Good news and bad news
The good news is that renovating your home can be transformative.  Things that have been a daily annoyance can be fixed.  Potential you saw when you bought the house can be realized, and in the process you will make it truly your own.  The bad news is remodeling can be a huge commitment of time and money with many challenges and pitfalls.  Before you decide, it would be useful to:

Clarify motivations
Why are we doing this?  What repairs and improvements are the most important?  What are our alternatives?  While motivations differ to some extent every renovation attempts to:

Fix problems and inadequacies of existing house;
Improve its utility, efficiency and daily use;
Increase overall value of property;
Create a comfortable home that reflects one's values.

Acknowledge emotional and financial stake
If you think you might sell your house and relocate in a year or so, a major renovation is not worth the time and expense.  It may be difficult to recover your investment.  An extensive home renovation, including design, permitting, and construction, usually takes more than a year. 

From the beginning have a realistic idea of how much money would be appropriate to invest in renovation.  Will you be able to accomplish what you want within that budget?  Consider the value of your property now, without improvements, and what it would be once they are in place.  If investment would bring property up to comparable value with other houses in the neighborhood, renovation is likely a safe bet.  If renovation would make your house the most expensive in neighborhood, consider reducing the scope of work, or moving.

However, if you feel settled in this house and at home in neighborhood an extensive renovation to realize potential likely makes sense both emotionally and financially.  It will create a home that meets your needs.

Tip: Many homeowners assume they need to add-on when the space they have is not working. It would be less expensive to identify and fix problems with existing house than build an addition.

Unlock potential
Successful remodels worth the effort unlock potential and create value.  Unrealized potential could be in small changes like tweaking the plan to improve flow.  It could be in developing unseen potential of a site, or enhancing the house's architectural character.

Potential may have become obscured by compromises to design, or it may simply not exist.  Poorly sited, badly remuddled, or characterless houses are not good candidates for major renovation.  Costs to fix them are difficult to justify or recover.  It would be better to sell such a house, and find one more suitable.

Learn more about house and neighborhood
To assess potential, learn more about what you have.  Was your house a custom design, or stock plan built on speculation?  When was the neighborhood developed?  Compare your house with others of the same period and style.  Was it built with care and special features, or modest in detail and finishes?  Was the house significantly changed or enlarged?  Check photographic and other historic resources that are available.

Tip: Washington State Archive has a street view of almost every building in the state. Beginning in the 1930s tax assessor offices made photos. The Archive has the negatives, and can make digital copies or prints. These photographs are invaluable for restorers, since most houses were still in their original condition. White ink labels identifying photos can be digitally removed.

Assess existing conditions
If you consider an addition, check first with building department to see what constraints will be imposed on your property.  Clarify requirements for setbacks, height limit, lot coverage and grading.  A title report was prepared when you purchased the house.  It should include a legal description, plot plan, any easements or covenants affecting property. 

Does existing house comply with current land use codes, or was it built to a less restrictive standard?  Houses may be "existing non-conforming" in respect to code, but changes made must comply with current land use requirements.  Apply for a variance only as a last resort.  They are time-consuming, expensive and often futile.

Produce as-built drawings
It is unusual to find original construction drawings for pre-1950 houses.  All renovation projects require "as-built" drawings as a basis for design, permits and construction.  In most projects the first step is to measure and prepare drawings of the house.  They must be drawn to scale and accurately depict existing conditions.  A basic set includes floor plans, section (slice through building), and exterior elevations. 

Tip: As-built plans can be overlaid to reveal critical relationships in design and construction. They can also provide a new perspective on your house, and reveal unnoticed potential.

Assess possibilities
Perhaps the quickest way to assess project feasibility is to arrange a one-time consultation with an architect who specializes in residential renovation.  Outline the problems and inadequacies of your house and a  "wish list" of potential improvements.  Provide this for the architect prior to your meeting.  Consultations work best when all owners/partners participate.  As you walk through the house present the challenges you see, and let the architect respond. Fresh insights will often emerge!  Architects love to solve problems.  If you are already dead set on what you intend to do, don't hire one. 

If you decide to proceed with an architect, once as-built plans are ready get together to sketch ideas.  With your immediate feedback, architect can quickly identify the most promising options.  By the end of this session everyone's ideas will have been tested, and there is likely a preferred direction to pursue.

Tip: Design process builds on previous decisions--refining and advancing what was already agreed.  If you sense you and your architect's views are diverging, make sure to close the gap before proceeding to next phase.

Architect will select and refine best options with you, and create a renovation “master plan” to record the vision. Plan enables you to do projects incrementally over time without missteps.  Measured drawings should clearly depict the changes, and include adequate detail for builders to estimate costs.

Find out what it will cost
It is important at this stage to anticipate construction costs of the project—an estimate, not a bid.  Preliminary designs can be modified to fit the budget.  First, interview and select a general contractor who specializes in custom residential remodeling.  Ask for references, and visit some recently completed projects.  Speak candidly with the homeowners about contractor’s performance.  Was project on budget and schedule?  Did conflicts arise?

Tip: When contractor comes over to review your preliminary plans, set a date when he/she will return with an itemized budget.  Many builders do this kind of work evenings and weekends…

Develop scheme for construction
With an acceptable project cost, select the work you intend to do now.  Develop only this portion of project, because your needs may change before the next phase arrives.  Choices in materials, components and finishes can seem overwhelming.  Allow architect to narrow the field to products appropriate for period and style of your house.  Produce "construction documents" only for current phase of work. 

If project includes an addition or structural changes architect will recommend a consulting engineer for structural analysis, calculations, and design.  Engineer’s work is often integrated into the architect's drawings, and calcs are included with plan check submittal.

Requirements for plans review in most places have continued to expand and become more time-consuming.  Be prepared for complexity, cost and duration of process.  Getting a permit is not a trivial matter.

Make a formal agreement with general contractor
While plans are being reviewed by building department, request contractor to finalize his/her bids and secure commitments from subcontractors.  This is the time to make sure your budget will be adequate.  If it is not, adjust scope of work, or request additional subcontracted bids.  When "line items" and prices are set, make a formal agreement with general contractor that includes a specific (dated) set of the architect's drawings and specifications.  Builder should also provide a week-by-week schedule and timeline to complete the job.  Realize the longer the project takes, the more overhead there will be to cover.

During construction
Despite all your careful planning construction may still be stressful. You gave up your peaceful home to get the work done, and it will likely take months to complete.  Are you willing to live with the disruption?  Many families decide to move out.  If you do, clear rooms that will be affected and store your belongings.  Rent a place nearby so you can keep an eye on the work.  Your agreement with contractor should include a provision that indicates rental dates, and what will happen if your lease expires before project is "sufficiently complete" to move back in.

Most renovation projects begin with a bang—selective demolition of finishes, as walls, floors, and ceilings are opened up, and old insulation, plumbing and electrical ripped-out.  This is usually the most dramatic phase, and for the uninitiated a rude awakening.  Demolition may also reveal concealed problems to be dealt with.  It is wise to hold back something like 10% of your budget to cope with the unexpected. 

Site meetings
In construction projects that continue for months you will need some method to assess progress, deal with questions that arise, and keep project on schedule.  We recommend setting a regular day and time to meet at the site with your contractor and architect.  Every other week is probably adequate.  If there is nothing important to discuss cancel the meeting, but retain the schedule.  For site meetings, contractor should prepare an agenda of decisions and questions to resolve.  Scheduled meetings will avoid frequent interruptions and being asked to make decisions with insufficient information. 

Meetings at the site enable everyone to see and understand the issue before taking action. You will hear all sides before making a decision.  No one will be out-of-the-loop, or texting questions like: "What should we do about that purlin blocking roof jack?"
Tip: You may have noticed some contractors and architects are more cooperative problem-solvers working together at the site than when contacted separately. When they are in collaboration-mode the best ideas and solutions will emerge.

During site meetings architect records decisions made, and sends these notes to participants for verification.  Schedules and budgets should also be reviewed.  If everyone stays on topic, most meetings can be concluded within an hour. 

So, take a deep breath.  The improvements will be worth it.

Tim Andersen

Preparing to Renovate Your House
and not go crazy in the process
Oh sure, in your dreams!
9 February 2016