I Married My Contractor!

When Susan Laney bought her Savannah fixer-upper, she knew it was a great match. She didn't realize then that it was also a great matchmaker!
By: Rory Evans
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Homeowners Susan Laney and Frank Ellsworth with their 1-year-old daughter, Stella

Photo by: Photo by: Max Kim-Bee

Photo by: Max Kim-Bee

Homeowners Susan Laney and Frank Ellsworth with their 1-year-old daughter, Stella

The house in Savannah had atrocious windows covered with plywood and metal bars, a nonworking bathroom, and knob and tube wiring that was decades out of date. "It was in scary condition," says artist and gallery owner Susan Laney. But she bought the house because its style reminded her of her childhood home in Jacksonville, FL. "I remember seeing it for the first time and feeling like I was back where I grew up," says Susan. Her artist's vision didn't exactly dissuade her either. "I was 26 and so naive. I thought I could renovate on nights and weekends, and have the whole thing wrapped up in about six months," she says.

Despite its many (many) faults-she later found out that the roof leaked and the timbers had been chomped by termites-the 1918 house ended up being the ultimate husband finder: Without the holes in the kitchen floor, Susan might never have met carpenter and contractor Frank Ellsworth. "I started out doing a lot of the work myself," Susan, now 38, recalls. "I did some demo, scraped paint, and even attempted to sand floors." But within a year, she began hiring various workers, including Frank and his then business partner, whose first task was redoing the kitchen floor. Ironically, she chose the pair because she thought Frank's partner was cute. "But he ended up annoying me so much that I fired him and kept Frank around," Susan says. Then, when Frank made a big mistake with the subfloor, he took just a day to fix it and paid for new wood out of his own pocket. "He was such a breath of fresh air," Susan says. "So honest and respectful."

Frank's first impression of Susan, meanwhile, was "my God, what a hardnosed woman," he says, recalling one time she refused to pay an invoice because he didn't use a nail set tool. (It's complicated. Just google it.) "But she's also beautiful and intelligent." Soon after she hired him, Frank accompanied Susan to an architectural salvage store. "We got lunch, and I was struck by how easy it was to be with him," Susan says. A few weeks later he asked her out on an official date-as opposed to a work errand.

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During the reno, Frank surprised Susan by stripping the mantel while she was out of town. "She loved the unfinished look, so we left it that way," he says.

Photo by: Photo by: Max Kim-Bee

Photo by: Max Kim-Bee

During the reno, Frank surprised Susan by stripping the mantel while she was out of town. "She loved the unfinished look, so we left it that way," he says.

What followed was a period of "contractor or boyfriend?" fuzziness. Like the time they went on a fun shopping trip to a home center, "and then he billed me for it!" Susan says. In his defense, Frank claims he was trying to respect their business arrangement. They continued working together on projects both large (such as exterior restoration) and small (like picture molding in the dining room). "All along, Susan has been the eyes, and I've been the hands," says Frank, now 41. By 2001, a year after he showed up with his tool belt, the two were in love, and Frank had moved closer to Susan-into the home's carriage house. He was no longer her contractor-for-hire...he was a boyfriend with a honey-do list!

In December 2004 Frank proposed at the Museum of Modern Art during a trip to New York City. They married in Savannah in April 2006, and four years later, along came baby Stella. Kids, of course, come with their own demanding schedules, which means less time for tinkering in the house. "Stella has given us the opportunity to enjoy just being here," Susan says. "I think we're done with the home improvements for now-unless you count babyproofing."

Source: Ellsworth-Hallett Home Pros, Savannah, Georgia; 912-844-4682, ellsworthhallett.com

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