Profile of a Row House Renovator – Heather Goss

IMG_6450, originally uploaded by Prince of Petworth.


I sat down with Heather, yesterday, at the great Mayorga Cafe in Columbia Heights to discuss her recent experiences purchasing and renovating a row house. Fans of DCist will surely recognize the name Heather Goss. Goss, 28, is the prolific contributor and Managing and Arts Editor for DCist. Originally from southern California, Goss first came to DC in 2002 to attend law school and is currently practicing law in addition to her DCist duties.

The Hunt

At first Heather was doubtful that she could afford to purchase a home in DC. But last Summer, on a lark, she attended a neighbor’s open house and met a very friendly lender. The lender explained the home buying process and Heather then realized she actually could afford a home in the District. Having previously lived in the U Street neighborhood, Heather knew she wanted to stay in that general area, so her search focused on U Street, Shaw, Columbia Heights and Petworth. Remarkably, she found the home she would ultimately purchase on only her second day of looking. It is interesting to note, as an indication of just how much the housing market has changed, Heather looked at 20 to 30 more houses/condos before finally putting in an offer two months after initially looking at the house.

Deal Breakers

Not owning a car, Heather realized that she wanted to be near a metro and still close enough to walk to work. Additionally, Heather looked at a number of condos and quickly recognized that she wanted the extra space (including outdoor space) that a row house would provide. Furthermore, many of the condos she looked at “looked exactly the same without any character.” Heather looked at many fixer uppers in her price range but other deal breakers included any problems with the roof, plumbing or electricity.

FHA Loan

Heather did ultimately purchase a fixer upper and thus chose to go with an FHA loan to finance her home. The FHA construction loan awards extra money for, you guessed it, construction projects. There are some drawbacks to this loan as the interest rate is a bit higher than traditional fixed loans, currently the FHA is at 7.1%. By using the FHA construction loan Heather was able to purchase her home and immediately put in a new heating system which cost $14,000. To put in the new heating system Heather used Polar Bear Air and Heating with whom she was very pleased. (Ed note: I’m happy to relate that Heather chose Polar Bear after getting a second recommendation from the PoP forum.)

The Home

Heather’s row house has 2 bedrooms and 11/2 bathrooms. In addition to immediately putting in a new heating system, Heather also had all the floors redone and purchased all new appliances. Longer term projects Heather would like to complete include completely gutting the kitchen and bathroom. Ah the bathroom. Heather explained that upon seeing the bathroom for the first time one of her friends asked if it was Marion Barry’s former bathroom. She explained that the bathroom is “totally ostentatious with a ridiculously gigantic kidney shaped bathtub.” Heather estimates that this bathroom is probably three times the size of a normal bathroom taking up an inordinate amount of space on the second floor.

If It Can Go Wrong It Will Go Wrong

Despite the joys of homeownership there are also many headaches that go along with renovating a fixer upper. In Heather’s case she thought her water heater was good to go but of course the Gods have a peculiar sense of humor and have deprived Heather of hot water. Fortunately for Heather she has befriended the right people. In this case Heather’s friend Nick has been invaluable in trouble shooting the water heater problem. Additionally, Heather needed to replace her back door. After getting a contractor’s estimate for $600 plus the cost of the door, Nick was able to rise to the occasion once again. Heather was able to purchase a door for $180 at Home Depot and have Nick install it all in return for a lunch and beer at Wonderland.

Other challenges Heather has faced include logistics and prioritizing. Heather explained that when you have so many projects to tackle it can sometime be very challenging. For example, when Heather was getting her floors done she had to decide if she was going to expand a closet beforehand or risk ruining the newly finished floors. Other challenges include knowing when to call a contractor or attempt the project on one’s own. Fortunately for Heather she enjoys project management and has been very happy with all of the contractors she has used.

Thoughts on Columbia Heights and the Future

Regarding the house, Heather is very much looking forward to taking advantage of her backyard. As an amateur gardener she can already envision the whole layout of what her garden will look like. She is especially looking forward to having people over for a barbecue when the weather warms up. Heather loves the fact that many of her friends live within a 15 block radius of her new home. She also loves many of the stores and restaurants in Columbia Heights. She is a bit concerned about some of the gigantic development on the horizon i.e. the DC USA project, but is happy that the development will likely increase property values. Heather’s master plan is to sell her house in five years and pay off all of her law school debt so she can focus a bit more on her free lance writing. But Heather notes, “The city can change so much in five years and maybe I’ll want to stay, I love this area so much.”

To see photos of Heather’s house click here.

14 Comment

  • okay, heather is cute and all, but where are pics of the house?

  • Prince Of Petworth

    Oops, photo link added at the bottom.

  • DId you follow the link to the floors article? I think that was a big hint.

    Although I haven’t yet purchased (and still can’t decide if we are actually staying in DC — the BF keeps saying we need to move back to SF and I keep thinking we should move to NYC) I have been thinking about this and looking at the options.

    I recommend anyone that is looking and is a first time buyer and you are moderate to low income (like we are) to check out the workshops offered by ACORN. They offer the whole kit and caboodle of assistance from mortgage and finance counseling to discussion of the buying process and matching you up with loans. They are a great service.

  • i did acorn too, totally recommend.

  • wow, so much work! But the improvements are fantastic, especially the floors. I like the way you stained them – it makes them look like older floors.

  • Thanks Susan. It’s still a long way from done, that’s for sure. I was only able to move in about 10 days ago, so the place is a real mess right now, but it’ll be so nice to get everything put away, paint on the walls, and then save up for the bathroom/kitchen overhauls!

    Small point of clarification — FHA interest rates are based on your credit profile, same as regular mortgages, so 7.1% is just what I got. But they are always higher than a standard mortgage, and 7.1 is pretty average, from what I understand.

  • Heather, lovely home! I wonder if you might be able to talk a little bit about the FHA loan process? I gather that it is much more involved than getting a regular mortgage, but I also think that would be the only way I could actually get a HOUSE I can afford is to get a place that might require some serious fixing up. Does FHA require you to get estimates on how much repairs will cost before you buy? Can you use the loan to buy things like major appliances? Do you have to get inspections to make sure the work is being done up to par? Can you use the FHA loan in order to do some work yourself, or do you have to have a licensed contractor?

    I’m sure I could think of tons more questions but I’ll stop here. And again, great place — I know it’ll only be greater once you’re done with everything…congrats!

  • Christina — I’ll end up writing an annoyingly long comment if I answer all your questions on this thread. Why don’t you shoot me an email at heather [at] dcist [dot] com — I’d be happy to answer all your questions. I didn’t know anyone who’d gone through the process before I did, so I know how confusing they can be.

  • seems silly to do a FHA loan which is now ~1.6%+ over the prevailing rate for 30 year fixed mortgages. over the life of the mortgage that is some serious cash. might it not have been better to delay home buying 6 months to save up more cash to tackle the relatively small amount of money (compared to the total purchase price) it costs to install a new heater and refinish floors? you would more than make up the difference in lower payments in the first few years of the mortgage. especially given that when you sell you are not likely to recover the costs of repairing the floor or the heater because buyers expect those things to work / be in good shape. that’s ~$20k in sunk costs that will add nothing to the value of the home. just my 2 cents.

  • I think it is very hard to judge without knowing the numbers. No one wants to tell the world how much they had saved for a down-payment. Therefore, it’s hard for us to evaluate the difference between a construction loan and conventional. I’m sure Heather is already planning to refinance after the work is done and based on an increased value of the home. At least, that’s what people were doing when the market was stronger. Maybe it would be fruitless now.

  • Yeah, what bogfrog said. I’m required to keep the FHA loan for 90 days, but on day 91 I’m high tailing it to the lender to refinance. And given that I got a pretty good cashback deal on my original offer on the house, I’m only really paying two months under the higher interest rate mortgage.

    So I may have paid a few hundred extra upfront in interest, but when I refinance I’ll have approximately $20-30K in instant equity, which, along with my decent credit profile, should get me a pretty sweet interest rate on a 30-year fixed.

  • Pingback: Happy

  • Pingback: lorazepam ativan

  • Heather,
    Congrats on taking the leap and getting the house. Would you mind sharing the name of your contractor. I’ve been trying to find one via the internet and it’s so hard to judge how things would go. Or similarly, how did you find your contractor?


Comments are closed.