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TLC transforms zombie house into Parkside gem

Leave a message on Karen Biel Costantino’s voicemail and, when she calls back, expect to hear something like this: “I couldn’t get to my phone. I was up on a ladder.”

That’s what happened one morning several weeks ago. Yes, she was up on a ladder. She had been painting since 6 a.m., she said.

This was just a normal day for Costantino, whose recently restored home is on the 19th annual Parkside Tour of Homes May 21.

The house features hardwood floors, high ceilings, new windows, a lovely front porch, glass-enclosed shower, exposed brick wall, three floors of living space and a collection of furniture and accessories gathered from Craigslist, garage sales, antique shops and

The gumball machine in the foyer? A Craigslist find, she said.

The residence is a former zombie house Costantino purchased for $20,000 in 2013. Zombie homes often are abandoned and left to decay while the bank goes through the foreclosure process. This house was vacant for eight years, Costantino said.

[PHOTO GALLERY: May Home of the Month]

Most of the windows were boarded up when she bought it. The backyard was an overgrown mess, she said. A leak on the third floor sent water down through the first-floor ceiling, which was crumbling on the floor of what is now the dining room.

“I used three baby pools – one on each floor – to collect the water,” said Costantino, who turns 66 in July.

The first level features an open floor plan. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Still, she knew she wanted the house the moment she walked in the door. Her mother and sisters found this quite shocking.

“My sister Nancy said, ‘I wouldn’t take this house if someone gave it to me for free,’ ” Costantino said.

It was a neighborhood eyesore and Costantino knew it.

“One bad house is like a black tooth in the front of your mouth,” she said.

While Costantino’s restoration team included a plumber, electrician, architect, floor refinishers, roofers and exterior house painter, she tackled many projects: Cleanup. Yard work. Ripping out kitchens. Knocking down two walls. Installing crown molding. Prepping and painting interior walls.

“My sister Susan, my son Andrew and my 91-year-old Uncle Benny Constantino helped me in many facets of the restoration,” she said.

She uses several of her late father’s tools. “It’s like his hand is on mine. I can hear him saying ‘Do the job right or don’t do it at all,’ ” she said.

Her grandchildren call the place “Nana’s Work House” – because she is always working on it.

“I have good work boots and working jeans, but I have no good clothes. The people at Lowe’s know my name. Clothing stores do not,” said Costantino, a registered nurse who retired five years ago as Erie County division director at the Medical Examiner’s Office.

The front staircase. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

This is the 16th house she has restored – mostly foreclosures in the Parkside and North Buffalo neighborhoods. She plans to list and sell it.

“I’m a home restorer not a flipper. I don’t take out all the beauty of the house,” said Costantino, who grew up on Seymour Street.

Obviously there are many challenges in tackling a major fixer-upper – from hidden surprises and muscle aches to budget concerns and building codes.

“Dealing with the building department is not for the faint of heart,” she said.

The house was built in 1875, when Ulysses S. Grant was president, Costantino pointed out.

She is not sure how long it functioned as a triple, but when she bought the house it had three kitchens, three baths, three living rooms, two furnaces and three hot water tanks.

“I bought one new furnace but was able to keep the other one,” said Costantino, who was awarded a Parkside Partner Award from the Parkside Community Association for her work in saving the house.

She replaced all but two of the windows. “I spent about $5,000 on windows, if memory serves me right,” Costantino said.

She had ceiling fans installed throughout. “I’m not a fan of air-conditioning. I like the windows open. Maybe it’s from my nursing background – trying to eradicate disease,” she said.

The house, with its new open floor plan on the first level, is now designed for one family. What was once a bedroom is now the dining room.

A second-floor laundry replaced a kitchen. The third floor has plenty of potential.

So how much has been invested in the place?

“I have a box of receipts but I’m sure it’s over $100,000 – all day and Sunday, too,” she said, repeating an expression often used by her family.

She also keeps an eye on the budget when she buys furniture and accessories. She has furnished the three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath house with bargains and secondhand finds. “Nothing came from a real store,” she said.

“I’m on Craigslist every day finding things that are affordable to me so I can make my house gorgeous,” said Costantino, who also keeps her eye on Zillow for new properties.

The exterior as it looks today. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Like the renovation itself, this, too, takes time and energy.

“I’m so lucky to have my health. I have phenomenal genes and a good work ethic. My mother, a waitress, retired at age 84. She cleaned her own gutters until she was 88 years old. One day my sister’s friend was jogging and saw my mother on the roof. She called my sister and ratted her out,” Costantino said.

Apparently Costantino inherited more than good genes from her mother. Neither has a fear of climbing ladders.

 The Parkside Tour of Homes takes place from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. May 21. Event-day tickets are $30 at the Darwin Martin House Complex, 125 Jewett Parkway. Tickets are $25 for PCA members and students. Visit for availability of early bird tickets.

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