Natalie McCluskey bought a patio home in Scottsdale's Laguna San Juan neighborhood as a business plan. Then she fell in love.
Ever since she moved from Dallas in 2012, McCluskey had been trying to establish her interior design company in the Phoenix area. But entering a new market had been a challenge.
Despite her 25 years of experience and hundreds of commercial and residential clients back in Texas, she needed contacts in Arizona. She needed to prove herself.
"And what better way to prove myself," she said, "than to buy a house and do my own renovation?"
She didn't intend to keep the property, just flip it and use it for her portfolio.
The perfect opportunity
She chose a home in Laguna San Juan. The community, built in the 1970s, stretches along Indian Bend Wash, close to both Chaparral Park and downtown Scottsdale — a location with good resale potential.
The house was extremely dated — low ceilings, a cramped kitchen, sunken living room and four atriums that served mostly as scorpion sanctuaries. But it also had some charms — the vaulted ceiling in the living room, the dramatic fireplace, the angled roofline reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright's work and a backyard that opened onto the greenbelt.
McCluskey could envision the potential.
"I felt like I could bring it back into style," she said. "Find a way to honor the Frank Lloyd Wright influence, but also my own inclination."
Besides, McCluskey figured, starting with a fixer-upper was the only way she could afford the house she wanted to show people.
Falling in love
As she started working up plans in the spring of 2016, McCluskey had a realization: She didn't just want to show off the house. She wanted to live in it.
"That's the twist," she said. "Once I got into the design, I fell so in love with this house and the neighborhood that I decided to stay."
The location had become as much of an attraction as the house.
"When I started meeting the neighbors, that really changed things," McCluskey said. "This is a wonderful, welcoming community, and they started championing me."
Neighbors stopped by with food, encouragement, offers to share their own remodeling blueprints, and the occasional glass of wine. One couple called almost daily with a dinner invitation.
That support was invaluable, McCluskey said, especially as the project moved from concept to construction and she began to regret her decision to save money by serving as her own general contractor.
"That was so hard," she said. "There were so many times that I was on the verge of tears. There were so many details and I was taking on all these things that I didn't have any experience with."
She said she'd look around at the mess and think, "I either screwed it all up or I did good, and I don't know yet which it is."
She juggled permits, inspections and multiple contractors. She fired underperforming work crews, revised timelines and brought in structural consultants to make sure nothing would fall down.
Asking for help
There were plenty of opportunities for things to fall down.
McCluskey wanted to remove the derelict atriums, but one of them was supporting the vaulted ceiling. To replace it, the construction crew had to bring in a 28-foot beam, which required new footings, which required drilling 18 inches into the floor.
"That was a little scary, honestly," McCluskey said.
And there were other scary things.
In order to raise the ceilings, they had to move the HVAC to the roof. The entire house had to be rewired, replumbed, and refloored. Skylights were installed, windows replaced, doorways widened, walls rearranged and the roof repaired.
It was stressful and expensive, McCluskey said.
"It was a fine line to stay within my own budget and still get the house I wanted," she said.
It was also hard work.
As the general contractor, McCluskey was on site all day, every day, alternating between managing the work and doing it herself.
On the Fourth of July, with no electricity for AC and just a few fans running off a generator, she arrived at 4:30 a.m. She was joined by a few dedicated carpenters who refused to leave until she did, despite the 119-degree temperatures.
Such generosity was a recurring theme in McCluskey's renovation experience, with even city inspector and hardware store employees offering support and advice.
"People will help if you ask them," she said. "That's a big thing I learned from this."
Making it her own
When the major construction was completed, McCluskey was back on familiar terrain.
Since she was keeping the house, she chose a style she loved: a neutral color palette and lots of textures, including wood, leather, glass and steel.
To balance her ever-shrinking budget and still get the look she wanted, McCluskey turned to Craigslist and consignment shops for many furnishings, saving her splurges for high-impact pieces like the custom-welded fireplace surround — a contemporary mix of steel and wood — that serves as a focal point for the house.
In the kitchen, a countertop made of gold Cararra marble adds visual luxury but was purchased for half-price from an installer's "boneyard."
She also designed the interior lighting, carefully siting fixtures and calibrating colors in a mix of LED lights to provide a natural glow while using minimal electricity.
"Lighting is a huge deal," McCluskey said. "It doesn't have to be expensive. It just has to be done right."
Also done right, by her estimation, are the bathrooms.
McCluskey, who has designed many restaurants in her professional life, joked that bathrooms are her specialty. In her own home, the utilitarian spaces have been given jewel-box treatment with artfully tiled shower enclosures, Venetian plaster walls, floating vanities and backlit mirrors that appear to glow.
But the bathrooms may have competition for favored status after McCluskey stumbled on a new-to-her decorating technique for the brick wall around her beloved fireplace.
She'd had the painters prime the brick but couldn't decide on the finish. While stalling, she was scrubbing the firebox when she inadvertently rubbed the wire brush against the white paint — and discovered that it left a beautiful grey burnish on the brick. She ended up burnishing the entire wall, experimenting along the way with the different effects produced with brass versus steel bristles.
"I had so much fun doing that," McCluskey said. "That was one of the most fun projects I did and I'll do it again and again."
And she may need to do it again.
By the time McCluskey finally moved in last year with her corgis Willow and Delta, she'd been far too busy finishing the house to try using it for promotion.
So it was a surprise when she was invited to include the house on the Scottsdale Home Tour in November. Out of the 400-some visitors who came, several have already hired McCluskey to help them with their own homes — and the burnished fireplace has been a popular request.
But even if there had been no professional payoff, McCluskey said she wouldn't regret the unexpected plot twist that turned her fix-and-flip story into a romance.
"I love living here," she said. "I love it every single day. I love walking the dogs on the greenbelt and I love coming home."
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