A New Face in Old Home Restoration
How one woman is bringing the WOW factor to Wilmington real estate
By Brittany Conley » Photos by Pleasure Island Photo
If you've taken any trips through the residential area of downtown Wilmington recently, you might have noticed a few new pops of color on houses that were, less than a year ago, dilapidated and drab. Look closer, and you might find a few of these now vibrant homes also have new windows and doors, roofs and outdoor lighting fixtures. Another thing to keep your eye out for, when discovering these newly renovated homes, is a little red sign by the road. It will read “Another project by WOW, Wild Old Women, LLC,” and that little sign carries with it a lot of big promises from arguably one of the country's strongest female authorities on restoration and home design, Sue Boone.
The Road to WOW
Sue was born in New York City, raised in New Jersey, and she hasn't sat still since. “I've lived everywhere and enjoyed every minute of every day of my life,” says Boone. The first time she lived on the North Carolina coast was a six-year stint spent working in Morehead City's hotel industry. It was after moving back to New Jersey, and managing a hotel there, that Boone began sketching homes and started daydreaming of a new career path. She enrolled in Monmouth College and got her General Contractor's license—a truly rare accomplishment for a woman over 30 years ago.
After graduating Monmouth, she wasted no time getting to work and early on received strong praise and accolades in the male-dominated real estate and construction world. “My first subdivision was written up in the New York Times, Courier News and Home Builders Magazine,” says Boone.
One can imagine, especially all those years ago, that it was not the easiest task for a woman to successfully take charge of a construction site. But Boone was hardly done, despite the initial friction with crewmembers. “Oh, I'd hear it all the time. 'Some woman is running this job site,' but once [the men] figure out I know what I'm doing, they come around,” she says.
Boone made her mark out West, too, by taking on the Phoenix and Los Angeles markets. “By dumb luck, I found myself renovating historic buildings into hotels,” she says. This “dumb luck” became her passion and she carved out space for herself in this industry niche, with a trail of fine projects behind her.
With such a storied and successful career—one she managed while also being a wife and mother to five, and eventually a grandmother to ten—anyone would agree that when Boone retired to the picturesque beaches and crisp, saltwater air of Wilmington it would have been perfectly fitting for her to choose to laze about the sandy shores. But this is Sue Boone, after all; sitting still is not the way.
Wild Old Women of Wilmington
“I can look at something falling down and make it better,” says Boone, which is just what she discussed with her longtime friend Carol Besman whom she'd met in Morehead City all those years before. Carol jumped in with both feet to team up with Boone's mission—and if you ever have the pleasure of speaking with her, you'll see why anyone would sign up, longtime friend or not—as did Brian Bursell of Blue Coast Realty.
“I met Sue a little over two years ago as she [was] looking to relocate in the downtown Wilmington area,” says Bursell, adding that Boone had a very specific type of home in mind: it had to be downtown and she did not want new construction. “Sue is great. She walks the walk. She lives in downtown Wilmington, she works with her neighbors, hires local help, dines in the city, and loves the waterfront,” he says.
It is safe to say that Bursell delivered results that pleased his new discerning client as she has continued to draw on his expertise in the local market. In turn, he is pleased to work with someone keen to not just “flip” houses, and not even to just restore them to their former glory, but someone who applies modern solutions to fix historic problems.
It is no secret that with the success of some DIY-centric television shows, flipping homes saw a meteoric rise in popularity, with many seeking a rags-to-riches story of their own, sometimes eschewing quality and even safety for the sake of a quick profit. That isn't the way Boone and the team at Wild Old Women see it, and that isn't the way they do it.
The WOW Way of Restoration
“We aren't just putting lipstick on these houses,” says Boone. The homes she looks for are all in pretty rough shape, abandoned, and often on the list for demolition. Where some people might fix a crooked board and put on a coat of paint, Boone demands more. Much, much more. “We jack them up off their current footings,” she says, notably with extra pride in her voice. “We build stem walls instead of just piers, which helps keep out unwanted creatures among other things.”
After the home's foundation has been updated and strengthened, it is lowered, and the work begins. Every single aspect of the home, from its foundation to its roof, is carefully considered. The taupe on the walls isn't a random choice, nor is the tile or the meticulously placed can lighting. But with her extensive expertise in large-scale restoration projects, Boone has tricks up her sleeve that homeowners may not see but will certainly appreciate in the years to come. One such trick is insisting on a plate of galvanized steel being placed between the shower pan and the subfloor, adding decades of water damage protection. Cutting corners isn't an option; all permits are pulled, and everything is to code—or better.
Another example of an unseen, yet certainly appreciated, element in a Wild Old Women restoration that goes above and beyond local building codes is adding extra wood to the corner studs which helps with the home's ability to withstand high wind conditions—something any coastal homeowner should appreciate. “We do what is right for the neighborhood and what is right for the house,” she says. “We're adding 150 years of life to these homes.”
Of course, Boone and her crew thoroughly consider the aesthetics of the home as well. After all those years spent transforming historic buildings into hotels, she developed a deep appreciation for lovingly incorporating as many original elements as feasible. In one of her most recent restorations, at 808 Rankin Street, she had the idea of salvaging a main beam and repurposing it into a gorgeous mantle that hangs over an electric fireplace. Even the exterior color of the home was inspired by the original, by carefully scraping away years of paint to uncover what decades of neglect had hidden. These thoughtful touches provide the perfect marriage of the home's history to its future.
That, for Boone, is what is truly the most important consideration for her restoration projects: the home's future. Since she's adding so many years of life to the house, she thinks through all the ways families will enjoy it as their home. “You have to consider everything,” she says. “You have to think about where the beds will go, and if the bed is going to go on this wall, where are they going to plug in lamps or a TV? So, we figure that out and we make sure there are outlets there. You have to give them plenty of storage and a pantry, too.”
One might think that with the extensive work that goes into these Wild Old Women jobs, the turnaround time on a home takes months upon months, but Boone and her crew have this thing down to a science already. “We can turn a house in seventy-five to ninety days, depending on the size,” she says. Such an incredible feat is made possible because Boone is hardly someone who sits on the sidelines and crosses her fingers that things will happen how they are supposed to. “My crew stays on the property,” she says. “If they need nails, I go get them. I source every stick and nail for these houses.”
It certainly takes someone special to see an abandoned home and take a chance on making it shine again, but Boone isn't just taking a chance on one home, she's got big plans for Wilmington. She's lived pretty much everywhere, but these sandy shores are now her home and she's set on doing her part to ensure her neighborhood thrives for decades to come. So, while you're out for your next drive around the North End, keep your eyes peeled for those bold red and blue signs and just watch as these Wild Old Women work their magic.