Brenda Willis has been in and out of house rehab for the last 24 years.
My husband and I bought a money pit, and that’s my story, the Fort Wayne woman says good-naturedly. We’re just about done fixing it up after 24 years.
Though the accountant and business manager doesn’t claim the cred of Nicole Curtis, the sweet-talking blonde house rejuvenator who wields her pry bar on DIY Network’s Rehab Addict, Willis can swing a mallet with the best of them.
She’s the kind of woman who doesn’t mind getting down and dusty in pursuit of home improvement. And that makes her part of a growing group – women willing to take on major home renovation projects.
I’ve done a lot of demo, tearing out old plaster walls and carrying it (plaster) downstairs to the Dumpster one garbage can full at a time,. Of course, my back was younger then, Willis says, referring to efforts that redid bedrooms on the second floor of her and her husband Devin’s house, which dates to 1906.
I think some people would say we built an entire new house inside an old house.
Willis is also the kind of woman the Fort Wayne chapter of Habitat for Humanity has been tapping into for its sixth annual Women Build project, which goes into high gear this week.
Laurie Brumbaugh, project coordinator, says this is the first time Habitat has assembled a group of women to rehab an old house, rather than build one from the ground up.
During the next two weeks, more than 100 female volunteers will be fixing up a 1928-vintage Craftsman-style bungalow at 439 Violet Court in the Oakdale neighborhood on Fort Wayne’s south side.
Volunteers will include Willis, who co-chairs the volunteer committee, and Dora Pearson, 28, and her son Keenan, 8, who will receive the keys to the home after it’s finished in exchange for labor and completing Habitat’s homeowner program.
The three-bedroom house has some endearing features, including natural woodwork inside, two decorative arched windows in the master bedroom and a spacious front porch, Brumbaugh says.
It’s really cute, and it’s in a great neighborhood, she says.
But the place needs to be completely updated, she adds, and women will be doing everything from installing new kitchen cabinets and windows and doors to redoing floors and helping demo one bathroom and frame out another. The house will also be painted, inside and out.
Brumbaugh says crews will have the help of Habitat construction supervisors and private contractors who happen to be men. But her experience has been that women are eager to learn rehab skills or put ones they already have into practice.
About 40 women participated in rehabbing clinics Habitat recommended for female volunteers prior to the build, she says. The clinics took place in June and July at a Fort Wayne Lowe’s home improvement center, nationwide sponsor of Habitat’s Women Build projects, and are held periodically.
Topics included tiling, electrical repair and painting.
We have several women who have volunteered for more than one year and have gone on to do their own (home rehab) projects, Brumbaugh says. If you do it once, you want to come back and do it again.
Says Willis: I think women find out they can nail a nail and cut siding and put on roofing. I think if it gets them to do something, something different, something they haven’t done before, that’s great.
Susan Gregory of Fort Wayne hasn’t worked with Habitat but remembers vividly what it was like the first time she attempted a garage re-roofing as part of a rehab.
The first time I got up on a garage roof I was pretty scared. Now I can get up on a one-story garage roof and walk around like I’m taking a stroll, says the 41-year-old, who has redone about a dozen houses in Fort Wayne while working in the field professionally during the last 15 years.
Gregory says she turned to fixing up houses when thwarted by the mathematics that being an architect demanded.
She says she learned how to do projects by doing. She says she also hired people to help her, but she liked knowing how to do something first.
I’ve sanded down floors – got carpal tunnel syndrome from that. Those machines are pretty heavy, she says. I took all the paint off the front side of a house. That was my first house. That was a pretty arduous process, but it looked fabulous when I was done.
Rehabbing gives her great personal satisfaction.
The best part is going to a block with fairly nice homes and there’s one house that is just a blight and nobody wants to do it because it’s so bad, she says. And then you do it, and people give you a thumbs-up when they drive by.
Susan Hessley, 53, of Fort Wayne, says she got interested in home rehab through her husband, Eric, owner of Castle Restorations in Fort Wayne. But cable TV shows, many of which spotlight women in construction, have encouraged her.
When I spend a day in front of the TV, that’s what’s usually on, Hessley says. Yeah, we watch all those shows.
Without much rehab experience, she signed up for Women Build and attended the tiling workshop at Lowe’s, where she got her hands into glue and grout.
They actually showed us how to do floor tiles – how to lay out the space, gave us ideas on backsplashes and counters, told us what kind of grouts and adhesives to use and it was pretty neat, she says.
Having someone show me how to do it gave me a lot more confidence.
She’s scheduled to help replace windows and then use her new skills helping her husband so he doesn’t have to hire people all the time.
But if that doesn’t work out, she says she’ll still be able to put to use what she’s learned.
Our house is 140 years old, Hessley says, so it needs something all the time.