Tips: Buying Homes for Remodels or Additions - Part 1


Preface by Matt Fajkus:

"Defining the scope of work and the goals for a project are an important part of any design and construction process. This is especially the case on the front end with remodels, or the decision to scrape and start over. Below, David covers some of the critical factors that affect those decisions."


Purchasing a home with the intent to remodel or build an addition is a common practice in our city of Austin. Remodels and additions have become more frequent occurrences as Austin’s population continues to increase at a pace which is more rapid than new homes are constructed. Our central neighborhoods are full of an aging housing stock, and those same neighborhoods are being sought out by incoming residents for their proximity to all of the amenities that Austin offers.

We have designed several remodel/additions recently in Central Austin, and when I say remodel, I don’t mean replacing the finishes of the home. I mean changing spaces; moving walls, ceilings, windows, doors, fixtures, modifying the building envelope and structure beyond pure aesthetics to achieve better natural daylighting, indoor air quality, function, and comfort.

We always talk about the design-priority triangle in our office: Fast, cheap, and good. These three components are things that all clients want for their projects – projects that are built quickly, inexpensively, and with good quality and durability. Now choose two to focus on, because it’s rare to achieve all three. Below are several things to consider when buying a home with the intent to remodel:

1. Cost - Look beyond just the purchase price: The first thing to consider when looking for a house to remodel is not just the purchasing price.  The cost of a remodel can be more expensive than one would imagine regardless of what some television shows or local companies might want you to think.  If you are considering an addition as well, know that the total build cost can equal or exceed the cost of building something new.

Establish a budget and work backwards. An Architect and Builder will help you navigate what you can or cannot accomplish within that constraint. Working towards a realistic and well-defined budget is liberating, and isn’t seen as a burden by the Architect or Builder. Account for soft costs (an expense item that is not considered direct construction cost) such as design and professional fees for the Architect, the Engineer, the Contractor, other consultants and permitting fees. In our office, a general guideline is that if you don’t have an unlimited budget, or are not required to go through Historic Preservation evaluation and approval process, and want to modify more than 40% of the home, you might benefit more from looking at other options besides remodeling.

2. Time – Another key element of a budget: How much time are you willing to allocate to design and construction in order to complete your project well?  The design process can last a few months to almost a year depending on how complex your project is and how quickly you can make decisions.

Do you plan on living in the home during construction? Are you willing to live in a rental property or an apartment while construction is underway? If so, then you need to also factor this into your budget. Likely, the construction process will take longer than you think and it is often messy and loud. If you plan on using the home a source of income, you should consider the design and construction schedule in how that will influence your investment.

3. Codes and Ordinances – Constraints can be liberating: Many municipalities have regulations on what can be done on your property, including size limitations, height restrictions, proximity to environmental features, and more.  If you are considering an addition, how much you can build could be based on impervious cover (Impervious surfaces are mainly artificial structures—such as pavements (roads, sidewalks, driveways and parking lots) that are covered by impenetrable materials such as asphalt, concrete, brick, stone—and rooftops) and gross floor area, calculated as a percentage of your total lot size. Austin has many beautiful and old trees, and as a result there could be limits to how close you can build to certain sizes and species of trees. The central core of Austin has several neighborhoods that fall under the supervision of the National Historic Register, and Austin also has a historic review process for homes over 40 years of age. This could be potentially limiting to what you are able to modify and your home might require preservation, restoration, or rehabilitation in line with historical context and materials.

Most municipalities have many resources to determine if any of these issues might affect your property, and an Architect can help you gain a better understanding of how to proceed. 

Written by David Birt.