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Labors of love for a house with a view

It wasn't love at first sight,'' says Gabriele Horn, looking around the living room of the elegant, 400-year-old half-timbered house she and her family have been renovating since 1978. ``It was dirty. It was cold. It smelled awful. And since I had grown up in an old house, I knew how difficult and expensive it would be to modernize a place like this.''

Her husband, Hubertus, looks out of the living room window and remembers that he had a different response. ``I knew it had possibilities from the start. When I walked around to the back of the house and saw the view -- well, I wanted to buy it.''

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Gabi admits that her aversion to the house began to fade once she saw the view, too. After all, not every house in the area looked out onto Germany's largest lake and oldest inhabited castle. They were practically in the castle's backyard.

And the location within the thousand-year-old community of Meersburg was perfect. Everyone the Horns would need -- the butcher, baker, and candlestick maker -- was within a hundred meters' walk of the front door.

The location and view notwithstanding, the couple knew they'd have to invest an inordinate amount of money, time, and energy into the house before they could move in. The wiring throughout the narrow, four-story structure was unreliably old. Heat was provided only by means of one small oil stove per floor. There wasn't a bathtub in the entire house, and only one toilet.

``We didn't even know it was a half-timber house,'' says Mr. Horn. All the interior and exterior walls had been plastered by previous owners so that the old post and beam framework was completely hidden from view. Why? Because until recently, many Germans were ashamed of living in an old half-timbered house: It was a sign of poverty.

Now renovating them is the rage, but they can be terribly difficult to finance because of the high costs involved. The Horns, for instance, needed 150,000 deutsche marks (about $75,000 in 1978) to purchase the house, and more than three times that much to renovate it -- far more than the market value justified.

``The bankers would come out to the house and say, `Oh, how lovely! What a charming view! But -- our regulations. . . . I'm sorry. We just cannot help you,' '' recalls Mr. Horn.

Finally a local savings and loan lent the Horns the money they needed to buy the house and begin modernization. That was 20 months and innumerable obstacles after they'd first seen the place.

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Their first task after securing the loan was to tear out all the old floors and walls to open up the interior. For eight months, Gabi, Hubertus, and their two teen-age sons dismantled the inside piece by dusty piece, until the house was little more than a four-story skeleton of posts and beams and diagonal braces.

``We had a five-metric-ton container put in front of the house, and we filled that container 12 times before we finished,'' says Mr. Horn. ``And that doesn't include all the wood we saved to burn in the fireplace.''

Mrs. Horn laughs. ``We were secretly hoping to find an old treasure hidden in the straw between the floors.'' That would have eased the colossal burden of financing the venture.

Although the Horns didn't find a cache of gold or jewels, they did discover something of historical note.

Mr. Horn glances at the low kitchen wall behind him. ``That,'' he says, ``used to be part of the medieval city wall that surrounded Meersburg.'' Apparently the original house was only two-thirds of its present size. Then, when the city and its families grew, the house was enlarged so that the old stone wall became an interior wall of the house. The Horns removed five metric tons' worth of wall, but decided to preserve several stone slabs by incorporating them into the hearth of the fireplace they were planning to build.

With the help of an architect, Gabi and Hubertus then began to rebuild the interior of the house so that it would suit their tastes and needs. All the half timbers were to remain exposed -- especially after Hubertus had spent weeks sanding them! Graceful travertine steps would rise out of what had been the animal stall on the first floor. Richly patinated wood floors would be laid. New doors, windows, and fixtures would be installed.

Moreover, the upper floors would be transformed into vacation apartments for tourists who spend summers in the Lake Constance region, while the Horns themselves would live on the first two floors.

``The apartments give us a tax advantage and will help pay off the loans,'' says Mr. Horn. ``When we're older and retired, that should help.''

More than a year after buying the house, the Horns looked for carpenters, plumbers, and electricians to rebuild the interior according to specification. Hubertus and his sons spent weekends either refurbishing the exterior or continuing work in the interior. Both Gabi and her husband agree that this was the most exasperating period they had to endure.

``It was hard to find skilled labor at that time. The building industry was booming. Everybody was busy,'' says Mr. Horn.

``It was terrible,'' says Mrs. Horn. ``Workers wouldn't show up when they said they would. The architect was too busy with other projects to help as much as we had hoped. And there were cost overruns.''

Hubertus teases her, saying any gray hairs she has must have come from those long months. But, growing more serious, he adds, ``Had we foreseen all the problems we encountered, we wouldn't have bought the house.''

The couple agree that they simply didn't know what they were getting into. But they overcame one challenge after another, and, after 21/2 years of renovation, the family moved in.

``Now we love it,'' says Mr. Horn, looking at his wife. He nods toward the living room windows. ``You can't say enough about a view like that. You can't put a price on it, either. We don't ever want to leave.''

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