Now that the walls are open, what should we do?
December 14, 2014 6:37 AM   Subscribe

My husband and I just bought a serious fixer upper. What should we consider, address, add, fix, now that all of the walls and ceilings are out?

For lots of reasons, we decided it was best to go completely down to the studs, and we are getting close to finishing the demo phase. Next, we will address electrical, heating, plumbing, fireblocking, insulation, and windows.

What else should we consider? What would be easiest to do now that we are down to the studs, or cheaper, or just plan enjoyable? The home is in a suburb of Boston, to get a sense of the climate, and we are our own GC. We don't exactly have money to burn, but we are willing and able to take the time and funds to do this the way we want to.
posted by teragram to Home & Garden (33 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
If you want to wire the place for entertainment, surround sound, intercom, speakers in every room, computer networking, now would be the time.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:39 AM on December 14, 2014 [9 favorites]

Can lights where appropriate -- it would be wise to consult someone who knows this kind of lighting as contractors typically have 1 type of can light – smaller is better for small spaces. Wall-washer lights work if you have a staircase or other dramatic wall but need to be placed correctly to work. Put dimmers on everything. Or at least, put a dimmer on any overhead lights.

If you do decide to go with installing speakers and intercoms, again, consult with a pro. I feel like speakers tend to putz out and my mom has an intercom system in her house (necessary for a 6000 sf home) that now features a constant annoying buzz which can't apparently be fixed without a significant investment.

Make sure you have your electrical in the right spot. 3-way switches are pretty awesome for large rooms or rooms where entries are a distance from each other. Step lighting on the stairs... under cab lighting in the kitchen. I can't think of anything beyond electrical and lighting that doesn't get into specifics for your situation.

You could insulate between floors and between rooms for more sound absorption. If we do some reno work in our home, we'll be insulating between the living room and bedroom for that reason (and between the two bedrooms for more of the same).
posted by amanda at 6:51 AM on December 14, 2014 [6 favorites]

More than just making sure you have plenty of electrical outlets wherever you want them, make sure your entire electrical system is up-to-date: if any of the wiring or the circuit breakers need replacing/updating, now it the time to do it. As in, how old and how safe is the existing wiring?
posted by easily confused at 6:59 AM on December 14, 2014 [5 favorites]

If it were my house, I'd run cat6 ethernet to every room, preferably via some kind of in-wall piping that would allow me to change out the wires in the future easily. Wireless is very convenient but it still doesn't compete with wired. At the very least it makes it trivial to install range extenders. If the house is older that about 50 years, I'd also probably replace the wiring and every electrical outlet and switch and make sure there are a good number of them in each room at regular intervals, plus I'd upgrade the main service if it is less than 100 amps and of course make sure to use GFCI's in the appropriate places. If you have a garage or a work shop and like to do woodworking or other handy-things, you might also consider putting some 220 volt drops in. If you have a designated TV/gaming area, you could put in speaker and electrical wires (or even install in-wall speakers) such that they are completely hidden within the walls.
posted by Poldo at 7:07 AM on December 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is trivial compared to the wiring issues others have raised, but having the walls open gives you the opportunity to install pocket doors anywhere a swing door is inconvenient or messes up the flow of the room. The kits are not very expensive.
posted by snaw at 7:09 AM on December 14, 2014 [17 favorites]

Maybe you have already thought of this, but once the wires and pipes are in, take photos (and draw diagrams as necessary) before the walls are closed back up. It will make things easier a few years later when something needs to be fixed or you are wondering where to cut a hole.

I don't think I'd install network wiring unless you needed it for work or you could do the install in a way that would let you change out the wires in a few years when the standards change. My last two houses have had phone jacks all over the place, but I haven't had a landline in years and don't intend to get one -- I'd try to only install things that are longer term than current computer stuff.

This is your big chance to redo the hvac system; if you've ever wanted to have radiant heat, say, this is the cheap and easy time to add that capacity.

The pocket door suggestion is excellent; similarly, this is when you can change things like the traffic pattern. Sometimes adjusting a door or wall just a few feet changes everything about how a space works.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:15 AM on December 14, 2014 [9 favorites]

You could insulate between floors and between rooms for more sound absorption.

Yes, this!
If I ever had to take my dump down to the studs, I would absolutely add insulation between the rooms in order to kill the sound transmission.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:20 AM on December 14, 2014 [8 favorites]

Think about recessed cabinets or shelves in convenient locations, IN the wall.

I would totally put in a secret cubby hole that'd hold a small fire safe and some other random stuff, maybe behind a fake vent? ... not that I have stuff that really needs hiding, just WHO DOESN'T NEED A SECRET COMPARTMENT? But it'd be very convenient to put the fire safe with things like birth certificates into its own designated spot, which just happens to be a hiding spot. And it'd be cool.

As you look at the electrical, think about things like where your Christmas tree/lights go, or where you might want to plug in a crock pot at parties, and things like that -- we had outlets installed near our mantle (when we had some other electrical work done) to make it easier to deck the mantle with boughs of ... fir. And we had our outdoor outlet strategically located for Christmas light convenience as well as outdoorsy things.

I'd also STRENUOUSLY suggest something like an old-fashioned phone cubby or phone nook. Don't wire it for phone -- put in outlets, for chargers for phones and kindles and bluetooth headsets. (Maybe even put a little drawer underneath to catch some of those small accessories.) Houses today need a parking place for small electronic devices ... even a convenient place for a visiting friend to plug in their charger. This is probably the #1 thing I would do if I were ripping out a wall!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:27 AM on December 14, 2014 [7 favorites]

Put in a couple chases for future wiring.
posted by klarck at 7:28 AM on December 14, 2014

oh god yes, underfloor heating. A drain in the bathroom floor. Built-in understaircase storage. The laundry on the bedroom floor. Electric outlets in the hall way to plug in the vacuum cleaner. (okay maybe that's just me)
posted by TWinbrook8 at 7:31 AM on December 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, I had one more thing to add: My house has uninsulated spaces under the eaves of the house, most of which are accessible by various awkward "storage entry" doors/holes/whatever. A lot of older houses have funny odd spots like this. If I were ripping down to the studs, I would insulate one of those and finish the inside, even put in a a couple outlets, so that I could turn it into a little hideaway/reading nook for my kids.

Could also serve as an insulated storage closet (I could use more, my house is closet poor), or a dog's room, or a grownup getaway spot ... doesn't have to be for kids.

(I have noticed this kind of renovation is getting more popular, I think because more families are staying in cities once they have kids instead of moving out to big suburban houses, and it's a way of getting a little extra space and some kid-specific space, without having to give up your little urban house.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:36 AM on December 14, 2014

If you can afford it, I seriously think wiring conduit (not just cat6 or whatever strung through the walls) is the way to go. This future-proofs things so you can pull whatever telecom you need in the future, whether it's cat6 or POTS or whatever. Make sure to run a string through each run so you can pull new cable, and replace that string if you use it to pull new cable in the future! Any particular standard will get outdated, but conduit will keep working.
posted by Alterscape at 7:38 AM on December 14, 2014 [8 favorites]

If I had all my walls open I would take the time to think through every single activity I do in my house, or that I WANT to do there but it doesn't work too well. Then I'd redo the floor plan and the wiring to optimise for that. That's every activity, from walking through the door with shopping, to charging my phone, getting dressed in the morning, doing the washing, coming in with the dogs, whatever.

Specifically, I'd put the laundry right next to where I get dressed; I'd have wall mounted bedside lights that can be switched while in bed; I'd have a lot less lighting in the centre of ceilings, and a lot more on walls. When we did our (small) kitchen I lit it entirely from strip lights above and below the top cabinets, and +1 would do that again. I'd move the back door so that the path to that door doesn't cross the best place to put the dining table. I'd put a socket IN one of my kitchen cupboards so I can leave little appliances plugged in there and just pull them out to use them. I'd put storage everywhere. I'd have a little phone charging cupboard downstairs and a phone charging bedside cupboard. I'd repurpose a bedroom as a dressing room so that the actual bedroom can be small and only contain a bed.
posted by emilyw at 7:49 AM on December 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

- wall safe or two
- extra cross studs if you know you will be hanging heavy items from the wall (tvs, large mirrors, paintings) that will damage drywall
- rodent proof the hell out of the house with metal or wire barriers to all ingress points
- if you live in a shady neighborhood, run power and wiring conduits to camera mount points through the attic
- for laundry / workspaces / workout rooms, set one wall aside and use sturdy paneling instead of drywall so you can mount very heavy stuff on the wall (or a climbing wall for kids)
- cork under floors if a multistory house for noiseproofing
posted by benzenedream at 8:21 AM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Run Cat6 shielded network cable to every room!
Every desk space should have 2 - 4 outlets or more. Plus an additional outlet for the a network printer. One of these network outlets can be used for a VOIP phone connection.
At least two outlets at every home entertainment center.
Outlet in the Garage / Workshop
Bring one outlet outside into the garden / pool area for an outside wifi hotspot.
Install Ceiling / Wall mounted WiFi access-points in various places in the house like Kitchen, living room, master suite, 2nd floor etc. These UniFi AP's receive power over the network cable so you don't have to worry about an electrical outlet in the location where you want to install the wifi.

With the walls open this is a relatively small investment with a HUGE PAYBACK if you do this right.
Bring all these wires together to a closet or rack where you install the Internet modem with a Gigabit Router and Switch. Later you can add a NAS for central data storage and back-up.
posted by Mac-Expert at 8:32 AM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sister the floor joists in any area you might want to put tile. If the existing floor is badly warped, remove it and you can position the new joists a tiny bit proud of the old ones. This will save you a ton of aggrivation and self levelling compound. Use some kind of adhesive to attach them, not just screws or nails

Also, I wish we'd installed some kind of fan in the ceiling of the top floor to suck out hot air on summer nights.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:33 AM on December 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

Please take a lot of before pictures. People LOVE before/after photo essays. And I think it would really help other people who are considering a project like yours - once you see inside a wall that is similar to your own it is not so scary to think about doing it yourself. People could just learn a lot about seeing what's inside your walls before you cover them back up.
posted by cda at 8:33 AM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

In-closet hardwired lighting! trivial to do now, ugly later.
posted by lalochezia at 8:44 AM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Make the house visitable. Many people will thank you, not least yourselves.
posted by firstdrop at 8:47 AM on December 14, 2014 [7 favorites]

I don't know if you have foundation issues where you live, but I'd make sure my foundation was rock solid and level before hanging doors and drywall. Likewise the roof. Cat-6 wiring is nice (and cheap, so why not), but it is much less vital on a house's hierarchy of needs.

I recommend putting in a structured wiring panel for all your signal wiring. Put it in a closet, and stick your cable modem, and wifi node, and maybe printer, and stuff like that in there to get it out of the way. Obviously you want to run electricity into that closet. This could also be the laundry room, if you've got one.

I'm a big fan of built-ins. They use space more efficiently, remove visual noise, make it easier to clean. When we renovated our house, we put in built-in bookcases and a giant built-in desk, and put all our clothes storage into a series of closets so that the only piece of furniture in the bedroom is the bed.

I'm also a big fan of pocket doors, although you can get into weird layout problems with them where a door's pocket interferes with something else.
posted by adamrice at 8:51 AM on December 14, 2014

Nailing blocks on windows for curtain rods or anywhere you might want to mount something (TV?).
Wiring for doorbell.
Now is the time to make sure your drain venting is up to code.
Put in ceiling fan safety braces in all ceiling boxes in case you want to add a ceiling fan or a heavy fixture.
If you want a ceiling fan install a switch for the light and one for the fan.
posted by H21 at 8:56 AM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yes, run all that new networky stuff now, but do it in conduit and leave some pull string because you might still live there in 10 years and technology might advance between now and then.

Even with 10GbE everywhere, you still might want to use some wireless devices ... the aforementioned Unifi APs are awesome and run on PoE. You could get some PoE cameras too, if that's your thing.

In ceiling lighting everywhere. Centralized control (so you don't have to walk around hitting 3 light switches). God, I hate lamps.
posted by Brian Puccio at 9:05 AM on December 14, 2014

Also ask yourself in 20 years what will be dated. I'm pretty sure noise and storage will be concerns in 20 years, but wifi and entertainment centres may be gone entirely.
posted by benzenedream at 9:08 AM on December 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

If this is your forever home, and you're planning for your own comfort rather than for resale value, I'd bring in an ergonomist to talk with you about how built-in features can be customized to be more comfortable for the individual bodies of the people who will be living there. For example, my family are all really tall, and when my parents redid their kitchen, they raised the height of all the countertops and cabinets above the standard height, because it makes it infinitely more comfortable to do dishes or chop things if you don't have to stoop over to do it. I love cooking in that kitchen, and when I'm in my own rental apartment kitchen, I constantly curse the fact that washing dishes makes my neck hurt because I have to bend down so far to reach to the bottom of the sink. Same with bathroom sinks and showerhead heights and toilets and clearance of doorways and height of light switches and doorknobs and anyplace else you can think of where being short or tall might change where you'd want things.
posted by decathecting at 9:39 AM on December 14, 2014 [7 favorites]

Make the house visitable. Many people will thank you, not least yourselves.

Parallel with this suggestion would be to take this opportunity to build in elements of universal design.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:13 AM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

people have mentioned cat6 (wired networking) cables to every room. i would go beyond this and recommend cat6 to every outlet. you just don't know where that printer or computer or TV or NAS or PS4 is going to want to live. you want wired networking everywhere you have power.
posted by bruceo at 10:28 AM on December 14, 2014

Definitely sound insulation!

Also visitability/universal design tends to make things better for *everyone*, not just those with disabilities.
posted by radioamy at 11:19 AM on December 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

It will depend on what you put on the outside, but now would be a good time to make the house as airtight as possible, with forced ventilation providing the necessary circulation. The best solution will depend on your particular situation, but the use of spray foam or the airtight drywall approach could be viable. Re: can lights, if you use them in the ceiling below the attic, make sure they don't leak air like crazy (a bit of a pain, unfortunately).

You might also want to rethink the plumbing arrangement, especially if your use an electric water heater: it can make sense to use two heaters (one for each "stack") to keep the pipes as short as possible.

Insulating from the inside isn't that great for stud walls (though it can be made to work), but for concrete walls it's fine: you might want to insulate or re-insulate your basement. While you're at it you'll want to do whatever is needed to keep the basement dry, including adding a sump pump if the water table is high.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 11:45 AM on December 14, 2014

We have a cable outlet and a recessed box on our mantle so you can mount a TV there, but we've never done that because there isn't anywhere to put the DVR since our mantle is too shallow. Something little, but it would get rid of an entire piece of furniture in our house if we could fix this.

Put in twice as many outlets as you think you need everywhere. Put an outlet on the stairs if there are any so you can vacuum easier.

Nthing the recessed shelving, especially in a bathroom. Our bathrooms have great storage but it still would be nice to have a small recessed shelf rather than a drawer.
posted by notjustthefish at 5:55 PM on December 14, 2014

I cannot recommend A Pattern Language strongly enough.

Some of the patterns I used that I loved at a house I stripped down to bare bones: The staircase as a stage - Yes, it takes up a bit more space with a landing and a 90 degree turn, but you dance up and down them.
Farmhouse kitchen

ceilings of different heights. When we pulled the crappy old plaster ceiling out and looked at the rafters we knew we wanted high ceilings in the bedroom. I forget the name of the color we used, but it was a white with a hint of light purple that glowed in the morning and was dark at night.
posted by mearls at 7:45 PM on December 14, 2014

Hide a time capsule in the walls somewhere!
posted by Harald74 at 4:52 AM on December 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Built-in Vacuum Cleaner.
posted by H21 at 8:28 AM on December 15, 2014

While you are replacing the wiring, make sure that the runs back to the panel make sense. Sometimes circuits got expanded over time, resulting in unintended overload. With the walls open, you could give, say, the garage its own circuit instead of piggy-backing on the basement's circuit. *glares at P.O. of last house*
posted by wenestvedt at 9:19 AM on December 15, 2014

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