When Ed and Susan Nelson bought their first home in 1991, her mother cried.
"I don't want my daughter living here," Ed Nelson recalled his mother-in-law saying tearfully as she looked over their just-purchased home in northern Harford County.
She saw an old farmhouse swathed in a hodgepodge of canary-yellow aluminum siding and black faux-brick tarpaper. The three-story home's foundation slumped in the rear and its roof leaked. Inside, rickety floors sagged, unsecured drywall flapped over several walls and the floor was uneven. Plywood covered the second-level floors, and there were holes in the second-floor master bedroom's ceiling.
"It was a mess," said Ed Nelson, 45.
Even so, the couple was undeterred by the list of repairs and renovations necessary for their house, which was built during the first half of the 1800s in the mill town of Whiteford.
"We knew it had a lot of potential; my mother didn't," said Susan Nelson, 44. "My dad said the house should be bulldozed."
The Nelsons found the home in the pages of a real estate brochure at a Pennsylvania pizza parlor. They had been scouting southern Pennsylvania for an inexpensive home, Ed Nelson said.
"We couldn't afford anything [then] in Perry Hall, Kingsville, or anywhere in Maryland," he said.
Just as the Nelsons' lease to their Perry Hall apartment expired, they bought their Whiteford house for $62,000. The 15 acres of mostly wooded land the home sits on is about a third of a mile from the Pennsylvania line.
A few days before moving in, Ed Nelson stabilized the sagging foundation with concrete blocks and oak wedges in response to his home inspector's recommendations. That work began a makeover that continued for years. And it has helped to raise the home's value to $350,000, according to a November 2004 appraisal, Ed Nelson said.
Today, cedar shingles grace the home's exterior. All structural faults have long been repaired, and the first- and second-floor bathrooms have been modernized and renovated. Ed Nelson also built additions: a breakfast room on the kitchen, an enclosed front porch and a second-floor deck at the rear of the house.
The Nelsons worked to preserve the home's historic character with the renovations. This is particularly true in the 15-by-20-foot dining room - an original room in the structure, which once was a one-room stone cabin, Ed Nelson said.
After moving in, the Nelsons removed the dining room's drywall to reveal walls built with chestnut beams and gray-brown schist rock. The rough stone walls, combined with the white pine floors that Ed Nelson installed, provide a rustic feel.
The adjoining kitchen has modern oak cabinets and blue ceramic tile. A large oak table with Colonial-style chairs fills the breakfast room. Light streams through six windows. Also featured is a 102-year-old, black cast-iron stove, which sits in a nook at the kitchen entrance.
The Nelsons uncovered the original flooring on the second and third floors. After stripping dark brown paint from the old pine floors, the Nelsons stained them in a natural honey-oak color.
Early owners of the house built the second- and third-floor additions, the Nelsons said. Ed Nelson finished the second-floor fireplace that the previous owner started building. Nelson unearthed schist from the land around the house and used it in the hearth.
The third floor has been remodeled into bedrooms for the couple's children, Jessica, 16, and Luke, 12.
For all their renovations and repairs, the Nelsons spent $27,450 on materials, plumbing and appliances, including a coal furnace and the iron stove. That includes the costs of razing and rebuilding a small barn, which Ed Nelson converted to an office for his business, Outdoor Lighting Perspectives.
The Nelsons minimized labor costs by doing the work themselves and with the help of relatives. And Ed Nelson trimmed material costs with his knack for salvaging, trading and making do with what he found around him.
For instance, Ed Nelson milled many of the boards he used throughout the house. He also repaired a broken sawing machine that he found on the property and used it during the renovations. In a trade with an Eastern Shore sawmill operator, Nelson exchanged oak from his land for white pine to use as new flooring.
A natural with a hammer and nail, Ed Nelson said he had never renovated a house before. Instead, he learned by trial and error as he took his house apart. And it helped that as a machinist and licensed electrical contractor, Ed Nelson is skilled with his hands.
But he is quick to praise his wife for her patience during renovations.
"She has a pioneer spirit, too, because she stayed here when we had holes in the ceiling," he said.
Helen Jeffery, Susan Nelson's mother, said she now is a believer in the house - and her daughter and son-in-law's renovation abilities.
"I think it's a very nice home, ... warm and hospitable and inviting," Jeffery said. "They've worked hard to get it where they wanted it, and they've made it their home."