Over-ambitious wish list leads to rehab headaches


March 19, 2000|By Karol V. Menzie and Ron Nodine

AFTER SIX rehab/renovation projects, Karol finally got her first set of French doors, an item that started out as high priority on project No. 1. But somehow, they never fit into the plan, or the budget, of the first five.

While there's no such thing as "typical" rehabbers -- they come in all ages, backgrounds, genders and races -- there are some things that always seem to wind up on the wish list. Whirlpool baths. Lots of woodwork trim. Bright light from big windows. Open spaces. Cool kitchens. Exposed brick walls. French doors. Fireplaces. Decks. Roof decks for water views.

They're pretty much the same things people look for in new houses, but rehabbers have a thing about the past. They don't necessarily want to live in it, but they would like to have its irreplaceable essence around them.

But, obviously, wishing for something doesn't assure you'll get it. And in some cases, you need to be careful what you wish for.

Be sure someone does a thorough survey of your beloved old house before you start renovating. In fact, you might make sure this is done before you buy it. Old houses are full of surprises, some good, some startling, some expensive.

For instance, if you're planning to tear out walls, there are some things of which you should be aware: Which walls are bearing walls (that means they bear the weight of what's built on top of them, such as the second story, or the roof); how thick the companion walls are if your house is one of a row; what's original to the house and what has been added on. All of these things will have an impact on your design plans.

Most of the old rowhouses in Baltimore have no interior bearing walls. Instead, the floor joists span from side to side and bear on the masonry walls. In some houses, especially the older, smaller ones, the companion walls are just two bricks thick. That means your joists and your neighbors' each rest on one brick. If the walls, joists and floors are in good condition, this isn't a problem. But if you have a sag in the floors, there's something wrong. It may require simple jacking to straighten old beams (less simple if it's the first floor over a dirt basement); or it may require reinforcing beams or rafters. But whatever you do to such thin walls, you need to do it carefully.

In addition, it is often the case in these houses that the headers around the stairwell and fireplaces may be inadequate and are probably just nailed together, instead of being installed with joist hangers (today's codes). You may also have wood-beam headers over doors and windows that are inadequate, in addition to possibly inadequate beams. This is hard to check when the walls are intact, but if you're doing a "gut" rehab, tearing out all the old walls and plaster, you should check these areas and reinforce them if necessary.

By the way, if exposed brick walls are your dream, you should know that most brick walls were not meant to be exposed. Especially in a small, old building, the brickwork may be piecemeal, patched, stained, scorched or just plain. The oldest bricks, before kiln-drying came into widespread use after the Civil War, are extremely soft -- and so is the mortar, which is only sand and lime. If the wall is presentable, you can still expose it; but you may need to repoint or seal the wall with masonry sealer.

If the house has any walls thicker than 6 inches they are most likely masonry, even if they are "interior." A lot of these houses have gotten numerous spaces added to the back over the years, so the original back wall is now somewhere inside.

To remove a brick wall is quite an undertaking, far more work than most people realize. For example, in a two-story house that's only 12 feet wide, you will have approximately 120 square feet of wall running two stories from side to side. There are about 7 bricks per square foot times two bricks thick -- about 1,600 bricks. On top of that, if it was the original back wall of the house, it's involved in supporting the roof.

Working modern plumbing into an old house can also be a problem, because the pipes must fall a quarter-inch per foot for proper drainage. That doesn't sound like much, but it adds up -- maybe up to more inches than you have between the joists supporting the second floor. That means you'll need to drop the ceiling below to accommodate the pipes.

Plumbing fixtures need vents, as well, which must go through the roof for proper venting. That can affect the placement of fixtures, or the arrangement of walls -- it's why in modern houses, bathrooms, laundry rooms and kitchens tend to be adjacent, or stacked above each other on each floor. It makes the plumbing easier.

We've said this before, but it's always worth repeating: No project ever runs perfectly smoothly. You have to wait and see what turns up, and you have to be prepared to be flexible.

Ron Nodine is owner of American Renovator Inc., a Baltimore design-build remodeling firm, and former president of the Remodelors Council of the Home Builders Association of Maryland. Karol Menzie is a feature writer for The Sun.

If you have questions, tips or experiences to share about working on houses, e-mail Ron at hwrenovator.net. Or write 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.

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