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Planning for Remodeling
by Dr. Oneida Cramer

The horror stories that frequent many home remodeling projects may stem from the practice of ballpark figuring?relatively short excursions through the house with a consultant to talk about what might be done and then arriving at an estimated cost.

?There?s nothing more dangerous,? said George Lewis of George Lewis Custom Homes, first vice president of Dallas Home Builders Association in 2001-2002, and president of Dallas HBA for 2002-2003. ?That is an extremely hazardous way to approach anything but the most simplified project. You really should be clear on what you want to do. If there?s any design involved, get the design done in short order, and then have time for pricing to be done properly?the more complicated the project, the more time that?s required for pricing. A lot of remodeling projects have unhappy progress because there was too much pressure at the front end of the project to move ahead and make a decision, whether to do the project or not, without going into enough depth and detail about exactly everything that needs to be done.?

When buying a home, ideally, the homebuyers should allow sufficient time to determine whether the house, when remodeled, will meet the family needs. This contemplation can be done through an option period in the contract.

?You wouldn?t want to spend your time or anybody else?s time on a house that isn?t under contract,? Lewis said. Normally during the period, the homebuyer would devise a plan and produce a written list of what they want at a reasonable cost for the family. At the same time, the builder would measure, talk to crews, go through the pricing exercises, pricing data, or have sub contractors look at the data, and then reflect on everything to come up with the estimated cost.

?A lot of times, especially characteristic in the last three years when we had such a runaway sellers market, buyers didn?t have time to properly evaluate,? Lewis said. ?One of the nice things about conditions today is they have eased, and buyers do have considerably more options to negotiate the provisions, if they are coached, to say this is what I think is right for me and my family.?

To help homeowners navigate the process, George Lewis Custom Homes is compiling a checklist of criteria to evaluate.

1. Foundation?The construction stages for pier and beam are vastly more stringent today than they were 50 to 80 years ago, according to Lewis. So, the downside is an existing structure that may not accommodate the planned project.

2. Framing?Reframing may be necessary to eliminate cracks in the walls because older homes were built with a completely different standard for framing than that used today.

3. Soil?s report?A soil sample down to the rock layer provides important data to determine the steps needed to make a good foundation for any new addition. Also important is finding yard space for building equipment?the minimum being a Bobcat.

4. Wiring?Not only has old fabric covered wiring probably deteriorated from age, heat, or perhaps rodents chewing on it, a 1910 or 1912 house may not even have a ground wire. In contrast, a whole new concept of circuitry exists today, according to Lewis. For instance, each appliance, vent-a-hood, and refrigerator in the kitchen has its own circuit. And all kitchen circuits are ground fault circuits. Ground fault circuits are also put in all bathrooms, outdoor fixtures, and in the garage. ?The idea of a ground fault circuit is that it will trip very rapidly. So, if you dropped a hair dryer in water, the circuit would go off?it wouldn?t electrocute you.?

5. Plumbing?Many old sewer lines have problems with drainage, in part, because of a seven-year drought in the 1950?s that led to taping the salty water from Red River, which caused oxidation, rusting and clogging of galvanized pipes. Chances are also good that old tree roots, before sprinkler systems came into practice, eroded through pipes and into the sewer system.

6. HVAC?Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems may be leaking or in need of repair, not to mention the potential problems of asbestos, lead-based paint, and other environmental pollutants stemming from the materials used previously in building the home.

?Real estate laws require that anytime a contractor undertakes to remodel a house, he has to have a signed proof that he has given the homeowner the disclosure report, which is a booklet on the hazards of being in and around lead-based paint,? Lewis said. ?So, we recommend people just not live in the house with small children if they?re undertaking projects that involve reworking surfaces with lead-based paint. In fact, we suggest that you don?t allow the children to come to the house when doing that kind of work.?

7. Survey??We want a survey that tells, not only where the house is, it tells where any trees are, if there are any adverse encroachments, what the elevations of the tree are because we can?t disturb the elevation of the tree without disturbing the tree,? Lewis said. Also survey to pinpoint problems with flood plain or high water, and review the deed for deed restrictions.

This is a partial list of things that clearly have to be resolved to let homeowners and homebuyers know that there are not hidden, lurking problems or to make the project too costly to consider, according to Lewis.

?The reason for bringing some of these ideas out is that people think these old houses are wonderful,? Lewis said. ?Yes, they are wonderful. But there are many face cards and important things about new houses.? The bottom line is that the family needs to be assured and comfortable that they?re putting the right amount of money in the project vs. the value of the house.

Ideally, even before homeowners think about remodeling, they should cultivate a relationship with an architect and/or builder to develop trust. Then, when the family makes a decision to modify the existing home or a prospective property, they can employ this architectural associate in the information gathering process. Once the family formulates a plan, they should take time to reflect and become settled in what they want to do.

?So, if the builder does do what the homeowner wants, the project can have a happy ending,? Lewis said.

?The key to having a project that stays in costs, stays in budget, and stays on schedule is to figure out what you?re going to do before you do it,? Lewis said. ?If you?re going to do a total kitchen and bath overhaul, the homeowners have already picked out their countertops, all their appliances, all their paint colors, their wallpapers, everything. We figure out all the long-lead items in the project, have a signed contract, bank loan, and have all the paper work done. Then we don?t start the project until the long lead items have arrived. The idea is to have everything in hand before you actually do the first thing. Then all you?ve go to do is put it up.

-by Dr. Oneida Cramer
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