When Meghan Keith-Hynes says she would challenge you to find a television in her house, it sounds more like an actual challenge than a rhetorical device.
Keith-Hynes is fierce about her beliefs. She’s so minimalist and anti-materialist, she sleeps on an air mattress. She so despises inactivity, her living room is essentially designed for ballroom-style dancing. She is so disgusted by fossil fuel extraction processes, she refuses to have natural gas hooked up to her house.
That’s why it’s been hard for Keith-Hynes to compromise even a little in the process of moving her family from their tiny home at 604 Belmont Ave. into a larger house they’re building at 608 Belmont.
“I hope I don’t come off as a contradiction,” she said while sipping green tea in her tiny kitchen on a brisk March day. “I have struggled with this.”
While Keith-Hynes’ newly built home in one of Charlottesville’s fastest growing neighborhoods is not huge, at 1,850 square feet it’s a big step up from her existing place, which measures 720 square feet. She and her family had considered the “mouse house” a temporary solution since selling off nearly all their possessions and coming to Belmont from a farm in North Garden in 2008. But now the family matriarch says she’s worried they will accumulate possessions to fill the larger house when they move in in mid-May. Still, it’s a risk she’s willing to take given that her husband and son are both well over 6′ tall.
“We need a place that our adult kids will feel more comfortable coming home to and won’t have to sleep on the couch,” she said.
Keith-Hynes is also highly averse (almost natural-gas averse) to building a house that steamrolls the eclectic charm of Belmont with its upper-middle class sensibility. It’s a balancing act common to many people moving into economically diverse neighborhoods, according to local architect and City Councilor Kathy Galvin.
“At some point, a structure can require so much work it is easier for a new tenant to tear it down than remodel,” Galvin said. “That said, I do think there is something to maintaining the cohesion of a physical place.”
Several doors down and across the street from Keith-Hynes, new Belmont residents Todd Free and Danielle Petrosky-Free have been dealing with the same issue. The couple moved into 615 Belmont last fall after a complete renovation of the “roach-infested” hovel. The decision to renovate instead of rebuild hasn’t necessarily given the family everything they could ever want (they think they’ll have to move if they have kids a few years down the road), but it has made them feel more a part of Belmont.
“It feels good to have kept something old in the neighborhood,” Free said. “Maintaining the history makes me feel a little more connected to the people that live [here].”
The night Free and Petrosky-Free found the Charlottesville home they would eventually settle in, they had a bad taste in their mouth.
Both food lovers, the two Norfolk residents had cooked for a dinner party at Free’s brother’s place before heading out for a house hunting tour of Belmont. They’re good cooks, Free said, but the Indian food they tackled that night “was a disaster.”
The taste was at least improved when the couple found a home for sale that met most of their requirements—a small, vintage fixer-upper in a walkable neighborhood close to Downtown.
Unfortunately the house didn’t cleanse the couple’s palates entirely. The conditions were nearly unlivable. Free says it made him uncomfortable when he learned an elderly woman had lived there—in a home so drafty it couldn’t be tested properly for gas levels.
“It was so bad that after we bought it, we were kind of taking a look around and had that feeling like, ‘Was this a good move?’” Free said.
It was primarily the location (at 615 Belmont) that convinced Free and Petrosky-Free it was a good move. And with an asking price of $130,000, the house was listed well under their ceiling of $300,000 while leaving them plenty of remodeling funds. The couple began soliciting bids from contractors and planned to use the unique 203K loan process to secure a mortgage for both the cost of the home and the needed repairs.
At least one contractor suggested the Frees tear the home down and start from scratch. To their surprise, he said it could be done within their budget. But in the end, the couple decided maintaining the original structure of the house was important enough to go forward with a remodel. They narrowed their list of design plans to three, then discarded a design that would have razed a 1940s-era addition to allow them to build off the back of the house and another that would have created a brand new second floor. They settled on a plan that reconfigured the dormer-style second floor to make it big enough for a full bedroom and bathroom. The contractor the couple selected, Abbott and Co., came in with a competitive bid of $110K, and owner Scott Abbott impressed them with his willingness to salvage as much of the existing structure’s original detail as possible.
“I think that was one of the coolest things about this project,” Free said. “There is something neat about things like original plaster walls. They aren’t perfect.”