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Getting rid of dreary

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 31, 2003

The house feels like a gift. The front door, framed by a white trellis and painted a zesty shade of lime green, practically shouts with happiness. Bahama shutters cool the windows. The exterior color -- a pale, beach shack yellow -- looks so perfect I want to find shoes to match.

Cute, cute, cute.

I've probably passed a dozen houses like it over the years: modest, clearly a first home, dressed up cheaply by someone with a good eye. And I always wonder how on earth did they do it?

The house at 110 Adriatic Ave. is owned by Debra and Marc Mandt, both 35. It's their first home and they plan to raise a family here. They looked for a year. When they found the house in July, they bought it instantly. They paid $254,000, mostly for the Davis Islands location, and didn't have much money left to fix it up. That was a problem.

It needed Martha. It needed a makeover.

"It was really dreary looking," recalls Debra, the executive director of the Tampa Bay office of the American Heart Association. "It was covered in big, flat, gray miscellaneous shaped rocks. The windows were old and ugly. The front door was hideous and gray with a gargoyle in the middle that almost looked like a door knocker."

In many ways the Mandts were lucky because the interior of 1,700-square-foot, three- bedroom, two-bathroom house was in fine shape. It was just the outside that exuded cringe factor. The exterior facelift, nearing completion this month, cost $6,000. They kept the cost low by doing as much as they could themselves, such as trolling for shutters at Home Depot and throwing a weekend painting party. Instead of hiring an architect to fix the flaws, Debra turned to her mother-in-law, Judy Mandt, a poet and "landscape buff."

"She's such an invaluable resource -- everyone should be blessed with such a mother-in-law," Debra says. "She saw a good house underneath and thought it might need only cosmetic changes."

Judy Mandt whipped out colored pencil sketches that made Debra's heart sing. The look was bright, tropical and seasoned with Key West spice.

"We love Key West; we were married there," Debra says.

The Mandts' decision to buy an un-cute house in a desirable South Tampa neighborhood was a wise strategy. Though the market has slowed from the frenzied pitch of two years ago, they may well profit from their decision, says Mary Esther Parker, a real estate agent with Smith and Associates in South Tampa. She compares South Tampa's land-limited cache to cities like San Francisco and New Orleans.

"More demand on fewer spaces holds the prices," Parker explains. "It's all about supply and demand."

Hillsborough County property tax records show that of 33 similar properties that sold on Davis Islands in 2002, prices ranged from $101 a square foot to $187 a square foot. The Mandts paid somewhere in the middle -- about $147 a square foot. Their $6,000 makeover could raise that price nicely.

But the real value lies in the intangible. The transformation on a shoestring is making the neighbors smile.

They say they can't believe it's the same house.

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