Old Home Remodel: The Good, Bad, and Ugly

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So you’re deciding whether or not an old home remodel is right for you? There are so many great reasons to preserve and improve old homes.

But there are also many reasons to run the other direction as fast as you can.

As designers and decorators, we have years of experience in home remodels and have seen just about every remodel nightmare under the sun.

In this post, we’ll share the pros and cons of an old home remodel. We’ll also share the good, the bad, and the ugly to help you decide if it’s right for you.

Old Home Remodel: The Good

Let’s start with the good. And there are definitely lots of good reasons to consider an old home remodel.

First and foremost, there’s a good chance your old home is not as energy efficient as it could be. In fact, you could be losing thousands of dollars a year from things like poor insulation, single pane windows, old HVAC equipment, and more. Remodeling is a great way to improve efficiency and lower your energy bills.

Another concern with old homes is safety. New building codes and safety standards are adopted every year. The older your home is, the more likely it is to not meet modern guidelines. Remodeling an old home is a great time to address to more serious code issues such as electrical, fenestration, and fire safety.

You could also choose an old home remodel to add livable space. This could be in the form of a new extension or detached dwelling, finishing an existing basement or attic space, or even adding a new floor above the current footprint.

When you consider the time and costs of moving, sometimes an old home remodel might make more sense. As of 2016, the average time spent on a home search was 10 weeks. Add an additional 6-8 weeks for closing, and you’re easily looking at 3-4 months to find and move in to a new home.

Additionally, you need to consider the costs associated with buying a new home and moving. You have to factor in lots of different variables such as current equity and loan length, current interest rates, available home inventory and prices, moving costs, and more. Depending on the scope of your remodel, it could very well be cheaper than moving into a new home.

And finally, perhaps the best reason to take on an old home remodel, is for sentimental reasons. Maybe it’s the home you grew up in, a home that’s been in your family and been passed down, or perhaps it’s where you started your own family. Whatever the reason, the emotional ties we build to our homes are very real. And remodeling an old home is a great way to breath new life into it and ensure it’s still around for the next generation.

Old Home Remodel: The Bad

For all the reasons to do an old home remodel, there are definitely lots of reasons to think twice.

Most importantly, it might not make financial sense. When you remodel, you will likely have to pass multiple inspections. Which means making sure your home meets all the latest building codes. And dealing with unexpected structural and mechanical problems can cause a big hit to the budget.

Further, most home improvement projects will not result in a 100% return on investment. In fact, most remodeling projects will only bring back between 60 and 80% of what you spend. So unless you plan on staying in the home indefinitely, it’s worth considering if the investment is worthwhile.

It’s also worth considering the surrounding neighborhood before you begin. If you invest too much in your home while the rest of the neighbors do not, you’ll risk over-improving. This can make selling your home even more difficult because you won’t be able to recoup as much of your investment due to surrounding homes driving the overall price down.

Finally, remodeling a home can be a real nuisance if you’re living there during construction. Be prepared to have entire rooms and systems unavailable at various times. You’ll also likely have to deal with construction noise and debris, fumes from paint, and various other side affects of remodeling.

Make sure your contractor is clear about the timeline of construction and what to expect. It’s also a good idea to have a backup plan to stay elsewhere, such as a friend or family’s house, or even a nearby hotel.

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Old Home Remodel: The Ugly

The ugly truth about old home remodels often lies beneath the surface. Even the best general contractors cannot always predict what you will uncover when you start tearing away decades of old construction.

Below are some of the dangers that can not only derail your remodel budget, but also put you and your family in danger if not handled properly.

Asbestos

Asbestos is a fibrous building material that was common in both commercial and residential constructions in the mid 1900s. It was used because it was cheap and made for great insulation and fire proofing.

Unfortunately, it’s also incredibly dangerous. Asbestos fibers can cause irreversible damage to your lungs if inhaled. For this reason, it has not been used in construction for many decades, but is still present in some older homes.

The main risk of asbestos comes from disturbing it. Simply having it in the home is not an issue, but if you plan to do any demolition work then you’ll absolutely need to hire a licensed contractor to make sure the home is free from asbestos.

If you do find asbestos, more than likely your contractor will issue a stop work on the entire project while a professional crew removes it. This means it will cost you time and money, because nothing can be done while abatement is in progress.

On average, asbestos removal will cost between $1,000 and $3,000, but will vary depending on the age of your home and how prevalent the asbestos is. The home will be unavailable to you while the specially trained crew carefully removes, isolates, and transports all remnants from the home to a disposal site.

Pests

As older homes deteriorate, it becomes easier for critters of all sizes to take up residence. From larger pests like possums and rats to smaller bugs like ants and wasps, if there’s a way into the house then they’ll find it.

House pests can be more than just a nuisance. Aside from destroying household materials like wood and drywall, some can carry disease and create health hazards for your family. They can also create safety hazards for your family by chewing through wires and damaging support structures.

While eliminating most household pests is straightforward and won’t interrupt your remodel (or budget) too much, certain ones require more effort to eliminate. Termites, bed bugs, and roaches (just to name a few) may require the house to be empty for a couple of days.

Water Damage & Mold

Active water damage is typically noticeable and therefore unlikely to catch you off guard. Repair is typically a superficial effort, although in extreme cases it can also affect beams and other wooden structures.

Even more serious that water damage is mold. Any area where water or moisture is allowed to accumulate can lead to mold.

As with asbestos, mold mostly becomes a problem during demolition when mold spores are ejected into the air and inhaled. While some mold may cause allergic reactions or other minor health problems, others can be quite serious and require medical intervention.

If you find mold during a remodel, work on that area will have to stop but shouldn’t impact the schedule too much. Abatement typically involves removing the damaged materials and replacing them. Your contractor may also spray the area to ensure there is no future growth.

On average you can expect to pay between $1,100 and $3,300 for this cleanup.

Lead

The United States government banned the use of lead-based paints in 1978, though some states banned it even earlier. If your home was built before this year, it’s a safe bet that there’s lead paint. Even if the home has been repainted, it’s possible that the original paint is lead-based.

The risk with lead paint is that demolition and construction activities can create a toxic dust that is inhaled. If you’re remodeling an old home, it’s essential to test for lead paint before you begin. Simple DIY test kits cost around $10 and can tell you within minutes if you have lead paint.

Another source of lead in old homes is plumbing. Up until 1986, lead pipes were common in homes. As water runs through these pipes, lead can leach into it and eventually be ingested. If your contractor discovers lead pipes during your remodel, they’ll need to be replaced with copper or PVC alternatives.

Radon

Radon is a naturally occurring gas that comes from the breakdown of materials in soil. It has no color or smell, and long-term exposure can lead to lung cancer.

While radon is present in nearly all soils and can affect any home, old homes are more susceptible. This is because radon moves up from the soil and into the home. Cracks and fissures in the foundation can allow radon gas to more easily enter the home.

The test for radon should be done by a professional. It involves placing a special piece of equipment in the home that monitors radon levels. It can be a hassle for your family because it’s recommended to limit door and windows being open while the test is ongoing. We recommend you try to plan it around vacations or other periods of time where you’re unlikely to need windows and doors open frequently.

If your home exceeds the EPA level of 4 pCi/L, you’ll want to install a radon mitigation system. There are different types of systems, each with their  own pros and cons. A licensed contractor can help you find the right system for your home and environment, and it should cost between $700 and $1,100.

Old Wiring

Not only have electrical codes changes significantly over the past few decades. While old wiring isn’t an automatic red flag for an old home remodel, there’s a good chance you’ll want to replace it.

Old knob-and-tube wiring simply doesn’t provide the same level of protection to devices that modern, grounded systems do. While it can be retrofitted with GFCI outlets, it may not be feasible for every outlet, leaving your expensive electronics like TVs and refrigerators susceptible to power surges.

It’s also possible the installation of old wiring creates hazards. Damaged wires, flammable building materials, and undersized fuses are just a few of the hazards that you might find during your remodel.

However old your home is, don’t DIY this area of the job. Hire a trained electrician to determine if and how much your old wiring needs to be replaced. There’s no price on peace of mind, and if you ever plan to sell your home you and your future buyers will be glad you did.

Structural Damage

Unfortunately most home inspections cannot spot structural damage just by walking through a house. While cracks in drywall or foundation might be indicative of underlying problems, rot and other damage typically only becomes visible once a remodel is underway.

From termites and water, to smoke or fire damage, there are lots of ways old wood beams can become damaged while the rest of a home looks fine. This can create a massive safety hazard if the extent of the damage is too great and prevents the home.

It’s also possible that prior renovations were not done properly and create hazards. For example, new decks and awnings can quickly deteriorate over time if not built properly. Also, trying to enclose a patio or convert other uninhabitable rooms into living areas is almost always requires a permit and provides lots of opportunities to be done poorly.

In most cases, your general contractor should be able to assess how much work is needed to make the home safe again. In rare cases, a structural engineer might also be called in to ensure the necessary renovations are sufficient to meet the needs of the dwelling.

Conclusion

Taking on an old home remodel can be a very rewarding experience. Despite all the risks and possible problems, the satisfaction of preserving and old home is hard to beat.

The most important thing to remember is to be patient and expect the unexpected. Assume the schedule will slip, and keep some of your budget aside for emergencies. It’s much better to have an unexpected $5,000 to spend afterwards, than it is to find a structural issue that you didn’t plan for.

How about you? Have you taken on an old home remodel and lived to tell about it? We’d love to hear about your experience in the comments!

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