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Daunting DIY Project: Renovating Old Home

May 9, 2011

By Fletcher Babb and Catherine Leth
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – Greg Bristow was working as a heating and air conditioning technician in 2008. But when the economy gave way, so did the job market. Since then, he’s been renovating a 121-year-old home in Church Hill with hopes of renting it out in the future.

Bristow’s father purchased three units in the same area in the 1980s, and the younger Bristow said they have done a lot of work together since. He said they pride themselves on taking care of the homes.

“I like the historic houses around here; they just interest me,” Bristow said. “I like seeing progress.”

His current project, built in 1890, was previously inhabited by an elderly woman who could no longer use the stairs. After more than two centuries of use, the home was in need of serious repairs and modern amenities.

Its only source of heat was a wooden stove. The roof was leaking. Bristow found rat carcasses in the walls.

“I pretty much decided to do everything myself,” he said. “It’s work, and I do appreciate the area.”

The house is currently gutted, but Bristow has already made major renovations, including an addition to make the home a three-bedroom.

The structure’s new skeleton looks a lot like Church Hill – a curious clash of old and new. Exposed 19th century brick contrasts with fresh, saffron-colored insulation. The sharp scent of pinewood beams masks the musty, creaky floorboards.

Although unfinished, the home also stands out on its block. Less than a hundred yards away is a row of several single-floor tenements. Of the eight apartments, only two or three are visibly lived-in. The rest look hastily boarded-up. The newest-looking things are the big, shiny metal locks on the doors.

One of the tenants said he hadn’t seen a property owner in over a year.

“Obviously abandoned and blighted property breeds crime,” Bristow said.

But he was quick to mention that he’s had no real problems other than a homeless man under the house on one occasion. He said he’s not worried about crime on his property.

The only valuable material on the site is the wiring and scrap metal. They can be collected and resold to scrap yards or recyclers. Bristow said he leaves his scrap in the yard for anyone to take.

He expects his project to be done in August.

“It’s like you’re moving into a brand-new place,” he said.

Bristow isn’t alone. To many others across Church Hill, homeownership isn’t about buying a home only to flip it a few years later for a profit.

Instead, it’s about restoring a historic neighborhood – block by block – and rebuilding a community that has often been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Main story: Fighting the Blight in Church Hill