You have a house

HOMEWORK

and now?

March 12, 2000|By Karol V. Menzie and Ron Nodine

YOU'VE FINALLY found it -- your dream house in the city. Now what will you do with it?

First decide if you want to renovate or restore. The latter can be more expensive, especially if your chosen urban homestead is more than 100 years old and missing much of its original trim, mantels, and sash weights, as well as having a leaky roof and a dirt-floor basement.

Most people choose renovation, arranging the space in the house to suit their lifestyle, and sometimes their whim.

How much you do will be determined by your budget. To give you a rough idea, tearing out the house completely and replacing all the systems and finishes costs from $65 to $100 a square foot. A wide range exists because costs depend on the condition of the house when you start and what kind of finishes you install.

A typical, two-story antique rowhouse in Baltimore -- which is what most beginning rehabbers can afford -- is split into small rooms with little or no closet space. And most likely, the stairs are old winders so twisty and narrow it's not possible to carry up anything larger than a bread box.

What usually happens to these houses is that you tear out most, if not all, of the walls on the first floor. The kitchen -- which might have its original enameled sink and built-in cupboard with hutch -- is updated and separated from the living area with a half-wall or a counter, which helps make a small house feel open and spacious. Add a powder room and maybe a laundry for convenience, and you're probably out of space.

Upstairs, typically, are three tiny bedrooms and a small bathroom. The bathroom is stuck on the back because it was added after the house was built. (You'd be amazed to discover how recently even city dwellings had outhouses, as late as the 1950s.) Most likely, this will be changed into two reasonably sized bedrooms with closets and a larger bath. The hallway will be rearranged so you don't have to go through one of the bedrooms to get to the bathroom.

You'll also want to replace the leaky windows -- but be aware of historical guidelines if you live in a designated area; the front windows might have to stay as they are. (You can fix leaking and install interior screens and storm windows.) Same with the old doors; at least in front.

Some people make almost a religion of saving plaster walls and ceilings, and yes, they were hand-done by laborers who spent years developing the skill. But they're not insulated, and there's no way to tell how well-attached they are to the old lath behind them. If you bring your plumbing up to code, or change the position of the bathroom, you might lose some of the downstairs ceiling anyway. Unless it's

na really solid, tear out the plaster, insulate and install drywall. You'll probably also want to replace the stairs with a straight run so you can take furniture up, a move that might be required by building codes. Even if you like the old winders and want to keep them, you could get into a battle with the building inspector. To meet code, a stair opening must be 36 inches wide and have an overhead clearance of 80 inches. However, the existing stairs might be grandfathered depending on how local code addresses the issue.

In Baltimore, if you renovate more than 50 percent of the value of the house, you are required to bring everything up to current building code standards. That includes plumbing and electricity -- and the stairs.

If you don't intend to do a whole-house renovation, you can do a little at a time and avoid the stair issue. Still, any new structural framing, plumbing or electrical work will have to meet code. If you are doing some of the work yourself, find out what is required before you do it. You don't want the building inspector to tell you all the new floor joists you spent three weekends installing have to be replaced, because they must have 4 inches bearing on the masonry walls and you've allowed only 2.

Getting informed, and staying ahead of the information curve, is the best thing you can do to ensure a relatively smooth rehab. No project is completely smooth, but arming yourself with knowledge can shield you from some disasters.

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