Rehab Reality Check: Falling in Love with an 1886 Row House

Part of the enjoyment of home renovations is to watch them. “reality”Shows are a great way to see the transformations that a home can make in just a few short weeks.

Sometimes, home renovations can be a slow process that moves in spurts and fits as time and money allow.  Alex and Wendy Santantonio spent almost two decades renovating an Old Town rowhouse that was built in 1886.

Wendy, a newly married woman, began looking at homes with Alex, her husband, long before she became a Realtor. Old Town was on their shortlist of neighborhoods.

“We walked in the front of the house,”Alex said, “and I remember when we got to the fifth room, at the back of the house, I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ And Wendy said, ‘Calm down.’”

It was their first home.

After looking at homes in Georgetown and Adams Morgan, as well as in Cleveland Park, the couple bought the first Old Town house they saw. Wendy calls the house theirs “diamond in the rough.”When they purchased the house, it was lacking in personality, had outdated bathrooms and had a very old kitchen.

“It didn’t reveal all of the work it needed,”She spoke. 

“The things we did see with it that made us fall in love with it were the transom windows, original doors, plaster walls and the crown molding. It had very intact historic charm and character, so we knew we could bring it back to life,”Alex said.

Since they purchased the home, the couple has been bringing it back to its original glory — and they’re doing so in front of an audience. They started to blog about their renovation journey, but have largely moved to Instagram, where they have more than 16,500 followers. Their account is @oldtownhome.

The 1980s finishes such as the Jacuzzi tub, gray pedestal sink, and matching toilet are gone. “We’ve introduced what we feel is a more timeless look and we’ve been very diligent in trying to maximize storage,”Wendy said.

Architecturally, the house feels unique, as it retains much of its original footprint since its construction in the 1800s. At no time did any of the property’s homeowners renovate the home to an open-concept floor plan, so the interior is very traditional for a historic rowhouse. The couple also went to great lengths in restoring architectural elements that were missing from their original home, including original-looking hardware to match the original doors, windows, and other hardware.

Wendy stated that Wendy and the couple first did the floors refinishing and a kitchen renovation on a shoestring budget. They painted the cabinets and installed new hardware after learning that “with paint and a lot of elbow grease, we were able to make some changes that were budget-friendly but had an immediate impact.”  

Other lessons were also learned by the Santantonios. They calculated that renovating the entire house would take three years. But some projects, such as stripping all the paint from the mouldings in the house, took a lot more time and effort than they originally estimated. Plus, they discovered extensive termite damage very early in the project.

 “That was one of those surprises we were not emotionally or financially prepared to tackle,”Wendy said, but they “scraped together”The money to repair the damage.

There’s one rule with any historic home preservation and restoration project, Wendy said: “It’s going to take longer and cost more than you ever think.” “We kind of went into it a little naïve, but we figured things out, we saw that it was a bigger project than we initially thought, and we worked through the details of the effort until we were able to get our arms around it,”Alex said.

Over time, their confidence in being able to learn new things and complete projects successfully grew. One of the things Wendy says she’s most proud of Alex for doing is learning the art of historic plastering.

“So many contractors are so quick to want to rip out plaster and replace it with drywall, so we’ve been able to keep the plaster throughout the house,”She said. Alex had to search for lime-based restoration mortar and learn how it was applied the same way that homebuilders did 150 centuries ago.

“This is where learning and putting that effort into doing it yourself makes sense,”Alex said. “It begins to preserve something that would traditionally be lost these days.”Although it may be quicker and easier to hire experts, Alex suggested that if you have the time and desire to do a historic project yourself. “It’s completely in your reach to do it because of the amazing online communities that have popped up around old homes and restoration.”

That wasn’t the case when they first started out, before Instagram existed. (Their original blog can still be found at 

“There’s this huge, old-house community that is this supportive, nurturing place where people share ideas and inspiration,” Alex said. He still gets questions about blog posts that he wrote years back. “It’s not just Alexandria by any means, but you get to see what people are doing from Boston and Maine to San Francisco and Los Angeles.” In fact, some of Alex and Wendy’s closest friends came from Instagram.  

Alex and Wendy have spent over two decades renovating their Alexandria homes. This has given them a unique insight into the potential pitfalls. Wendy finds this valuable information to be invaluable for her real-estate clients. She has a better understanding of the home than most agents. “about the level of effort that might be needed to change something, when to call in the experts and what can reasonably be tackled as a DIY project.”

And for those “reality” home-improvement shows: “They are a disservice to the general public,”Wendy said.

Alex said that despite all the headaches and hard work, he would love the opportunity to spend his time guiding homeowners through historic preservation. “Maybe that’s a second career once I’m retired,”He said. 

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