The Homeowners’ Dilemma

Posted On December 31, 2018

We ask the experts about the pros and cons of remodeling or building a new home


Recent reports indicated changes in the status of the ultimate homeowners’ quandary of “Build, remodel or make do,” so we reached out to the experts in the Midlands on the pros and cons of construction vs. remodeling. We found much to consider, which can be a bit overwhelming to the current or aspiring homeowner who might be struggling with a massive number of choices.

Here are some factors to consider that can help you make the right selection.

There are effectively four approaches:
1) DIY for some minor changes. You can paint, right? Pro-Tip: watch a video – it’s all in the prep.
2) Remodel extensively using a professional. Kitchens, baths, and anything that requires “pulling a permit” calls for a pro. You will thank us later when the ceiling didn’t crash down on you because you moved a supporting wall. Really you won’t thank us, but you should.
3) Rip and rebuild (aka rip and redux). You had a house there. You take it down. You rebuild on the same property. Complex and expensive, but can be done with the right pro.
4) New construction. New site. New everything. 

So, for the purpose of this piece we will skip the DIY, and leave that to you and your emergency first-aid kit. You do have one, right? Please say you do. Then just stop that nonsense and hire a pro unless you are suitably confident of your skills. We worry.

The possibility of your neighborhood having great allure in combination with a home that has none adds up to a total tear-down. That presents the option of a rip and rebuild project. Developers have gone into established "charming" neighborhoods to do what is called "infill" to a mix of praise and criticism. Some like the option of larger, newer homes on the old footprint or a slightly enlarged one, while some complain bitterly about 3/2 mixes, which is when two homes are ripped down but three go back in their place. Alternately, there is a 2/1 ratio where two smaller homes are demolished and a larger home goes in its place. 

If your neighborhood charm is part of the allure of staying, and you are considering an infill replacement, it would be wise and considerate to check with your neighbors before you invest in the project. The noise, the mess and the impact on parking might be something you don't want to be remembered for and can affect neighborly relations for some years to come - perhaps even forever. Changing the style of the home is another issue, known as the "sore thumb" effect, and some cities have boards that designate certain styles that must be adhered to, even in areas not designated as historic, so consider moving if you want to pop a large cool contemporary home in a warm cottage-style area. The old maxim remains true: you never want to be the owner of the most expensive house in the neighborhood because it will be much harder to sell.

For historic homes, there are numerous requirements and limitations you must be aware of and adhere to, so consult the proper authorities to see if what you have in mind will be permitted, literally and/or figuratively.

Proponents of tearing down/rebuilding stress the modern updates available for new builds and rebuilds, but things like radiant floor heating might be out of reach after paying to have the demo done; and then you must pay for the rebuild. If you remodels, basic elements of the house such as walls and foundations are already in place and paid for, and they have stood the test of time.

So, how simple it was to eradicate two choices that present expensive challenges most of us might not expect like a visit to the ER or paying to have a house demolished and hauled away? Simple Simon. Now, we’re cooking with gas – or electric – your choice!

Having narrowed down the choices to the two most viable and livable, how does one gather all the information to make such a long-ranging portentous decision regarding whether to renovate or build? If the old saying about Real Estate is “Location, location, location,” the three most important pieces of advice from us would be “Consult, consult, consult!”

Fortunately, in the Midlands there are experts who are ready and able to assist you in gathering and comparing the information you need to make such a life-altering decision.

Bin Wilcenski is the chief operating officer of the BIA, or Building Industry Association of Central South Carolina (formerly known as the Home Builders’ Association), which is an association of more than 800 member businesses that cover every aspect of the building, remodeling, renovation and repair trades. The BIA serves as a resource for prospective and long-term homeowners by gathering approved members in one location (physically at the Fairgrounds each March, as well as virtually on the internet). 

“For those who are considering changes, we present our “Home Show” each March at the Fairgrounds in Columbia,” Wilcenski said. “That ‘one-stop-shop’ opportunity benefits prospective consumers by allowing them to see each of the member company’s booths, speak to representatives, get questions answered and compare and contrast their needs with the resolutions offered by the builders, remodelers and other services available.”

In addition – to keep the quality high – the BIA will accept complaints from consumers and serve as intermediary to mitigate disagreements, according to Wilcenski. 

“Whether someone is upsizing or downsizing, the BIA’s goal is to help them achieve their dream home for a reasonable price,” he said. “The Columbia area is fortunate in that regard. ‘Builder Magazine’ has designated this region as having a remarkably low cost of $75 a square foot, making us one of the most economically favorable regions in the country in which to build, remodel or buy a home.

“Another factor keeping quality high and prices reasonable are the builders we have in the area, such as Mungo, Essex, Great Southern and McGuinn Hybrid Homes,” he said. 

South Carolina is not only an inexpensive place to own a home, but one that has engineered solutions to building challenges.

“The efficiency factor that builders employ nationwide to put up homes efficiently and effectively while increasing structural integrity was actually pioneered at Boozer Lumber Company, right here in the Midlands,” Wilcenski said. “Their concept was developed in the 1970s and has streamlined countless new builds across the country.” 

When choosing whether to stay and remodel or move to a new build, consideration should be given to resale value of your present home. The BIA notes that Columbia’s current “sellers’ market” is partly because of the large influx of people moving to the South from other regions. You might reap more by selling your established home and moving from mid-town to the outskirts and a new neighborhood.  The long-standing guidelines for return on improvements remain the same. While you rarely get back all the improvements you put into a home, the highest returns remain on kitchens and baths. Newer to the list are outdoor amenities, such as outdoor kitchens, decks and – surprisingly, according to the BIA – sometimes even pools because the weather is warm for so long in our area. Also beneficial, especially at resale time, are things that go into creating curb appeal, such as new front and garage doors, landscaping, new paint or vinyl siding and beautiful pathways through the lawn or front garden. 

Trends come and go. It might be a hot trend now, yet tepid tomorrow. All the rage for the past several years include shiplap, subway tile, white kitchens, man caves and she sheds. When those will become a dated detriment rather than a super selling point is anyone’s guess; so when choosing accoutrements for your abode, avoid anachronistic additions. Fads fade fast.

We asked two of the BIA’s top award-winning members their views about the pros and cons of remodeling or doing a new build. Tim Kehoe of Kehoe Constructors, a remodeler with Universal Construction Certification who has won BIA awards for the past four consecutive years, and Stan O’Brien, of Paradime Construction, Inc. who is an award-winning builder of high-performance new homes gave us the benefit of their decades of experience.

“Remodeling is normally the first choice, especially if the family enjoys their neighbors, the area they are in, proximity to schools, shopping, church, work and medical facilities,” Kehoe said. “If there are some limitations to remodeling, such as structural issues or limited space, then considering a new build or finding a home that already meets one’s needs and desires would be the next option.”

“Another reason not to remodel is pricing yourself out of the market for a particular location,” he said. “Therefore, finding an existing home that can meet your needs is a wonderful thing. It is unusual for both the desires and needs to be met in an existing home, and often requires some remodeling. An advantage of building, especially if the home is custom built, is that the owner is able to order what they desire. Some might consider this to be their “forever” home, which requires some upfront planning for what we call a Universal Design Home.”

Kehoe says a Universal Design Home means “is the home visitable?” Is there an entrance into the home without steps? Is there a bathroom in the home where the door is 32” wide on an accessible floor? Is there a bedroom with doors wide enough on an accessible floor? Are there open spaces in the kitchen and living areas of the home? 

“When planning with that in mind, a home is ready for someone to recover from an injury,” he said. “You could need to bring a family member into the home who has special needs.”

He says one disadvantage to building new is the time involved in finding a property where one desires to live and then proceeding with the construction process, both of which can be costly versus remodeling.

“On the horizon – and beginning to trend – is the absence of soaking tubs in the master bath in favor of a walk-in (or roll-in) luxury shower,” said Stan O’Brien, a new construction builder who says his style tends to be traditional homes with a contemporary flair. “While there still must be a tub in one of the bathrooms for children or pets, there are many fewer master bathtubs.” 

Other amenities to consider whether building or doing renovations, is an open kitchen with a place for people to comfortably gather, with a TV and a computer nook, however, the totally open concept home is not as popular now, and a more segmented living arrangement is emerging.

“The problem with old homes is that they have old problems, thus are in need of repair,” O’Brien said. “A high-performance home is energy efficient and keeps the utility bills for water, heat and electricity very low.”

“There are additional savings on new homes regarding maintenance and the comfort of a new home exceeds an existing one,” he said. “Our homes provide a Universal Living Certification, which means adding access for aging in place – as well as small ease of living changes like rocker switches, levered handles, minimization of steps, and other lifestyle pleasantries like laundry chutes, pass throughs, clever utilization of hidden space or wall systems for electronics which factor into the Smart Home movement.”

“Many of those things can be retrofitted to an older home,” he said. “However, some would be prohibitive to include in a remodel.”

There is much to consider when you are choosing how to make your living space what you desire. Researching the various ways a new or remodeled home can suit your needs, compiling a list of the necessities, amenities and “wow factors” you want, along with rough costs, can be helpful. When you are ready, consult the BIA pages for licensed, approved professionals. 

Kehoe and O’Brien weighed in on ways people need to prepare when they speak to a professional builder/remodeler: 

“When looking for a professional builder or remodeler it is a good idea to check with the BIA. Typically, a member of the association is more trustworthy and knowledgeable of the construction process from beginning to the end,” Kehoe said. “Also, the professional should be licensed with the state and should have insurance that covers liability and workman’s compensation. People should ask for references and check them out.”

“There are three things clients should look at when they ask for estimates from reliable builders,” said O’Brien. “First, ask how they plan to sync up the work that needs to be done by various subcontractors. Next, check references and be sure they complete jobs and do quality work at a price you can live with. Most importantly, select someone you can get along with. This is a long relationship and the interaction between the client and the contractor is key – not only to the success of the project, but to your happiness with the end result, which you will have to live with even longer.” 

Both agree you must discuss your expectations and desires fully with the estimator – and put them into a written request with a timeline for completion and means by which payment will be rendered. Often pros can provide an itemized estimate with separate inclusions for what is icing on the cake after the must-haves are accommodated. 

According to Kehoe, what helps contractors keep you on track to having a beautiful, happy home as an end-product is an owner who has an adequate budget set aside for what they can spend and a realistic expectation of what that money can buy. 

Finally, clients must bring plenty of patience, understanding of what the contract is limited to and clarity of communication to the process. 

It is never simple, but keep repeating this mantra: “Soon I will be enjoying a wonderful new (or renewed) home.” 

Remodel CONS

Must tear out before you build.
Can find expensive surprises.
Various work crews might have to work closely (on top of one another).
Two monthly housing payments, if you move temporarily, versus stresses that involve impacts to daily routines if you remain.

Remodel PROs

You love your neighborhood, or school district but no lots remain.
You have an emotional attachment to your present home.
Property values are rising, and you don't own the most expensive house in the neighborhood.
You want established trees/landscaping.
The home needs "a little love" in the way of a rip and redo, not the "tough love" of “bulldoze and rebuild.”

New Build PROs

Can schedule the groundbreaking to the finishing touches more smoothly.
Zoning in your old neighborhood would prohibit certain additions you want.
You want the latest in access, energy efficiency and convenience.

New Build CONS

When budgeting, you’ll need to include non-construction costs such as architect, financing, closing costs and moving expenses.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation estimates that "a new building 30 percent more energy efficient than the average building could take 10 to 80 years to overcome the negative carbon impact that comes with new construction versus renovation."