When remodeling, don’t over-individualize

#624 in a series of true experiences in real estate
June 2011, Hills Newspapers

We’ve been helping a woman with remodeling her house. She asked us if we’d be her “house therapists” and we said yes. It’s been grand.

She bounces ideas off of us and we give her our opinions. We ask her questions and listen carefully. We suggest which projects will give her the most comfort and joy and therefore should be addressed sooner than others. She asks us things, like, “You mean I don’t have to tear that all out and start all over?”and “Am I thinking right about this?”

When we already know and have worked with a particular plumber or furnace man or other expert, we meet him or her at the house, talk through what our client wants to accomplish and get options and bids.

What we are doing is different in some ways from what we do for our listings. This client is not selling her house, she wants to live there “forever”, so much of the work being done is for her long term comfort. But we want her money spent smartly, and ideally, she won’t over-improve or so overly-individualize the house that it won’t appeal to future owners.

We asked the owner to make a list of her house dreams, if she could have everything she wants. She listed 14 items, some small, others large, not in any particular order of her desire. But as we talked, one item rose to the top of the list. She was cold in her house.

It seemed to us that heat was a very good place to begin. We contacted a smart-thinking furnace man and after a discussion, better and broader heating is being installed. The furnace man suggested a larger duct to the coldest room and a new duct to a bathroom that had never had heat, as well as other changes. It’s too soon to tell if the problem has been completely solved but we’re hopeful.

She’d said at the start that she wanted to take care of deferred maintenance but when we walked through the property we did not see any glaring problems. Still, to be sure nothing was missed, we suggested a general physical inspection be done, and she agreed.

It was a long inspection – about 6 hours – a close look at every seeable aspect of the house. Some things that the owner had been worrying about checked out ok, including a garden retaining wall – no fix necessary. At least one problem presented itself that the owner was unaware of – notches cut in a support timber during a plumbing run – but it will be fairly easy to fix. More helpful info came from the inspector such as how a small leak into an inside wall might be stopped, the specific type of caulk that will work best on a stucco wall, and the necessity for metal flashing around porch decking supports.

The inspector pointed out that one bedroom does not have a opening window for escape in case of fire (ropes broken on one window, the other painted shut) and he described how rain water could be redirected away from a corner of the foundation with sloped paving. Now that we know about these and other observations, we’ve added them to the original list. The best news was receiving confirmation that the house overall is in very good health.
There are other, small projects that will make the house function more conveniently. For example, small electrical work, adjustment of an exterior door deadbolt so it latches easily, adding a landing inside an interior door to the garage to lessen the big step down.

And there are larger issues that the owner would like to address. She wants to change the texture of the plaster on the walls of several rooms. This is a big project that we are investigating to see how it might best be accomplished, who would do it well, what it would cost. Another large project is changing out the kitchen cabinets and countertops, probably including the sink, faucets, appliances, some plumbing and electrical, possibly even the overall room configuration.

It’s always true about houses. The more you look at them, the more you can learn what can make them better. Of course, it depends. Sometimes houses are well laid out and well constructed, sometimes not. In some cases, improvements can be made easily and inexpensively. In other houses, it would take far greater work to make better the overall “package”.

This homeowner asked us if she should sell and move or stay and make changes that would be more to her liking. We told her our opinion. In every case, it is costly to sell and buy, both in terms of money and time.

But in her case, she has an unusually sound and beautiful house in a most pleasant location. She knows and likes this house, and this house works for her. She may be able to fix and change most of the things that bother her for about the same amount of money it would cost her to sell and start over again with a different house.

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