Some saavy homeowners are taking advantage of the economic downturn, and finding significant savings on remodeling projects. An article in last week's NYT House & Home section gives a few examples of projects completed at steep discounts compared to a year ago. Interest rates are low and contractors are hungry, which makes it a great time to remodel or add on to your home.
The Times article suggests that this might be a good time to shop around for a deep discount, but I would expect cost reductions closer to 10 percent as compared to last year. The bigger difference now is availability. Portland remodeling pros had a full plate last year, and you'd be lucky to get a call back from some of the better builders in town. That has definitely changed, and now is a great time to get these skilled craftspeople working on your project.
Some things to keep in mind if you are planning a remodel project:
Basic building materials (e.g. lumber, steel and copper) are much cheaper than a year ago. But these make up only a small portion of the project cost. Expect slimmer discounts (if any) on the fun stuff – tile, windows, and plumbing fixtures to name a few.
Surprises do happen on remodel jobs, even with the best builders on board. So be sure you are choosing someone who is very experienced working on older homes, and who knows how to plan for these setbacks.
The pool of renovation contractors has widened significantly, since work has dried up for the production builders. This means a lot of new-home builders are now selling themselves as "remodelers". You might get a much lower bid from these crews, but will they still be in business when you have a warranty issue in a year? Will there be change orders during the project once they realize their bid was unrealistic?
Hire a good architect to guide you through the process, and to help maximize the value of your investment. You'll get a much more accurate price with even the most preliminary set of plans, and potential builders will know you are serious about the project.
Be fair. It is okay to ask contractors to be more aggressive with their pricing, but ultimately you want them to be happy while working on your house –it will show in the quality of the finished product.
I maintain a list of reputable remodeling contractors that I will share with clients, and I'll tailor those recommendations based on the scope of work, project location and even personality (yours and theirs). Also check out this six part blog series for some other useful suggestions.
Last summer I had the great privelege of attending a two day seminar with Building Science gurus Joe Lstiburek and John Straube. One topic that I really enjoyed was this 1915 four square house that Lstiburek and his wife Betsy Pettit retrofitted for major energy efficiency. Pettit's article describing the process is now available on their website, and I think it is a great example of how to extend the life of our older housing stock.
Older houses like this typically have undersized walls and roof rafters, making it extremely difficult to meet current insulation standards. Joe and Betsy found some creative ways to insulate from the exterior, leaving the interior mostly undisturbed while maintaining the character of the house outside.
Some highlights and observations:
Exterior insulation was added at the roof and walls to stop air leakage and add thermal resistance.
Cellulose insulation was added to the wall to the wall cavities, and spray-foam insulation was added inside the roof. Total insulation values of R-40 (walls) and R-60 (roofs) are nearly double the code standard in most new houses today.
A ventilated space was added behind the siding, which prevents moisture from getting trapped in the walls. I like this nod to durability, a green strategy that is often overlooked.
The finished house uses 54% less gas and electric energy than the original house, even though new living spaces were created in the attic and basement.
Financed at today's interest rates, these upgrades are nearly cost neutral, even if utility rates do not increase.
In a milder climate like Portland, I suspect similar savings could be achieved with slightly less of an insulation investment. An upgrade like this would also provide a great opportunity to tackle seismic upgrades with little added cost.
Today's Consumed column in the New York Times Magazine, "Refurbishing Normal" by Rob Walker, discusses the idea that our economic and environmental insecurities might be contributing to a new idea of what a "normal" home should entail. Are McMansions a thing of the past? Walker writes,
given that many Americans’ consumption patterns have been affected by
the economic slowdown, it’s interesting to consider whether a version
of normal might emerge that is more environmentally sound...That said, there are hurdles to this theoretical new normal. For one,
remodelers who specialize in eco-friendly projects say many homeowners
still tend to focus on green stuff rather than green performance.
It’s easier to imagine friends being impressed by the virtue of your
recycled-glass bathroom tiles than by properly sealed air-conditioning
ducts, even though more systemic projects have “orders of magnitude”
What do you see in your community? Is our understanding of eco-friendly home design finally going to extend beyond bamboo flooring, organic cotton duvets and the ubiquitous recycled glass tile to encompass living smaller and wiser? Are we going to be the first generation to choose more modest homes than our parents?
I volunteer at our school library, and last week I found this great vintage Portland roll-down map in the "throw-away" pile. It's now hanging in our son's bedroom. He's pretty obsessed with distances and locations, so it suits him well. The colors are great and just might inspire an entire room re-do.
Sorry to have been absent from this space. We are in the thick of the boring, but crucial, phase of renovation as we tackle the wiring, plumbing and ductwork. It has required a few sub-contractors and a lot of mess and moving things around. Balancing our work, family life and the remodel hasn't been easy, but we're finding our rhythm. I will be closing my shop for the next month, so that I can give more energy to working on the house. Expect more regular posting around here!
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I wanted to mention one of my favorite sources of inspiration, Paumes books. They are a Japanese publisher of books featuring inspiring interiors from around the world. My friend Cindi gifted me with their Stockholm Kitchens book a while ago, and it has informed many of our choices in this remodel. I'll be sharing some of the photos soon.
Today, I'm really excited because their latest publication, San Francisco Kitchens, features none other than my sister Lisa* on the cover! I can't wait to get my hands on this book.
*and her dog, Wilfredo. I'd be in trouble if I left him out.