Rehab Reality Check: Falling in Love with an 1886 Row House

David Beckam

Part of the fun of watching home renovation “reality” shows is seeing how much a home can change in just a few weeks.

But sometimes, home renovations are ongoing processes that happen in fits and spurts as time and budget allow.  For Alex and Wendy Santantonio, completely rehabbing a historic Old Town rowhouse, first built in 1886, has taken almost two decades.

Newly married and long before becoming a Realtor, Wendy started looking at homes with her husband, Alex. Old Town was on their short list of neighborhoods.

“We walked in the front of the house,” Alex said, “and I remember when we got to the fifth room, at the back of the house, I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ And Wendy said, ‘Calm down.’”

It was the first house they had seen.

After looking at other homes in Georgetown, Adams Morgan, Cleveland Park and other nearby neighborhoods, they bought that first house they saw in Old Town. Wendy calls the house their “diamond in the rough.” The home, when they bought it, had no real personality, dated bathrooms and a very old kitchen.

“It didn’t reveal all of the work it needed,” she said. 

“The things we did see with it that made us fall in love with it were the transom windows, original doors, plaster walls and the crown molding. It had very intact historic charm and character, so we knew we could bring it back to life,” Alex said.

Since they purchased the home, the couple has been bringing it back to its original glory — and they’re doing so in front of an audience. They started to blog about their renovation journey, but have largely moved to Instagram, where they have more than 16,500 followers. Their account is @oldtownhome.

Gone are the 1980s finishes, including the Jacuzzi tub and the gray pedestal sink and matching toilet. “We’ve introduced what we feel is a more timeless look and we’ve been very diligent in trying to maximize storage,” Wendy said.

Architecturally, the house feels very original, since the home retained most of its footprint from when it was built in the 1800s. At no time did any of the property’s homeowners renovate the home to an open-concept floor plan, so the interior is very traditional for a historic rowhouse. In addition, the couple has gone to great lengths to bring back architectural elements that were missing from the original, including finding original-looking hardware to go with the original doors and windows.

The first two things the couple did was refinish the floors and take on a kitchen refresh on the cheap, Wendy said. They painted the cabinets and installed new hardware, learning that “with paint and a lot of elbow grease, we were able to make some changes that were budget-friendly but had an immediate impact.”  

Some other lessons, the Santantonios learned the hard way. They figured that renovating the entire house would take them three years. But some projects, such as stripping all the paint from the mouldings in the house, took a lot more time and effort than they originally estimated. Plus, early on in the process, they discovered extensive termite damage.

 “That was one of those surprises we were not emotionally or financially prepared to tackle,” Wendy said, but they “scraped together” the money to repair the damage.

There’s one rule with any historic home preservation and restoration project, Wendy said: “It’s going to take longer and cost more than you ever think.” “We kind of went into it a little naïve, but we figured things out, we saw that it was a bigger project than we initially thought, and we worked through the details of the effort until we were able to get our arms around it,” Alex said.

Their confidence in their ability to learn new things and execute projects grew over time. One of the things Wendy says she’s most proud of Alex for doing is learning the art of historic plastering.

“So many contractors are so quick to want to rip out plaster and replace it with drywall, so we’ve been able to keep the plaster throughout the house,” she said. To do that, Alex had to find special, lime-based restoration plaster and learn how to apply it the same way homebuilders did 150 years ago.

“This is where learning and putting that effort into doing it yourself makes sense,” Alex said. “It begins to preserve something that would traditionally be lost these days.” It may be easier and faster to hire experts, but if you have the time and interest in doing a historic project yourself, Alex said, “It’s completely in your reach to do it because of the amazing online communities that have popped up around old homes and restoration.”

That wasn’t the case when they first started out, before Instagram existed. (Their original blog is still available at 

“There’s this huge, old-house community that is this supportive, nurturing place where people share ideas and inspiration,” Alex said. He still gets questions from blog posts he wrote years ago. “It’s not just Alexandria by any means, but you get to see what people are doing from Boston and Maine to San Francisco and Los Angeles.” In fact, some of Alex and Wendy’s closest friends came from Instagram.  

After two decades of DIY renovations on the home, Wendy and Alex have a unique understanding of the potential pitfalls of some older homes in Alexandria. Wendy has found that insight valuable for her real estate clients, as she has a better understanding than most agents “about the level of effort that might be needed to change something, when to call in the experts and what can reasonably be tackled as a DIY project.”

As for those “reality” home-improvement shows: “They are a disservice to the general public,” Wendy said.

For all the hard work and headaches, Alex says that if he won the lottery and still wanted to work, he would love to spend time guiding homeowners on DIY historic preservation. “Maybe that’s a second career once I’m retired,” he said.

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