Fixer-upper becomes tropical paradise for a Woodland Hills couple

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

LOUNGING ON a chaise beneath a Balinese umbrella in the backyard of Edward Sorano and Scott Ellis, you can imagine yourself on vacation at a tropical resort. Surrounded by tiki torches, Indonesian fabrics, gurgling fountains and tropical plants, you half-expect someone to take your drink order.

The illusion is intentional, say the Woodland Hills residents, who created a retreat that reflects their memories of trips to Thailand and Hawaii.

"The gardens of Thailand and those surrounding their temples are beautiful and calm," Sorano says. "I promised myself that if I ever bought a home, I would incorporate that look and feel."

That home, a 1960 fixer-upper purchased seven years ago, came with a neglected pool, dull redwood fencing and empty flower beds edged in red brick. The interior needed updating too -- new bathrooms and flooring -- so little money was left for tackling the exterior. Sorano, a heart monitor technician, and Ellis, a software developer, took on the challenge of evoking Bangkok's Sukhothai Hotel but on a Motel 6 budget.

Today, the area is transformed thanks to purchases at garage and estate sales, thrift stores and the clearance shelves at places such as Costco, Lamps Plus and Osh.

The outdoor dining room is defined by white floor-to-ceiling sheers, $10 a pair from IKEA, that seem to float in the wind. The curtains are hung from bamboo dowels that are attached to the patio's awning with clear fishing line.

Durable 12-inch-square porcelain tile from Rio Marble & Granite in North Hollywood helps the room to feel distinct from the house and the garden. A dramatic bar, a $50 garage sale find, anchors one corner of the room. Sorano and Ellis replaced the water-damaged front doors with plywood, repainted the bar red and black and added metal decoration from HomeGoods. New castors allow easy movement for events such as the holiday party they host every year.

A nearby marble buffet was an inexpensive purchase because of a chip. The dining chairs, re-covered in vinyl from a downtown Los Angeles fabric store, and the hefty glass-topped dining table are all from garage sales. The wrought-iron chandelier from Illuminations can be dressed up or down with greens and flowers, depending on the occasion.

Ellis reimagined the landscape, adding Japanese maple, oleander, canna and Hawaiian ti plants.He placed $12 palms from Home Depot in oversized pots from Costco and Osh around the pool. Tall bamboo provides privacy and shade. "You can split it in half or more, depending on the original container size," Ellis says of the bamboo. "The new plants will grow as full and lush as the original."

Sorano and Ellis emphasize they were not working with a five-figure budget -- "just our imagination and a little sweat," Sorano says. In the end, he estimates they spent about $4,000 for the furniture (including seating areas around the pool), water features, tile, bar, curtains, pots and plants. Among their money-saving strategies: building their own little fountain with a small pump and $20 glazed pot, and shopping off-season. "Now is the time to buy space heaters!" Sorano says.

But when asked about a striking mustard-hued ceramic pot, Sorano gulps and pauses with a sheepish look. Eventually he confesses to spending $130 on it at Jackalope Pottery in North Hollywood. "Let's just say we went back twice before we bought that," he says, laughing.

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