Why I Live in Oak Park: Finding and Fixing a Fixer-Upper

Dining room today.

By Chris Payne

My wife and I moved to Oak Park when we had just started a family. With a young child, we knew that we wanted to live in a place that had strong neighborhoods and where the schools had a good reputation. We also knew that we wanted a home with nice woodwork, hardwood floors and art glass; we wanted something with character.

When we started looking, we had connections to Oak Park even though we were living in Edgewater at the time. Years earlier, the Pleasant Home Foundation invited me to give a lecture. After that, I began volunteering and giving tours for the Foundation, and I eventually served on the board of directors. We got to know people here and learned more about the Village’s culture of community involvement.

During our house search, we found three houses in the same neighborhood, all built by the same builder, but only one had all the original architectural details still intact: The woodwork hadn’t been painted, the wood floors were in pretty good shape, and the built-ins were still there. But it needed a lot of updating.

In the mid-2000s, housing prices everywhere were still rising fast. Because my job as an architect made me comfortable with remodeling, we decided that a “fixer-upper” was the best way to go.

That’s how we ended up with our tiny Oak Park bungalow.

Dining room before.

Dining room before.

I started the blog Our Tiny Oak Park Bungalow (http://tinybungalow.blogspot.com/) to share our home remodeling stories, successes, and setbacks with our friends and family. Over the years, the blog has gained many followers, particularly as more and more homeowners are choosing the “do-it-yourself” route for many projects.

Oak Park offers the opportunity to have a home with history. Renovating such a home allows you to make it your own but the process also presents a lot of challenges. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way, as we’ve remodeled our bungalow:

  • Hire an architect. Architects are educated in space planning and understand how your home was built. If you are contemplating significant changes, they can provide a lot of insight on how you can safely make updates or improvements while still maintaining the character of your Oak Park home. Most architects with experience working on older homes also understand the nuances of local code and preservation ordinances that may affect your project.
  • Even if you think you’re going to tackle a project by yourself, talk to a professional artisan or contractor beforehand. I reach out to people I know who are experts, to make sure I understand and can anticipate what the project will entail. Also, you might need rescuing later and if that happens, you’ll be glad to have spoken with a professional ahead of time.
  • Accept what you don’t know, and hire someone to tackle those areas. There are many projects I have taken on because I wanted to learn something new but I have also drawn the line on several occasions. For example, I don’t know all the nuances of electrical work—and safety is a huge priority with electrical—so I hire an electrician for those jobs. When we first moved in, our walls and ceilings all needed to be re-plastered, so we hired a professional because plastering can be a disaster if you don’t really know what you’re doing.
  • Know if your home is “historic” and know what that means. Before you start a remodeling project, find out if you’re in a historic district or if your home is a landmark. Don’t trust what you think you know about historic preservation and follow up with a call to the Village about your home. When we first bought our home, it was not in a historic district but now it is. That means that any exterior work visible from the street needs to be reviewed by the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). I’m on the commission and we see many people who start projects not knowing that their home was historic only to be slowed down during the HPC review process during permitting. Knowing how to make modifications in a historic district will save you time. Also, if you plan a significant restoration project, tax incentives may be available. There is a lot of valuable information regarding Historic Preservation on the Village of Oak Park website.
  • Don’t be afraid to go the extra mile to learn about the history of your home. If you have an older home, it is likely that you are just one of the many caretakers that the home has had. To learn about your home’s history, we have an outstanding resource: The Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest, located in Pleasant Home and open to the public. They have files and photos of most homes in the area, so you can find out the history of your home and what it might have looked like in the past. This is especially useful if you’re restoring or preserving an older home.

I like taking on DIY projects because I enjoy learning that goes along with them. Most DIYers seem to get a strange joy in getting covered with dust or paint and they wear the bruises they earn while doing that work with a hint of pride. If you are not having any fun or not enjoying the learning process that comes along with DIY work, then that is the first clue that you should not be taking on a project by yourself.

Chris Payne is an architect and blogger for Our Tiny Oak Park Bungalow.

Photos by Chris Payne.