Little House on the Highway

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Like many couples renting in highly desirable and increasingly expensive parts of Brooklyn, Eric Mailaender and Emily Lowe Mailaender waited too long to buy. But with their children, Stella, 9, and Bo, 6, in school in their Cobble Hill neighborhood, they felt tethered to the area.

It was their search for something affordable that landed them in South Slope, uncomfortably close to the Prospect Expressway, which Mr. Mailaender sometimes refers to as “my nemesis.”

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Credit…Mark Wickens for The New York Times

But the circa-1890 house they bought for $1.48 million in 2018 was a gem, “a shockingly intact brownstone the likes of which you don’t often find these days,” he said.

So instead of large, multifunctional spaces, they wound up with a series of smaller, more intimate rooms. To keep costs down further, the work was done to high standards — but not too high.

“What I basically told the contractors was I wanted them to correct the big offenses,” Mr. Mailaender said. So the boards in the parlor floor that had exposed nails or gaps were replaced by others salvaged from the second floor, which got new flooring.

Repairing millwork and plasterwork can be costly, but Mr. Mailaender found ways to save money there, too. Instead of stripping the wood, an expensive process, he repaired wood surfaces by working a concrete filler into cracks with a trowel, to smooth out some of the age without making them look brand-new. And original plaster details were rescued without replastering entire surfaces: The ceiling medallion on the main floor, for example, was cut out of the plaster ceiling, remounted onto Sheetrock and replaced (along with a custom light fixture he designed).

The upstairs received some updates, including new door hardware and bedroom doors, and a slight reconfiguration that involved moving the bathroom inside the master suite.

Downstairs, modern touches include unexpectedly bold floor tiles in the kitchen and wallpaper in the parlor-floor bathroom, contributions from Ms. Lowe Mailaender.

But much of the budget went toward things no one can see, like work on the foundation, concealing new plumbing inside cleverly designed soffits, and installing modern heating and cooling systems. Mr. Mailaender also replaced the old windows with heavily laminated, double-paned ones, to dampen sound from the highway, and injected foam insulation into gaps around windows and doors. He installed shutters to block the world outside, leaving a view of only the sky.

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