The Truth About Your Remodeling Project: 203Ks, Home Additions, Finished Basements and Whole-House Renovation Jobs -- Part 3: Planning for Project Discoveries

Home Builder with New City Construction

Part 3: Planning for Project Discoveries

In the last post of this series, we talked about Setting Realistic Expectations for Your Home Remodeling Project. Today, we're going to discuss discovery items. These are the issues that are often unknown before a project starts. When they are discovered, they create additional costs and usually extend the project schedule. However, there are ways to anticipate many of these issues and to plan for them, so they do not become unpleasant surprises. The following are the most common discovery issues you are likely to encounter for your home remodeling, addition or 203k project -- and what you can do up front to avoid being surprised.

Zoning - Local zoning codes determine what you can build on your property and how the space can be used. If you are planning an addition, the code will determine how high you can go, how close you can get to your neighbors, how much of the lot can be covered by buildings and/or how much living space is allowed. Additionally, your property is likely already classified for a particular "use," such as a single family home or a multifamily building. If your plans conflict with the code, you could have a problem. Often, people learn during the permitting process that a building's current "use" is different than what's on the books. For example, we had a client with a single family home that was actually zoned as a boarding house. In order for us to be able to pull permits for the new work, they had to have the zoning adjusted back to a one-unit use, which took time and money. Some zoning problems can be fixed by going through a process, others require a hearing and a ruling; others cannot be fixed at all. What You Can Do: Know where you stand before you start. Using either the Internet (many records are online) or by going down to your local planning and zoning office, make sure you know exactly what the current zoning and use are for your property. Also, make sure you understand the limitations imposed by the current zoning to be sure that your plans are in line with what can be built legally.

Structural Problems -Structural failures in a property can be expensive to address AND they can ripple through a property and cause problems with mechanical systems and finishes. A qualified contractor will see evidence of certain structural issues just by looking at a property. For example, if "lines" that are supposed to be straight and level are not, you may have structural issues. Or, if floors "give" way too much, this suggests that they may not be properly supported. Other structural issues are not so obvious, and can't be detected before demolition is completed and walls are exposed. What You Can Do: Keep your eyes open and look around windows and doors to see if they have problems opening and closing. Look at foundations, brick and interior walls for signs of cracking -- or cracks that have been filled. Ask your contractor if he sees any signs that there might be structural problems with the property. And, if you are concerned about the structure, engage a licensed structural engineer to come assess the property before you embark on a renovation project

Utility Issues - If you live in or are purchasing an older home, utilities may be a problem. Your existing sewer or water lines may be damaged or inadequate to handle to the additional requirements of your renovation. Your electric service may be out of date and undersized. As with all construction requirements, it's best to know what you're getting into up front, though damaged utilities (such as a cracked water line) are some of the hardest to anticipate. What You Can Do: Look at utility bills (if available) to determine if they indicate unusual usage. Check with the utility companies to see if they had any reports of damage or problems with prior owners. Have your contractor or mechanical subcontractor evaluate the utility needs of the proposed project and compare them with the service currently available at the property.

Environmental Issues - Some projects run into environmental problems that must be remediated. The most common ones are mold, asbestos, lead and wood-boring insects. In each case, there are additional costs to clean up the problem, and then often additional construction costs for repairs. What You Can Do: You can test for mold and lead before a project starts. Hire an environmental remediation company to come in and assess the condition of your property to minimize surprises. A qualified exterminator (and sometimes your contractor -- depending on how obvious damage is) can assess your home's exposure to wood-boring insects. Asbestos is sometimes right in plain sight in the form of tiles or other materials; other times, it is hidden as wall or pipe insulation. Get qualified professionals to look at your property.

Underground Issues - When you dig, you can run into different kinds of unexpected problems. Most pricing for underground work is based on a set of assumptions as to what will be found. However, rocks, stones, geotechnical problems and soil voids can dramatically affect costs. Sometimes, soil conditions can make additional construction very expensive -- especially if soil cannot bear weight as expected. What You Can Do: Conduct a geotechnical survey. Geotechnical engineers will do soil borings to assess soil structure, how it is composited and how well it can bear weight. If excavation is a large part of your project, this upfront investment can save you a great deal of aggravation down the road.

Unexpected Code Requirements: Often, crossing a certain threshold for amount of work completed on a property triggers requirements that the entire property be "brought to code." This means that even areas of your property on which you are not doing work must be updated to meet current standards (such as electrical). In extreme cases, you may need to add whole new systems, such as sprinklers. The worst situation is when you are forced to do additional work because of discovery issues and then this additional work triggers still more work to meet additional code requirements. What You Can Do: Pick qualified contractors familiar with your local jurisdiction AND do your homework. If experienced, your contractor should know what kinds of changes will trigger code upgrades and can help steer you around these obstacles. Your local permit office can also be a resource. Workers there can help you understand where you may run into code compliance issues.

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