A playground conversation got the ball rolling on an unusual condo conversion on Hawthorne Street in Princeton. Architect Kirsten Thoft, the mother of three young children, had a sandbox conversation with Carol Tate, a teacher who is the wife of real estate broker David Schrayer, the father of three young children. “I told her I was looking for an investment property,” says Thoft.
On September 11, 2001, Schrayer showed her a Cape Cod that housed three units, one of them illegal. The owners, motivated at least in part by the uncertainty surrounding the terrorist attacks, sold at a good price. The large house was listed at $425,000, but they agreed to take $350,000.
Now, after $410,000 in renovations, the house, which started life as a ranch, has been transformed into a full two-story house containing two side-by-side condos. The two-bedroom unit is on the market for $635,000 and the three-bedroom unit, originally listed at $710,000, now has an asking price of $685,000.
“The original owners lived there,” says Schrayer, pointing just across the street to a multi-family home on the south side of Linden Lane. Renters at the time, they had a ranch house built on a generous corner lot at the intersection of Linden Lane and Hawthorne Street in 1950. “Sometime in the 1950s they turned it into a Cape,” he says. “They dormered the second floor for the needs of a growing family.” When the kids left home, the house was divided into two units, one upstairs and one down. Then a porch was turned into an illegal studio apartment.
Thoft continued to rent the units for two years after buying the house so that it would be considered an investment property for tax purposes. She then went to town, using her training as an architect to transform the house.
A native of Marblehead, Massachusetts, she studied design as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania (Class of 1986) and earned her graduate degree in architecture in 1991. She has worked for Michael Graves and Associates, where her projects included the Denver Public Library and the Library of Congress Exhibit Hall, and for Hillier, where she worked on the award winning Hoffman La Roche headquarters in Nutley. She is married to Ted Nadeau, a software developer.
She went out on her own when she had children so that she could be more flexible, and finds that designing homes is a good fit with raising children. What’s more, she loves the work. “Even when I was out here on the coldest days this winter, I had fun,” says the architect, who also worked as the general contractor on this job.
While she is confident in what she can do, Thoft enlists help where she needs it. She relies on Schrayer’s real estate savvy, and has used him to find three more houses for her, all of which are now rentals. He is a Princeton native who studied at the University of California at Berkeley and spent 10 years developing affordable housing in New York City for non-profits. He and Thoft work exceptionally well together, kibbitzing as they give a tour of condos.
Schrayer explains that it was relatively easy to turn the house into condos, because it already was a multi-family home. Turning a single-family house into condos, on the other hand, would have been extremely difficult. The choices of ownership structure in a multi-unit house are condo and fee simple. Schrayer says that condo is often the better choice. “It’s easier to create condos if there is a single tax lot,” he says. “It’s easier than a minor sub-division.”
What’s more, he says that there is more likelihood of problems down the road in a fee simple arrangement, where each owner has complete control over every aspect of his house — ranging from paint color to roofing materials to improvements and maintenance. Even in a tiny condo development like this two-unit house, there is generally an association fee, and part of that money usually goes into a fund to be used for repairs. The condo association also sets up some rules, which typically prevent one owner from painting his side bright orange or renting space on his roof for cell phone receivers. “The governing documents say how decisions are made,” says Schrayer.
Both condos and fee-simple attached homes are popular in Princeton Borough, where land is scarce. There have recently been units on Jefferson Street and Wiggins Street and in Markham Square and Queenstown Commons on the market. Prices, says Schrayer, have been in the $675,000 to $725,000 range.
“The people attracted to these units are older couples, empty nesters who are downsizing or moving in to town,” he says. The appeal is the location — an easy walk to town. The new condos Thoft has created have the additional appeal of being, in effect, brand new houses fitted out with up-to-the minute amenities. Not necessarily top of the line, not extravagant, but high quality appliances and fixtures, hardwood floors, recessed lighting, skylights, and big, deep closets.
The house is not cut down the middle, but rather, from the outside, it appears that it is one big house with a small, slightly recessed space — maybe an in-law suite — to the left. But in fact, the smaller unit, the one to the left, continues into what appears to be the main house. On the first floor it has a large open plan kitchen with plenty of room for informal dining or lounging, a living room, and a third room that could be a formal dining room, on office, or a family room. Upstairs it has two bedrooms, each with its own bath. One of its most charming features is a small, square kitchen window that frames a stone patio below.
The larger unit has a similar, open lay-out. It too has a private outdoor space, a stone terrace set beneath trees to the right of its entranceway.
The style of the condos tends toward the modern, with clean lines. But there are a couple of nods to the past. One is the subway tile in the showers, and another is the built-in bookcases in the larger unit. Both units are painted a pale slate gray throughout. In each unit one bathroom has a shower, while the other has a bathtub. In the larger unit Thoft says that she tried to create a spa-like feel. There are double sinks and a whole wall of cubby-like storage, perfect for everything from scented soaps to fluffy towels.
Schrayer says that he and Thoft considered completely staging the units, in other words, furnishing them from the ground up so that prospective buyers could envision how the rooms could work. “It would have cost about $5,000,” he says. They decided not to, not because of the cost, but because, says Schrayer, all of the furniture they found available for rent was wrong for the modern feel they were going for.
They did, however, do some staging for open houses, putting Oriental rugs on the floors, for example. The rugs are gone, but some staging elements remain. There are stunning landscape photos in a number of rooms. Many are by Schrayer’s friend Ed Greenblatt. Others are by artists who exhibit where Greenblatt does, at Gallery 14 in Hopewell.
A key piece of staging was unplanned. “People kept asking where they could put a bed,” says Thoft as she shows off the master bedroom, which a wall of closets and a number of windows. She decided that she had to illustrate, so she brought in a queen-size bed, which sits covered in a white duvet in the pristine room.
There is more staging outside. Thoft hired landscape designer Susan Camerano to turn the condos’ yard into appealing spaces. Camerano did so by putting in stone walkways and patios, planting small trees, and placing gorgeous tall galvanized steel planters full of pansies on patios and in doorways. (Don’t try to copy the planter idea; they appear to be sold out everywhere.) The cost for the landscaping was $11,000.
Thoft provided a most inviting finishing touch when she put her own outdoor dining set, complete with umbrella, on the front terrace. “It was $800,” she says. “If the buyers want it, they can have it.” It’s a small thing, but it has a big impact, conjuring up visions of sunset suppers and lazy summer afternoons.
From the landscape photos on the walls to the planters flanking the doors, the scene has been set. The condos are ready for their new owners. They will stake out their corner of old Princeton in brand new homes, which blend perfectly with the neighborhood where the original owners built a little ranch to house a growing family.