"Pulling the Trigger on that Big Renovation"

Steven Clipp, Architect | May 2015 Issue

For three decades I have designed major home renovation projects and counseled the Owners on the wisdom of taking the leap.  Now I have bought a new 25 year old home that needs everything rejuvenated or replaced, plus an expansion.  Luckily I bought it at a discount that reflected these needs.  But still the combined costs of making it into our dream home are in excess of two hundred thousand.  I am the one facing the gut-check.  The move is as hard for me as it is for my clients.

The decision to go forward doesn’t happen once.  There are several go - no go moments.  The first is when you are deciding to buy the property.  I really recommend having a professional such as myself look at it before you make an offer.  I can give you a realistic assessment of how good the bones are and how much it will cost to make it your dream home.  On many houses the cost/effort just doesn’t make sense.

The logical alternative is to buy the flawless house, but homes don’t remain static.  Years ago I was looking for a house selling at a discount because it needed work.  I rejected one home as being too perfect, with a price to match.  Fifteen years later I advised the Owner of that house on a total gut and makeover.  Kitchens and baths have a fifteen to twenty year life.

You take the plunge, you buy the home.  You own it – you fix it.  But how?  The first step is the consult with an Architect.  In an hour and a half you describe your goals and dreams.  Then the design expert lays out the range of possible solutions, with special emphasis on the cost of each.  In effect he/she gives you an ala carte menu of projects that will make you the envy of the neighborhood and create peace on earth.

No, not instant peace, because the costs and time frames are disturbing.  A simple bath make-over runs 15K, a master bath starts at 30K and many whole kitchens top 50K.  True custom work can double these numbers.  Nothing seems possible in under four months and complex projects take six to eight.  Is it worth it? 

One option is to stage the work over several years as money is available; the master bedroom / bath this year, the kitchen / familyroom in two years, the screenporch in four.  We did it that way and my children grew up thinking the workmen were a part of our extended family.

This year I seem to consult more with the new buyer, who wants to be in Chapel Hill or Hillsborough, in an established neighborhood.  They are purchasing a 30 to 50 year old property with few updated features.  They can live in the house as is, but at some point everything will have to be brought up to current standards.  Otherwise they will be living in the 1970’s and eventually, will be selling an even more dated, discounted home.

It makes great sense to do all the work upfront, before moving in.  You won’t see all the mess and you won’t have to live with the daily aggravation.  You will have to come up with another huge chunk of money and delay moving in for upwards of a year.  But once it is over you walk into the perfect house, custom designed to your taste, in the perfect neighborhood.  There is a gut-check leaping in, but I have never had a client who looked back and regretted the decision to go for it.

On my house, I have done my professional duty; the things I am doing have real value compared to their cost, I have worked out a good deal with the Contractor and I have contained the potential for cost overruns.  Also, mortgage money is really cheap right now. Two hundred thousand dollars to do everything will cost a surprisingly small amount per month.  That situation won’t last.

So the answer is obvious – pull the trigger.  Now I know how hard it is for my clients.