the place, lending character and providing the built-in storage that makes the tiny house functional. “We were thinking this is small but if it were a condo or loft in New York, it would be fairly large,” says Wiley. 

He installed salvaged cupboards in what he thought would be the house’s single bedroom (as it turns out, that room is shared by the kids, while Hunt herself sleeps in what Wiley thought would be an office). More storage is built into the living room. “[Scott] told me he thought of it as a ship,” says Hunt.

In the kitchen, the art of salvaging is fully on display. “The only thing I bought new was the refrigerator,” Wiley says. Everything else—from cabinets to sink to track lighting to faucets to microwave—came from Habitat. 

Hunt and her kids moved in three-and-a-half years ago. “It seemed like something I could cope with,” says Hunt, who had previously lived on 37 acres with a big farmhouse and lots of outbuildings. Here, she jokes, “You can sit on the toilet and wash the dishes in the kitchen.”

She even added her own salvaged element: an extension to the kitchen counter that lets her kids belly up on stools and get their legs underneath. It’s supported by carved wooden posts that came from their old house.

"A peaceful feel"

After finishing the little Belmont house, Wiley and Riebeling bought the Rose Hill house in 2008. They weren’t initially sure whether they’d be fixing it up to sell or to live in themselves—but they knew they liked it. “It didn’t have that funky warren feeling that a lot of houses have. After we started spending a little time over here, even in the dust and chaos, we noticed the house had a peaceful feel to it.” 

Wiley decided his goal was for the house “to look like it had originally, without being too fussy about the details.” Once again, used materials would be a major factor in getting the results he wanted at a good price.

Take the bathroom, tucked into the first floor behind the stairwell. Salvaged heart pine forms the board-and-batten style walls, a built-in bench, the vanity, and a small cupboard above the toilet. The windows, countertop and backsplash came from Habitat, along with trim boards and shower fixtures. The sink faucet came from eBay. 

Says Wiley, “My one luxury is I buy new toilets.” But he made a towel shelf out of used oyster tongs with the teeth removed.

The bathroom doesn’t particularly evoke the 1920s, when the house was built, but it’s got a classic feel that fits in well. The dining room is more of a period piece, with a large breakfront (from Habitat) built in along one wall, and formal wainscoting that Wiley made by repurposing paneled wooden doors (from Habitat). He also added crown molding here and in many of the rooms, partially fashioning it from a big group of 300 trim boards (from—you guessed it—Habitat).

Outsized hobby

Wiley has taken the learn-as-you-go approach to D.I.Y. construction. He’s had a woodworking hobby for about 25 years, but it was long confined to building furniture. Now, he can fairly say he’s tackled some pretty major projects. In the Rose Hill house, for example, he started by trying to repair the original plaster walls, but found they were too cracked and ended up installing drywall throughout. 

Scott Wiley’s tips for salvaging

1. Buy now, repurpose later

Rather than go looking for something specific, Wiley says, “I find a material I like and figure out how I can fit it in.” For example, he once spent $1,800 on a load of ipe wood (a tropical wood used for decks and other outdoor construction). Eventually he used it in a number of spots, including Hunt’s front porch. “That’s not cheap, but it’s a really nice material and I’ve used it on four different projects.” 

The key, he says, is “being willing to store stuff and keep it in mind”—even if it takes a few years to find its calling.

2. Take it apart

“If you buy older materials that are solid, even if they don’t work exactly, you can take them apart and put them back together in a slightly different dimension,” Wiley says. In his Rose Hill house, he cut an old mantel down to a more narrow size so that it would fit around the dining room fireplace. 

“It’s not that hard to take pieces apart,” he says—and when you’re willing to try, your options multiply when you’re shopping.

3. Be a regular

Wiley says he goes to the Habitat Store a couple of times per week. “When I’d get hot, tired, cold, I’d take a break and get a cup of coffee and go by there,” he says. Another good time to stop by: on the way to buy something new from Lowe’s. On such occasions, says Wiley, “It was interesting how often I would find something there I hadn’t noticed before.”—E.H.

The Habitat Store is located at 1221 Harris Street. Call 293-6331 or visit www.cvillehabitatstore.org.

The upstairs hallway was sagging; he added a beam to shore it up. Under the living room, the foundation had some problems. “The whole sill was rotten,” he says. “The only feasible way to work on it was to rip up the floor.” He dug the crawlspace out by hand, filling 300 five-gallon buckets with dirt. And while he had a contractor do the actual foundation repair, he jacked up the house to get it ready. “I had watched the foundation work on the first house; it wasn’t rocket science. You just watch things and listen to the wood.”

Wiley does hire a plumber, electrician and floor refinisher when needed. But there’s plenty of other heavy work to do. Currently, the kitchen lacks a floor (as well as cabinets, walls, and anything else recognizably kitchen-like). From the ground beneath this part of the house, Wiley has been working on digging out the crawlspace under the dining room by lying on his side and pulling dirt out with a hoe.

Besides the kitchen, the house’s exterior still needs a complete makeover. Later this year Wiley will add spray foam insulation and sheathing, then Hardiplank siding. 

Meanwhile, Riebeling has handled all the painting—no small job. “We calculated with all of the various paint lines and with all the crown molding and quarter-round,” Wiley says, “that she had done three quarters of a mile of caulking.”

Better deals

The salvaged materials from Habitat and other sources often bring along the whiff of other times and places. Large dressers in the guest bedroom are from a local winery that once used them for linen storage. Another big cupboard from the Covesville Store was originally part of a school, where someone handwrote labels on the cubbies like “Review of Reviews—1929.” Wiley’s got his grandmother’s blue glass lamp from 1870 and an antique chandelier he bought on the Eastern Shore.

“Even though I consider myself aware of environmental issues, the bigger reasons [to use old things] are to get materials that look more authentic,” he says. “I don’t have fiberglass doors; all the doors in the house are big heavy wooden doors.” 

Of course, cost is a great motivator too. “If my time were worth $20 an hour,” says Wiley, “there were plenty of times where I saved more money [by buying something used] than my time was worth for that whole day.”

In the end, Wiley seems to take pleasure in a steady workload, approached with calm. “If you have time,” he says, “what else are you going to do? Take naps?”

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