Restore, Repair, Renew stories: Historic Philadelphia row home gets major facelift

Marjorie first noticed the cracks several years ago. They ran from ceiling to floor in her South Philadelphia row home, where she’s lived since 1996.

The home, built in 1920, had slowly been deteriorating for more than two decades. The large front window bowed out and the exterior bulged even more in the summer heat, as if it were pregnant, Marjorie said.

Because of the shifting foundation, she couldn’t close her front door without pieces of brick and dust showering her. When it rained, she couldn’t close or lock the door at all.

Marjorie’s home exterior visibly bulged due to structural damage.

“You could see the crack move further and further every year,” Marjorie said. “The mortar was separating from the foundation. You can tell because the crack itself was growing on the second floor.”

She knew it was time to invest in a major repair project to save her home of 30 years. She’d recently retired after a 30-year career in the public sector, where she heard about Restore, Repair, Renew. The City of Philadelphia program, which Clarifi administers, helps homeowners access affordable, low-barrier home repair loans.

The RRR program’s 3% fixed interest loan with a 10-year payback period was a rare find, Marjorie said, given the high interest rates of most home improvement loans, which typically range from 6% to just over 20%.

Determined to find a general contractor in a high-demand area, Marjorie started walking around her neighborhood and observing renovation projects. She took pictures and talked to the workers, narrowing down her search contractor by contractor.

She found her future contractor several houses down. After showing him photos of the structural and foundational deterioration, she walked with him down to her home so he could view the damage in person. Confident in her choice upon seeing his work, Marjorie moved to schedule the renovation with him. The crew began working on her home in September 2023.

The money I spent on the repair is automatically money in my pocket, because it’s equity.

Marjorie, Philadelphia homeowner

The four-month project required ripping out the entire front face of the house, from roof to basement. Marjorie initially thought she’d need to seek temporary housing, but the contractor installed a temporary studded wall with a lockable door.

“I felt secure inside my house even though the whole outside was exposed,” she said. “I was able to maintain electricity and WiFi, though I had many cold nights during the winter months.”

The process of having the payment made to her licensed contractor with an invoice made it easy to keep the project on schedule, she said.

Aside from renovating the home’s front brick exterior and installing a new black door, Marjorie’s contractor completed everything to the City of Philadelphia’s code regulations, which included an outside night light, spigot, faucet outlet, and mailbox — “I forgot I had a mailbox [at my home],” she said, laughing. “I thought I wasn’t getting mail, and here it is! I just didn’t check.”

The new brick exterior means a safer, more energy efficient home. Marjorie noticed the payoff immediately when her gas bill went down. She is now enjoying retirement in a structurally safe home, where she can now lock her front door and sleep in peace.

Marjorie stands outside her newly renovated South Philadelphia row home, where she has lived since 1996.

“This is absolutely a good investment in my home,” Marjorie said. “The money I spent on the repair is automatically money in my pocket, because it’s equity. Now my house can compete with my neighbors’ and with all the new construction in my neighborhood. It increased the value of my property.”

Read more about the Restore, Repair, Renew program here.

Marjorie’s tips for home repair

  • Window shop for the right contractor. It can be hard to find someone online, given the high demand for contractors in Philadelphia. Checking out contractors in action can help you determine not only the quality of their work but also how well you interact with them.
  • Be patient. “The more patient you are, the better your relationship with the contractor,” Marjorie said.
  • Take pictures of your home before and at the start of the project, during and 3/4 of the way through construction, at completion and during the final walk-through.
  • Speak up early when something isn’t right. A few weeks after Marjorie’s project was complete, she noticed the windows on her first floor were leaking after a heavy rain. Her contractor came back the next day and re-caulked the windows at no additional charge, she said.