It's a New Year. Let’s Get Moving.

A client referred us to new homeowners in Evanston who had a healthy goal in mind: to create an enclosed gym from a car port-turned-garage. This project did not neatly fit our typical engagements in size or type, but we were intrigued from the start. There is something about solving new problems that appeals to us. Retrofitting a space built for one purpose into a new space for a different purpose presents the kind of challenges we like. Also, we like to lend a hand to our Northwestern peeps when we can.

We’re glad the results exceeded our client’s expectations.

The former garage comfortably holds a treadmill, rowing machine, heavy bag, TRX system, and more, all on a 3/4” thick rubberized floor. No more excuses for skipping a workout when you have this attached to your home.

The former garage comfortably holds a treadmill, rowing machine, heavy bag, TRX system, and more, all on a 3/4” thick rubberized floor. No more excuses for skipping a workout when you have this attached to your home.

A view of the entry to the gym, with closed storage, new exterior door, new windows, and lockers. The clients can check their form in the 6’ x 4’ wall mirror, too. Heat is drawn from the main ductwork inside the home, and the walls are coated in a special scuff-resistant paint.

A view of the entry to the gym, with closed storage, new exterior door, new windows, and lockers. The clients can check their form in the 6’ x 4’ wall mirror, too. Heat is drawn from the main ductwork inside the home, and the walls are coated in a special scuff-resistant paint.

The former garage started as a car port before it was enclosed by the previous owners. Our first task was to remove the rolling garage door, create an insulated sub-floor, and frame the walls and ceiling. A minimally functional garage often has limited electrical installed and no insulation. They are drafty with exposed framing and uncomfortable during the Winter with no heat supply.

After running the new electrical, we insulated the sub-floor, walls, and ceiling with closed-cell spray foam to provide an air-tight insulation seal. We added lighting and electrical outlets to ensure the new space would function well as gym, and we also took steps to ensure that the gym could be returned to a garage in the future if new owners needed it.

Under the 3/4” plywood sub-floor is a vapor barrier, stud platform, and closed cell foam insulation. A minor amount of disassembly and demolition would be required to revert to a functional garage in the future.

Under the 3/4” plywood sub-floor is a vapor barrier, stud platform, and closed cell foam insulation. A minor amount of disassembly and demolition would be required to revert to a functional garage in the future.

We were delighted to help these new owners build the gym they envisioned and take advantage of an extra car spot they didn’t need. What used to be a basic garage is now a functional gym for owners who use it every day. We wish them and you a healthy and active 2019!

Kitchen Series, 1 of 3

Residential real estate descriptions are a hoot. Imagine the comedy if you could type MLS sentences into software like Google Translator and see what comes out. For example, “Lovely vintage home with lots of charm” actually means “Holy #&%! there’s a freakish amount of work to do here.” This description should trigger your fight-or-flight response. Our clients in Wilmette chose the former when they purchased a home built in 1900 described with exactly these words.

After completing major structural work (the alt-meaning of “lovely and vintage home with lots of charm”), they contacted us for a two-story addition. Not only was this family of four undaunted by the scope of the project, they decided to ride out the construction by living in the front of the house while we ripped off the back and rebuilt it during the cold part of the year. Tough characters, we said.

As part of the addition, we installed a modern new kitchen with an oversized window overlooking the backyard.

A view of the finished kitchen with cypress-colored lower cabinetry paired with the gloss sheen white upper cabinets.

A view of the finished kitchen with cypress-colored lower cabinetry paired with the gloss sheen white upper cabinets.

A clean slate for a kitchen is one of those sweet moments on a construction site. For us, at least.

A clean slate for a kitchen is one of those sweet moments on a construction site. For us, at least.

Our first step was to remove the old kitchen, including donating the old cabinets to the Evanston ReBuilding Warehouse.

Our first step was to remove the old kitchen, including donating the old cabinets to the Evanston ReBuilding Warehouse.

Deconstructing the back of the house in preparation for the heavy equipment.

Deconstructing the back of the house in preparation for the heavy equipment.

Let me introduce you to my little friend.

Let me introduce you to my little friend.

We think our clients would approve of this message after living though a major renovation project.

We think our clients would approve of this message after living though a major renovation project.

We’ll return to this project in a future blog entry. In the meantime, we’ve been wrapping up a few kitchen projects that we’ll cover in the Kitchen Series. Our brave clients not only survived the construction while living through it, they appear to be thriving. We’re glad we had the opportunity to improve this old home, and we wish them many happy years in it.

Until next time . . . Happy Thanksgiving to all.

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.     

               

Evaluating a home before you buy it

The typical pre-purchase challenges to buying a home are well known. For one, we're making an important decision in a few weeks or months while looking at a subset of housing options that are available at the specific time we happen to be searching. We have to navigate money, emotions, and family issues. On top of that, we have to make this big decision based upon incomplete information. Even the information about ourselves, the stuff we are supposed to have a good grip on, ought to be double-checked.    

  • Self-knowledge: am I really going to add 20 minutes to my commute? Do I favor this home because the prior dozen we toured didn't appeal to me? Sure, the furnace in the new house is feeble, but we have grandma's handmade blankets to keep us warm at night.
  • Partner-knowledge: We're in this together. I might want to scream at you in a pillow  in our new basement, but at least we now have a basement. I just wish we didn't have to store all the useless junk your grandma wanted you to have. I also wish you had the #@!% courage to donate it, sweetie.

What could possibly go wrong?

We're glad you asked. The main source of post-closing dissatisfaction arises from renovation expenses. Some of these might be unknown expenses, and others might be poorly understood by the homeowner. How well buyers guard against the prospect of dissatisfaction influences their long-term enjoyment of the property.   

Owners dream about making improvements to the layout, kitchen, bathrooms, basement, etc. before they receive the keys. They have spent hours on Houzz, Pintrest, and HGTV programming. They have a report from their home inspector. They are ready start to interviewing contractors and architects. When does demolition start?

We recently renovated a home with a two-story addition and modern master bathroom. It features a Madeli floating vanity, Robern medicine cabinets, and black basalt tile on the wet wall.

We recently renovated a home with a two-story addition and modern master bathroom. It features a Madeli floating vanity, Robern medicine cabinets, and black basalt tile on the wet wall.

We found sheets of old newspaper Inside the walls of this renovation project, including this Chicago Daily Tribune advertisement from 1927 for jaunty new felts. Suffice to say that the house was not "Tip-Top" when we started.  

We found sheets of old newspaper Inside the walls of this renovation project, including this Chicago Daily Tribune advertisement from 1927 for jaunty new felts. Suffice to say that the house was not "Tip-Top" when we started.  

 

In reality:

  1. There are months of planning and construction in front of our clients. It's a deliberate process when done right. The surest way to drive yourself and your builder to tears is to rush ahead without careful planning. Everybody wants to finish the work. Patience is key, especially near the end when project fatigue sets in.
  2. The unglamorous work of improving the structural, electrical, HVAC, plumbing, and insulation values of a home are usually major items. We understand why many people do not want to touch these until they fail. The problem with waiting until failure is that the homeowner is now seeking fast corrective action. This is the difference between fixing a problem today and planning improvement to the home for years of enjoyment.     
  3. Buyers would do well not to place too much reliance on home inspection reports. One risk is that the homeowner is now informed just enough to be dangerous. Another risk is that while some inspectors are more thorough than others, all of them are trained to comply with their own more stringent insurance policies. In fact, inspection reports are now specifically written with eye towards limiting liability to homeowners following the 2008-2009 housing crisis. Describing "cascading effects" or including excessive detail is disfavored. For example, inspectors might dedicate a sentence to galvanized steel pipes without the crucial information about the expected replacement cost; thus it's easy for a buyer to read that note without comprehending the scope of work or money involved in upgrading it. What a surprise when the buyer receives plumbing estimates and timelines! Then there is the drywall repair, painting, and replacement of a corroded tub drain . . . the home inspector shrugs and says "I noted the galvanized steel plumbing lines in paragraph D on page 27." This is an example of the homeowner having some information and simultaneously being woefully uninformed.                    

What should a prospective home buyer do? The answer to this question depends partly on who you are. If you are the type of person who is not interested in house projects at this stage of your life, then it's best to find a newer home or one that has already been substantially upgraded. The main value of new construction/substantially upgraded homes is peace of mind; that the prospect of major home improvement expenses has been put to rest for the foreseeable future. If you are the type of person who likes the idea of improving an older home, then we recommend purchasing one that is 20% or more below your financial capacity so that you have dry powder to handle planned improvements and urgent repairs. 

More project news coming. We hope everybody has a good Labor Day break!

Remodeling and Home Design