Sometimes, the scope of a client’s dreams outstrip the return they’ll see on the home—or the joy they’ll ever find there. “For me, it’s a red flag when a homeowner starts talking about moving the stairs,” says Victoria Sass, who founded her Minneapolis-area design firm Project Refuge Studio with a focus on renovations that keep young families in old homes. “There's a lot of engineering that comes into play, and it's not usually the best bang for your buck. That’s when I take the conversation to a more abstract level and say, ‘What is it you really want out of a house?’ It's probably going to be cheaper to move and get the house that you actually want, or at least start closer to where you want to end up.”
Here's how to know it's time to move on.
You’ve struggled to figure out how to live in the home you’re in.
Houses can shape the way you interact with your family—for better or worse. A tricky layout can make it more difficult to spend time together as a family, or maybe you’re feeling too close in a cramped communal space. If you just can’t make it work, that’s a sign to call in a pro—but sometimes, the home’s bones and your family’s needs just might not be a fit. “It can be emotional for clients to realize that what they thought was going to be a great move really wasn’t,” says St. Louis interior designer Jacob Laws. “The things that drive people to want to renovate are usually well-founded—the house is not big enough, has a bad flow, it’s tired, or there’s not enough light or privacy,” says Bruce Irving, a Boston-area real estate agent and former executive producer of This Old House who also consults with homeowners weighing the competing urges to move or improve. “When it’s not solvable, it usually has something to do with zoning—the house is maxed out on the lot already, but has become a mismatch for the people living in it. I’ve told people, ‘You could put a million bolts in this house and it’s still never going to be what you want.’ There’s only so much you can squeeze out of given property.”
You want to plant roots for decades (and call the shots on every detail).
Customizing every element of your home can set the stage for a long, happy stay. “If you are planning on staying in the home 15 years or more, my recommendation would be to build,” says Emily Clark, who runs Boise, Idaho design-build firm Clark & Co. Homes. “When you work with a team to design a home from the ground up, you are able to plan and customize your home in a way that it will serve you best. A major renovation can accomplish some of those goals, but you will be more limited by the existing footprint, ceiling heights, and utilities.”
Starting over costs less than renovating the home you’re in.
Sometimes tweaks that feel small cost just as much as changing everything. If making your house into your dream home requires a complete makeover, starting fresh might be a better fit—especially if your wish list requires moving walls, ducts, electrical, gas or plumbing lines.
You want to put wellness first.
Modern technology can be seamlessly folded into a new home to put the health and wellness of your family first. “From a purely financial standpoint, you will typically spend more to build new than to renovate, but it's hard to put a price on the benefits of working with a clean slate,” says Clark. “Better flow and functionality, clean circulation, efficient heating and cooling, tall ceilings, and spaces customized to support your specific daily activities make a huge difference in your overall wellness.”
Pro Tips For Building
Understand what “custom” really means.
Not all “custom” new builds are created equal. Juliana Oliveira, the principal of Dallas firm Beyond Interior Design says it’s important to understand how many options a builder is really offering, especially with semi-custom or tract homes (a development featuring homes of a similar style). “No matter how much they market that they provide custom design, that usually means choosing one of X number of options,” she cautions. If you want a truly custom interior, that may require a bit of backtracking. “Sometimes, it makes more sense to go with the basic package and [plan to] do the work that you’re wanting later.”
Know the rules.
If you’re building in an older neighborhood rather than a new development, you’ll want to cross-check your wish list with the local regulations. “You're not going to be able to build the kind of house you want in certain neighborhoods,” cautions Laws. “There are preservation restrictions and homeowners association restrictions that won't allow you to build over a certain height, or build a certain style, or have the footprint of the house be over a certain square footage.”
Permits Each municipality has its own codes, but you’re more likely to need a permit if you’re altering the home’s structure—things like adding or removing walls, converting a garage into a living space or replacing the roof. To be safe, check your city’s construction code before you start swinging hammers. (If you have a contractor, make sure they pull the permits for you—which ensures that they are responsible for the resulting work being up to code.)
HOA approval Nearly one-quarter of Americans live in an HOA, which typically requires pre-approval before taking on renovations or repairs. These organizations, which are designed to protect resale value for the entire neighborhood, focus primarily on exterior elements or changes to your plumbing or electrical systems. If you live in a condo, the HOA will also want to approve plans to move load-bearing walls, which could impact your neighbors. Check your HOA’s CC&Rs (short for covenants, conditions and restrictions), which outline what upgrades require pre-approval. Skip this step and your HOA could require you to re-do the work.
Historic designation If you aren’t sure, your state’s historic preservation office should be able to tell you whether you live in a historic district. These local districts can govern anything from the look and feel of a neighborhood to the style of window treatments you install—which means you may not be able to make all of the changes you’d hoped without city approval, whether or not your home is registered as a historic building. For local zoning ordinances, check with your city clerk. (Being listed on the federal National Register, on the other hand, does not come with any restrictions.)
Either Way, Here’s How to Proceed:
Find a team you trust (and like).
“Make sure that the team you choose for your remodel or build shares a similar design aesthetic, a realistic respect for your budget, attention to detail, and a healthy warranty of the work performed,” advises Clark. “Your design and build team is going to ask you all kinds of in-depth questions about how you live and function in your home, so make sure you like each other!”
Consult (early) with experts about the costs.
If you’re buying a new property with plans to renovate, bring in the pros before you close. An architect or designer can help you outline a realistic vision for the home; contractors, too, can walk through a property and outline what you can expect to spend based on your goals. “The real estate agent will tell you [the renovation] will take six months and $1 million because they want you to close,” says Josh Wiener, the founder of the luxury New York building firm SilverLinings. “I walk in and go, ‘That’s a year—and $4 million.’ I'm a dream-killer sometimes.”
Build a buffer into your budget.
Only one in three renovation projects actually come in on budget, according to a Houzz report. Kitchens and master bathrooms drive up costs, and the primary reasons for exploding budgets included scope creep (“you might as well fix it while you’re here”), extra work fixing a previous contractor’s mistakes, and unexpected surprises after demolition. New builds come with their own surprises—not to mention expenses like land preparation, builder fees or post-construction landscaping that homeowners may not have factored into the budget. Having funds reserved for the unexpected from the get-go makes those new costs less painful when they arise.
Set aside time before construction starts.
As you’re working on the project timeline, one word will be music to your contractor’s ears: pre-construction. That’s the time devoted to making all of your selections—everything from approving wood samples to choosing lighting fixtures and making sure they’re in stock. Wiener says you should budget two to three months to get it all right. “Having all that stuff pre-approved before you start swinging hammers is a huge benefit.” Why? Because you’re probably not as decisive as you think. “Our industry joke is that a lot of people know what they don't like, but they don't know what they do like,” says Wiener. That’s OK, of course, but it makes allowing time for the decision-making process all the more crucial.
Do all of the work at once.
Though it requires a bigger check up front, you’ll ultimately save money by tackling your entire project all at once rather than breaking it into phases. “The bigger the pile of fixes you need, the more expensive it is—but the more likely that you’ll get it at a better price,” says Irving. “Bringing a contractor and design team in for a bunch of small jobs is not nearly as efficient as putting it all together into one big job.”
Design for your family, not the next one.
It’s a common lament among designers: Clients who aren’t willing to follow their passions because they are worried about the resale value of their home. “You live in this house now—do what's right for your family and what will make this house work for you,” counsels Sass. “A long-term solution for you is a good solution, and ultimately it’s the most sustainable thing.”
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