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Rehabbing Your Rowhouse

Bringing an older Philly rowhouse into the 21st century can be challenging. We want to make it easier and more affordable. With 70 years of experience, our agents at Solo Real Estate have managed multiple home renovation projects across the city so we’re sharing some insights on what to look out for in a rehab property, and what you can expect to have to update. 

Whether you’ll be doing a gut-renovation or updating a few things, most row houses tend to have the same problems. They are dark and narrow with small kitchens, postage-stamp-size middle bedrooms, and outdated bathrooms. The secret to home renovation is knowing where and how to open up a space to more light and functionality. For that, you need to work with an experienced architect and contractor who have expertise in rehabbing homes like yours.  

Kitchens & Bathrooms

Even the most livable property usually requires a major makeover of the kitchen and bathroom. If sustainability is your goal, just say no to granite and marble countertops. “Custom made cast concrete countertops and sinks are better for the environment,” said Jayme Guokas, owner of Craftwork Design, a Philadelphia-based design firm specializing in customized living spaces. “Using cast concrete saves material from being quarried from the earth. It has a more hand crafted, warm feeling, especially with inlays of fossils, agate rocks and minerals,” he said.

When Guokas rehabbed his East Kensington row home, an 1880 structure, he conceived of it as a showcase for his business. “The house reflects my firm’s design principles as well as our ethic of sustainable building, using reclaimed and locally sourced materials wherever possible.”  

For example, Guokas used Heart Pine flooring from a South Philly factory and a former livestock tank as a shower base. The cast concrete throughout the house, on countertops, windowsills, and sinks, featured inlaid glass, stone, and antique tile. Guokas balanced the reclaimed accents and poured concrete with contemporary appliances, light fixtures and ceiling fans. Guokas also used custom cast concrete to update the kitchen of Deborah Solo.

Deborah Solo’s kitchen. Photo: Isaac Turner Photography

In his work for Parish House, a 1912 property in East Kensington, Guokas applied principles of sustainability. He created hand-troweled concrete countertops in all six units, as well as concrete sinks in two of the four bathrooms. An antique longleaf pine vanity is made from the beams salvaged from the adjacent church.

Parish House Interior by Craftwork Design. Photo: Isaac Turner Photography
Concrete Sink made by Craftwork Design. Photo: Isaac Turner Photography

Influenced by woodworker/designer George Nakashima and the Arts & Crafts aesthetic of Henry Mercer, Guokas uses birch plywood for kitchen cabinets with creative stain options. A beautiful example is the hand-stained cabinetry he completed for a house on Seventh Street.

Let there be light!

An open floor plan is a popular way to bring more light and flow into your house. Or add a skylight to the living room, kitchen, or at the top of the stairwell. When possible, enlarge windows or select a front door with a decorative glass panel. When it comes to ceiling light fixtures, consider mixing recessed lights throughout the first floor with contemporary or vintage hanging fixtures.

The lighter your walls, the more light bounces off of them. Go with bright neutrals or white. But not just any white. Sherwin Williams offers 48 shades, ranging from cool to warm.  Benjamin Moore has over 300! We recommend bright white for ceilings and a warmer white for walls. If you’d like to add a pop of color, paint an accent wall to create a focus area while maintaining a sense of openness with the surrounding white walls.

Doing away with the cramped second floor bedroom and enlarging the bathroom is an option if you do not require the room as a nursery or office. Another way to open up your home is to create a trendy roof deck with an outdoor spiral staircase.

The Rehab Bible

Before you make any decisions, read the Philadelphia Rowhouse Manual, an online, free, homeowners Bible. It clearly spells out how to approach renovations and additions, permits and codes. More importantly, it tells you how to avoid costly mistakes.

  • Don’t try to be your own contractor
  • Don’t work with relatives or friends
  • Don’t work without a written contract
  • Don’t put down more than a 20% deposit
  • Don’t release more than 95% of the total cost before all work is completed to your satisfaction

“Managing over 400 units for different owners, Solo Real Estate is positioned to help row house owners identify reputable architects and contractors,” said Alex Franqui.  “We get multiple bids from contractors. If you have a small job, it’s difficult to find a plumber or roofer. But we do enough business with them that they will handle the job.” 

Interested in purchasing a rehab property? We can help! Learn more about our buying or property investment services here, and contact us for more information.

Buying your first investment property in Philadelphia

Thinking of buying your first investment property? Philadelphia offers first time real estate investors excellent opportunities to create passive income streams while contributing to the improvement of its neighborhoods. We spoke with Alex Franqui, an agent at Solo Real Estate, to get the inside scoop on how to buy an investment/rental property, deal with contractors and circumvent management issues.

“Investors are coming from outside Philadelphia because you can still buy properties here in the $250,000 to $350,000 range in neighborhoods that have already seen a lot of reinvestment,” said Franqui who recommends setting aside another twenty-five thousand for improvements. “Those improvements can increase the value of your property by as much as $50,000, as well as command higher rents. You want to avoid a full gut rehab and find a property that needs updating, but is in livable condition.”

Another reason to take the plunge? Interest rates are still at an all time low! 

Best Neighborhoods to Invest In Right Now

If you think that all the popular neighborhoods are out of your price range don’t worry, Philly still has plenty of exciting opportunities all across the city for discerning new investors. 


“For the last decade, out-of-state investors were focused on Fishtown. Now the New Kensington Development Corporation is investing in the area north of Lehigh Avenue.”  This includes the $17.8 million conversion of the former Orinoka Mills textile factory into a 51-unit residential property and the $7.5 million renovation of another textile mill into Coral Street Arts House, providing 27 living/work spaces for artists.

Coral Street Arts House - Kensington
Coral Street Arts House

Another up and coming area is Strawberry Mansion, north of Brewerytown and east of Fairmount Park in North Philadelphia. The architecture reflects its former middle-class Jewish community, 1890-1950. Franqui views Strawberry Mansion as a good, long term return on investment. He also sees new investors looking into neighborhoods like Germantown in Northwest Philly and Mantua adjacent to Poweltown Village in University City. What do these neighborhoods have in common? Easy access to Center City and major highway arteries.

Meanwhile, there are still bargains to be had in West Philly and Point Breeze. “Point Breeze is still viable in the $175,000 to $250,000 range,” said Franqui who recently showed several properties there to first time investors. He attributes the rise in prices of Cedar Park properties in West Philly to the University of Pennsylvania’s ongoing contribution of $1,330 per child in Penn Alexander Elementary School at 4209 Spruce. But there are still attractive investment opportunities adjacent to Cedar Park in the Kingsessing neighborhood where Bartram’s Garden is located.

Management expertise

Franqui has a unique understanding of Philly’s diverse neighborhoods. His parents, Deborah Solo and Angel Franqui, the owners of Solo Real Estate, moved to Northern Liberties in 1987. “It was one of the first neighborhoods to experience rapid reinvestment, growth, and development, along with the Graduate Hospital area,” said Franqui. 

“My background is in City Planning, and my mother’s background is in architecture; we encompass all the expertise an investor needs. With 70 years of experience, managing 500 units for different owners, Solo Real Estate is a full-service management company. “We get multiple bids from contractors. If you have a small job, it’s difficult to find a plumber or roofer. But we do enough business with them that they will handle the job,” said Franqui. “Our team at Solo will help you manage your property so it doesn’t become your full-time job and help maximize your return on investment.”

“We can also tailor our services to each investor’s preferences and budget. In the long run, a patient investor can do well here,” said Franqui. “Our goal is to improve neighborhoods, to maintain the character of their built environment, to renovate and restore.”

Interested in purchasing your first investment property? We can help! Learn more about our property investment and property management services here, and contact us for more information.