Restore, Rehab, Renovate!

Buyers often look for a home they can change to suit their functional and aesthetic needs. Here's what you need to know to help them reach their goals.

December 1, 2006

Success with buyers is rooted in understanding their goals. Some want to find a pristine new home with an open modern layout, energy efficient windows, and the latest appliances. Others find charm in the creaking floorboards and weathered shingles of older housing stock, even if it means living with an outdated floor plan.

But many buyers fall somewhere in between; they want a home with a great style and location, but plan to make changes — sometimes major ones — so the property will suit better their functional and aesthetic needs.

To help this category of buyers find a house worth altering, you first must learn about each of the three main approaches they can take: restoring, rehabbing, or remodeling, also referred to as renovating.

Restoring: Turn Back the Clock

Restoration is a common route for home owners who want to peel away layers of changes, particularly bad design decisions made through the years, says Barry Wood, a New York architect and host of HGTV's "Hidden Potential" series.

The extent to which your clients must go to bring back the home's authentic elements will largely depend on:

  • Condition. The worse the home's condition, the more work is needed.
  • Location. If it's located in a historic district, certain changes can't be made.
  • Budget. Restoration is a costly process. Are your clients prepared for the expense?
  • Patience. It may take a long time to locate authentic materials and products, as well as to do the detailed work. Be sure they understand the time frame.

When restoring a home, it's perfectly acceptable to include modern-day amenities, says William H. Bates III, professor of architectural drawing and design at the American College of the Building Arts in Charleston, S.C., which trains students in old-fashioned trades such as masonry. He's seen many home owners strike a happy balance of authenticity and modern comfort. Here are two examples:

  • Derelict 1723 Saltbox. Hugh and Hope Davis, moved, disassembled, reassembled, and authentically restored their Colonial home in Leverett, Mass. Hugh made nails to hold clapboards together when originals couldn't be found and located early glass in a barn being demolished. But the couple opted for modern plumbing, heating, and lighting.
  • Classic 50-year-old ranch. Molly Schaeffer and Jeffrey Wallen also were passionate — and adamant — about faithfully restoring a ranch in Chestnut Hill, Mass, designed by Paul Rudolph, a prominent Modernist architect. "We wanted to restore it, but not make it a shrine to Rudolph," says Schaeffer, a former real-estate practitioner. Wallen found parts for their original wall ovens through Antique Gas Stoves in Montclair, Calif. But when they learned the authentic vinyl flooring had been discontinued, they sought out a and he and Schaeffer substituted bamboo flooring for worn vinyl that was discontinued. "The bamboo replicated the light feeling," Schaeffer says.

Rehabbing: Redefining Function

Rehabbing is adapting a building for its original use — which is often different from its current use.

It's a more common practice for developers than for home owners, says Lisa Stacholy, an Atlanta architect. Nevertheless, buyers with imagination and energy have transformed churches, factory buildings, fire stations, and more into homes or condos.

An HGTV series, "ReZONED," even has been created to capture the phenomenon. As the TV show title suggests, zoning is often the biggest obstacle when buyers want to switch the use of a property. When helping buyers scout out a property, advise them to investigate sufficiently into local zoning ordinances before they close.

If buyers find a suitable property, they'll also have to determine how much work is needed to turn it into their dream home. Boston architect Mark McInturff suggests saving the exterior and historic fabric whenever possible.

Bill Baldwin, a real estate practitioner in Houston, hired custom builder Lambert G. Arceneaux to rehab an assisted living center back to its original 1911 single-family home layout. Using historic photos and records, Baldwin restored the exterior but made the house suitable "for this millennium," he says.

Remodeling or Renovating: See All Possibilities

This approach works best for clients who like a property's style and location but would like to adapt the home to their preferences. Buyers should calculate what they can spend on remodeling, and factor that into the price of whatever home they buy.

Those with the dollars and patience for remodeling can greatly expand their housing options beyond those in pristine shape. After the work is done, they'll have a home that's customized for their design likes, functional needs, and hobbies.

You can help buyers envision all the possibilities for the home and each room, from changing flooring, to gutting the kitchen, or adding an extra bathroom or family room. Sometimes renovating is much simpler and may only involve replacing cabinetry or replacing an HVAC system that's at the end if its lifespan.

Houses are a lot like people, says John Holland, a Boston architect. But instead of organs, muscles, and tissue, they have structural and mechanical systems that keep them alive and breathing. Also like people, the systems don't last forever. "A home's typical first life doesn't usually last more than 50 years," Holland says

Steer Clear of Construction Pitfalls

When talking with clients about their plans to restore, rehab, or renovate, educate them on how to avoid some of the most common problems. As part of your service, you can provide a list of area architects, restoration companies, or designers that have done work in their neighborhood. Here are three major caveats:

  • Don't underestimate the cost. Change involves unknowns, so prepare buyers for surprises. Remodeling usually costs the same as new construction, but restoration tends to run higher, says Ames, adding, "It can be an open checkbook." Bates advises clients to set aside 15 percent of the budget for the unexpected.
  • Avoid remuddling. While beauty is in the eye of the beholder, warn buyers to avoid changes that don't complement a home's period or scale, are executed poorly, or are not considered in good taste by the public, such as vinyl siding atop brick. Such changes may hurt resale.
  • Think outside the box. Tell buyers to read magazines and study design books with photos for innovative ideas. Model homes or designer showhouses provide further ideas.
Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).


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