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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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!