Should I renovate an old home?

We offered a couple thoughts about evaluating a home before you buy it in our last post, and now we offer a couple more about whether you should embark on a renovation of an old home. Before we get there, we need to define what we mean when we say renovation. The key to understanding the term renovation is to think about a substantial improvement to the home, often involving multiple building trades and a significant investment in resources. Neither cosmetic changes nor major repairs are renovations, although they are frequently rolled into renovation work.

Kate Wagner of McMansion Hell recently addressed this topic and recommended that a homeowner live in the house for a while before deciding what to do. This is sound advice. Experience in the house is one reliable guide to forming the list of renovation priorities.

We disagree with her next piece of advice, however, which is to find the point of no return: 

So where do we draw the line between what we should and should not get rid of? What is and is not historically important? My personal litmus test is one question: Is what I want to get rid of irreversible or irreplaceable? This may seem straightforward, but it’s actually rather nuanced.

Yes, nuanced would be one way to describe this approach. Impractical is another, if you ask us. Homes are things, and things can be replaced. It might cost a small fortune, require special expertise, involve plenty of antacid, and take years . . . but nearly everything can be replaced or reversed if you have ample resources. We believe Wagner is really saying that you should leave it alone if you don't have money, the stomach, or time. Fine. Some clients like historic details and want to preserve them, while others pursue a different vision. Thumbs up to the preservationists if the budget and schedule allow for it. But some wide-scale improvements (such as modern plumbing or electrical work) necessarily include demolition: the plaster walls and those built-in cabinets from 1930 might not survive, and that’s a trade-off we make for comfort and safety. The same goes for items that linger for sentimental reasons but are no longer serviceable. It’s not an architectural crime to replace the warped and cracked wood front door from grandpa’s era, no matter how handsome it once was.

In fact, most of the older homes we visit have undergone one or more waves of changes over the last decades. Legacy decisions can make changes more difficult today. Some of these changes were ill-conceived or poorly executed. Others have deferred maintenance for so long, replacement is the best (and maybe only) choice.

A minority of older homes we see can be fairly described as above-average. An even smaller fraction of homes were sensitively improved, with an eye toward preserving the historic notes of the original structure. You might find one of these unicorns. But the odds are good that an old Chicago-area home fits the profile we described a couple years ago in "I Love Old Homes and Other Myths

This last point bears repeating: only a small number of old homes we see in this area remain in good condition because they were constructed well and thoughtfully improved/maintained over the last few decades. Some folks fall head-over-heels for these homes and marvel at their longevity. Surely these old homes were built better than the post-war flimsy stuff! Modern construction does not compare, they say.

Well, not really. This is a classic case of survivorship bias. People who form their opinions about the superiority of old construction are looking at homes that endured because they were skillfully built and carefully kept up by successive owners—but they are overlooking hundreds of decrepit examples battered by time and neglect before they were finally razed to the ground and promptly forgotten.

Knowing what kind of old home you have is the starting point to deciding what sort of renovation plan makes sense. Give us a shout if you are thinking about renovating your old home. There’s lots to talk about, and we’d be happy to discuss it with you.     


Winnetka Colonial Chronicles, Part 1

So we are embarking on a whole home renovation on an old colonial at 557 Winnetka Avenue in Winnetka, and there is a ton of work to do. Maybe two tons. I recall some good advice when I first peered down a steep mountain: 

Cut the mountain up into slices. Then ski your slice.

The total project feels colossal at the moment.  The permit was issued (more on that later). One slice. We have the fences up to protect the trees. Another slice. Enlist your 10 year old to clean up the 91 year old doors. Keep slicing.

Removing loads of old door hardware is easier when you don't have to bend at the waist. 54" tall is about right.  

Removing loads of old door hardware is easier when you don't have to bend at the waist. 54" tall is about right.  

Not sure if he is walking the dog or the dog is walking him, but prepping an old door is a good rainy-day activity.

Not sure if he is walking the dog or the dog is walking him, but prepping an old door is a good rainy-day activity.

Now a quick word about construction permits in Winnetka. The village requirements are stringent. The total cost of the permit can be breathtaking.  

Any major renovation requires architectural plans and most likely a survey by civil engineers. We'll start the ball rolling with $10,000 or more out of the gates. We need to remove some trees to build a new garage, so the forestry department has to approve the plans and ensure that the remaining trees are adequately protected by chain link fence. It also requires a $10,000 refundable cash deposit. If you remove a tree greater than 8" in diameter, you will not only need the permit and have to pay the deposit, but you also have to replace removed trees with new trees of equal diameter or greater. In other words, be prepared to plant at least 30" worth of new trees if you take out two trees totaling 30" diameter. Landscaping costs begin there. We also need to upgrade the electrical, and the village requires us to use the village department for connecting the street power to the home via an underground cable. That's a bit more than $9,000 just to get 200 amp service running into the home. Gulp. The inadequate water service needs to be upgraded, too, which requires a directional bore from the water main under the street through the basement wall. Cha-ching. All of this before a single dumpster arrives on the lot.

The important thing is to retain your sense of humor.  

As I walked away from the village cashier's desk, I jokingly asked her whether I looked any lighter. She smiled and said I looked as handsome as ever. I definitely paid for that compliment.    


Remodeling and Home Design