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Ask Kathy: How to assess an old house?

Dear Kathy:

Here's a house that needs big help! But just FYI and in the spirit of full disclosure, it's not the house Suzanne is referring to. But it is an old house and that's the best I can do for an image.

I found your blog today and enjoyed reading it. Many of your links were helpful. Thanks for all your work!


I am about to buy an old (1905) house in Pasadena. It needs a lot of work. The physical

inspection identified some problem with the way the roof sits on the house — old style connections haven't held up too well with all the earthquakes. I want to put a second story on it. What I'm trying to figure out is what the priorities should be.


The priority order I am thinking of is this:

1 — Earthquake retrofitting (upgrading foundation, etc) preparing the foundation to hold a 2-story structure

2 — Lift roof, or fix the structural problem, or add dormers & interior stairs.

3 — New plumbing (new bathroom in second story & re-do downstairs bathroom).

4 — New wiring.

5 — Misc. repairs & finishing: insulation, windows, floors, walls, etc.


I'm writing to you because I don't know whom to ask about the over-all strategy. I may need to spread this work over a long period.

Depending on costs, it might take a year or more to get it all done. I'm concerned about asking contractors, because they'll want to sell me their services. I need an objective assessment of priorities and approximate costs to get started. But from whom: An architect? Structural engineer? City Planning?


Thanks for any tips you can provide. – Suzanne H.

Dear Suzanne:

You really do
need some good guidance on this potential home, the upgrading of which could be a lot of fun or a total nightmare. 

I believe a licensed general
contractor would be your greatest ally in this endeavor. Ideally, there would
be a whole slew of licensed general contractors of the highest integrity that
you could pay by the hour to assess your situation. Ideally, there would be
some kind of 5-star rating or Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval bestowed on
contractors so you could trust them. And there would be a list of these guys left on your doorstep.

It's not that simple. Contractors tend to be in the business of remodeling, and not
consulting. But this is an excellent time, with our crashing economy, for
contractors to think outside the box and think of other ways to serve clients.

What I would do
is find the most highly respected contractor in your area and ask how much it
would cost to have this house, and other houses you may be considering,
assessed. You should expect to pay money for this. When you're trying to get advice for nothing, you're really setting yourself up for a sales job. Why else would a talented, knowledgeable builder spend hours with you for no money if he or she was not making a sales call? You set it up so you pay for their time and talent and advice, and then you steer your association away from a sales call and toward a consultation.

It could be a simple walk-through with a knowledgeable person who
could point out to you the places of concern. Or it may be a complex written report. A home inspector can also do this, though because home inspectors don't do the work to fix the problems they cite, they are less in touch with home much various projects cost than those in the trenches, fixing up old homes.

You may still be afraid the contractor
will just be trying to sell you services, but the more ethical and highly
respected the contracting company, the more likely they are stick to the
agreement you have set up: a flat fee for information.

Finding the
best company in your area is not rocket science, but neither is it easy and
painless. You must ask around for the good companies. Look in the Yellow Pages
under lumberyards and give them a call. Lumberyards are where contractors buy
their materials, not at Big Box stores. Say you want to do a high-end remodel
and you wonder if they can give you the names of two or three high-quality

 Do the same
with your friends and neighbors, with the tile store, the door and window shop,
and the plumber your neighbor used. Pretty soon you'll start hearing the same
few names over and over again.

 Then you do the
fun part: Internet snooping. You find out if each of these companies is
licensed (they better be!), and if there's any complaints against them, if
they're mentioned in any chat rooms. You scour their website and see they've
won any industry awards. You see if they're members of NARI (National
Association of the Remodeling Industry) or the remodeling part of the National Association
of Home Builders. You see if they have membership in a local builders group. And
if they are an office holder of that group, you've hit gold.

So to recap,
find the best, most highly respected licensed general contracting company in
your area and give them a call. Tell them you want to hire the owner or one of
their supervisors to check out a house you're considering buying. Then, go to
their office and meet with them. If they don't have an office, beware. If their
office is dirty and disorganized, beware.

Let the process
grow from that point. If you would spend this time making sure you're dealing
with top-notch people, you will have decreased your chance of getting ripped
off to nearly zero.

 Good luck!

Any other
advice for Suzanne?

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