September 16, 2004 8:54 PM   Subscribe

This December, I'm moving into a house to begin remodeling and cleaning it out. I can do pretty much whatever I want with what should I do? {specifics inside}

The house has three levels. The first has a living, dining room, two bedrooms and a bathroom. Downstairs is a moderately finished basement. I'm pretty sure it has plumbing, but I'm not sure about anything else. Upstairs is a loft-like bedroom, a master bedroom and a bathroom. I'm thinking of expanding the upstairs bathroom to make room for a nice tub and a shower. There's a backyard, so any ideas for that would be helpful.

For the sake of argument, let's say that price is no object. I just want ideas of things that you've done/would love to do and some ideas on how to accomplish them. If they're cheap, all the better. It's located in Baltimore, MD if that makes a difference.

The reason I'm getting the house is to try and increase the value of it. My great-uncle lived in it for 40+ years and really let it go downhill....anything that would make it more sellable as well as make my life more interesting is wanted.
posted by amandaudoff to Home & Garden (23 answers total)
A kitchen with an island in the middle, with possibly a tiny sink for all quick veggie washing and filling pots and stuff.
posted by riffola at 9:13 PM on September 16, 2004

Get It Inspected.
Having a sound house will make sure you aren't wasting your investment. Unless you're already an accomplished home owner, paying an expert for an inspection (hell, if price is no object, get it done twice!) is money well spent.

Find Some Place Else To Live
Or, at least do one space at a time. Remodeling is hell to live in.

Add A Kitchen
Actually, I'm assuming you left that out. You did, right? Nuke a downstairs bedroom, make it a kitchen. Adding a kitchen is A LOT of work. This should keep you busy for months, especially if you're doing it yourself.

The only remodel projects that really make money are bathrooms, as far as I know. Sounds like your plan to make the upstairs one nicer would be good.

Seriously consider: are you doing this to make money? If so, you'll probably make more money by paying somebody to do the work (at least the skilled work) for you. Sad, but true. On the otherhand, if you just need a hobby, this sounds great.

Tell us more: What are your skills? Experience? Why are you doing this again? How many square feet? What's the market like for this house?
posted by daver at 9:25 PM on September 16, 2004

There is a kitchen. My bad.

I get the house for free to live in as long as I need it. (3-5 years while I finish undergrad/start/finish grad school).

It's more of a hobby than anything else. If my family sells it now, they take a huge loss. If I live in it, fix it up and we sell it when I'm ready to leave, everyone wins.

In a prior life, I was a carpenter for a theatre department. I know power tools, but I'll be enlisting help from pros for the big stuff...I can do my own painting, shelf building, speaker wiring, but past that I'm more or less lost.

I'm guesstimating that the house is in the 2000 square feet range, give or take 500 or so.
posted by amandaudoff at 9:33 PM on September 16, 2004

If you're planning on spending some money, why not refurbish the kitchen? Tile counters, nice built-in gas range, fancy digital oven. I mention these things specifically because they were all huge selling points for us when we selected our house. Kitchens and bathrooms are probably the best places to put your remodeling money, because they don't usually get better with age. Cosmetic things like a new coat of paint can easily spruce up an older room, but you just can't fake a modern kitchen and bath.
posted by gokart4xmas at 9:44 PM on September 16, 2004

Don't overbuild, though. I dunno what part of Baltimore you're in (Hopkins area?) but if the neighborhood isn't particularly tony, you might have trouble getting a good price even if you've got friggin' gold toilets in every bathroom.
Know what I mean, hon?
posted by spacewrench at 9:48 PM on September 16, 2004

I'm in the Sudbrook area of's a middle class area....I'm kind of looking to make the sort of improvements (kitchen, bath, in-wall speakers) that would make someone love the place as opposed to things that just don't fit in the neighborhood (in-ground pools, garages, etc.)

Not to mention that I'm a gadget geek and like to cook and take long makes the first few projects easy. I'm wanting ideas for cool stuff after I exhaust those.

The kitchen island idea is a great one...maybe a combo island/bar to seperate the kitchen from the dining room.

Thanks for all the help so far!
posted by amandaudoff at 9:53 PM on September 16, 2004

Embed a massive granite boulder halfway through one wall, and build a bathroom around the bit that sticks through, with plants and pebbles and moss and stuff, full of light, with a shower that's water sluicing off the rock itself, so that it's like bathing outside.

Hey, you asked.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 10:57 PM on September 16, 2004

Curb appeal, landscaping, privacy fence in back yard if you have neighbors, laundry room on top floor or laundry shute, good windows, finished basement with bathroom, deck or eating area outdoors (maybe a fire pit, or built-in bbq) hardwood floors, simple wall paint (no wallpaper), good roof, exhaust in attic, central air, yada yada yada.

all these things add value. you might want to look at nearby homes for sale and see what they are describing as positive attributes.
posted by sadie01221975 at 11:02 PM on September 16, 2004

Since this is an older place, it's going to have different selling points than a new McMansion in the burbs. Namely, charm. You didn't say when this house was built, but if you can play up its original aesthetic -- '50s ranch, '30s saltbox, early-20th-century craftsman, whatever -- buyers will appreciate it. Of course you can have some modern touches (built-in speakers, sure) -- just ensure you're not getting rid of the vintage things that people find appealing.

My husband and I are looking to buy an old house in Portland. It's amazing how many houses built between 1905 and 1925 have had all of their charm totally remodeled out of them -- built-in shelves boarded over, hardwood floors removed in favor of particleboard and spongy carpet, cracked '70s linoleum floors besmirching an otherwise lovely kitchen. Yikes.

For most old houses, buyers want nice hardwood floors. (With the possible exception of kitschy '50s/'60s ranches, where extravagantly plush carpet might be a plus.) At all costs, avoid having plain, oatmeal-colored, spongy, flat, stained carpet. If the house has wood floors (possibly hidden under carpet), get them refinished. It makes a space so much more pleasant. Even if a space just has particleboard under carpet, you might consider replacing it with hardwoods. (I've been told that bamboo is the hot new hardwood -- envirionmentally friendly, as hard as oak, and fairly affordable.)

I agree with the above posters that having sparkling-clean bathrooms and kitchens is a major attraction. Nice tiling on floors is SO much more appealing than cracked old linoleum or vinyl. Tiles on bathroom walls are nice too. Gas ranges are much more appealing than electric ones.

And if you're going to fix up the basement and present it as a usable, finished space ... make sure it doesn't have That Basement Smell. Of the houses we've seen with "finished" basements, at least 60% have a salty, sour smell somewhat like the interior of a submarine full of unwashed sailors. If we put our guest bedroom down there, people would never visit us again! That Basement Smell is usually due to dampness and its accompanying mildew. Before you spend any money fixing up the basement, make sure it's not prone to frequent watery leaks. If it is, you'll have to do something with the foundation (very expensive) ... or just leave the basement as basic storage.

Also ditto on having a good privacy fence in the backyard... it's nice to be able to sit out and read in the backyard, or have a big barbecue, without feeling like the whole neighborhood's watching you. Plus, many folks have pets or toddlers they'd like to keep contained.

Finally, you can't go wrong with mint bushes.
posted by lisa g at 1:26 AM on September 17, 2004

One word: Atrium.

(if money actually is an object though..)
posted by cell at 2:35 AM on September 17, 2004

I'll second hardwood floors. I will never buy a home with wall-to-wall carpetting.

Cheaper/easier modifications?
  • Jack the place up. It's irritating as all hell having to run cords everywhere, particularly from room to room. Every room (well, except the bathrooms, perhaps) should have at least a phone line -- better yet, install a cat-5 jack that all terminate to a central, cool, easy-to-access spot in the home. Cat-5 is one of those little things that scream "modern convenience".
  • You don't have to install in-wall speakers, and probably shouldn't, unless they're so top-of-the-line that no homeowner would ever change them. What you can do is jack up left and right speaker connections, but frankly, this will probably be out of date in a decade. A digital signal can carry 5.1 surround, versus 2 channels. Any audiophile that bought the house would probably prefer the cat-5 cable.
  • Crown molding really dresses up the ceiling corners.
  • Curb appeal is also important. Plant some perennials that you won't have to baby. Design a small food garden. Use half-height bricks and pave over boring, ugly cement pathways. Run a gentle S-curving (bricked) path in the backyard to a small seating area under shade. Etc.
  • In a perfect world, there would be no need for shower curtains. Ditch them for sliding/swinging glass doors. Instantly de-tack-ifies a bathroom.
  • Paint the goddamn walls. White is a primer for color. You don't have to go crazy, but you'll generally be rewarded when you do. Red rooms rock.
  • You don't have to make the basement a hang-out place (who'd want to hang out in a dungeon?) but it should be as neat and clean as possible for use as a general workroom.
That's all I got for now.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:11 AM on September 17, 2004

I agree with most of what was said, however, I disagree with sliding doors for showers. I think they are more trouble to clean than curtains, esp. the bottom part that collects the water and gets all yucky.

Also, I'm not sure about tile floors. Am I the only one who doesn't like them? They're cold, a pain to keep clean (grout at least), and can break if you drop something. A lot of the newer floors are actually pretty nice looking (don't know if it is linoleum or vinyl). and probably easier to change in the future.

under-cabinet lighting in the kitchen. and nice ceiling lighting for entry, etc. none of that brass crap.

a jetted tub if you have the space. we have one and it is great for after-gardening soaking. would prefer a corner one so more than one person can fit, though.

I like the idea of the central vac, but we don't use ours because the hose is too much of a pain to drag around. so if you do it, make sure there are outlets everywhere so you can have a shorter hose.

try and utilize the space under the stairs for built-in bookshelves or something.

have fun, and good luck
posted by evening at 4:28 AM on September 17, 2004

I third or fourth (or whatever) the hardwood floors.

What's the state of the wood trim in the interior?

Small things help, like nice doorknobs.

Recessed lighting fixtures?

What's the state of the electrical wiring? Is everything grounded? (It might not be, if it's an older house.) When I had the upstairs renovated in my 1961 Cape Cod, the contractor had some extremely tart things to say about what was going on in the walls...

Definitely more phone jacks, but not the built-in speakers.

On the other hand, now, built-in shelving...

I've heard numerous warnings from realtors about updating bathrooms, because they don't necessarily add that much value to the house; kitchens, more so. But it's certainly worth it to replace the sink, vanity, & mirror, upgrade the lighting, and add a ventilation fan (heated, if possible) if there isn't one already.
posted by thomas j wise at 7:13 AM on September 17, 2004

I'd also recommend painting instead of wallpaper. One suggestion is to look at texturizing walls with drywall mud and a compressor to give it some personality. Essentially the same as texturing a ceiling, and you can control how thick you want it to be.

Ceiling texture
posted by shinynewnick at 8:25 AM on September 17, 2004

I'd be most concerned with the basics: Is the foundation good? The roof? The plumbing? The electrical? The HVAC? I would address those problems, roughly in that order. A house that is cosmetically good but mechanically bad is just bad.

I'd bring the electrical wiring up to modern code, and while in there, "future-proof" the house with coax, phone, speaker, and CAT-5 to most of the rooms, all hooked in through an integrated wiring panel. Of course, modern wireless technology can render much of that stuff moot, but it would be nice to have the option.

I would *not* put in tile kitchen counters, as they are a bitch to keep clean. I'm about to regrout mine, a task I do not relish.

Carpeting is the least desirable form of flooring, hardwoods or good tile (saltillo, quary, ceramic, whatever) the most. Pergo might be a good budget alternative.

If you want to go crazy on the shower, you can avoid both doors and curtains by building a serpentine entrance that prevents water from splashing out (I'd love to do this in glass brick). I prefer doors to curtains though.

A major pet peeve for me is cheap windows. This house probably has decent-quality older wood windows, which you might want to spend some quality time scraping, patching, and painting. If you need to install any new windows, don't cheap out on aluminum Home Depot specials.

Depending on the floor plan, you might want to open it up by ripping out some non-load-bearing walls. I think the general trend these days is towards fewer, bigger rooms. If prospective buyers walk into a big open room with a lot of natural light, they'll have a much more positive gut reaction to the house.

From an investment standpoint, it would be a bad move to over-improve the house for the street that it's on. Houses are sort of priced on a curve based on their surrounding houses: you don't want to have the only $200K house where all the other houses average $100K.
posted by adamrice at 8:47 AM on September 17, 2004

Why does everyone hate carpet so? If you actually lay out the cash for good pad and carpet, I think it's nice. Doesnt get cold, easy on the feet, etc.
posted by Irontom at 9:40 AM on September 17, 2004

If you're thinking resale value, I'd avoid thnigs that have large material costs (like kitchens, bathrooms and windows) and concentrate on those that don't cost much but are lots of labour.

Doing trim, baseboards and casings is a one-person job and makes a huge visual difference. Changing chipped casing around doors and windows and putting in details like chair-rails and crown-moldings really sharpens up the whole house. There's lots of room for creativity.

Modern electrical and wiring are a major selling point. If you've got knob-and-tube, even insurance can be a hassle. Upgrading electrical is mostly labour. Wire and plugs and things aren't that expensive. Most old houses dont have enough cable or phone lines, of if they do, they're installed over the trim and really ugly. Adding ethernet (CAT 5e) is a very nice touch if possible.

Also, carpet-never (always look grotty), tiles-ugh (hard to clean), hardwood-yay (easy to clean)!
posted by bonehead at 9:41 AM on September 17, 2004

I second the inspection. Almost anyone who eventually buys the house from you will have it inspected, so you want to get to work decreasing the number of flaws that will show up on an inspection report. Defects in the foundation, plumbing, wiring and so forth can make your life hell, and significantly diminish the resale value.

Some friends of ours also had a realtor walk through their newly-aquired house with them to come up with a checklist of things that would increase the resale value. Most of the items she suggested were cosmetic and increased their own enjoyment of the home once completed.

Finally, it sounds big enough that you can probably live in it while you work on it. I wouldn't bother finding another place to live--but make sure you make friends with someone who'll let you shower at their place!
posted by whatnot at 9:51 AM on September 17, 2004

Not to derail too much, but what grad program are you going into? I only ask because I've seen even minor home renovations go horribly wrong quickly because the homeowners had pie-in-the-sky expectations and no sense of the reality of how it was going to affect their lives. There was no way in hell that I would have been able to do something like this in grad school. If I wasn't at work,I was studying/writing/reading. I barely had time to clean my floors, let alone install new ones. Being a grad student is stressful enough. Renovating is stressful enough. Add the two together and you may not have the smartest idea, unless you are planning a very slow renovation process, have unlimited patience, and/or will not be living in the house at the time.
posted by archimago at 10:45 AM on September 17, 2004

I second the landscaping/outdoors suggestions. Put flowerboxes in the windows; we're heading into fall, so I would go for some nice cheery mum's, which should last you through November. Also, you can start planting bulbs (tulips, daffodils, etc.) in another month or two so that they'll bloom in April. And clean up the backyard. And check the gutters so they don't start overflowing when November/December dumps rain and sleet on you.

And I also second the "don't lose the native charm" suggestion. Don't make the house something it's not. Look up magazines and websites devoted to your house's original era. I'm a particular fan of Craftsman homes, and I know we've got tons of magazines and resource books devoted to authentic looking furniture and architectual details, including ads in the back of the magazines that sell reproduction moldings and lights and hardware and stuff like that.
posted by Asparagirl at 11:41 AM on September 17, 2004

oy, i gots lots o' ideas, from alternative energy to true weirdness, but rather than go on without schematics and such, i have lots of architecht friends, some of who would love to cad up some stuff.
if nothing else they know and get discounts for materials and can price everything (great to walk ceasars palace with and have them quote marble and surface prices.)
with family/friend in balt as well, i could see if someone wants to do a mock up for you. just ask (email)
posted by ethylene at 11:50 AM on September 17, 2004

The only remodel projects that really make money are bathrooms, as far as I know. Sounds like your plan to make the upstairs one nicer would be good.

If Pikesville gets cold better windows and air sealing will often pay for themselves in 1-2 years.

People (ok me) hate carpet because it it time consuming to keep clean. I can sweep my 1000sq ft main floor in the time it takes me to vacuum my 200sq ft downstairs rec room.

Plus it looks better, spills wipe right up and there is less of a tripping hazard. And less static discharges. Plus cats look funny sliding around.

And if you really want to future proof your home run conduit not cat 5.
posted by Mitheral at 2:13 PM on September 17, 2004

Few renovations pay for themselves. There are plenty of websites that can help you focus on the improvements that will have the best payback. Definitely 2nd bath. Most likely updated kitchen and bath and insulated-frame windows. Clean, paint, varnish and repair everything. Spiff up the exterior; planting some perennial flowering shrubs and bulbs soon will mean that they are well established when it's time to sell.

The more generic your choices, the better for potential buyers. No avocado green bathroom fixtures. (Did your uncle have them already?) Keep the original charm if it's well built and in good shape. A bedroom on the 1st floor would make a nice office/library. You'll likely spend a lot of time getting rid of accumulated stuff on ebay, or at the dump. Clutter reduces sale value, so be ruthless.

My dream house has a lap pool, at least 2 bathrooms, 1 with large tub, 1 on 2nd floor with laundry, central vac (riding vac would be better), lots of windows/skylights, deck and/or patio, roof panels to pre-heat hot water, good landscaping, plenty of closet space, living room fireplace and library with wood stove. A comfortable and functional eat-in kitchen. Stav's shower plan above works, too.
posted by theora55 at 2:27 PM on September 17, 2004

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