Polish or Demolish? How To Decide Whether To Renovate or Tear Down a House
If you’re thinking of building a new home, you’re probably looking at empty property – a lot in a subdivision, or like many of my clients, a larger bit of land further out.
Or maybe you’re buying an existing house with the intent to renovate it and make it your home.
But what if you’re somewhere in between – you’re building a new house, but the property you’re thinking of buying already has a house on it. When does it make sense to fix it up, and when does it make sense to tear down a house and start over?
Tear-downs happen all the time – I’ve been involved in a few with my clients. Sometimes the house is torn down, and sometimes it’s purposefully burned down (that’s another story, read about burning down a house here).
Personally, I’d rather keep and remodel a house whenever we can, especially when the house is a part of a neighborhood of character.
But that’s not always possible. Here are some of the things I’ve learned – some technical, some emotional – that might you help you decide when to “polish” and when to “demolish”.
Look at the Character of the Neighborhood and Check Property Values
Demolishing a house only makes sense financially if home prices in the area are stable or on the upswing. Building the most expensive house on the street isn’t a great idea in an area that’s going downhill. If that’s the neighborhood you really want to be in, though, better to renovate than build new.
But in a steady or growing area, it might be the right thing to do. A couple of the houses I’ve helped tear down were the ugly ducklings of the neighborhood, and I think we did everyone a favor by replacing them with something that fit the area better, and added value.
The opposite is true, too. When a house already fits a neighborhood well, when it’s an essential part of the architectural fabric, it’s not a candidate for demolition unless it’s literally falling down (and maybe not even then). You have responsibilities to the community that extend beyond your property lines.
Investigate the House’s Structural Integrity
You’ll probably need some engineering help to figure this one out. The older a home is, the less likely it is that the structure was designed to modern codes. Same’s true for houses “way out” in the country, where codes aren’t always enforced or maybe don’t exist at all.
A house with a sub-standard structure can be expensive to update. Assuming you don’t want a creaky, squeaky, rattling, bouncing home, you’ll likely spend money on beefing up the floors, walls, and roof.
And once you start fiddling with the guts of the house, you’ll probably need to bring all of it up to current codes. That can be the beginning of the proverbial snowball that eventually eats up much of your renovation budget.
Review the cost of major structural repairs against new home construction – getting the house you want will be more difficult if you start off pouring tens of thousands into the structure, before you get to the fun stuff.
Watch Out for Questionable Foundations and Basements
Two of the demolition projects I’ve been involved with had insurmountable foundation issues. In one, there were a large number of settling cracks in the foundation walls, indicating problems with drainage and/or soil under the house.
It wasn’t a very big house, so it was on the polish/demolish bubble anyway, but the idea of excavating around the entire house to reinforce the walls, fix the settling, and install drainage and waterproofing pushed it solidly into the “demo” category.
The second one didn’t have cracked walls, but the foundation had other problems. The walls were narrow and unreinforced, which meant the second story my clients wanted to build on top of it would have required expensive foundation modifications.
Fixing bad or unsuitable foundations can be one of the most expensive things you do to a house. Think “demolish” if this is the case with yours.
Have There Been any Previous Renovations?
Old houses often have a long history of renovations, additions, and repairs that weren’t done as well as the original.
Sometimes those alterations improve the house, but they frequently detract from it. Too often, I find solid older homes that have been “renovated” with astonishingly unsafe framing, cheap finishes, poorly designed additions that don’t match the original structure, and way too much “DIY” work.
You’re going to have to tear out and replace the bad work anyway. If the house is otherwise sound, this won’t be a big problem – just add it to the list of things you’re going to polish up anyway.
For poorly-built or poorly-designed additions, think about a partial demolition. I’ve been involved in a couple of projects where the overall renovation project actually made the house a little smaller.
Headroom Issues Can Be Expensive to Fix
It’s pretty typical in homes these days to make ceilings at least nine feet tall, but that’s not nearly as common in older homes. Low ceilings are rarely worth raising – you’ll be impacting the structure of course, but also the wall finishes inside and out. You’ll be replacing or extending all the wiring, plumbing, and HVAC that serves the second floor, and you’ll be putting in a new stair.
If the basement’s too low the problems are even bigger – lowering a basement floor is almost impossible, and adding to the top of a basement wall means lifting the entire house up.
That’s not a terrible idea if the house is unique and/or historic, and you’ll have my thanks for keeping the character of it intact. But it’s not easy, or cheap.
Too-low ceilings should definitely be on your list of possible reasons to tear down a house.
Floor Level Changes Might Not be Fixable At All
This was a contributing factor in a project I designed a few years back. The house was divided in half by a level change of five steps, or about three and a half feet. But my empty-nester clients wanted all the living spaces and the master bedroom suite on the same floor, which the level change made just about impossible to accommodate.
Believe me, we tried every imaginable arrangement of spaces to minimize the impact of that level change on the house. In the end, though, the only way they could get the house they wanted was to clear the lot and start over.
What are the Zoning and Building Restrictions on the Property?
Out in the country you won’t many regulations controlling where you can add onto a house or where you can build a new one.
But municipalities are a different story. Most have setback requirements that limit the area where you can build, which can make it hard to expand an existing house the way you want.
In the older neighborhoods where I often work, some of the homes were built over the setback lines, or stricter setback lines were established many years later. The location of those houses were “grandfathered in”; you can keep the existing house there but you can’t expand it.
And if you tear the grandfathered house down, you can’t rebuild in the same location.
Is There a Neighborhood Design Review Requirement?
In many neighborhoods, proposed new homes are subject to design review. The existing house might not be exactly what you wanted, but if you tear it down and start over, are you willing to design your new home to meet the neighborhood guidelines? (Read more about design review here).
If review guidelines are strict you might consider keeping the house and renovating the interior, keeping the exterior intact so you won’t run afoul of the review board.
In Historic neighborhoods, design guidelines often make getting a demolition permit extremely difficult or impossible – another good reason to work with the home that’s already there.
Compare the Lot Cost to House Cost
Some of the reasons above boil down to costs – will it cost more to renovate or to build new? Does spending money on renovation make sense in your neighborhood? Those are complicated questions that you won’t answer quickly.
There’s one quick comparison you can do, however, if your goal is to build a new home – how does the cost of buying an empty lot compare to buying a lot with a house on it, regardless of the condition of the house?
Say for example a new lot in a new subdivision costs $150,000 and an existing house in an older neighborhood costs $250,000. Is the $100k premium worth it to be in an established area, with mature trees, and little chance of future construction work disrupting your life?
The other option will save you $100k, but you’ll be living with the uncertainty of the neighborhood’s future, trees that won’t be mature until you sell your house, and years and years of construction noise and dust.
So Should You Polish or Demolish?
My clients have all heard me say that every project’s unique, and nowhere is that more true than choosing whether to demolish an existing house.
It’s a decision you can’t make only on cost, or only on emotion. All of the “practical” factors might add up to “demolish”, but you polish the house anyway because, well, you’re in love with it.
Then again, a charming house might be too far gone to reasonably repair.
Either way, a thorough examination using the criteria above will help you make the right decision for you and your family.