Neglected North Waco houses transformed as HGTV cameras roll

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Posted: Sunday, February 16, 2014 12:01 am

Reality TV is about to make national stars out of two North Waco homes that a local company is renovating.

But for the neighborhood, the reality is two young families turning rat-infested eyesores into showplaces.

At 2001 Gorman Ave., Charmaine Hooper and Chuck Codd hired Magnolia Homes to rescue a neglected two-story house from the 1920s.

At 822 N. 15th St., Clint and Kelly Harp are working with the company to renovate a hulking century-old house that had been seen as an impediment to the neighborhood’s revitalization efforts.

And both families did it with cameras rolling.

Their houses were the neediest of a dozen Central Texas homes that Magnolia is renovating for HGTV’s “Fixer-Upper” series, which debuts April 24.

Magnolia co-owner Chip Gaines said he hopes the show can inspire people in Waco and across the country not to give up on houses that look hopeless.

“It’s going to show people what’s possible in their own backyard,” Gaines said. “I pray to God that other people take this leap of faith, because it’s worth it.”

The show, which wraps up filming this month, documents the families as well as their renovation projects.

It doesn’t fund the renovations, though producers may throw in some extra landscaping or design flourishes.

In the case of the Gorman Avenue and North 15th Street houses, the renovations took a willingness of homebuyers to take a significant risk.

While the houses were cheap to buy, the renovation costs were about 10 times the purchase price.

Both families had to face the question of whether they would be able to recoup those costs if they resold their homes in an inner-city neighborhood.

But a love of the houses and the adventure of being part of a neighborhood’s comeback won them over.

“This house was built in 1927, and I don’t think you can buy a well-built house like this today,” said Charmaine Hooper, sitting on the porch of the nearly completed Gorman house. “Even though it’s so old, everything is in great condition after all this time. It’s a great house with great character, great bones and great possibilities.”

Hooper, a former soccer player for the Canadian women’s national team, has lived in the suburbs of Waco for several years with her husband, Baylor soccer coach Chuck Codd, and 9-year-old daughter.

But she was interested in old houses and called the city of Waco in 2012 to see if it was selling any houses from tax foreclosure proceedings.

Unsafe for habitation

The city had acquired the Gorman house in 2011 from a sheriff’s sale and had green-tagged it as unsafe for habitation.

“When I first drove up and saw that I was at the right address, the first thing that came out of my mouth was ‘Wow,’ ” Hooper said. “You couldn’t really see the house. It was all trees and bushes. It was kind of like something out of ‘Amityville Horror.’ But I saw there was potential.”

She found a rotted porch and an interior piled high with junk and rat droppings.

But she also noted the high ceilings, oak floors, ample windows and elegant stairs with curved railings. There was a large backyard with a garage apartment big enough for visitors.

“I thought, ‘That’s a lot of house. I think you can do something with this,’ ” she said.

Her husband and other family members were less than enthusiastic about the house and the idea of bringing it up to code, but Hooper’s mother persuaded her to jump at the chance.

Hooper’s family bought the house from the city for $24,008, slightly more than the tax appraisal value of $20,991.

A fan of HGTV renovation programs, she heard about the Magnolia Homes series and wrote to owners Chip and Joanna Gaines, who agreed to take it on.

The renovation brought the total cost to about $180,000, Hooper said.

The house has new electrical and plumbing systems, insulation, refinished floors, a new roof, a lawn sprinkler system and a sleek open kitchen with an island and Carrara marble backsplashes.

Hooper said she is not sure she could recoup her investment in the house if she resold it, but it’s not for sale.

She thinks the neighborhood is on the upswing, and property values will follow.

Vicki Weathers, who lives around the corner on Morrow Avenue and has been vocal about preserving old houses, said the Gorman house was once a negative for the neighborhood. Now it’s an advertisement for reviving old houses, she said.

“We’re thrilled with what she’s done with that house,” Weathers said. “The impact of that house in the neighborhood is inspiring. We just hope it will create some kind of momentum.”

City of Waco code enforcement officer Robert Pirelo said the house was lucky to find someone willing to give it loving attention.

“When we first saw that, I thought it it was going to be a structure that needed to be torn down,” he said. “But it had a lot of redeeming qualities. We love to see this happen. It takes a certain personality and commitment to do this.”

Chip Gaines, the Magnolia owner, said it’s always an open question whether a well-built but dilapidated house is salvageable.

But he said too many houses are bulldozed without renovation seriously considered as an option.

He said if he had demolished the 3,000- square-foot home and rebuilt a new home for the same amount of money, it would be about half the size.

“That house would be very much a tract home without a lot of special features,” he said. “When you go into her house, you see timeless pieces of Waco history. In my opinion, she got a house for half the price and twice the features.”

He said renovations are less attractive to contractors than new construction because of the low profit margins and the extra headaches.

For example, the contractor orginally tried to support a ceiling over the expanded kitchen with a wooden beam but ended up replacing it with a wood-encased steel beam that took 15 men to lift.

Heavily involved

Five blocks away, hammering and filming continues at a frantic pace. Clint Harp, the new owner of the North 15th Street house, is a craftsman and is heavily involved in the renovation work himself.

The crew has gutted the house, replaced 25 windows, replaced wiring and plumbing and braced a kitchen ceiling that was not adequately supported.

The Harps late last year bought the house directly from the owner for $10,000 and expect to put $100,000 into it, not counting their labor.

They plan to move in soon with their three children and her mother.

Clint Harp, 36, said he’s excited to be part of the revival of North 15th Street, a once-blighted area that now has dozens of new homes, a school and two restaurants.

But he said moving to the area wasn’t part of any grand plan. He and his wife recently bought a former Habitat for Humanity workshop on North 15th Street for their new business, Harp Designs, which makes high-end furniture out of reclaimed wood.

He said the house next door at 822 N. 15th St. was the “kingpin” of bad houses on the street.

“I didn’t come over here thinking I wanted to fix 15th Street,” he said. “But I saw this house day after day. It was in horrible shape. I wanted it to be nice because of the shop. We’re going to be opening up a showroom, and I didn’t want to have what looked like a crack house next door.”

Clint Harp already was participating in the HGTV show as a carpenter and furniture-maker, so he agreed to film an episode at his house. That decision had its perks, such as a donation of windows from the Waco-based Dwyer Group, which was eager to promote its Glass Doctor franchise on national television.

Downtown proximity

Harp said he thinks he could more than recoup his investment in the house if he decided to sell, but he thinks the family will enjoy living on North 15th Street, close to downtown and Cameron Park.

“God bless suburbanites, but I like a more urban feel,” he said.

Mike Stone of Waco Community Development Corp., a nonprofit homebuilder in the 15th Street area, said he looked at renovating the house but got cold feet when he took a closer look.

“It was a mess,” he said. “It needed a complete redo. We had enough going on, and that’s a big project.”

He said the Harps’ renovation will improve the atmosphere of the entire street, especially for the Waco CDC house next door.

Stone said he hopes Magnolia will continue to find homes to renovate in the North Waco area.

“I can see what’s possible,” he said. “There are a lot of great old houses in the North Waco area that are ripe for them.”

Gaines said he would like HGTV to invite Magnolia to do a second season, and then he will scout more homes to renovate.

“We’re passionate about making Waco a better town for all of us to live in,” he said. “If season two were to occur, there would be more opportunities for us to do this. For every unit we add, that’s one more neighborhood that’s affected forever.”

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