Young children growing up spend their spare time riding bicycles, playing in the park with friends, going to movies, swimming and attending summer camp. However, there are unique individuals who spend their time curious about how things work and how things are built. One of these individuals is Simpson Fant. He grew up in Columbia at the corner of Senate and Gregg streets, close to the University of South Carolina. As older homes were torn down to make room for the University’s expansion, Simpson, with his brother and friends in tow, would periodically collect the scrap wood to cart home in his wagon.
Once there with materials at hand, Simpson and his entourage built multi-story tree houses and, as Simpson recalls, one huge clubhouse. Now most folks would think that this guy must have kept his nose buried in magazines such as Popular Mechanics his whole life; however, the only exposure he had to this type of technical knowledge was in a seventh grade shop class along with books he would borrow from the library concerning a project of particular interest.
As the years passed, Simpson went on to become a commercial real estate attorney, but he always retained the curiosity of his youth and stored the details of various construction concepts he gained. Hence, a self-taught remodeler was born — an individual who could complete the legal title work as well as renovate the house on a client’s lot.
The House on the Street Where You Live
By the time fall of 1999 arrived, Simpson had married Kathy Williams, and they had four children — Katherine, Hunter, Zim and Hal. Their one-story home near Forest Acres gave Simpson a good reason for a major expansion renovation, including adding a complete second story. He wisely conceded the major roof work and framing to a local professional contractor but as a caveat for granting the job, reserved the right to perform and complete all woodwork such as the doors, frames, flooring and finish carpentry.
Just as the roof was taken off, a hurricane with torrential rain was forecast to come hurling through Columbia, so the crew rushed to secure the roof with tarps and polyethylene. Hal, their youngest child, was only 2 weeks old, adding to the drama. Looking back at the experience, Simpson comments, “It was frustrating. Kathy and I had a new baby, and I was trying to practice law while concerned with the potential of torrents of rain ruining our home and all its contents. It was nerve racking.”
Other projects over the years include adding on a new den, master bedroom and master bathroom, creating a cypress paneled office out of a first floor bedroom and raising the ceilings in the living room and dining room. His most recent project was the conversion of a broken and uneven brick patio into a spacious, well-lit outdoor living space with a tile floor, stone fireplace and dark stained square columns. The unscreened 600-square-foot “room” includes an outdoor kitchen with mahogany cabinets and a flat screen television. A home that was originally 1,200 square feet has now been transformed into one that is 4,400 square feet. Benevolent projects for his neighbors consisted of helping them with the design and construction of kitchens, garages, bedrooms and bathrooms. When asked what he charged for doing this, he says, “I don’t charge anything. I do it for fun.”
When asked how they handle the choosing of the more aesthetic elements to their projects, Simpson replies, “Kathy and I make the decisions on flooring, countertops, sinks, faucets and other such things together with assistance from Pam James, our wonderful decorator and interior design consultant. She always knows what works for us.”
During a renovation, the Fants normally live in a maze of dust from sheetrock and lumber along with tools askew, paint cans lining the walls and lots of plastic sheeting. In the early days, Kathy indicates that at the beginning of the renovations, she rolled up her sleeves and ripped up tile, tore down wallpaper, knocked down sheetrock and hammered nails with the best of them. But once her children were born, she concentrated more on the cosmetic issues, managing the work in progress while trying not to be concerned about the mess. “I eventually became numb to it all and am now content watching because he saves a bunch of money, and he loves doing it so much,” she says. “And besides, if there’s a problem, I know where to find the contractor!”
The Last Renovation
Most recently, Simpson decided to rip out and renovate their kitchen. “I thought Kathy was going to take a gun to my back,” he says with a laugh, “but now that we’ve gotten started, she seems pleased because not only will she get a new kitchen, but she will finally get a laundry room.” The Fants have now been in their house 20 years. While they’ve had to replace an appliance or two, the catalyst that forced this latest decision to reconfigure the kitchen was when several appliances malfunctioned in succession. On top of that, a leaking dishwasher and refrigerator caused the hardwood flooring in the kitchen to buckle. It was time to bring out the sledgehammer and start another renovation.
To obtain a fairly workable and wise kitchen space, they decided to take down a wall and incorporate an adjacent breakfast room for extra space that could accommodate the new sink with views to the front yard. Within the newly created area they plan to have side-by-side refrigerator and freezer columns, double ovens, a commercial gas range top, a built-in microwave and a built-in coffee station. The new kitchen will also have a big center island as its centerpiece. Because the 19-foot section of wall that was removed to create the new space was a load bearing wall, a large steel beam had to be installed. Sagging floor joists also had to be reinforced due to the large heavy appliances that will be installed.
“This is the first time I’ve used a roll-off dumpster for construction debris,” Simpson says. In previous years, he had “discussions” with the City of Columbia as to who was going to cart off the debris to the landfill.
When asked if this current project was his last renovation, he resignedly says, “Yes,” indicating that any future renovations are limited to a paintbrush. With Simpson though, it’s best to never say never.
Simpson’s Tips for Remodeling
First action to take when a remodeling decision is made:
• Prepare drawings using a CAD Program
• Determine project timing and add contingencies for vacations, weather, etc.
• View in person projects of similar nature for ideas
Consult with your interior designer
Determining a budget prior to buying materials and hiring labor:
• Use an Excel spreadsheet from demolition through finished project
• Budget line items to include: demolition, solid waste removal, electrical, plumbing, HVAC, temporary facilities, sheetrock, flooring, painting, carpentry, windows, appliances, cabinetry, countertops, etc.
• Finalize your budget and build in a 20 percent contingency
Planning the amount of time needed to finish the project:
• Break down the scope into logical sequences and determine time for each (i.e. demolition, framing, electrical, plumbing, sheetrock, cabinets, painting, etc.)
• Determine any long lead time items and order those upfront (i.e. custom made windows, hard-to-find appliances, special countertops and flooring)
• If using subcontractors, contact them early, find out their work load and get on their calendars
Determining the need to subcontract or just DIY:
• If the project is a large complex job, it’s best to call a subcontractor.
• Keep a running list of the good and bad subcontractors — by word of mouth from other DIY friends
• Don’t pay up front for labor or materials. Make payment only when work is completed and materials delivered
Q&A with Simpson
Does it matter for property tax assessment purposes if existing space is remodeled as opposed to add on?
Not really. In theory, your home’s assessment will go up relative to the value of the improvements, whether inside or outside.
Are any licenses or permits required to remodel and how are the fees determined?
Yes, even for DIY projects, the city requires a building permit be pulled. The city does not require a homeowner to be a licensed contractor if the homeowner, and his family members, are doing the work themselves. If you end up using a subcontractor for any part of the work, however, the city requires that they be licensed with the city. Separate permits are generally required for electrical, plumbing and HVAC work. The city will have information on how the fees are calculated.
Does a building inspector need to sign off on the work as being in compliance with the building codes?
Yes, the city building inspector will come and inspect the job at various stages. All work must comply with the city’s Building Code for residential structures. The City of Columbia adopts the 2012 International Residential Code, with some modifications.
Is there a way to gauge when you have renovated your home out of the market?
It is generally understood that renovations to kitchens and bathrooms add the most value for resale. After so many renovations to a house, there may be a point at which the law of diminishing returns kicks in. Get updated appraisals on your house every so often and stick with the tried and true (kitchens and baths). Sometimes however, renovation of other areas becomes a necessity rather than a want.