Should I tear out the walls and start over?
February 1, 2013 12:10 PM   Subscribe

I live in a one-floor condo unit that was, to put it mildly, poorly built. I, and all my neighbors, have dealt with too many issues to count regarding insulation, wiring, and even window and door frames. I'm no longer satisfied fixing things one at a time...

My condo is a one-floor unit, 2 bedrooms (1500 sf total), with units above mine and garages with storage rooms below. Through trial and error, my neighbors and I have discovered that our building was poorly constructed.
Here is a sampling of the issues:
-entire swaths of exterior walls are missing insulation (in multiple units)
-storage rooms in the basement area (which each belong to a single unit) aren't all properly wired to the owner unit's breaker box. My storage unit is on my upstairs neighbor's box, but his and another unit's are both wired to mine. Luckily they don't have anything plugged in down there.
-light switches in bedrooms that aren't wired to any wall outlets (there is no overhead lighting or even a cap in the ceiling that would indicate this is the purpose of the switch)
-light switches in hallway and kitchen that do nothing (or could be wired to another unit)
-poor-quality coax cable causing signal drops (cable co has determined signal strength and quality is excellent where cable enters building; quality drops are due to bad quality coax and inefficient splitting within the unit)
-door and window frames that are so crooked they all have drafts coming in around the frames (not from the windows themselves)

A few concerned neighbors and I have done some research and determined that we can't go after the original building or contractors for these issues (built in 1987), and that there aren't enough disgruntled owners to force the condo association to pay to remedy these situations for all affected units. So it's left to us to fix individually.

I think it would be brilliant, and cheaper in the long run, to rip out all the dry wall within my unit and solve all the problems at once. I could put in new insulation on the exterior walls, square all the door and window frames to eliminate drafts, and have an electrician fix and/or re-wire the problem switches, outlets, and circuits (plus move inconveniently placed outlets and put correct labels on the breakers!), string new coax and add Cat6 everywhere I think I'd want it.

Having an electrician come out to inspect and do all the work at once has to be cheaper than calling one in every time I hit my breaking point with a dead switch or outlet, right? Squaring the windows and doors to help eliminate drafts will save significant money in heating and cooling going forward, as will new and actually completed insulation. The addition of Cat6 and replaced coax would just be an added benefit, probably not enough to increase sale value but a good talking point for realtors down the road when we sell.

I don't have actual dollar figures, but I anticipate needing to spend money on the following:
-coax cable, Cat6 cable, and mounting/outlet supplies
-electrical supplies
-labor for electrician to fix and (re-)wire everything I need done
-wall supplies (dry wall, tape, plaster, new baseboards and crown molding, etc)
-paint for finished walls

Between myself and family we can competently handle putting in new walls that won't look shoddy, so my primary concern for professional assistance is the electrical work.

I estimate that ripping everything down would take a full weekend, then I could have the electrician in for a few days (all week?) to do everything, then probably another full week to 10 days for the walls to go back up. So looks like 2-3 weeks total. I figure we'd only actually have to sleep elsewhere for a few of the nights, when there is too much dust or paint fumes in the air.

So tell me - am I crazy like a fox, or just plain crazy? What am I missing here that would make this project much larger and/or scarier than I've anticipated? Can anyone provide rough estimates for actual costs?
posted by trivia genius to Home & Garden (24 answers total)
There is absolutely no way someone here could provide you with a "rough estimate". Get references for a good electrician and get a quote for the work. You might want to be willing to pay for the quote. Also, given what you've described, be prepared, once you've torn the drywall off, to find the job to be more expensive than you anticipated.

I'm also hoping that when you say you and your family can handle the drywall removal, replacement, and re painting of the whole unit, that you have extensive experience in this type of work.

Personally, I would learn to live with it, or move.
posted by HuronBob at 12:19 PM on February 1, 2013

I estimate that ripping everything down would take a full weekend, then I could have the electrician in for a few days (all week?) to do everything, then probably another full week to 10 days for the walls to go back up. So looks like 2-3 weeks total. I figure we'd only actually have to sleep elsewhere for a few of the nights, when there is too much dust or paint fumes in the air.

You know that the rule of thumb is to double cost estimates and triple time estimates, right?
posted by Etrigan at 12:26 PM on February 1, 2013 [5 favorites]

The first thing you need is permission from your condo association. Then if you're re-doing electrical, you'll want to pull permits from the county.

BE AWARE! Once you have the county coming in to inspect for the electrical that any and all other non-code stuff will come into question, and you'll be liable for making everything in your unit come up to code.

This is a potential NIGHTMARE! Seriously. The first thing I'd do, before tearing up your unit, is to have an electrician come in (get a Master Electrician, not some guy hanging out in front of Home Depot.) Tell them what you want, have them come in and give an estimate.

A good electrician won't need the dry wall down to rewire your unit. She might need to cut a couple of holes, but they're really good at patching.

As for Cat 6 and Coax, with wireless technologies, both will be obsolete shortly and certainly not worth any extra money to install separately. One good wireless router, will cut it. U-Verse is already advertising wireless receivers for television.

I know you want to "make it right" and I'm with you. But it will take three times as long as the most conservative estimate and twice as much as anyone will tell you it'll cost.

Also, no one is as good with dry wall as they think they are.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:27 PM on February 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

Regarding your light switches, have you checked the outlets themselves? To make an outlet switchable you need to snip a breaker between the sockets on the side with the brass terminals. There should be a red wire going to that side of the socket intended to be switchable. One of the most common mistakes is to leave this breaker unsnipped.
posted by rocketpup at 12:37 PM on February 1, 2013

Two things:
  1. Get yourself a copy of the RS Means Contractor's Pricing Guide: Residential Repair & Remodeling 2013 Book. They used to have a residential construction pricing book for about the same cost, I'm not seeing it on their web site but look for it too. This will give you a ballpark cost, which is the one I have (from 2007 or so, while we were house hunting). It gives you breakdowns from "Residential construction costs X per square foot * Y regional cost factor" to "A socket costs this much in materials, this much in labor". That's how you'll ballpark your costs, because that's how your contractor will do it.
  2. Go talk to your local building authority, lay out what you want to do and why and ask them how to get it permitted. My city's building department has told me flat out "You want to get a permit to repair that, because then if it's better than what was there I have to sign off on it", rather than list it as "run new wire to a socket". I know they're not that way in every city, but in my city, the building authorities are definitely your friend.
If you're relatively handy, maybe this is something to bone up on how to do yourself and turn into a roving work party. This weekend we'll yank the drywall in Bob's condo and run new wiring. He can get it inspected during the week, put the drywall up next weekend, mud it, and while that's drying move on to Carol's condo.

I tend to under-estimate wiring time (I have an ongoing electrical rework in my house right now!), but I managed to redo the plumbing in my house in a weekend. Ripping out drywall takes longer than putting it back in. And, yes, electricians can work through holes in the walls, but it's really nice to run 12ga. rather than 14ga. for everything, and to know that all of the connections are solid...
posted by straw at 12:56 PM on February 1, 2013

One thing you don't mention is the amount of dirt and waste material that you'll have to deal with. What will you do with your furniture and all your stuff while this work is going on? Ripping down drywall, and then sanding the new stuff, generates an ENORMOUS amount of dusty grit that will get into everything. The clothes in your dresser drawers, and every other single thing in the house, will be covered with drywall dust. If you're not ridiculously careful about the dust, you'll be cleaning it up (and coughing it up) for months, and some things will be ruined.

Having lived in a house where this sort of work was being done, it seems that the amount of time required to do the actual work is much less than the amount of time required to prepare the area to be worked on, and clean it up afterwards. It's a frustrating part of the work, but essential. If you don't do it carefully, things get really awful.

I'd think about doing this one room at a time, so you can empty out the room you're working on and seal it off with a plastic curtain. When working in that room, you should have a window open with a fan blowing outward so the dust generated by the work doesn't find its way into the rest of the house. So add to your time and materials calculations lots of big plastic sheets to cover things, tape to seal the plastic, and time to do it carefully. A portable air cleaner (or a few of them) with lots of extra filters, and a HEPA vacuum cleaner, would also help.
posted by Corvid at 12:58 PM on February 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

- You can rewire without having the walls ripped open.

- You can blow in insulation without having the walls ripped open.

- You can re-frame doorways and windows without ripping the walls open.

Yes permit.

You will discover many many many things you do not want to know if you proceed. Do not do this.

Were I you, I would hire an electrician to fix ALL wiring, blow in some insulation, square the doors and windows, and then sell.

There is no cost-effective fix for overall poor construction.

I'd be worried an electrical fire might break out one day, as it seems the wiring is sketchy at best. Why is this not a building-wide issue??
posted by jbenben at 1:07 PM on February 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

A buddy and I have been doing this for a couple of months - we also moved a wall and added a staircase to his attic for a future loft master suite - but it takes significantly longer than you would expect.

You need to paper the floor, tape, sand, deal with mess (exhaust fans are your friend) pretty constantly and if you're going one end of the place to another, I don't know where you're going to live. If you're going to do it a section at a time, you'll need to seal the area off to keep everything you own from being dusty.

That and permits - electrical permits can be a nightmare when you don't know what's there to begin with. We'd expected to run some new wire to support the new upstairs loft - we eventually had to install a new box to support the load and run a bunch of new wires for improperly ground stuff that existed already.

Your most prudent step would be to get an electrician in to assess and then plan the project out carefully. Twice for cost and three times for time is a pretty good rule of thumb.
posted by Rodrigo Lamaitre at 1:09 PM on February 1, 2013

I have done this, sort of--I helped a friend gut, re-insulate and re-drywall his home. I don't know how large your condo is, but (especially if you don't have experience with drywall and paint) I would count on this taking months to do right, not weeks. Ultimately, it took us more than a year, but we had to tear out plaster and lath.

Things to think about:

1. Where are you going to put the scrap? Are you going to carry it out by hand? Through a public area where you will need to clean up the drywall dust that you track with you? If so, can you put down rosin paper or something to protect the floor? Will there be so much that you need to rent a roll-off? If so, how close can you get it to your unit?

2. Will the sanding dust or construction noise infiltrate your neighbors' units? The paint fumes? Do they have young children that might be bothered by it?

3. What's your floor like? Will it potentially be damaged by either the gutting or construction or paint (because if it can be, it probably will be--nothing ever goes perfectly)? If it's wood, can you sand it down when you're done? Are you planning to put in new carpet?

4. Do you have a vehicle that can transport full sheets of drywall, or do you anticipate having a place like Home Depot deliver? If this is the case, plan accordingly so you don't mess up your last extra sheet and need more the next day.

5. Have you ever hung doors or installed windows? Is it possible that you will need to replace them after squaring? If so, are any of them weird sizes (we opted to leave some of the original single-pane windows in place to save time and because they were odd sizes)? This is more challenging (in my opinion) than drywalling, especially if you haven't done it before.
posted by pullayup at 1:10 PM on February 1, 2013

I did this. Totally worth it and not that expensive if you do the drywall yourself. It will take a bit longer than your estimate but not a year (unless you only work one day a week or something). I'd totally do it again. But not in a condo, because you'd have to deal with the neighbours and that's a quagmire. I'd either get the whole building on board or not do it.
posted by fshgrl at 1:26 PM on February 1, 2013

light switches in bedrooms that aren't wired to any wall outlets

If you decide to go for a short term or piecemeal solution, you can put in a wireless switch from X10 in place of the wall switch, and a compatible switched outlet elsewhere in the room.
posted by exogenous at 1:31 PM on February 1, 2013

I am not sure where you live and what the laws are, but the electrical could be a 'common element' -- for example, in my condo I only own everything "outside" of the drywall --and everything behind the drywall is owned commonly. I would not be legally allowed to do anything like this.

We are not allowed to any renovation without approval of the board. This might be the case for you, too. I'd look into that first.
posted by Lescha at 1:51 PM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

IANAL. TINLA. I have owned condos in a couple of states, and been a condo association officer, and on preview, Lescha raises a valid point. You might want to carefully read your condo documents, or have a lawyer familiar with condo and real estate law in your area do so, before starting on this project. In many condos, all structural framing, pipes, wiring, light fixtures and electrical equipment, heating & air conditioning equipment, windows and sometimes other things like vent hoods are defined as "common areas and equipment" so that unit owners can't do the kind of major renovations "inside" what they think of as "their" unit, without written association permission. Your condo documents may even specify that you do not "own" the drywall forming the walls of your unit, or even visible doors and hardware like door hinges and locks. These are restrictions that attempt to give the condo association control over remodeling activities, and repair work, that might disturb neighbors, or impact their quiet enjoyment of their units, by having to deal with dust and garbage from construction.
posted by paulsc at 1:52 PM on February 1, 2013

Wow, thanks for the quick responses! Definitely more to think about than I realized.

Just responding to a couple questions/comments:

The first thing you need is permission from your condo association. Then if you're re-doing electrical, you'll want to pull permits from the county.
Association has no problems with this, have already given the go-ahead for another neighbor to completely re-wire. Everything proposed is within our unit, so they have no horse in this race anyway (I checked). I was hoping to go with an electrical contractor that would do the permitting for me with the city.

Also, no one is as good with dry wall as they think they are.
Step-father used to do construction. He walled in his unfinished basement and helped with substantial repairs at my sister's house - in both cases his work looks better than the existing work in each house, so I'm not concerned there.

I'd be worried an electrical fire might break out one day, as it seems the wiring is sketchy at best. Why is this not a building-wide issue??
Condo associating brought in an electrician a few years ago when we started complaining - everything is supposedly up to code. So the wiring isn't faulty, per se, they were just lazy and stupid when they ran wires to the wrong breaker boxes and did incomplete install of wall switches.

You can ... without having the walls ripped open.
Yes, but isn't this more expensive? Blowing in insulation costs more than just buying rolls and stapling in, right? Plus the electrician would need to do a lot more detective work if everything isn't already exposed when he shows up? And labor costs would be higher b/c he'd spend more time punching holes and patching instead of just focusing on the wiring?

Glad to see that others have done this type of thing successfully, but seriously considering waiting, now that I see all the other logistical things I'd need to deal with. Maybe a project to be taken on in a few years after we move but before we rent it out (considering keeping as a rental property).
posted by trivia genius at 1:54 PM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd speak to someone who knows real estate law in your jurisdiction. The interior walls are common ownership, often, and you'd be all sorts of liable if anything went wrong. Major construction like this would require approval of the board even if the insulation etc were under your individual control.

You should, however, be able to force them into fixing the storage unit wiring by putting it in writing, then complaining to your electricity provider if they don't fix it.
posted by jeather at 1:55 PM on February 1, 2013

You can ... without having the walls ripped open.
Yes, but isn't this more expensive? Blowing in insulation costs more than just buying rolls and stapling in, right? Plus the electrician would need to do a lot more detective work if everything isn't already exposed when he shows up? And labor costs would be higher b/c he'd spend more time punching holes and patching instead of just focusing on the wiring?

Save a penny, spend a pound.
posted by Kerasia at 2:03 PM on February 1, 2013

What I would probably do is check and see if the wiring is inside conduit, or if it is Romex or something like that. If it's in conduit, an electrician can completely re-wire without even touching the drywall. Then you just have to pull out the exterior wall drywall.

Same thing with squaring doors. They can generally be removed and reinstalled without tearing out the drywall.

As for the storage units, it might be easier to switch units than rewire.
posted by gjc at 2:23 PM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

One other thing: are you going to tear out the ceilings, too? You mention light switches that seem like they should control a (missing) ceiling fixture. If you want to fix that, you'll probably need to tear out at least part of the ceiling. Are you prepared to drywall a ceiling? What is the ceiling like now? If you're only removing part of it, is it popcorn, and are you prepared to either remove the popcorn or match the texture? How high is it? Are you going to be able to lift sheets of drywall up there, either wearing stilts or by building scaffolding in the room?
posted by pullayup at 2:23 PM on February 1, 2013

Don't forget about all the finish millwork, wall bases and the like.
posted by Specklet at 2:32 PM on February 1, 2013

Plus the electrician would need to do a lot more detective work if everything isn't already exposed when he shows up?

Not necessarily. Experience plus some simple tools can go a long way here. I'd say it'd be worth it to pay for an estimate/consultation so the electrician can tell you what he actually needs to do, before you get too worked up about tearing everything down to the studs and starting over.
posted by soundguy99 at 2:35 PM on February 1, 2013

...we also moved a wall...

Not recommended, unless you really understand the structure of the building. Internal walls in places like that are usually load-bearing. You move a wall and eventually the people upstairs may come down through your ceiling.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 4:13 PM on February 1, 2013

How much time each week do you have to work on this? How many helpers?

I think your time estimates may be unrealistic. I'm redoing two 750 square foot flats, for a total of 1500 square feet. We started insulation the Monday of Thanksgiving week and finished drywall almost a month later. That was with professional crews doing the work. Here are the time estimates I got or observed for 1500 total square feet from crews of typically 3-5 experienced and well-supplied workers:

Insulation-- 2 days
Drywall -- a couple weeks: 4-5 days of work with a few wait periods of 3-5 days for drying (2-3 days of prep and installation, a day of taping and mudding, a few days to dry, 1 day to ??, a few days to dry, 1 day to blow texture around, a few days to dry)
Painting -- 3-4 days (a lot of the windows were already covered in plastic by the drywall people)
Electrical trim (putting the plugs and light fixtures in) -- 1 day
I don't know about baseboards and interior doors yet.

Instead of paying to have the place painted, I just did the priming and painting myself for one of the 750 SF apartments. Working alone, that took me 4 weeks. That represents about 12 hours each weekend and one to two 4-6 hour weeknight evenings each week. I couldn't do more than that because of work deadlines, work related travel, birthday parties for friends, family coming to town, and so forth. So think carefully about your time availability and other obligations. I then papered the floor of the other apartment and put plastic over all its windows before giving up and hiring painters, and that alone took 2 weeks because it was about 12 hours of work but other obligations (mostly related to other parts of this rehab project) kept interfering.

We spent... let's see... I think at least $1000 on primer and paint, and maybe $150 on floor paper, door and window plastic, tape and brushes, $150 renting a paint sprayer for 2 days, then $1000 on outsourcing the painting downstairs.

How is your family with this project? We paid for painters for that second apartment because even if I was content to paint round the clock during holidays and until 1 am twice a week for another month or two, my partner wanted to accelerate the project and not have it absorb all of my time.

You're right about 2 days for demolition, especially if you have 2 people, but if you do it over the weekend, the dump will be closed, so you'll either need to have a dumpster delivered and picked up (maybe $400-550), or you'll have to store the debris until you can drive it over. Do you have a pickup? I'd guess you're talking about ... 8 or more trips and maybe $250 in disposal fees?

Drywall dust sucks as much as other posters have mentioned. I'm not at all sensitive to dust, but I actually posted an AskMe question because it was making me so hoarse and cough so much that I thought it could be the scary "toxic drywall" you hear about. You can also hurt yourself, e.g., carrying heavy things. It sounds unlikely or "wimpy," but both my partner and I notice this project has impacted our health. It's just not all that hard to hurt yourself while climbing ladders, wearing foggy goggles, managing bulky or heavy items, and so forth.

Do you have all the tools you need? That can quickly add to the expense. Borrowing tools is its own risk, because if they break on your watch, as they seem to do, you'll spend time and money repairing them.

My advice to you would be to at least consider letting sleeping dogs lie. What if you find evidence of some bigger problem, like that the plywood is poorly waterproofed? Are you going to get the building to redo the exterior siding of your building? Are you going to disclose to buyers that you expect the siding to fail in another 5 years? We all think that of course we would want to know about and fix hidden problems, but once you HAVE to do so, you realize what a major impact the expense and time will have on your life. Even if you didn't cause a problem, once you discover it, it becomes your responsibility to some extent.

I went down to the studs here for many of the same reasons as you, and ended up redoing a bunch of the framing because I couldn't feel good about leaving it as it was. The city may have changed its regulations in serious ways, too, and what you're planning could be extensive enough to trigger new code requirements. I would talk to the city before starting.

If you read all this and still want to, I say, go for it. I get a lot of pleasure from all of this, and you may too. If you go ahead, the idea above -- of doing this in a room-by-room way so that you always have somewhere to store your things and can stop after one room or two if it's more than you wanted to take on -- is worth considering, too. My friend did her big project that way, and it seemed better because she could take breaks between phases. Fix it projects are a lot more fun when they're optional and you aren't in way over your head.
posted by slidell at 4:50 PM on February 1, 2013

Another reason to "let sleeping dogs lie" by leaving the drywall up is the risk of discovering termites. That's something you'd have to disclose or fix if you discovered it, but probably not something that you'd otherwise need to deal with if you are planning to sell in the short- to mid-term future.

I think your project will be much cheaper and easier if you have an electrician fish wires through the walls, bring in one of those thermal imaging consultants and blow in missing insulation, and then patch any holes in the drywall. That would save you so, so very much work. It would probably be cheaper once you consider what you'd save by not removing all the drywall, replacing it, and painting. It would be less physical upheaval. And there'd be less risk of accidentally being on the hook for a lot more than you bargained for by triggering new city requirements or discovering something that you'd be better off not knowing.
posted by slidell at 5:18 PM on February 1, 2013

Blowing in insulation costs more than just buying rolls and stapling in, right?

Just buying rolls and stapling in is not good enough, though- fiberglass batts are only as good as the coverage, and any little gap is going seriously to diminish the r value. Even contractors who regularly install batts rarely do it to such a high standard that the stated r value is achieved. Blown in fiberglass fills in all gaps around conduits, doesn't settle, has very good sound baffling, and doesn't mold if wet.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:32 PM on February 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

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