Making over a house - and a life

Rehabbing family home inspired real estate career

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

In some ways, Beth Franken's story of her home at 1111 Hayes Ave. is a typical Oak Park story.

Young, professional mother moves to the suburbs seeking a home with a yard and good schools for her toddler sons. After the passage of time, those sons head off to college, and mother looks to downsize her empty nest. 

Her story is also the quintessential Oak Park story in that as she rehabbed her home, she also made over herself. Franken, who has a Ph.D. in English, worked as a professional writer in advertising before her home inspired her to take a new approach to her career.

When Franken was looking for a house in Oak Park 17 years ago, she was a poster child for the sandwich generation. With two young sons, she was also taking care of an aging parent.

"I was moving at a time when my beloved mother was in decline," she said. "I couldn't bear the thought of putting her into a nursing home. I thought that I needed a two-flat or a house with a coach house."

She realized that she needed a space that would accommodate two divergent age groups: the very young and the very old, one that would also continue to work for her sons as they grew. 

Franken found a large bungalow in northeast Oak Park that seemed to fit the bill. It had a first-floor bedroom and full bathroom for her mother, and formal living and dining room for her mother to escape to if the kids were irritating. The house also had three bedrooms upstairs, and the potential for a family room off the kitchen that would give the kids separate space.

Franken points out that the key word was "potential," saying that the house was in terrible shape when she bought it, and she beat out professional rehabbers in the bidding process. 

"The sellers said that if they had a choice between sending their kids to camp, they did that rather than fix up the house," Franken said.

There were holes in the floors and an upstairs shower that poured water through the kitchen ceiling when Franken bought the house. She remembers crying when the sellers asked her to come up $5,000 in asking price to beat out the rehabbers, but she did it to get the space her family needed.

"I didn't know anything about working on a house, but I came in with a contractor and gave him my ideas, and he said he could do it," Franken said.

They took down walls to create a kitchen that opened to an eat-in area and family room and repaired the home's many plumbing and structural issues. Upstairs, she reconfigured a room for her sons, Connor and Casey Hepburn. 

Once used as master bedroom, the space originally had no closet. She added storage to the L-shaped room and reconfigured windows, allowing them to fit in bunk beds and eventually a foosball table and workout equipment as they grew. She added a bathtub to the upstairs bath and cleaned up the basement to make it a hangout space for her sons and their friends.

She quickly realized that spending that extra $5,000 to win the house had paid off. "Within five years, the house had doubled in value," Franken said. "Of course, market conditions were good, and I bought below market."

House flipping bug

In hindsight, Franken says she knew that her success depended on a favorable market, and she knows that lots of people think they have what it takes to flip a house. Nevertheless, she had been bitten by the real estate bug, and her success with her own house made her begin to contemplate doing it for someone else.

"I rehabbed this house to make it fit for my family, and I saw financially that it was a good move," Franken said. "That gave me the notion that I could flip a house. I think a lot of people have that fantasy."

She ran with the dream and began talking to builders, bankers, her family and realtors. A few years ago, she bought her first flip property, a rundown two-flat on Taylor Avenue in Oak Park, and documented the flip process for the Chicago Tribune. 

The reality was a bit more challenging than the dream, but she earned a profit on the sale of the house.

"The reason I was successful was because I listened to people who knew more than me," Franken said. "My carpenter said to me, 'It's like you're in college but didn't go to high school.' I had a lot to learn."

From that experience, she was motivated to try another career and decided to get her real estate license. Today, she works for Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Koenig Rubloff of Oak Park and notes the arc of her career has mirrored her experience with her own life. 

When she moved in, Connor and Casey could walk to Hatch Elementary School a few blocks away, and now that the two are out of the house, she is looking for a new experience in Oak Park and has put the home on the market.

 "I chose my house because it was great for my family and because I wanted to raise my kids in Oak Park," Franken said. "I changed the house, and the house changed me."

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