HOUSE HUNTING IS never easy. However, it gets exponentially harder with a tight budget and a mandate to eliminate any home not within walking distance of your children’s current school and downtown Mill Valley. And yet this was the directive Mill Valley resident Jill Melchionda gave to her realtors. “I was willing to give up a lot of things, but location wasn’t one of them,” she says.
The newly single mom was willing to be patient, though, biding her time in a cozy rental home she’d settled into with her two young boys Maxel and Ryder. And when a workable home in her price range came up, she was game to compete. But competition was stiff. “I got outbid on two other houses,” she recalls. Still, timing is everything. And the third house she bid on — the house they now call home — was worth the wait. “It’s literally across the street from the school,” Melchionda says. “I can see the flag from my living room window.”
Reasonably priced homes in prime locations don’t generally come in turnkey condition — and this house was no exception. But Melchionda — who had never taken on a large-scale renovation project — rose to the challenge: “I recognized I could get a lot more for my money if I was willing to do the work.” She teamed up with San Rafael–based architect Ann Bool and they fashioned a plan: add 350 square feet of living space by turning a storage area under the house into a tranquil lower-level master suite. They also took the existing upstairs spaces down to the studs, tweaked the layout and updated the surface materials. Highlights of the metamorphosis include knocking down the wall between the living room and dining area, to create a bright, open-concept kitchen, and enclosing an old porch to reinvent it as a storage-packed mudroom and laundry area.
Another major change: “I turned the front of the house into the back and the back into the front,” Melchionda says. She even petitioned the city to officially change the home’s address to reflect its new orientation. The new backyard is small, but a prime play spot for two young boys. The new front yard — tricked out with soothing greenery, a gas fire pit and a flagstone hardscape — is decidedly more adult. A rebuilt privacy fence makes the area feel secluded, despite its proximity to the neighboring home.
Almost all the furnishings in the home are new, but purchased with frugality in mind. “I got the patio furniture from Target,” Melchionda says. Even the art is new, commissioned to harmonize with not only her home’s color palette but also her life’s journey. “You can see how it starts out dark and goes through this big change,” she says, motioning to the abstract painting on a large white wall opposite the dining room table.
The overhaul was an ambitious project for a single mother of two with a full-time job in the city. But instead of overwhelming her, it awoke an untapped skill set — so much so that she’s toyed with the idea of selling the place and investing the profits into a new diamond in the rough. “If the right opportunity came up I’d consider it, though I think I’d be leaving a little piece of my heart behind.”
Dawn Margolis Denberg has worked as a professional journalist for 20 years. Her work has appeared in top publications, including Wired, Shape and Parenting. She has also written several books for children including, The Men in Black Agent’s Manual The Official Godzilla Movie Fact Book. And, most recently, an episodic audio series for Tales Untold.