A house ripe for rehab is almost, but not quite, a blank canvas awaiting your design.
You can achieve any look you want, from authentic 18th century to Victorian to craftsman to postmodern. You can save or alter every surface. You can open up the space or cozily enclose it. You can turn the rooms back to front (kitchen, dining, living) and upside down (kitchen upstairs, bedrooms down). You can take decades to do the job or drive it through in a period of months.
But every now and then, you're going to hit a brick wall -- maybe literally.
There are some things that are structurally inadvisable and some that are financially ridiculous. The best way to avoid them is to buy a house that already incorporates the design elements you have to have -- to design the house before you look for it, in other words.
That's not as silly as it sounds. If you have to have five bedrooms, or a rooftop deck, or an open floor plan, or working fireplaces or bathrooms on every floor, look for a house with spaces that lend themselves to those uses. (We've both bought houses with no kitchens, but with nice big empty rooms in just the right location.)
Make a design list before you go out to look. If you're not sure what should be on the list, interview yourself, interview everyone the family, to find out. Peter Notari, a Baltimore architect who has been involved in rehabs, says he uses the interview process to determine what people really expect out of a space. He searches responses for specific design requirements. Someone who asks for a "big" kitchen may really want a compact food-preparation area with lots of adjacent living space for family activities, for instance.
Unless you have unlimited funds, the listing process is a good time to separate what you really need from what you think you want. "Budget is a design requirement," Mr. Notari says.
The more closely the existing space matches your design requirements, the more "wants" you'll be likely to fulfill. Go through the design list rigorously in each house you look at.
Where will the "country" kitchen be? Will the piano fit through the door and is there floor space for it once it's in? Do the "fireplaces" have fireboxes, or are they just flues to vent stove gases? How much work will they need before they meet modern code requirements? How many of the rooms can be bedrooms? Can the bathrooms be renovated, or do they need to be somewhere else? Is there a place to tuck a powder room on the first floor? Will the Jacuzzi fit in the master bath? Who will take it up the steps? Where will the washer and dryer go? Will the roof bear the load of a deck?
You also need to be on the lookout for those "brick walls" that will stop your design changes in their tracks. For instance:
*Load-bearing walls. They can't be removed, except with great difficulty and expense.
*Stair locations. If the existing stairs are in the way of your design, you may be able to move them, but you will run into structural and possibly building code complications.
*Zoning restrictions. Many localities have rules that will affect placement of any additions. For instance, they may stipulate how close to the property line a structure can be built. (If you need a kitchen addition, you may have to seek a variance to build it. Variances are fairly easy to get in some places and impossible in others. Don't make any assumptions about what you'll be able to do, check it out thoroughly.) If the property is in a historic district, there may be more stringent rules regarding exterior changes. In a property designated as historic, there will be sharp limits on design changes, both interior and exterior.
*Basement and attic ceiling heights that may not meet building codes for "habitable" space. It's sometimes possible to dig out a basement, or to add dormers to an attic, but those are expensive, disruptive solutions.
*Narrow or shallow houses. Even if there seems to be enough space, it may be impossible to make the design changes you want. Weonce looked at a row house that was just over 11 feet wide and 24 feet long on the inside. It had three stories and a great view and, after a considerable struggle, we came up with a 2-bedroom, 2-bath design we loved. But it was so expensive we couldn't do it.
*Investment considerations. Most people don't stay put these days. Even if you're renovating your dream house, you need to keep an eye on the bottom line. That way, if you have to sell it, you'll still get a good return on the investment. And a nice down payment on the next dream.
Next: More on design.
Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is Home Editor of The Sun.
If you have questions, comments, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, write to us c/o HOME WORK, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278. Questions of general interest will be answered in the column; comments, tips and experiences will be reported in occasional columns.