New Digs: DIY Dreams Come True in South Philly

Unlike many buyers, Caitlin Perkins was not looking for as much square footage as her budget could buy. Nor was she looking for recently rehabbed. Caitlin was looking for a house as small as possible with a sound structure, in South Philadelphia, to be her canvas. Solo found her just the place.


As a mixed-media artist, print maker, and painter, she knew she could peel back wallpaper, pull up carpet, and build furniture. Aside from structural integrity (and a basement), her priorities were size and location—and not in the typical sense.


As for size, Caitlin was inspired by the sustainability of the Tiny House Movement and originally sought to purchase a genuine “tiny house” on wheels (usually around 170-300 square feet), and a vacant lot to park it on. However, no bank would give her a mortgage for a house with wheels or vacant land.


Then a colleague pointed out that many houses in South Philadelphia fall within the tiny house criteria of 172-875 square feet. Added bonus for Caitlin was the fact that her employer, Fleisher Art Memorial, participates in Philadelphia Home-Buy-Now, an employer down payment matching program providing assistance for employees purchasing homes, typically near the workplace—in this case, zip codes 19147 and 19148.


The tiny house (left) and Caitlin, the tiny house owner and visionary (right)


With her budget and specifications in place, she needed a realtor to help her find and buy her future canvas. Caitlin reached out to several agencies to set up introductory interviews. “Deborah Solo was the only agent who took time to meet with me in person,” she recalls. “Everyone else was too busy to bother and just sent me a brief email back.” Deborah, on the other hand, thoughtfully walked her through the home buying process before Caitlin had even committed to being her client. Caitlin was sold.


Deborah was able to quickly identify properties that met Caitlin’s criteria and budget. Within a few showings, they found the perfect property in the Whitman section of South Philadelphia, and immediately put in an offer. Two other developers also put offers on the house. Deborah encouraged Caitlin to write a personal letter to the owners in addition to going in at the full asking price that the developers were offering. The letter worked, and the seller selected Caitlin’s offer!


Did we mention that the house, weighing in at 728 square feet, had drop ceilings, wood paneling, velvet wallpaper, and 30-plus year old carpet? In other words, in Caitlin’s eyes, “I knew this was the perfect house.” On March 1st, a week after closing, she began peeling back the layers on the walls, floors, and ceilings in the house to get down to the original structure, with the help of her friend and handyman Tom Karu. Caitlin began adding her custom, creative finishes from there.


The dining room before (left) and after (right). Caitlin cleverly painted the wood panelling and installed new pine flooring to bring this room into the 21st century


By the time the photographs were taken for this article in mid-May, Caitlin had made an astonishing amount of progress. Exceptionally astonishing considering she did all the work on the property while working her full-time job. “I find it energizing,” she explains.


Only an energized individual could remove five layers of flooring from the living room, layers of wall paper from each wall, lift drop ceilings, build custom kitchen shelving and countertops, patch plaster walls and use the historically accurate technique of lime washing.


Caitlin built this sideboard (left) out of a wall cabinet from the kitchen, and crafted a bedroom closet (right) with three folding chairs


Out of these and many more accomplishments, the only thing that temporarily thwarted Caitlin was the staircase. “It almost broke me,” she recounts, “it had carpet, then linoleum, then several layers of paint and adhesive…it took forever.” The results of her hard work? A house that is a Pinterest DIY dreamscape, and a homeowner who lost four sizes in the process!


The stunning kitchen counter, custom-made with metal pipes, butcher block, and a repurposed cabinet


Not only has the house itself been a canvas, Caitlin also plans to use much of the space in the house to create art in. The front room will be primarily a painting studio, the basement a printmaking studio, and the second bedroom is her writing room.


The living room, desperately in need of an update before (left), elegant modern painting studio after (right)


We may have to make a second visit to Caitlin in a few months, at the rate she’s enhancing the property, it has many more dramatic transformations to come! She has already decided that creating a water-saving washing sink in the bathroom will be her next project.

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