On Adding Value in Sag Harbor

Written By: Susan  Walker-Spring

I love my house. I fell in love with it the moment I saw it on the HREO website in the fall of 2010. Newly divorced and mostly recovered, I was seeking a nest for myself and my three children, a place to cocoon and be comforted while adapting to our shifted family dynamic. I had definite ides of what I wanted (and didn’t want) in a house. My former husband is a builder; the house he built for us in Sagaponack was nothing short of extraordinary. Situated on a private two acre piece of property, the house contained a foyer worthy of a mansion and featured, among other wonders, a master closet larger than the size of my childhood bedroom. I was awe-struck by this luxury, yet soon learned that the majesty of a house cannot compensate for emptiness within its walls. A difficult season marked by tears and several short-term rentals behind me, I was now ready for a house that fit my new concept of home, one that expressed my love of character and history over opulence and square footage. I was ready to try again. The number of offered homes meeting my requirements was somewhat limited, as my single mother’s budget allowed me to scroll the “maximum price” widget only slightly beyond its “minimum price, $0” starting point. Avoiding homes plugged with verbiage such as, “great investment opportunity” or “wonderful starter home” (the sum total of my fix-it skills residing in the dusty pink toolbox a sage friend had given me as a ‘your divorce is final’ gift), I finally came upon a listing that intrigued me. Originally built in the 1800s, the house had four bedrooms, three baths, and a library, and was located in the historical section of Sag Harbor. I checked carefully; had I somehow added a zero to the upper limit of my price range? No, I had not. This character-oozing house was both affordable and nearly perfect for us. I say nearly because the kitchen was a bit (okay, quite a bit) small, but the deal I was getting on the house left me some extra funds for renovation. My own lack of skills aside, I could hire a contractor, couldn’t I? How much work could renovating one room be, anyway? We bought the house, and the kids and I happily settled in. A recipe for more change followed shortly thereafter: take this single mother and three young children, add one caring man with two daughters of his own, faith in God and lots of understanding, mix well. Somehow the house I had purchased for a family of four fit our family of seven almost without difficulty. The only room in the house, which resisted this expansion, was, of course, the kitchen. It was a galley kitchen, the kind you might find in a ‘space is at a premium’ condo in New York City, an add-on to this home where the cooking was originally done in the fireplace and no doubt the idea of a stove was such a novelty that the size of the room that housed it mattered little. Two wooden swinging doors marked its entrance, one of which we held open with a large rock we found in the back yard. In the two years we had lived there, I had not gotten around to renovating this kitchen because, quite frankly, I had developed affection for it. So different from the industrial-sized kitchen of the Sagaponack house, this room seemed to envelop me when I entered it, welcoming me with its cozy warmth as I poured my first cup of coffee of the day. I could cross the entire length of this kitchen with two steps, standing sideways, I could touch both side walls at the same time. When my new husband and I cooked dinner there, our backs would touch tantalizingly as we passed from sink to stove. I had toasted cinnamon bread for breakfast in this kitchen and cooked a meal for twenty people there. I am still amazed at the dreams that became reality in that tiny space. We really did need to be practical, though. After the seven of us had had enough of twisting, shifting, and shuffling our way through daily meal preparation, a family meeting was called. We needed a bigger kitchen. It was going to be a bit disruptive, but shouldn’t take longer than 6 weeks to complete. The kids, picking up on our enthusiasm, were all for it. I did mention my naïveté regarding construction, right? My renovation-savvy husband says he warned me, although to this day I have no recollection of the conversation. “It’s an old house, Sweetie, “ he claims to have said, “once we open the walls who knows what we’ll find.” Optimistically we emptied the kitchen, paper-protected the adjoining dining room’s 200-year-old floors, and began. Complete mayhem ensued. Looking back, I still can’t quite believe it was as bad as it was. We never went without a refrigerator (although its location varied) and rarely were without a stove. There was even running water in an adjacent bathroom. Why, with all those amenities, did it take so long to make something as simple as a school lunch? All I can tell you is, the dust was everywhere, whatever I happened to be looking for was nowhere, and at one point our budget for take-out dinners was re-negotiated three times in two weeks. While I was manning the craziness of what meal preparation had become (where did we stash the bread…now, the peanut butter…oh forget it let’s go to Bay Burger again…), my husband was experiencing a predictable nightmare of his own. It would have been enough to find that walls weren’t square, or that the ceiling was sagging, that the floorboards weren’t level, the header unsuitable, or the foundation unsafe, but all of those things together? Add to the mix a crazed woman who was unprepared for the chaos and five frustrated children who had had quite enough of bread and butter and disruption for dinner, and it’s a miracle we all survived the experience. This blending of tile tastes, paint preferences, and the personalities involved was both more involved and more significant than any of us had expected. It was worth it. More than twice the size of its predecessor, our new kitchen takes my breath away. It has custom hickory cabinets, a beautiful creamy gold granite countertop, and a shelf running the length of the room perfect for displaying the baskets I collect. It’s new and modern and functions beautifully, yet is true to the character of our house and those who live there. It wasn’t a bad financial decision either; a recent realtor estimate places the value of our home significantly above the price I paid for it. Somehow, my husband and I have managed to create something, the sum total of which is significantly greater than its individual parts. It defies statistics and logic and could only have been accomplished with perseverance, take-out, and love. It’s just what we hoped for. We couldn’t be happier.