Renovation Tips from an Architect

We all know that home buyers today want a new roost, not an old wreck. Very few are interested in tackling an ancient relic with peeling paint, deteriorating windows, ancient plumbing and in today’s PC world, energy black-holes. And yet, venturing into the world of fixer-uppers can be exciting if not a rewarding experience. All of the TV shows about house-flipping may propel you to jump into the real estate market buying frenzy but be careful. There are 1000 things to do and not do, and you have to have a strategy and a lot of common sense to avoid the pitfalls.

These are just a few tips I’ve collected over the years that might help you make the best decisions:

1.Prepare an adequate budget. Perhaps the hardest part of a project is figuring out construction cost, and identifying sources of funding. We suggest you use a CSI, Construction Specifications Institute, WORD.DOC for collecting potential construction costs as well as identifying issues to be addressed. The form lists many common materials, trades and “soft costs” encountered during construction. If you contact my office, we will send you a WORD.DOC to use. It lists all known and unknown costs that you probably will encounter throughout the life of the project. Did you think about the demolition costs and hauling junk away? Did you consider the building permit costs and school fees that might apply? There are so many different construction facets to consider, you need a score card.

As with all construction projects you must have a contingency fund. On renovation projects, additional costs come up and opening up walls can be a can of worms…Literally. Keeping an adequate contingency of up to 20% is strongly recommended.

2. Look at the whole house, not just the exterior. Check out the foundation, look for cracks in the walls, and look at the roof line. If it’s sloping or the ridge is sagging, there is more problems than easily detectable. Have a structural engineer or an architect look at the structure. 3. Note the era when it was built. In California, pre-earthquake structures that have survived time and bad renovations were crafted reasonably well. Most structures built between 1906 and WWll were built to higher standards. However, post-World War II through the 70s, saw generally poorer construction when speed of erection was more important than the quality of the work. After all, houses weren’t intended to last beyond 25 years, the average length of a mortgage then.

4. Talk to your neighbors. You’ll be surprised what knowledge they have about your house and the disasters that have plagued the neighborhood. Ask family and friends about their renovation work to find out the challenges they have experienced during the process.

5. Concentrate on the wet areas. The kitchen and the bathrooms should be your number one priority when it comes to renovating and updating an old house. Kitchens are the number one request in our office.

6. While water is our environmental friend, to a house water is the enemy. Ensuring that the structure is well sealed, protected and made waterproof is a difficult task. Don’t skimp on the weather protection.

7. Windows are the eyes of the house. Generally, one can tell the construction era by the windows. Today, we replace windows easily and efficiently, but their proper installation is essential. Weather-stripping, caulking and flashing installed by a professional and not by the weekend handyman. 19th or 20th century wood windows are worth keeping and have more energy efficiency than one thinks. Adding proper weather-stripping, minimizing solar gain and glare can make these portals valuable assets to a home. Besides, the old wobbly glass can give authenticity and character that can’t be found today. 8. Let the sunshine in. I have found so many older homes that lack sufficient light in the inner chambers, bathrooms and hallways. Light tubes provide a lot of illumination. They can be a lot less expensive than adding new double pane Insulated windows or skylights.

9. Avoid DIY, “Do-It-Yourself”, jobs that could end disastrously, or worst still, never end. A big question when renovating your home is when to DIY or when to hire a professional. DIY projects can often save money, but when do you draw the line? A few things to be left to the professionals are plumbing, heating and electrical work. Before starting renovation decide which DIY projects you are comfortable with, and which to leave in professional hands. At the same time, you can’t be cutting corners by hiring uncle Ned who’s got a truck, a dog, and a boombox. He might be a good handyman, but he may not be able to do the foundation work you need.

10. Knowing your end goal is crucial in deciding how extensively you will renovate. Consider how deep you and your wallet will dive into your project. How long do you plan on living in your home? Think carefully about the different qualities your neighborhood possesses. Having a detailed plan will help you to stay on track in your renovation.

Whether this is an 1890’s Victorian or a 1950’s track house, having a strategic plan for costs and timing will make this a successful project for you and your family. And, as I ask all my client couples eager to embark on such an adventure, “How strong is your marriage?” This will tax or strengthen the strongest of marital bonds.

Chris d Craiker AIA is a prominent Bay Area architect with over 40 years patching up shaky marriages and challenging renovations. For a CSI form or more information, call 707.224.5060 or e-mail: