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Home improvement tips for the D.C. area

“There’s no rocket science to it other than you really need to be on the ball”

Photo via Shutterstock/Tyler Olson

Before everything—before the hammers and saws come out, before the designing and brainstorming, before the loan approvals—try to keep some of these tips in mind, offered by Walnut Street Finance CEO Bobby Montagne.

Montagne started his company, Walnut Street Finance, in 1997 in Fairfax, Virginia. In the beginning, the company was an infill real estate developer and builder, delivering over 1,200 homes in the region. In 2015, Montagne pivoted the company to become a private lender for those interested in buying, fixing, and selling urban properties.

In an interview with Curbed DC, Montagne offered some quick insight into what homeowners in the region should know and where they should focus on for their next home improvement project.

First, what are some common challenges that tend to thwart home improvement projects in the D.C. area?

Homebuyers who don’t have a dependable team backing them up could get hung up for months simply on approvals and permits.

“Getting permits and approvals is never an easy matter in any urban area, and in D.C., if you know what you’re doing and you’re working with the right people, it’s not easy, but you can get through it in a reasonable amount of time,” said Montagne.

It’s always possible for one to manage a home improvement project alone, but it’s really a full-time job. Those who tough it out alone will have to be the one to solicit bids from electricians, carpenters, and people from other trades. Those who manage the home improvement project will also need to be careful not to lose money on construction, especially when getting the proper inspections and floorplans.

Montagne added, “You’re literally running the job every day ... There’s no rocket science to it other than you really need to be on the ball.”

If you don’t want to be that hands on, hire a general contractor. Montagne says that the best way to find one is through referrals from other owners.

What are the most desirable design features homebuyers focus on in the region?

There’s no one single type of homebuyer. Because of this, there’s no way to know how to appeal to 100 percent of sellers, but there are design features that tend to be focused on when it comes to successful home improvement projects in the D.C. area.

The suggestions Montagne had to offer to those who hope to appeal to a wide swath of people with their newly designed home include: a wide open floor plan, exposed brick, restored front porches (with original details included), and curb appeal, so be sure to pay attention to landscaping, both in the front and backyard.

Which D.C. neighborhoods may be best for first-time home improvement projects?

There are over 100 neighborhoods in D.C. proper, so how do homebuyers narrow it down to the final few worth focusing on for getting the most bang out of their buck?

With over 20 years of experience in the D.C. area, Montagne suggested the following neighborhoods: Petworth, Eckington, Edgewood, Deanwood, Trinidad, and anywhere near or in the H Street Corridor.

Out of all of these suggestions, Petworth is the one that flippers tend to focus on the most. In March 2016, Redfin reported that this Northwest neighborhood was the hottest area to flip in in the nation. At the time, the average gain of a home flip in Petworth was $337,000, higher than any other neighborhood in the U.S. The neighborhood was even featured in an HGTV show, called DC Flippers.

For Eckington, it’s also seen as an “affordable alternative” to places like NoMa and Bloomingdale. While not the most well-known area of Washington, D.C., its colorful rowhouses were featured in the opening credit sequence of the Netflix series House of Cards. Future projects on their way to the neighborhood include a self-storage facility and a 328-unit, mixed-use project at 1501 Harry Thomas Way NE.

In a Washington Post article published July 2015, the Edgewood Civic Association President Michael Clark, Sr. described Edgewood as once “a bad place to live,” but now “a phoenix rising out of the ashes of the past.” The diverse residential neighborhood is seen as affordable with new projects on the way, including a roughly 1,600-unit mixed-use development between the Metropolitan Branch Trail and 4th Street NE with 128 Inclusionary Zoning units planned.

Deanwood is also a very popular neighborhood, ranked one of the 10 “hottest” U.S. neighborhoods of 2017 by Redfin. With access to two Metro stations, this residential neighborhood offers a small town feel with 31.4 percent of homes sold above the listing price. There is also a lot of development on the way with a new town center planned and the historic Strand Theater expected to be renovated.

Trinidad is on the more affordable end of all of the aforementioned neighborhoods. It is also expected to be one of D.C.’s fastest growing neighborhoods in terms of home values with a 5.7 percent growth predicted in 2017, according to Zillow. The location is also right by more popular neighborhoods like NoMa, Ivy City, and H Street Corridor.

Speaking of H Street Corridor, this neighborhood may be the most gentrified of those mentioned so far. Over the past few years, it has transformed with a new streetcar, Whole Foods Market, and even a coworking space. In two years, over 1,287 new residential units were completed within two blocks of H Street NE with more than 100,000 square feet of retail space included. There are still plans for more with a new shopping center expected to deliver by 2019.

Need a loan? What makes someone more likely to be approved?

“The answer is a simple one,” said Montagne. “For us, it’s really how responsive you are to our requests.”

If interested in reaching out to Walnut Street Finance or any other private lenders in the region for a loan, stay on the ball about responding to requests for schedules or documents.

What goes through the mind of a lender like Montagne when they deal with someone who takes too much time to respond to emails or phone calls is this: “If they’re non-responsive before we’ve even made the loan, it’s highly likely that they’re going to be non-responsive after we’ve made the loan.”

There’s still so much more to know before you start your next home improvement project. For more insight into the best products to use, the best apps, and even common mistakes worth avoiding, check out the Curbed Handbook.