Haven: Crafting a dream home on the cheap using websites

Patience paid off for the Mitchells. They extracted the kitchen, for which the owner originally asked $13,000, from a Cape Cod shanty.
Patience paid off for the Mitchells. They extracted the kitchen, for which the owner originally asked $13,000, from a Cape Cod shanty.
Posted: March 30, 2014

The financial reality that the Mitchell family faced in 2010 was this: Their perfect home in West Chester had to be sold.

Josh Mitchell, now 38, a self-employed contractor, had worked on the fieldstone rancher for 10 years. But a crisis involving wife Dawn's stationery shop - her partner suddenly pulled out - created debt, and when she became pregnant with the couple's third child, she closed the store.

So they decided to create a new reality: They'd buy and restore a cheap house in a good neighborhood - luckily, just five minutes away, on the street where Dawn Mitchell's parents lived - and they would nearly double its 1,110-square-foot size.

Says Dawn, 38: "I have the eye. He has the skill. Some people can pay." Josh did all the work himself, hiring help for the roof.

Settle for a mediocre kitchen or, for that matter, a commonplace anything? No, not these two. Beer budget be damned.

After closing, paying bills, and setting aside money for living expenses and so on, however, they were left with only a five-figure budget to restore the new house. And that was for everything, from architect's drawings to permits, from the roof to the guts.

So these children of the Internet, Craigslist and eBay connoisseurs, turned to those sites for virtually everything they needed to revamp their new house, except for siding and flooring: plumbing supplies; heating system; baseboard and trim; 30 interior doors (all solid wood), and virtually the entire kitchen.

Bottom line: They spent $15,000 less than their budget. Among their scores: a Blanco faucet (Dawn Mitchell's favorite find, at $100); an indirect hot-water heater ($225 including shipping), and an Energy Kinetics 2000 heating system ($500).

The kitchen? The Mitchells literally extracted it from a Cape Cod shanty for which the owner wanted $13,000. What the owner got was not even close. (More about that later.)

With an endeavor like the Mitchells', patience becomes more than a virtue, it becomes de rigueur.

Their strategy was born, Josh says, when he found aluminum-clad, wooden atrium doors with sidelights on Craigslist (he and Dawn eventually spent one hour a day each on the site). Just one door retails for $5,000, he says, but he got both for $2,500, and the owner delivered.

The kitchen was next. Dawn wanted her old one. Who wouldn't, with its Thermador appliances and solid maple cabinets. In a former life, Josh was a pastry chef, so he knows his way around a kitchen.

To get that level of quality, he turned to Craigslist's luxury areas, which led him to Cape Cod.

"These are areas where people have disposable incomes," he says.

When they saw the ad for the kitchen, he called the person behind it immediately, but her price was too high. She was offering Wood-Mode custom cabinets, Thermador appliances, a Sub-Zero refrigerator, all from a house being gutted for demolition. Ten days later, the ad was still there. Josh called again:

"I said $3,000. She said, 'Is that a lowball?' I said, 'No.' The conversation then moved to, 'What else do you have?' "

When all was said and done, the Mitchells paid $4,500 for the kitchen; Baldwin brass hardware; eight-inch baseboard poplar trim for the whole house; and the banister, ceiling fans and all the interior doors.

Of course, they had to remove everything. They hired two men, rented a 26-foot truck, and headed for Cape Cod. Josh says the poplar trim for a door retails at $40 for an eight-foot piece.

"From then on," he says, "we knew if we'd look, we could find things."

The faucet was another wait-and-see game. The owner held Dawn off for two weeks, hoping for a better offer elsewhere.

No question, Dawn says, their method is a gamble and time-consuming. Though they moved in last September, the house is still not finished.

Retail is a dirty word in the Mitchells' minds. Her taste is eclectic: Asian-inspired throughout, but Hitchcock chairs (salvaged) surround a mahogany table (also salvaged).

While Dawn, a designer who once worked for Nicole Miller, looks for chandeliers, Josh looks for smoke detectors.

The chandelier suspended over that mahogany table has purple glass pears hanging from gilded leaves.

It was a $350 find in Society Hill. "I love it," Dawn says.

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