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Two houses are better than one, family discovers


Jeff Underwood can't complain: He commutes 25 feet to work each morning.

That's because Underwood, a real estate broker, and his wife, Shari, bought the house next door and use their first home primarily as an office for his budding real estate business.

With both Columbia homes, the Underwoods have nearly 3,800 square feet of living space, eight bedrooms, 3 1/2 baths, two yards and two driveways. Three of the bedrooms in their first house are used as offices for Jeff's business, while the couple make their home with their two boys, Jack and Kevin, next door in the home they bought in March 1999.

"This is how I go to work each morning," said Jeff, 42, walking out the side door of their new home, past a fenced-in area for their mixed-breed dog, Louise, and through a side door into his first home's garage.

When they met in July 1997, Jeff lived in a split-foyer home in Columbia, and Shari had a home in Glen Burnie. Jeff ran his real estate business out of the split-foyer, and Shari was working as an executive assistant to the president of a bottle manufacturing company.

The couple met through an Internet personal ad that Jeff posted around that time, when Shari was separated from her first husband. After a month of e-mails back and forth, the two started dating. They married on March 19, 1999. "He's my best friend," said Shari, adding, "My knowledge of home care prior to marrying Jeff was vacuuming."

Before he got married, Jeff had converted three bedrooms in the lower level of the split-foyer into offices: one for his mother, Claire, who works as his business assistant, another for himself and a "copy room" where he processed real estate documents.

Upstairs, he had his bedroom, the kitchen with sliding glass doors that opened to a deck, the living room and an exercise room. On the wall hangs a replica of a barracuda that Jeff caught while on a fishing trip in Hawaii in 1994.

"Yep, this was my bachelor pad," said Jeff.

But as their wedding date approached, the couple realized that neither of their homes would suffice for them and her two children from her previous marriage.

When the house next door to Jeff's went on the market (Jeff managed the home for a pair of doctors who no longer lived in it), he was eager to buy it. They closed on the house on March 23 last year - four days after their wedding.

Yet the house wasn't in move-in condition. In fact, Shari said she was dead set against buying it.

"It was [Jeff's] idea to buy the house," Shari, 32, said while sitting in her newly renovated kitchen. "I didn't want to buy the house at all, because it was ugly. I thought it was the most hideous thing I'd ever seen."

She recalled the garish "shag blue" carpeting in the living room, ugly wrought-iron railings and outdated wood paneling.

All of it was torn out, and most of the rooms were "stripped down to the studs," Shari said.

Jeff oversaw the renovations and hired contractors to do whatever work he had neither the time nor the expertise to do, such as replacing most of the plumbing and electrical wiring.

He kept meticulous documentation of the renovations and researched the home's origins, from its builder and developer down to its previous three owners. He keeps a scrapbook of before-and-after pictures, even preserving various types of wallpaper he scraped from the walls.

"This is what they liked in the 1970s," said Jeff, showing a sample.

In their new residence, the Underwoods remodeled the kitchen, installing new cabinets and 12-by- 12-inch Spanish tiles in the kitchen and at entrances throughout the house. Jeff said the tiles are easy to maintain.

After replacing the home's electrical, phone and cable wiring, the couple installed recessed lighting in all the rooms, a relief for Jeff, who stands 6 feet 6 inches.

A feature he added for the children was recessed foot-lighting on the wall of the stairwell to the second floor.

And as a testament to the Underwoods' marriage, Jeff built a niche in the foyer where he hung a gold-framed copy of their wedding announcement.

"I call it the hole in the wall," said Shari, jesting with Jeff.

The remodeling took nine months. They said they budgeted $20,000 to freshen up the three-bedroom home but ended up spending nearly $70,000.

The Underwoods said they are done with "98 percent" of the work on their new home, which sold for $139,000. But Jeff continues to innovate and renovate. He has begun remodeling his first home, the one that serves as his office. He's fixing up the kitchen and bathroom on the top floor and plans on expanding the outside deck along the full length of the house.

Meanwhile, Jeff has designs on another house in the neighborhood, which he thinks might go up for sale soon.

"I like to try out my ideas on houses," Jeff said. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, it works."

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