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Restoring decaying home a tough task

| Thursday, Dec. 9, 2004

Say the words "dream home" to most Pittsburghers, and no one will think of holes in the ceilings. Or pigeons living in the rafters, or water-damaged woodwork, or squatters' refuse strewn across the rooms.

Jackie Tulumaris isn't your average Pittsburgher.

Tulumaris, a Chicago native and former teacher, and her husband, Doug, have closed on a real estate deal that will lead to the restoration of the last decaying Victorian home on Denny Row, along West North Avenue in the North Side's Allegheny West section.

The other six Denny Row houses were bought and partly renovated by the Allegheny West Civic Association.

Though the Tulumaris property looked more like a nightmare than anyone's dream, the couple fought their way through the legal maze of buying a house on the delinquent tax rolls, a task Jackie Tulumaris said was scarier than finding more than 20 years of debris in the home.

"It had been closed up since the 1980s, and whoever lived there before just left all their clothes, books, papers and furniture there. People had come in and squatted in the space, but somehow I could see the potential as a real diamond in the rough," said Tulumaris, who bought and renovated one of the neighborhood's spacious, circa-1880s homes in 2001.

Worth about $350,000 restored, the house now is an eyesore worth maybe $10,000.

Like many areas of the city where old housing is restored by developers and new residents -- Lawrenceville and the South Side Slopes come to mind -- Denny Row once had its speculators and holdouts. Absentee owners refused to sell in hopes of cashing in at a later, more lucrative date.

After several years of trying to persuade the owner to sell, Tulumaris discovered that the property had ended up listed for sheriff's sale for back taxes. At the sale, Tulumaris learned it was her responsibility to research whether any liens had been placed on the property by the city, county or utilities.

"The owners can come in and buy (properties) back as many times as they like if they just pay the taxes and not do any repairs," she said, frustrated. "I was piling up legal fees and dealing with these convoluted laws."

Eventually, after cutting much red tape, Tulumaris was able to buy the home. A neighbor will restore it early next year.

Tulumaris sees no end to absentee owners holding up private urban renewal efforts.

"The city doesn't collect overdue taxes or force these people to sell, so it's really become convoluted for anybody trying to do what I did," she said. "You just have to stick in there and be patient."

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