You Just Bought a Home… 1

Did You also Buy a Major Remodeling Project?

Several years ago we bought a really nice townhome in the North Ranch section of Thousand Oaks. What we also bought, though we did not realize it at the time, was a major remodeling project in the most expensive part of the house—the kitchen/family room. I can almost hear a Darth Vader-like voice resonating as those words are spoken.

A lot of emotion went into the purchase, and starting with that, some things were overlooked. The place also has “great bones,” like a fading beauty that turned into a money pit. Don’t get me wrong, we still live here and we love it. But some care could have been taken in evaluating whether it would be worth the additional expense. So, taking my experience as a “what to watch out for” guide, here goes…

When you Buy

Demand that your real estate agent is 100% on your side and not just anxious to rack up another commission. All real estate agents are not created equal. The real estate professionals whose ads you will find in this magazine will take great care of you. Ours at the time did not do so. When you start to wax fantastic over the house, they should be pointing out what you may be overlooking. Remember, a house may pass inspection and everything may be functional, but for how long? It’s up to them to help you see behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain.

Here are some basics to consider:

  • The age of the appliances. Our oven worked when we moved in and very quickly kept shorting out on a regular basis. Stanley, the oven repair guy, became a regular at our house. The dishwasher was next.
  • Countertops…current material or 25 years out of date? Hmmmmm, granite, Caesar stone or marble anyone?
  • The age of the HVAC. It may be working, but how well and for how long? $14,000 later we had moved the HVAC into the attic to cut down the noise, zoned the air conditioning and finally were cool upstairs in the summer.
  • Kitchen cabinets. We soon realized that the oak cabinets were very weary. The finish started to peel and they needed replacement, refinishing or re-facing; lots of wear and tear in 18 years. We sanded them down and had them re-stained as part of a bigger project.
  • The tile flooring in the kitchen area is expensive to replace and a major mess while your contractor is doing it. Will you hate it one week after you move in or do you want to live with it?
  • If the house is 25 years old or older, the windows are for certain out of date when it comes to temperature efficiency, safety and of course esthetics. Is that important? It will be when you look at your electric and gas bill each month.
  • The condition of the landscaping. Is it overgrown, patios a bit cracked or saggy, potentially very thirsty for water, plants at the end of their life cycle?
  • What is on the walls? Just paint or is there wallpaper that you will need to eventually peel off and replace?
  • The carpet. When shown the carpet will have just been cleaned. Do the sellers have dogs? Is there dog pee soaked into the pads that will come back to haunt you? It always does.
  • Did smokers live there? If so then smoke is in the carpet and any absorbent surface as well as the ventilation.

Remodeling Tips

  • If you hire a general contractor to oversee an entire project, like our kitchen/family room adventure, be certain that the specialists who do the work—floors, electrical, cabinets, painters, etc.—are part of their operational organization, not people who just happen to be available to them at the time.
  • Be sure to check contractors’ references thoroughly.
  • Hire based on skill, rather than personality when they’re bidding on the job. The guy who did our floors was a curmudgeonly grouch, who was also an artist at his craft.
  • The materials you use—tile, carpet, paint, countertops, even the stain used on the cabinets—should be vetted by you, not just the contractors. We actually saved 50% on our tile by buying it in Van Nuys, where we found top grade Italian tile, which cost twice as much at a local tile outlet.
  • To the best of your ability, be your own interior designer. Remember, you will live with the décor for years. Just because a color or material approach is easier does not mean it is right for you.
  • Ask your contractor for practical money-saving solutions. For example, we decided to keep the cabinets and stain them. They look fantastic and the cost was a third of what it would have been to replace them.

Of course, I could go on and on…buying a not-so-obvious money pit ended up adding about $70,000 to the cost of the house: kitchen/family room, landscape/hardscape, appliances and HVAC. Whew!! We survived it all and love the place! Don’t say I didn’t warn you…if you buy a house that is 20-plus years old, be ready, be careful, and when the projects start, beware.