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Build New, Renovate, Rebuild

Personal experience is the best teacher. And when it comes to buying homes, the Niche Homes team has a deep well of experience to draw from. Here are three accounts, written by the people who walked the walk, about their adventures in building, renovating, and rebuilding their homes.

OPTION 1: BUILD A NEW HOME

By Niche Homes Realtor Kristin Kassing

PRIORITY NUMBER ONE: LOCATION 

We’ve lived in the Daybreak community since 2006 and had our hearts set on the ”Island Village” for years. In December 2019 we learned that we could reserve one of the coveted lots lakeside and knew we’d better move quickly. While it’s not for everyone, I actually love the home building process. Watching the home take shape and the design aspect of creating something personal and new is fulfilling. We built our current home with a semi-custom builder, so we were grateful we didn’t have to make every small decision, but had the flexibility to make the house style our own.

A REALISTIC TIMELINE

We signed initial paperwork in February 2020, and put the home we were living in on the market just days before the pandemic hit Utah. With so many uncertainties, we were skeptical to keep moving forward on the new build. After many hours of discussion between me, my husband, and the builder, we decided to move forward. The great thing about signing contracts when we did was that it locked us into a price. As construction costs rose dramatically towards the end of 2020 and into 2021, the builder performed as contracted and the cost and timeline of our home never changed. Thank heavens we were almost completed before the major supply chain issues that disrupted the building market in 2021.

We went through many drafts of the blueprints and made changes along the way. Once the initial blueprints were signed off on, a full set of engineered drawings were prepared and submitted to the city for permits and Daybreak for approval. This process took several months to complete. Once permits were approved construction began in July 2020.

COMMUNICATION IS KEY

Good communication is a very important attribute for a builder. No home is perfect, you should expect mistakes to happen along the way. As a buyer, it’s critical to work with someone who is willing to discuss options and fix the inevitable issues that come up. This is important not only during the construction of your home, but for several months afterwards, as small problems arise. A good builder will not only help manage expectations of the buyers, but also ensures that nothing is overpromised or overlooked.

Hiring a Realtor is a smart way to ensure good communication. Builders have already accounted for our commission in the cost of your home sale. Some buyers mistakenly believe that they can subtract a Realtor’s commission cost from the overall purchase price if they choose not to use one. That is not traditionally the case. If you don’t use a Realtor, the money just goes back to the builder.

I am continually impressed watching the skilled craftsmanship of each of the various trades throughout the build. We would stop by the building site several times a week to take pictures and review the progress. As the walls went up, we started to envision the many years our family would spend together in each area of the home.

HOME SWEET HOME

The construction of our home was completed in March 2021.  The entire process was a very positive experience for us. This is the 4th home we have built and each has been unique in many ways. Moving so often has enabled us to build wealth through homeownership while living in the home that best suits our family’s needs.  

OPTION 2:
RENOVATE AN EXISTING HOME

By Niche Homes Founder and Principal Broker
Karly Nielsen and Dave Nielsen

RESTORATION TAKES HEART

Restoration projects are, by necessity, labors of love.

As in our relationships, when we are in love, we do things that don’t make perfect sense–at least not initially. Sometimes we say or do things that could have been said or done differently, perhaps in a more economical or timely fashion. There are moments when extra effort is taken to send signals to our partner that we value them for them; their past, their quirks, and perhaps most importantly, how they are changing with the times.

Looking at a restoration project solely through a fiscal lens may result in decisions that ultimately fail to capture the essence of how we feel in the relationship with our home; sometimes we need to splurge on a little bling.

In that light, it is important to recognize the nature of one’s budgetary constraints. In a romantic restoration project, not everything needs to be preserved, or should be. Remember, this is a relationship with a structure–not a museum for the public or a historical documentary that will come under strict scrutiny if every detail isn’t perfect in the final product. We don’t get graded on how many elements we preserve or even how true those elements were to the time. Instead, we grade ourselves on the exchange of emotion we have with an old house as it turns into a new home. Not everything stays.

Conversely, not everything should go. When restoring a historic home, so much of the reason for the effort comes down to identifying what key features of the home will help foster a connection to the past. Where is the value? Where is the charm? Which elements of the architecture and design are worth preserving? What features will bring the family and its guests the highest connection to craftsmanship, labor, and soul?

WHAT STAYED?

Windows. It has been said that eyes are the windows to the soul. So too, windows are the eyes of a home; how we look through them shapes the world as we see out and shapes us as the world sees in. As luck would have it, our 1929 tudor was unusually blessed with rolled glass window panes and leaded grills throughout each of the main and upper floors, 48 windows in all. This was quite unusual, for in the Great Depression years money was scarce and home builders often opted to front the house only, rather than adorn throughout. To restore so many original windows into better-than-new condition would span many months and consume hundreds of hours of meticulous, detail-intensive labor–a process few are willing to take on.

Did you know antique, rolled glass windows can be made to be as efficient and secure as modern high-efficiency substitutes? Done right, restoration projects can achieve the charm and unique beauty of period-correct windows while gaining coveted functionality, security, and efficiency homeowners demand. In our case, this required the delicate removal of each grill from the oak frames followed by a complete disassembly, cleaning, and solder repair of leaded corners. The old is then sandwiched between thick, new glass and filled with inert gasses while being sealed with molten rubber around the edges. Finally, the oak frames were routed and chiseled by hand to accommodate the new dimensions and then fashioned with period-consistent scotia profiles. Original hardware was stripped, plated, and lacquered to its original brass finish. Yes, a labor of love, but the bling was well worth the sacrifice–the windows set the tone for everything else.

Doors. All of life’s big events, like doors, pivot on small hinges. The doors we pass through often tell our story and unite us as we make our way down the corridors of choice. Old doors are charming in ways other things cannot be and they are worth preserving wherever possible. Luckily, this old home had a plethora of interior solid core, double panel doors with layered reveals.

What does it take to restore these time-telling portals? In our case, old doors needed to be fitted into new jams–and since each door had its own custom dimension, each jam had to be built from scratch. Original hinge hardware and mortise locksets were solid brass and, like it’s matching window hardware, had to be stripped of the layered strata that hid its underbeauty. Old parts were plated and lacquered anew. Locksets were disassembled, internals polished and rebuilt with new springs, and refitted to their original doors. Solid brass keys now dressed in tassle provide the finishing detail.

Fixtures. No doubt, fixtures are the jewelry of the home. Sometimes costume, sometimes classy–getting the right ornamentation adds complementarity to a restoration project. Not every piece of jewelry in grandma’s keepsakes is worth keeping, but some pieces become heirlooms. Fixtures can work the same way–and with a little buffing, the classic and classy can be adorned again.

In our case, our challenge was to revitalize and make reliable original one-of-a-kind, twisted-iron sconces with new wiring and a new finish to tie in other decorative elements. After dissembling each fixture, all parts were liberated from the painted-over vandalism from prior projects by sandblasting and polishing each piece followed by replating and lacquering to finish. New lamp parts were meticulously remounted and new wires woven inside and along the iron revealing the old fixture to be a hidden gem and a family-forever heirloom.

Fireplace. The hearth is the heart of the home. Indeed the fireplace, and the area around it, is often the main gathering area giving the home welcoming, warmth, and holiday cheer. Old fireplaces can be worn down, neglected, or unsuitable in their condition but more often than not these structures are works of art. Original builders often used fireplaces to showcase and advertise their craftsmanship and these special features may be truly unique.

We were lucky to have inherited an original and ornate art deco natural stone fireplace–and in pristine condition no less. As stone can be brittle around the edges, careful attention was taken to keep demolition debris and construction materials away from the stone during the restoration. Some stone skirting tiles were removed about the hearth and a new efficient, natural gas insert was custom crafted to the opening. Preserving the very space that kept families warm and brought them together through many generations is not only a must do, but provides a place that every subsequent family must have.

WHAT HAD TO GO?

Add-Ons. Many old homes which have survived more than a few housing cycles fall victim to what are plagued with unsightly additions that take away from the original footprint of the home. In our case, the upper floors of our tudor had been partitioned into rentable sub-units. An unsightly exterior metal fire escape retrofitted to an adulterated second-floor entry had to go. Digging through city archives an original, 90-year old photo of the home was found which provided clues to the original roofline and paved the way to restore the home’s intended facade.

The guts. It is ironic, I suppose, that the draw to living in a century-old charmer comes with such disdain for poor efficiency. In an ever greener world, living in a home that battles the harshness of Utah winters with an original, coal-fired boiler is a show stopper. And the spiderwebs of banging pipes feeding massive accordion radiators rendered the entire basement virtually useless. Knob-and-tube wiring likewise simply had to go. Updating the home with new sewer, water, and natural gas lines–together with an upgraded electrical service–made for a home that could accommodate the load of an active family with six persons, five bedrooms, four baths, three stories, two electric vehicles and one ferocious canine.

Rooms. Because large open areas would have been drafty and difficult to thermally regulate, century-old homes often had carved up floor plans. The main floor of this tudor had eight small, separate rooms in its original configuration with four walls each and labyrinthian hallways everywhere!

In order to build great room formats and accommodate more open spaces, a new internal substructure–complete with new structural footings, steel pillars and beams–had to be retrofitted and hidden. The result was a simpler, open concept floor plan that is far more conducive to modern living by radically re-evaluating the flow throughout.

Stairs. Perhaps one of the hardest decisions in any remodel is what to do, if anything, with the existing staircase. By far, the stairs provide the largest internal constraint to any remodel and there are many trade-offs when negotiating a change. Updated building codes often require safer rise and run treads when old stairs are removed making it difficult to do anything other than suffer the “grandfathered” stairs to remain. In this case, the 7.5″ x 7.5″ slope, together with a 30″ wide tread and four classically treacherous pizza steps at the top made the original staircase completely undoable. Moving the stairs allowed us to modernize the rise and run and widen the treads. In order to keep with the times, period iron with carved hickory rail was crafted to connect the old with the new.

In this latest restoration project, we endeavored to apply these principles and details–agonizing over what stayed and what had to go. Of course the project took on new meaning and deeper efforts as it eventually became our own home. Thank you for letting us share with you some of the details on how we thought through what stayed, what had to go, and how those ideas became reality for us.

Karly Nielsen

Founder and Principal Broker
karly@nichehomes.com
801-673-7149
vCard
Yalecrest Neighborhood

OPTION 3: TEAR DOWN AND REBUILD

Given the accelerating real estate climate here in Utah, many people in search of more square footage are entertaining the idea of staying put and remodeling or rebuilding rather than taking a chance in the highly competitive marketplace. And understandably so: with inflated prices and aggressive competing offers making securing a home challenging at best, building becomes a particularly attractive option. Well, I’m here to tell you that I have freshly emerged from the process of building, and I can say without a doubt that we made the right choice for our family. It’s important to note that quite a few factors make it a decision worthy of serious consideration. Here is what I learned through the process.

TIME FOR A CHANGE

When we purchased our little old Sugarhouse bungalow, the two biggest draws of the property were the neighborhood and the lot size. The house itself was not sustainable for us long term: either a move or a structure change would eventually be necessary. After a few patient years and much consideration of the pros and cons of remodeling vs moving, we felt strongly that staying put and remodeling were right for us. We loved our neighborhood and didn’t want to uproot our children from their schools, friends, and activities. We also knew, after spending months looking at listings, that for approximately the same price of purchasing a larger house outside of Salt Lake, we could get what we really wanted without going anywhere.

The next weeks and months were a series of discussions and realizations that if we were going to do this, it needed to be the kind of project that we wouldn’t regret later––or in other words, if it was worth doing, it was worth doing right. Through the design process, our remodel project morphed into an almost complete redo where we’d keep our foundation and a couple exterior walls (to maintain a “grandfathered” exterior wall that was too close to the property line on one side) but rebuild everything else, expanding the structure outward and upward and more than doubling the original square footage. We worked closely with a trusted and seasoned architect, who drew up incredibly thoughtful plans to help our dream and ideas come to fruition. Once plans were complete, we met with a builder who had completed several projects in our neighborhood and had worked with our architect before. He had a very thorough knowledge of the costs of labor and materials and was helpful in giving us a breakdown of potential costs.

EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED

On demolition day, once our house had been devoured by the behemoth excavator, it was discovered that our foundation was dangerously unsound and we would not be able to reuse any part of it for our build. It had to come out completely; this was a costly surprise. Thankfully, our builder had required an additional 10% as contingency to be included in the cost of the project. The bad news was that contingency isn’t supposed to be significantly depleted on day one! So while it was initially an unpleasant surprise, we were grateful (once the shock wore off) because it meant that we could alter the plans for more basement square footage, have a safer and more durable foundation, and our house would be considered “new construction” rather than have a 1926 home with an “effective year built” of 2021––great for home value!

Our contractor, together with the project manager, oversaw all subcontractor work. He managed and controlled the process of booking all labor, auditing prices, materials, and expenditures, checking for quality of work, finding alternates if subs canceled, and basically Tetrising all of the moving parts in order to produce a cohesive, smooth flow of action.

THINK TWO STEPS AHEAD

In the beginning stages of the process, it’s a good idea to think about things that need to be installed prior to finishes, like sound systems, security systems, and permanent exterior holiday lights, as these additions usually need to be prewired, which happens before sheetrock goes up. More things to consider ahead of time are the size of canned lights, window options (casement vs panel), closet organization (cubbies, shelves, bars), and lighting/switch placement. Although these decisions don’t need to happen at the beginning, it’s important to be prepared ahead of time so you’re not pressured into making decisions on the spot.

The builder provided an in-house designer to help guide us through the process of choosing finishes, paint colors, fixtures, and who gave us good recommendations on suppliers for flooring, tile, plumbing fixtures, and the like. We learned that despite how adept you may think you are at interior decor, it can be overwhelming, with thousands and thousands of choices for each and every detail. Colors, sizes, and textures usually look different online than in person––sometimes completely different! There are 40 choices of “white,” so imagine trying to choose more than one color! If there are any questions on how you want your home to look, what style to stick with, what metals/colors/materials work well together, or what scheme to follow, I recommend leaning heavily on the guidance of a designer, such as the Niche Homes Studio team. If you are designing on your own, like we mostly did, create an online document with photos, prices, measurements, and website links, divided into categories by room.

BUILDING BEGINS

The construction process took eleven months. There were setbacks here and there with permitting, materials, and labor, but our builder had great connections and was able to secure subcontractors––for the most part––without a hitch. Prices of many materials, especially lumber, rose during the construction process, which is not uncommon. Expect that prices of at least some materials will change, perhaps drastically, during your construction process.

The hardest part was finding living accommodations for an unknown period of time: we started out thinking that this would be a 7–9-month project, yet we ended up out of the house for a full year. Finding a place to rent where you won’t end up paying a premium for going over your contract is a good idea, or better yet, generously estimating your lease term.

If I were to summarize my experience into a few points of advice, I would say to plan as much of the design and layout as possible beforehand to save architecture fees, choose finish and fixture options online before making final decisions in person and use a designer if you’re unsure. Plan on out-of-pocket costs and a total landscape redo, expect one full year of construction, and make sure you have a close by and affordable living option for the year that you’ll be out of the house. Remember that you’ll want to visit the site several times a week, even daily, to check on things.

Tearing down and rebuilding is not for the faint of heart but the end result is worth the challenge. In addition to a gorgeous, brand new custom home, you have the peace of mind that every detail has been built to code, meeting the very high standards of today’s requirements of energy efficiency, insulation, structural soundness, and so on. Plus, in all likelihood you will be gaining a significant amount of instant equity.

ACTION PLAN

Step 1: Talk to your lender. Banks and lenders can decline a request to tear down your current home, as your property is the collateral for the money they’re lending you. Depending on where you are in the payoff process and how much you owe, there’s a chance they will ask for a payoff for the current loan before you can begin the rebuild process. Ask about financing options to find out if you will be able to roll your current mortgage into a new loan along with the construction loan. Your lender will also tell you how much buying power you have. Estimate high for the cost to build…it is not unlikely that the cost of construction will be more than the estimate your architect and builder give you.

Step 2: Meet with an architect. Your initial consultation is the time to discuss options that fit your budget, and your architect will give you some ballparks on cost and timeframe for those options. It’s helpful if you have a pretty clear idea of what you want before you go in.

Step 3: Do some research on builders, including what their estimates are for price per square foot to build. They’ll give you a time frame estimate, but I’d recommend thinking of that estimate as the very best-case scenario.

Step 4: Carefully consider costs. You’ll want to have a hefty amount of cash reserves for paying the architect, builder, and lender (closing costs), as well as for overages and any out of pocket items for your home. The nature of a demolition project is such that the landscaping within about 20–30 feet of construction will probably be demolished as well, so it’s important to plan for an eventual landscaping redo, including sprinkler system, driveway, patios, trees, fences and other exterior features that may be damaged or removed for the construction process.

In conclusion, rebuilding is an intense, complex, lengthy, and costly process. With prices upwards of $250 per square foot, a year living elsewhere, the additional costs of inflated material prices and landscaping, and the significant time demand that it takes to plan layout and select flooring, paint, and finishes, it is not a decision to be taken lightly. On the positive side, there is nothing like a fresh start with a custom home, where every wall, door, and fixture is hand-selected to fit you and your family perfectly, and––bonus––you don’t have to start over in a new neighborhood!

Niche Homes is a full-service real estate agency specializing in Wasatch Front neighborhoods and enclaves. Contact us if you are interested in buying or selling a home.

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