Dear PoP – Renovating a Row House

Bloomingdale 02-09
Image from Hipchickindc

“Dear PoP,

We are thinking about purchasing a victorian rowhouse in Bloomingdale neighborhood. The house itself is move-in ready, and has a lot of original details intact: transoms, woodwork, fireplace (walled off), staircase. But it still needs quite a bit of work done if we are to restore it to its original grandeur – for example stripping layers of white paint from said original woodwork, removing carpets and refinishing original hardwood floors. We really want to restore, not just renovate, the house. We were wondering if any of your readers would have suggestions and resources that we could consult – from books to contractors.”

Here is a talk we had on wood floor restorations. You should peruse the general renovation posts as well.

Do you guys have any other general recommendations fro contractors and/or books to consult?

37 Comment

  • I bought a place in Bloomingdale, though sadly without most of the original features. My first suggestion to you would be that if the entire area is carpeted, pull up large sections of the carpeting to make sure that 1) the floors can be refinished, and 2) no sections are replaced with plywood or something of that sort (assuming you don’t want to replace those sections with new boards).

    Our house had a lot of epoxy and paint already on the floorboards which meant that while they could be refinished, we could only do so once.

    Electricity, plumbing, roof, etc. is an entirely different matter.

  • I used Midas Construction If you call him, ask him for references and I am sure he will give you my name. I live right around bloomingdale and he spent a few months redoing my whole house based upon plans I drew.

  • My first advice, sight unseen, is to cut the plumbing and electrical service off at the source, and then build new. You’ll go nuts trying to figure out every work-around, kludge, and amateur mistake buried behind the walls.

    We used SilkRock Industries ( for a bathroom addition to our house, and they were very resourceful and sensitive to dealing with restoration issues.

  • I should have added that you can always check the BACA site: – They have a list of home service providers and testaments taken from the various community listservs.

  • Here is the link to the actual house:


    • This must be somewhere on Florida Ave., right? Maybe the unit block? Anyway, I agree with the MonkeyDaddy post that you definitely want to make sure the electric and plumbing is in good shape before moving forward with refinishing/restoring the place.

  • If you go DIY, I’ve heard heat guns work wonders on stripping paint, but it’s still an ungodly amount of time and effort.

    I’ve had the worst luck with contractors, so no recommendations – unless you have unlimited funds – then go with one of the big companies that win awards and are advertised in the architecture and design magazines. I figure if they screw you the first time around, they have the overhead to make it right the second time.

  • ah

    If you’re stripping paint, don’t forget to count on lead remediation.

  • I have been working on stripping just the hand rail and newel post on our stairs and it sucks!! We bought a heat gun but I haven’t tried to use it, yet. I have just been using soy gel. My only tip is to be patient and let the stripper sit for at least 24 hours.

  • For a big project – not just a little heat gun action – I recommend Scott Evans of Positive Space.

    He put in my basement apt. (from dirt) and I saw three other renovations he has done. He is a local Petworth guy who loves old houses, and most importantly, really knows what he is doing. He will not be the cheapest, but you will have absolute peace of mind knowing you can rely on him 100% to know what he is doing and do it right and back it up.

  • I’m in the process of renovating my rowhome (a former GDoN) and the best advice I could give is to get a great home inspector first.

    I used Bill Walker at Claxton Walker. He’s a former contractor, not just some shoe salesman who got their home inspectors certificate.

    At the same time I was getting my home inspected we went through what I was trying to do with the place. It was an eye opener. I’m pretty handy, but I really didn’t realize what types of things would be easy/cheap and what types of things were going to be hard/expensive.

    They also have a great resource for recommended contractors/electricians/plumbers etc.

  • I’ve been doing this exact thing with my fiance for the last two years. My biggest recommendation is to not kill each other. It’s amazingly stress inducing. I know people who have lost wives/husbands over what you are embarking on.

    There are a few books about restoring old houses. Get as many as you can. Also start paying attention to ‘this old house’ episodes. There was one episode on restoring a house in shaw that I found really useful. It’s useful to see how the work is actually done.

    Learn to do basic electrical wiring yourself and probably basic pipe sweating (copper). It will save you a lot of money. You might consider buying a PDF copy of the “International Residential Code”. If not, buy a bunch of the remodeling books from home depot or borrow them from the library.

    Listen to your contractors and if a price sounds high after telling them you want to do X, ask them what the variables are in reducing the cost. Sometimes doing something differently than you envisioned can save you a boatload of money.

    Some things are worth permitting and some aren’t. But you should definitely try to pull at least one permit for one thing you are going to do. DCRA has a homeowner help center. Does it kind of suck? Yeah, but you’ll have contractors trying to charge you an extra $1k to pull a permit and it doesn’t suck $1k.

    Best recommendation for finding a contractor is to talk to neighbors who’s work you actually like. A contractor who does good work is usually worth what you have to pay them if you can’t do it yourself. A contractor that does crappy work is never worth any amount of money. Don’t argue with them over small amounts of money. It’s all a guessing game. Very few contractors get off their butts for under a $1k in profit.

    Plumbers are ridiculously expensive in DC. It’s partially because you’re not allowed to pull your own plumbing permit.

  • I second the home inspector bit. These guys usually know what to look for and have a good idea what costs will run.

  • PoP – can threads like this – recommendations advice etc. be archived somewhere forever?

    • Prince Of Petworth

      Absolutely. At the moment if you click on the Renovation tag just underneath the title it will bring up all these post. But I’ll work on setting up a new button for renovation recommendations etc.

  • Like the original poster, I am currently in the process of renovating a 100 year old Victorian Rowhouse in Bloomingdale. It has good bones, but the owners over the last 100 years definitely had some interesting tastes in paint colors. I imagine my house was a rental for multiple people at one point, as there are deadbolts in all the upstairs bedroom doors. Or maybe the neighborhood was really bad off for a while that eveyone locked themselves in their bedrooms as well.

    I have been stripping paint for a few months now. All the woodwork upstairs was painted white just before I moved in, but as I strip it with a heat gun and a few different scrapers, I can see that the wordwork was painted every color in the rainbow at one point. It is so thick that it is amazing the amount of detail I uncovered as I strip this stuff away. I have tried using chemicals to strip paint, but I find the heat gun is the most effective, quickest, cleanest and probably safest method. After using the heat gun, take some steel wool grade 00 and a big can of Goof-off to help remove some of the residual paint that the paint gum could remove. It is a tedious process, but feels great each step of the way to see some of that original wood. I am doing this alone, so if you have a few people working on the paint at once, you might be in good shape.

    Echoing a previous poster, I would see what is under that carpet ASAP. Get rid of the carpet before you start using a heat gun, safety hazard. And if the floors are there, I would wait to do anything to the floors until you have completed the majority of your work. No use dropping money to beautify them, only to have to redo them once again.

    Elegant Flooring did an estimate on my house. They seemed to offer the best services, and offer random discounts of up to 15% if they have a cancelled job and you are ready to have yours done the week they are offering discounts. I would recommend having them come by to give you an estimate.

    Magnolia Heating and Pumbing did a fantastic job in my house installing a new furnace. I would call them again to do any sort of plumbing work I have in the future.

    Just keep in mind this all takes time, and unless you have a lot of $ to blow to spend on contractos, plan for delays…. But have fun while doing it!

    Welcome to the neighborhood, I am glad to see someone is helping beautify Bloomingdale even more!

  • I am also renovating a 100 year old rowhouse in ledroit and echo all of these comments. You should seriously consider joining Angie’s List when you are ready to select contractors, and then make sure that the people posting positive reports have a history of judging other businesses (i had a bad situation where two positive reports turned out to have been the only reports posted by those names and were clearly the contractor himself).

    community forklift just over the maryland line up rhode island avenue is a huge warehouse full of parts from houses like ours that have been renovated over the years. I found original pine flooring there that I used to replace pieces of mine. Some pictures of that process are here

    good luck!

  • Not all painted woodwork from that time period was meant to be stained according to a pretty detailed book that I own bout historic woodwork. Sometimes, people strip years of paint just to get down to paint-grade soft pine that needs a couple coats of white paint. I’m not sure whether the my woodwork fits in that category, but I can empathize with too many years’ of paint diminishing the details.

    • Completely agree. I spent hours stripping trim around a doorway only to find the original wood was pretty bad off and was probably painted from day one. So I repainted, and it actually looks worse than when it had 3-4 layers on it. Bummer of a lesson.

  • Great comments on here thus far. I bought in bloomingdale about 3 years ago (my house was actually chastised/made fun of on this very sight for the trellis that i attached to the front facade).

    Couple pieces of advice:
    1) Plan it out before you raze anything. Even though you’re restoring, it’s important to know what you’re intending to modernize (i.e. kitchenwares) so that the work doesn’t end up disrupting the historic aspects you hope to retain.

    2) Prioritize your list. The money ALWAYS runs out, so it’s good to know what are the essentials and what things can be left for a later date. For instance, the stripping work is EXTREMELY labor-intensive, so hiring someone to strip and restain could cost as much as many of the other massive undertakings on a job like this.

    3)Talk to your neighbors. As you can see from this list, there are many people, especially in bloomingdale b/c of the reasonable housing prices, that have done exactly what you are doing now. People are proud of their homes and definitely willing to share the most harrowing aspects of their renovation w/ you so you’ll be able to avoid some heartache.

    4) Get Plumbing/HVAC/Electrical resolved before you pursue anything aesthetic. These are the essentials, and they’re all expensive. It’ll help to frame your budget once these things are done. This will also help prepare you for the compromises you’ll invariably have to make (e.g. where bulkheads will be for ac ducts).

    5) If you decide to serve as your own gc, know what you’re getting yourself into. As much as people think their general knowledge sorta obviates the need for GCs to manage subcontractors, it becomes incredibly difficult to get things done on your own at times (b/c you’re not always on site to know where corners are being cut). At the very least, make sure you talk to some GCs so that you are aware of their value-add.

    6) I’m happy to serve as a resource. I’ve done this. Many others have done this and want to see you satisfied w/ what you’re planning to do. I’m also an atty, so i’m happy to discuss things like certs of occupancy, variances and crap like that w/ you in a condensed fashion to save you some time.

    7) I’ve said it on here before. Stuart Davenport ( has done a remarkable job on my basement. He’s a neighborhood commissioner, one of the proprietors of Big Bear and just an all around good guy and straight shooter. His number is 202.549.6996. Even if he isn’t the guy you end up using, he’ll steer you in the right direction.


  • Go with Haile-Allen Construction. Really nice guys and very trustworthy.

    John: 443-7453632

  • Get permits yourself. Go to the Homeowner Center (before lunch) and you can get permits in an hour. Look at permits this way: it’s a free engineering, plumbing, electrical, etc. consult for all the work your contractor’s doing. You want it done safe and right, yeah? Maybe the biggest reason: if you get caught doing work without a permit the fine goes to the homeowner, not the contractor, so it’s your butt on the line, not his.

    And be very careful with heat guns. If you set them too high you just turn the lead paint into vapor and get to breath it straight in. Here’s just the first google hit on the topic: “Heat stripping, using a low temperature (below 1100 degrees F) heat gun, followed by hand scraping. Heat guns pose a fire hazard, and make lead dust and vapors, so they should be used only by experienced workers wearing respirators.”

    And don’t forget that stripping paint with heat caused the fire at the Georgetown Library. Just keep the temperature low and take plenty of breaks so the wood can cool off once in a while.

  • Strip paint with steam. This website shows how and has a helpful discussion forum for historic restoration:

  • The best window guy in town is The Craftsman Group.

    They can restore any window, door or cabinet. They do the work in their alley workshop off of Sherman Ave and they use high grade SFM hardwoods and cedars from Pennsylvania that match the species of whatever your current stuff is made of.

  • And last but not least: big bad new EPA regulations go into effect April 22 regarding lead paint abatement during Renovation, Repair, and Painting (RRP)

    Couple of bullets:

    + homeowners doing DIY not subject
    + all trades subject and required to use lead safe practices if they remove windows or disturb more than 6 sq. ft. of painted surface on a building built before 1978
    + contractor has to give copy of this brochure to homeowner before start of work:
    + contractors, subs, and all workers have to be certified for lead-safe work practices.
    + fines are five figures per day of non-compliance
    + the opt-out for families without children and pregnancies will be removed from the regs before they go into effect

    Here’s the tricky part you’ll probably run into: one of the points of the regs was to cover all trades, especially plumbers and electricians because when they open up painted walls, they disturb huge amounts of lead. But in my experience lots of electricians and plumbers are dumb to the impending regs. In my opinion a good tradesmen knows about the regs and has already gotten their certification. A bad tradesmen is the one who gives you a dumb look when you ask about the lead regs.

    • I think you if you ask a plumber or electrician about lead paint concerns you deserve the dumb looks. Unless you have small children, young animals, or someone pregnant you need not worry about the levels of lead being released by disturbing a few walls and windows.

      Same with stripping paint… unless you’re heating it above 1100 degrees you won’t release anything harmful. Most heat guns have a low setting of 750 that work just fine.

    • Add to the list this new salvage place called REBUILD in Springfield. We got perfect matched 100 yr old pine flooring here among other things. We love Megan who worked there, but I think she may have recently moved on.

      Selling quality used building materials
      Funding green collar jobs
      All donations tax deductible

      6625 B Iron Place
      Springfield, VA 22151
      P: 703.658.8840
      F: 703.658.8844

  • some books:
    -Caring for Your Old House (Judith Kitchen; this one is aimed at people with historically significant properties, but still has good info)
    -Renovation 3rd Edition, Michael Litchfield
    -Renovating Old Houses, George Nash

    Charles Itte is a great inspector,
    Capitol Hill Restoration Society has a lot of good PDFs on their website,

  • Am yet another new neighbor in Bloomingdale renovating a Victorian row house. Having a thorough home inspection before starting is worth every cent. Like another person posting on this blog, I used Bill Walker of Claxton Walker. I have used that company for 35 years during the renovation of four houses. My Bloomingdale house is pretty much gutted and there were no surprises thanks to Bill’s careful inspection. We knew what we were in for. Would like to second the recommendation for Elegant Flooring. Excellent company I have used 4 times as well. One thing not mentioned so far is the subject of insulation. In my 100 year old Victorian there is not one dollop of insulation and without gutting the whole house it is very expensive to install – putting holes in the plaster or drywall and ceiling then blowing insulation into walls and attic. Then you have to repair the drywall or plaster and repaint. Labor intensive to the max.

  • Question: While everyone is sharing their deep knowledge…
    who is the best for wood floor updates and maintenence.
    I moved in to new wood floors but have two dogs. When you add the snowpocaypse, they need some love.
    Any advice?

  • thanks you all for the sound advice!

    we will keep everyone in the loop on the renovations
    via http://www.victorianinbloom

    yesterday we took down two walls 🙂

    will posting later on.

  • anyone have any experience with Albarth Molina?

Comments are closed.