Ask most builders or contractors these days and they will tell you that the current economic slow down means homeowners are often opting to stay in their homes and renovate instead of building new. Advancements in building materials, appliances and home energy products mean homes can be economically updated to be more energy efficient. Plus, budget consciousness often results in more effective living spaces as homeowners consider the most practical uses for additional square footage.
Such is the case with Craig and Lee Hess in West Columbia. The couple has lived in their 1960s-built home since 1999. They have three children – two teenagers and a pre-teen – and they home-school. “Our house seemed to literally shrink as the kids grew,” says Lee.
In the family room, there was space for only a sofa and a few chairs, so watching a movie together as a family meant cramming together. Plus, says Lee, “We have a really pretty backyard, but we couldn’t enjoy it because there were essentially no windows in the family room – just a lot of paneling.”
She adds, “Craig already had good ideas of what he wanted to do, and that included getting rid of the brick fireplace that blocked the view of the backyard, putting three huge windows across the back and building a fireplace with gas logs into an interior wall.”
Before the Hesses embarked on their first renovation project, they asked an interior designer friend, Martha McGown, to visit and give them some ideas about decorating. They shared their ideas about a remodeling project and she suggested some names of builders and contractors. With her suggestions and their ideas, they had a draftsperson draw up plans that included adding 250 square feet onto the back of the house to extend the family room space. At the same time, they decided to gut the kitchen, which flows from the family room.
Their builder was recommended by a friend, and his bid met their budget, so they looked no further. He hired the subcontractors and estimated a turnaround time of two months, which ended up actually being four months once the final touches were completed.
“The important thing I learned right off is to have a good attitude about the remodeling process,” says Lee. “The contractor would apologize if something wasn’t happening or taking too long, and I would always come back with, ‘We’re one step closer.’ It’s a little inconvenience for a long-term goal. A few months is a small amount of time when you consider you will enjoy it for a lifetime.”
Jeff and Janell Kull, who have a 70-year-old home in the Kilbourne Park area, echo Lee’s sentiments. Their 1,900 square foot brick home quickly shrank as the couple had four children in five years. They looked into purchasing a larger home for their expanding family but quickly determined that their neighborhood, the locale and their neighbors were all pluses. The couple already had remodeled their outdated kitchen almost two years ago, so they decided to stay and add on and renovate instead.
What they were seeking was the addition of two more bedrooms and two more bathrooms – for a total of five bedrooms and four baths – plus a laundry room. They gleaned many ideas from architecture and home magazines, then hired a draftsperson to incorporate them into 900 square feet added onto the back and side of the home’s den area. The couple made certain the draftsperson included electrical and plumbing plans in the drawings.
After asking a few contractors to bid on the project, Jeff decided to oversee portions of the work himself in order to cut costs. He researched the cost factors of the many aspects of the job to determine a general budget. When selecting the subcontractors, Jeff required recommendations from friends or colleagues and that they have insurance. He worked during the day as an attorney and at night and Saturdays managing the project and actually doing some of the hands-on work. For example, instead of paying someone to take off an old deck, he gradually removed it himself. He also helped level the ground for the foundation, cleaned up the site each evening to prepare for the next day’s work, and did much of the finishing in terms of puttying nail holes, caulking and painting.
“It was an ongoing process of deciding where to spend the money and what to do ourselves,” says Jeff. “We just tried to keep everything at a mid-priced range, opting for quality. I think we probably saved 25 percent doing it ourselves and looking for cost-cutting ideas and products.”
The Kulls started their project in June 2010 and were recently able to occupy their new spaces. “There were frustrations that went along with it, but that’s like anything,” says Janell. “It was fun to see it unfold, but difficult when workers wouldn’t show up. For the most part, though, workers were responsible and did a good job.”
She adds, “I have to admit that I had rose-colored glasses on at first. I thought it would not take that long, but I learned patience, and we tried to get away as much as possible that first summer so the work could get done without us being in the way.”
For those who decide to stay in a home while it is being remodeled, there is extra strain and stress – especially if children are involved. “Daily life was interesting this past year,” says Janell. “I home-school two of my children, so we were all packed in a few rooms. But I kept the kids occupied and they enjoyed watching what was happening. Sometimes they even ‘helped.’”
The Hesses, as well, needed to cram in on top of one another for a few months. “We had to delay some of the home-schooling,” Lee says.
For her sanity, Lee says she was able to use an existing sink island while the kitchen was being renovated, and she equipped the dining room table with a microwave, crockpot and electric skillet. Plus, she often made bread in the bread machine. “We ended up not having to eat out all that much.”
The Kulls now have room for their children, a renovated den space, a new master bedroom and a laundry room. The old laundry closet houses curriculum and supplies for home schooling.
In their newly expanded family room, the Hesses now have space for everyone to enjoy a movie together on a flatscreen television mounted over the new fireplace. They purchased a new sofa and loveseat and use two existing recliners in that room.
“We’re all happy we did this,” says Lee.
Lynn Busch, who lives in a small 1,000-square-foot home in West Columbia that was built in 1986, recently had her kitchen remodeled to add more space. “It needed a better flow,” she says. “One cabinet that jutted out kept catching my hip. I needed more shelving and cabinets that were easier to get to and use.” Items were piled up on counters and atop cabinets since there was so little room for storage, and she often had to take everything out of the cupboards to find the one item she would need to prepare a meal.
Lynn hired a contractor, whom she learned about through word of mouth, to not only update the kitchen space but to incorporate more accessibility as well. The removal of the pesky cabinet that always caught her hip opened the space between the kitchen and dining room and has made the whole area area seem larger. She also has new custom-built cabinets, a roll out pantry (“Every woman should have one of those!” she says), new lighting, granite countertops, a decorative tile backsplash, a new sink, new appliances, oak wood flooring throughout the kitchen, dining room, living room, hall and hall bath, and new linoleum in the master bath.
“This remodel not only made a difference in how my home looks, but how it works for me,” says Lynn. “The contractor did an excellent job making improvements that were affordable and practical.”
Kevin K. Bell, who bought his grandparents’ 1950s home on a small pond in Forest Acres when his grandmother passed away in the 1990s, says so much about the house was impractical that he considered having it torn down so he could rebuild on the site. For example, the kitchen, currently under renovation, is a tight 8- by 14-foot space that needs expanding.
“I decided to work with it, warts and all, to make it work,” he says. One major cost-cutting improvement has been to replace all the old windows with new Lincoln Windows. “It had those old aluminum roll-out windows. If there were blinds there, you could literally watch the air flow through.”
Tips for Do it Yourselfers
If you plan to oversee the remodeling project yourself, make sure you contact a city building inspector, who will give you a checklist of each stage that needs to be inspected. The right building permits need to be obtained and each stage must be approved before you move forward.
Jeff Kull opted to oversee most of the remodeling work at his home himself. When selecting subcontractors, he required that they have recommendations from friends or colleagues and that they have insurance.
In addition, make certain that you research any environmental stipulations and any energy efficient benefits.
Make a list of all the different subcontractors and specialists you will need and map out a flexible schedule and budget for each. For example, Jeff Kull says his project involved experts in brick, tile, carpet and hardwood floor laying, as well as framing, dry wall, electrical and trimwork.
Seal off areas of the home that will still be lived in with sheets of plastic and tape to alleviate dust and debris. Pack up all items in the rooms that are being worked on and store in another area of the house so they are not damaged or covered in dust.
“The important thing I learned right off is to have a good attitude about the remodeling process. It’s a little inconvenience for a long-term goal.”
Checklist for Cutting Costs and Saving Energy
- Look for clearance items, overstocks and discontinued items at local hardware and specialty stores.
- Look for overstocks in lumber yards.
- If you plan to paint any brick you install, visit the brickyard to find the “culls” or bricks that have discolorations. “That saves about a third in the cost of bricks,” says Jeff Kull.
- Update and add insulation.
- Add an attic fan.
- Consider a tankless water heater. According to South Carolina Electric and Gas, even though tankless units may cost more than most conventional water heaters, they are cheaper to operate because energy is not required to maintain a large tank of hot water 24 hours a day.
- Buy energy efficient windows and doors.
- Update old heating and air units. SCE&G points out that natural gas furnaces heat a home quickly and provide heat up to 25 degrees warmer than electricity.
- Compact fluorescent light bulbs use 75 percent less energy and can last up to 10 times longer than standard incandescent bulbs, according to SCE&G.
Many improvements to a home can result in rebates, incentives, and tax credits. For more information, call 1-877-510-SCEG or visit www.sceg.com/energywise.