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Newlyweds turn home improvement project into reality show

Kathleen Lynn The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)

Newlyweds with no rehab skills renovate a neglected 60-year-old home and, after a few mishaps, end up with a showplace.

Sounds like a great idea for a TV home-improvement show, right? That’s what the folks at DIY (Do It Yourself) Network thought when they heard about Mark and Diana Sanicki, who paid $392,500 a year ago for a Ramsey, N.J., house in need of an overhaul.

After the Sanickis applied to be on TV, the network dispatched cameras to northern New Jersey to follow their progress, starting last summer.

But the story hasn’t worked out as expected.

As DIY features the Sanickis in a series called “Renovation Rookies,” the home’s interior remains gutted, a lattice of beams and studs.

The Sanickis fired their contractor last fall and decided to become their own general contractors. The search for reliable subcontractors, followed by the harsh winter, halted work for months.

But the show will go on, and the Sanickis remain surprisingly upbeat. They’re an energetic pair who have corporate jobs in marketing and sales and also own an ice cream store in Clifton, N.J., where they live with Diana’s parents.

“It shouldn’t take a year to do something like this; it should take a few months,” says Mark, 30.

But he considers the venture to be “high risk, high reward.”

“We got a great deal on the house,” he says. “What we’re putting in, we’re getting back and then some. … No matter what, I still believe this is a home run, even with the pitfalls.”

If the Sanickis can finish the renovation for about $110,000, as they hope, they expect to end up with a house worth $600,000 or more for a total cost of around $500,000.

They chose the house for its location, on a leafy street a few blocks from Ramsey’s downtown.

“They bought the street; they bought the town,” says their real estate agent, Allison Witkowski of Re/Max in Saddle River, N.J.

“You can’t buy a house in Ramsey for under $400,000 that’s this size. We looked at so many bad houses.”

The Sanickis pitched their story to DIY Network, a sister company of HGTV. They hoped the network would send in a team of contractors to help with the job, but it just wanted to film their adventures and misadventures – such as the time Mark perched on a wobbly cinderblock to cut an overhead beam, because they didn’t yet own a ladder.

“They just seemed like a great couple with a great story,” says Andy Singer, vice president of programming at DIY.

Producer Dave Lane of Rivr Media of Knoxville, Tenn., which filmed the Sanickis, says he was drawn to the couple’s “character and their senses of humor.”

“The way they carry themselves is made for TV,” Lane says.

The Sanickis say they quickly got used to having the cameras around.

“After the first day, you don’t realize they’re there,” says Diana, 28. “You’re just trying to get the job done.”

“We weren’t acting,” Mark adds. “We were just focused on the task at hand.

“The show kind of carries itself. The thought of people not knowing how to do any of this and having to do all of this – obviously that’s going to be very entertaining.”

Home renovations can certainly strain a relationship, but the Sanickis say their marriage has survived.

“You have your fights, but at the end of the day you realize you love each other and you could go through everything together,” says Mark.

“It’s taxing on a marriage, but we’re fine. Everything’s fine. We’re still in love and still married.”

Working with their former contractor, they gutted the interior and tore three layers of siding and insulation off the exterior.

The work has been “a huge learning process,” says Mark, who never owned a home before.

“I’m not even used to cutting a lawn, and the next thing we’re trying to Sheetrock an entire house,” he says. “Many of the things we were doing, we realized there was probably a more efficient way to do it. But how else you going to learn?”

They’ve made some progress: A new roof is in place, along with the plumbing system and some new windows. Workers recently started on the exterior, which will be stucco and stone.

Mark says the experience has taught them that it’s key to choose the right contractor and keep setbacks in perspective.

“I have the mentality of, ‘The world’s not ending,’ ” he says. “Any type of problem can be solved.”

Diana says she learned not to “let my impatience or frustration get in the way of the end result.”

Mark also liked discovering how much willpower and persistence he has, as he tackled jobs such as jackhammering the front steps.

“It was gratifying to do something you’re not used to doing and not stop until it’s done,” he says.

As the months dragged on, the Sanickis occasionally thought of walking away, but rejected the idea.

For one thing, they believed in their original vision; for another, they realized they couldn’t sell the gutted house without facing a possible loss.

“We definitely didn’t want to give up, nor were we in a position to do so,” Mark says.

They are trying to closely manage their budget, partly by doing some work themselves and partly by getting several bids on each job. They find that, thanks to the construction slowdown, many subcontractors are willing to cut their prices just to stay busy.

“If you really do your homework and get a lot of quotes, you can save a lot of money,” Diana says.

On the show, Mark jokes that a home repair show starring the two of them would be called “Two Bozos and a Hammer.”

“It’s been a ride, man,” he says.

He occasionally wonders if it will all work out, but in his more hopeful moments, he says, “in the grand scheme of things, we’ll look back and it’ll be great.”

“It’s definitely a hard way to get what you want,” adds Diana.

“In the end, is it worth it? I’ll get back to you on that one.”

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