Written by Christopher Kempel, AIA, NCARB | RKA Design Partner
“Should we remodel, or should we tear it down?” It’s a question that comes up a lot. From close friends and family, and people I meet for the first time in casual social settings, and even potential new clients. It could be someone living in a home that no longer suits their needs. It could be someone looking to buy a new home who’s currently living in a rental or condominium (where remodeling or tearing down is not an option). Or it might be someone whose own home is under evaluation. For them, the answer might help determine if they should stay or start the process of looking to move.
It’s not a simple question because the answer is tailored uniquely to their situation and values. To help arrive at the answer that best fits you and your needs, I believe the question can be broken down into a few key considerations.
Both a remodel and new build take time, but they are different in terms of the amount. Ask yourself, are your needs time-sensitive and is your lifestyle time-sensitive? Do you move around a lot, or do you tend to stay in one place? Do you see shifting needs in the near or distant future that might prompt you to move? The answers to these questions will help identify your time goals for the property. Tearing down and building new generally takes more time. However, larger, more complicated remodels may not save as much time as you might think due to the complexities of adding a second story (which I’ll touch upon in a moment), or unexpected unknowns like foundation damage, dry rot, insect damage, water damage, and substandard framing.
For example, a recent home remodel saved only four to six months compared to tearing it down and starting new. It wasn’t much, but for the owners it made all the difference. It was important the job be done in time for the new school year. Therefore, they chose to remodel and were able to finish on time.
What are your big-picture life plans? Is this a property you intend to hold for years and generations? Or do you see a season of your life ending soon in a way that might diminish your attraction to the property? Maybe you need a home in a better school district, or foresee a need to upsize or downsize, or you may simply need a different landscape.
For example, as my own parents age, their values have shifted from a hillside property (in a home with lots of interior and exterior stairs) in a great school district to one that’s flat, serving their mobility concerns better (no stairs and easy ramp accessibility if necessary), and where good schools are less a consideration. Because of their changing needs, remodeling their existing hillside home is not an option.
Do you see yourself in the neighborhood, town, or city location for a period of time long enough to warrant the desire to put the time and energy into a new build? The answer is uniquely yours, depending on your situation.
“Does the place have good bones?” It’s an important question, but the answer is not always clear. You may be considering the purchase of a new home with the intent of remodeling or tearing down, or you may be considering the possibilities of the home you’re in already.
In Southern California there was a mad rush to build homes as workforce housing in the 1940s and in the post-war 50s and 60s. Construction methods were cheapened as homes were going up fast and everywhere. Given our temperate and all-too-forgiving climate, homes often came with no insulation, thin walls, and a “thin-feeling” everything. Also, our area has grown rapidly and so have the number of homes that have been butchered by odd remodels and additions that too often ruin the design intent and organization of the original. Unfortunately, these homes are everywhere. A fresh coat of paint on any used home on the market can brighten the exterior, and all too easily cover and distract from evaluating a home’s true potential. A “stitched together” home and/or one of poor build quality are important factors to consider when evaluating the “bones” of a home and its suitability for remodeling. If it’s not suitable, then tearing down may be your wisest option.
Because it’s difficult for the untrained eye to see, I would recommend consulting an experienced architect to help evaluate and expose the true potential of your home’s “bones.” They should be able to point out and articulate what they see and discuss how these opportunities fit (or don’t) with your vision.
The decision to remodel or tear down may be influenced by your desire to add a second story, or not. While most of you may know this, it’s important to point out that adding a second level above an existing single-story home is quite disruptive. The ground level needs to support the new second level above. Second-level additions often lead to the de-construction of ground level walls to strategically place new columns to support the second level, de-construction of the ground level ceiling to support the weight of the new floor above, and new foundations and footings to tie into the existing foundations where those support columns come down. It’s a lot of work and it’s messy.
If you understand this and are okay with it, then it should help with your decision. Many people believe that you can easily live in a home during the construction of a second-story addition. While it’s done, it’s simply not easy. Therefore, I find it best to assume you won’t be living in the home during construction. Further consultation with a general contractor or experienced architect will help clarify the constraints of your unique situation. If you’re not able to live in the home while it’s being remodeled, then this affects another part of your decision-making process, which are the carry costs.
If you decide not to live in your home during an extensive remodel or new build (and naturally you cannot, unless you have a guest home on the property, Will and Sandy), then you should be considering the costs associated with paying for a place to live during construction, and all the carry costs associated with that. It might seem like a common-sense consideration, but so often in conversations I’ve found (especially during a rebuild) that homeowners are not budgeting the cost to do the work while also paying for somewhere else to stay until the work is complete.
The decision to remodel or tear down may affect your property taxes. While different jurisdictions define a remodel differently, you may be able to keep enough of your existing home to help classify the work as a “remodel,” versus “new construction.” You should consult your tax professional regarding specifics, but in general terms if you’re able to classify your project as a “remodel” then the home is re-assessed in a financially advantageous way, and the benefit may save you money. Naturally, the decision to try and keep some portion of the existing home may simply not work with the new design and the hassle to try and attempt to do so may outweigh the tax benefits. I would recommend you consult an experienced architect to guide you through the possibilities of evaluating what you have now, and what the remodel may become, and see if the potential remodel aligns well with your intentions. Regardless, tax property assessments as they relate to a remodel versus new build are an important consideration.
There are naturally more areas to cover regarding helping you make the decision between remodeling and tearing down. But these are the topics that most often find their way into my conversations.
In closing, perhaps the most important point to mention when deciding to remodel versus tearing down is difficult to articulate. It’s about the feel of a home, and the quality of that feel. A custom new-build home done well simply feels right. Remodeling has its greatest challenges in terms of achieving that good feel. As architects we strive to work best within an existing home’s framework, siting (sun orientation and view capture), and massing (spatial scale). However, if floors and walls feel thin, it’s a challenge to make them feel as solid as a new build. In custom new homes, for example, we add lightweight concrete to the floor construction to make it feel solid and dead quiet. There are challenges with a remodel, but with the right team of professionals, we can get you close to that perfect dream.
It may be considered a luxury to hire a talented architect to design a custom-tailored home, tear down the old and build anew. But if done right, the payoff can be tremendous. Not only in terms of long-term resale value, but in terms of value in quality of living. Whether it’s safety, family community, or healthy living, you have the best opportunity to live as you always intended when starting with a clean slate.