When Leanna Sun bought her tiny, rundown duplex in the Miracle Mile area of Los Angeles, it did seem like a miracle. As a divorced mom who was between jobs, Sun's prospects of home-ownership had seemed bleak until she finally found the right property. Then, last year, when Sun found the right contractor to help her fix up the property, it seemed like good fortune had come her way again.
Six years ago, Sun was a renter desperate to become a homeowner. She wanted to buy a duplex for two reasons. First, the potential rental income on the second unit would help qualify her for a loan. Second, she could rent the additional unit to her mother, who could provide childcare for Sun's daughter, Camille, then 5. Sun finally completed the purchase of a 1923 Spanish-style stucco duplex, with two one-bedroom units of about 800 square feet each, for $289,000.
In the explosive real estate market of Los Angeles, that was below market value, but for good reason. The duplex was small, dark, and dumpy and had been on the market more than a year. “Nobody wanted it,” Sun says. She made the best of the situation, furnishing her unit with antiques and comfortable slip-covered furniture. But after five years sharing the unit's one bedroom with her daughter, the living conditions began taking a toll on Sun's peace of mind. “I needed my own space. I was at the point of losing my mind,” she says. “I was really kind of sad.”
At first, Sun thought she would buy a duplex with bigger units. However, real estate prices had increased so much since she bought her duplex, that she was priced out of that option. Houses on her block have sold for up to and more than $1 million. She decided to stay put and remodel. Using $40,000 in equity that had accumulated on her property, Sun remodeled and now has her own bedroom and bathroom and French doors that open to a sunny deck. “I've become a very happy person,” Sun says, attributing her good fortune to her contractor, Brian Koh of A-Team Construction in Los Angeles.
At first, getting the job done seemed impossible. Even before she spoke to any contractors about her remodel, Sun knew that adding another bedroom to the back of her unit would be tricky. “This is a weird situation,” she was told by one contractor, who pointed out that the new bedroom would have to be accessed through the original bedroom at the back of the unit, like two train cars end to end. “This is really going to cost you,” another told her.
“I felt self-conscious about not being rich,” recalls Sun, who now works two jobs — as a legal secretary and as a clerk in a high-end retail shop — and still struggles to make ends meet. All she could say to the contractors was, “I know.” Finally, Sun got a referral for Brian Koh, who, a friend said, “will change your life.”
Koh was born in South Korea and immigrated to the United States in 1977 at the age of 28. In Korea, he was a civil engineer, designing multimillion dollar wharfs and other large projects. In the United States, he applied for jobs with large corporations, but was turned down due to his lack of English skills. Eventually, his brother-in-law, who does construction work, suggested that Koh do the same. Koh has steadily built his business from referrals and word-of-mouth — he does not have a Web site and does not use e-mail to communicate with clients. With about 20 skilled employees, mostly Korean, he does about $6 million a year in jobs, which average $100,000 each. The majority of his work is remodels and additions, but he also builds new homes.
As soon as he walked through Sun's front door, Koh had ideas about how to improve her home. Even before he saw the bedroom at the back of the unit, he suggested new windows for the dining room — to replace the broken 1960s-era louvered windows that were closed and covered up — to brighten up the space.
This suggestion was in line with Sun's belief in and practice of feng shui, the ancient Chinese art of placement. Bringing light into that side of the house was exactly what the principles of feng shui advised (see “A Feng Shui Primer,” on page 3).
Koh also had workable ideas when he saw the bedroom at the back. It immediately occurred to him that the right side of the existing bedroom could be sacrificed for a hallway, creating a smaller room for Camille. Then the hallway could lead to the new bedroom and bathroom, which would extend into the rear yard. “Sometimes you have an inspiration,” Koh says.