Carmalena Stoltzfus and Raj Iyengar’s converted carriage house in downtown Lancaster had 16-foot-high ceilings, industrial design details and lots of light.
It was Carmalena’s dream home. But it wasn’t the perfect space for a family with two young children and a Saint Bernard.
So they sold the home.
“I told my husband, if we do move, it has to be a fixer-upper and make it be what I want it to be,” Stoltzfus says. “Otherwise, I’m going to move into somebody else’s design work. I’m just going to hate living there.”
After 20 years renovating homes in Lancaster to rent, she knows what she likes. So a property in Lancaster’s College Park neighborhood fit the bill. The house, built in 1926, had sat vacant for three years and needed lots of work.
While the couple set out to fix up the home and sell it, they later decided to settle in. In just a few years, they’ve made changes to every room in the home, doing a lot of the work themselves.
Pining for a project
About 20 years ago, Carmalena, 44, purchased her first fixer-upper property, a foreclosed two-unit apartment building on West King Street. She lived in one of the apartments and did a lot of the revamping with help from family. She now owns and manages six units in the city.
The home in College Park was another potential project when she and Raj, 42, heard about it from friends.
“I love to stay home with my kids but I also really love to work,” Carmalena says. “I was hungry for a project.”
They bought the home in 2017 in a private sale and started working. During the time the home sat vacant, an unchecked roof leak caused water damage. The worst damage was a five-foot hole in the ceiling of one of the bedrooms.
They spent about seven months making changes to the first and second floors before moving in. Their new home had a large yard, and it’s not far from Wharton Elementary School. When Leena Janae, now 9, got a spot in the school’s dual-language program, that was yet another reason to settle down there. They’re hoping Maya Lyn, 6, will be part of the same program.
One of their biggest projects came together later, as they had time and money. This involved converting the attic space into an owner’s suite, adding a fourth bedroom to the house.
Each room had a combination of DIY work and hiring help. Carmalena learned a lot about construction through renovating nine apartments. When she hires contractors, she often asks to watch to learn more.
Her mother, Lena Arbogast, lives in Strasburg also shows up on Fridays to spend time together and to get to work.
“There’s always a big list,” she says with a laugh.
Cooking up a kitchen
The to-do list in the kitchen was long.
The kitchen used to be separated from the dining room by a wall with a swinging door. To open the space, they removed part of the wall, stopping where the pipes were located.
“It didn’t make sense to reroute all those pipes,” Carmalena says. “It would have been too expensive.”
The space is now more open, especially helpful when the girls are working at the dining room table and someone’s in the kitchen.
Carmalena laid the tile on the walls and the floor. Contractors hung new cabinets.
Woodworker Jonathan Bancroft Colon created cherry slabs for the kitchen’s open shelves, which Carmalena installed.
“It was a bit of a job because it’s a concrete cinderblock firewall,” she says. “And so my mom had to stand behind me and push my shoulder.”
A wall for artwork came together with a coat of magnetic paint.
The counters are stainless steel because that material is inexpensive, doesn’t stain and is easy to clean, Carmalena says. The surface is a giant cutting board, with nicks easily sanded away.
A lighting fixture came together with a board found in the garage. The board became warped over the years, which made it perfectly imperfect.
“I didn’t even have to run channels for the wires,” she says. “It just worked perfectly.”
Then one day, Raj felt a drip. They looked up and the ceiling was bulging. A cast iron return pipe in the bathroom above had rusted and started leaking.
It was the day before Thanksgiving.
Plumbers fixed the leak.
That was a tough project but one of the hardest parts of this work is much smaller: finishing the final details. Living in a space that’s unfinished, it’s easy to focus on the next big project instead of picking the last piece of trim.
Eventually, it will all come together.