The Incredible Expanding $150,000 House: It’s Not 500 Square Feet Anymore.

The Incredible Expanding 0,000 House: It’s Not 500 Square Feet Anymore.

As families grow and space needs change, the conventional move is to trade one home for another. Rebecca Rudolph and Colin Thompson would say it doesn’t have to be that way.

Instead of moving, you can change your home, time and again, to meet those evolving needs.

“We’ve been in our house almost 24 years,” said Mr. Thompson, 50, an architect at Gensler in Los Angeles. “But it has not been the same house.”

The story of the couple’s home, which has expanded and shifted shape many times over the years, began in the summer of 2000. As young architects who had recently graduated from the Southern California Institute of Architecture, they wanted to find a building that they could afford and put their stamp on. With a budget of $150,000, they looked at some of the least desirable homes in Los Angeles.

The winner: a 500-square-foot unoccupied shack of a house in Atwater Village, with an eviction notice on the front door, broken furniture on the lawn and a yard encircled by chain-link fencing.

“We were babies, and the real estate agent said, ‘Are you sure you want to buy this house?’” said Ms. Rudolph, 50, a founder of the architecture firm Design, Bitches. “But we were like, ‘Yes, this is great.’”

They bought it for $137,500 that August and married the following October, which left them with precious few funds for a renovation. But Mr. Thompson was working for a residential builder at the time, which had given him hands-on renovation experience, so the couple decided to do the work themselves.

They gutted the house down to the studs — removing piles of rat droppings, a ramshackle bedroom that had been added to the porch and knob-and-tube wiring — and started fresh on a shoestring budget. They sliced plywood into planks to create wood flooring, made new windows and installed an Ikea kitchen before moving into their one-bedroom, one-bathroom house in early 2001.

“We had no money, so it was the cheapest redo possible,” Ms. Rudolph said.

For a while, it was all they needed. Then they had their first child, Gallows, in 2006. “He was in the bedroom with us for a year,” Ms. Rudolph said. “Then we decided we needed to add on.”

They drew up plans for a 650-square-foot addition that included a second bedroom, a second bathroom and a proper living room that was separate from the kitchen. Mr. Thompson did most of the construction himself.

When they had their second son, Nick, in 2008, Mr. Thompson made a custom bed with two small mattresses positioned end-to-end, so the boys could share a bedroom.

“Their heads were at opposite ends, but they were growing,” Ms. Rudolph said, which served as a sort of hourglass for when the house would need to expand again. Eventually, “their feet started touching,” she said, “and they were kicking each other.”

The couple considered adding a second story to the original section of the house, but it wasn’t structurally sound because it sat on concrete blocks instead of a proper foundation. So they decided to replace the original house with a new two-story, 1,200-square-foot structure, temporarily moving their family into the addition. By this time, Mr. Thompson was employed by an architecture firm, so they hired contractors to do the work. As he watched their carpenters frame the new structure, through, he grew antsy.

“It was very frustrating, because they were going so slow,” Mr. Thompson said. To push the project forward, he began hammering nails on weekends and evenings, and “it snowballed,” he said. “Somehow I ended up building the house again.”

On the ground floor, they added a generous dining room with glass sliders and Dutch doors, and a kitchen with an island faced in decorative concrete panels cast by Mr. Thompson. Upstairs, they built two bedrooms for their sons and a cabinlike bathroom painted light pink. The bedrooms are divided by a wall that isn’t load-bearing, so it could be demolished to create a primary suite.

Outside, Mr. Thompson clad the entire house, including the new structure and the previous addition, in fiber cement siding, to give the home a cohesive look.

The new project took about two years to build, and they were finished in early 2020. In total, they spent about $500,000 on all the renovations, they estimated — far less than if they had hired a contractor to do the work.

Other do-it-yourselfers might have been tired after so much construction, but Ms. Rudolph and Mr. Thompson can’t seem to stop themselves from doing more. Since completing the house, they had a pool installed and have spent the past few years working on the landscape.

“The front yard has changed probably five times, and the backyard at least three,” Mr. Thompson said.

“We were going to add another room upstairs for the kids, and almost got permits,” Ms. Rudolph added. “But we decided we don’t need it. We pulled the plug, and now we’re very happy.”

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