This Old Money Pit

Renovating an old house can be rewarding, as well as stressful. Be prepared to work on your communication skills—especially where there’s a small explosion…

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Dewson Construction often works with prospective buyers to determine any potential renovation problems, including the impact the renovation could have on the structure. Buyers get an idea of how much it might take to improve the house.

Before securing estimates, determine exactly what it is you want to do and what’s required to do it, says Karen Helme, an interior designer with Dunbarton Designs. By itemizing the planned improvements, Simon and Dean discovered that their wish list was cost-prohibitive. They wound up dropping the budget to $171,000—“way more for far less,” Simon says.

Their project included demolishing walls to let more sun enter the house, extending the kitchen wall, remodeling the bathroom and kitchen, new wiring, new plumbing, new insulation, new windows, central air, new cabinets—and that’s only a partial list.

Milburn can relate. Her home renovation required new systems and the removal of walls erected to create the apartment setup. A wall in the living room, for instance, formed a first-floor corridor to steps leading to the second apartment. There were two furnaces, both of which were dangerously in disrepair. The couple wanted three bedrooms and three-and-a-half baths, which meant reconfiguring rooms.

Padding the budget is imperative. Simon and Dean’s costs topped out at $187,000. Working on an old home is like opening Pandora’s box. “You can’t see through walls and ceilings,” says John McMahon, vice president of Dewson Construction.

Though Helme was careful while budgeting for renovation of her 1940s-era Greenville home, a waste pipe ended up coming through what was supposed to be a doorway. A reroute was required.

Your choice of contractor depends in part on whether you want a restoration or a renovation. Restoring typically refers to bringing the property back to a specific historical period, which requires specialty craftsmen. About 20 percent of Dewson’s clients do a restoration. The rest are into renovation.

“Usually people are modifying the flow of the house for the way we live now,” Helme says. Homeowners no longer need a living room isolated on one side of the house or a tiny kitchen. When Helme first toured her current house, she commented on the small kitchen. The Realtor replied, “It’s the maid’s kitchen.” Helme shook her head. “That’s not how this girl lives,” she said of herself.

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