Do I want this old house?
February 3, 2018 4:10 PM   Subscribe

I am considering buying a house that is 80 years old, single story, and made of stucco. I would plan to build a second story on top of it. Will this be a huge earthquake hazard, or will standard retrofitting during the renovations make it safe?

The house is 80 years old, 1000 sq ft, stucco. It has new plumbing, electrical, water heater, windows, & roof (all 6 years old). Everything appears very well-maintained and the work that was done on the house seems to be high quality. The inspection report is very clean for a house of this age.

We would plan to build a second story on top of the entire first story, and also change the layout of the first story, but hopefully keep the existing kitchen cabinetry and bathroom intact since they have been recently remodeled.

My main concern is the idea of building a second story on top of an 80-year-old stucco base. We live in an earthquake zone and I would like feedback on whether this is a terrible idea, or will be fine with standard retrofitting that will happen as part of the renovations. The house was built in 1938 and I have been reading about issues with line-wire stucco and other cases where the stucco does not have sufficient lateral reinforcing.

It is also possible that we would live in the house as-is for a while before renovating, so I am also interested in the stability of the house as-is.

Our agent seems unconcerned about, but it would make me feel a lot better if other people also agreed that this is an issue that is easily addressed. I would also be happy to pay someone else for advice if anyone has this type of recommendation. Offers are due on Monday so time is limited.

posted by insoluble uncertainty to Home & Garden (21 answers total)
Commenting to add this info from the inspection report:

A number of the beams supports were not braced to resist lateral force. At the time of the inspection, no evidence of failure or damage was noted.Recommendation: It is recommended as an upgrade to install bracing and/or other mechanical means to resist lateral movement.

The foundation anchor bolts or the hardware designed and installed to anchor the mudsill to the foundation is judged by current residential building standards to be minimal. Current standards call for anchoring to be spaced at no more than 6 feet apart and that bolts should be a minimum 1/2 inch diameter and possibly with larger washers. There may also be additional hardware requirements for structures that are in excess of a single story/level.

As to any structural bracing within walls these areas are covered by either plywood or interior finishes. This prevents a detailed evaluation of the bracing. It should be noted that with remodeling there may be a need for evaluation and upgrades.
posted by insoluble uncertainty at 4:11 PM on February 3, 2018

I would hire a structural engineer explain what you want eventually do and see what they have to say.
posted by tman99 at 4:13 PM on February 3, 2018 [11 favorites]

Yes, seconding tman99 strongly, and I'd add the qualifications of local and experienced to the structural engineer you hire for a consultation.
posted by vers at 4:17 PM on February 3, 2018 [4 favorites]

I can’t comment on the second floor addition, though this remodel has been fairly common in my neighborhood of 1920s stucco homes, though I don’t see it as a new remodel much/at all - it seems much more common to raise the whole structure.

However, we did the bracing work mentioned and used a structural engineer for it. It was a fairly straightforward job.
posted by vunder at 4:18 PM on February 3, 2018

IAAA, IANYA. The house is not "made of stucco". Stucco is a finish. From your inspection report, it sounds like stucco over wood framing. It also sounds like the seismic restraint is minimal and may not be/probably is not up to modern code.
If you stack another story on top, this is going to add to the seismic stresses on the first floor structure. I am not in a severe seismic area, but I'd guess that it is going to trigger a requirement to bring the system up to code. Your local inspection/building department would have final say.
It'd be worth your while to buy an hour's time from a local structural engineer or architect that is familiar with these sorts of alterations in your area.
posted by rudd135 at 4:30 PM on February 3, 2018 [12 favorites]

Definitely do talk to a structural engineer. In my experience their cost estimates are shit, but they are great at identifying whether something that looks like a problem actually is, problems it takes experience to see, how long you can safely let something go, and how to fix them, all for $500ish as long as you don't need stamped plans or anything like that. Totally worth it.
posted by wierdo at 4:34 PM on February 3, 2018

I've seen a few older houses in Portland, Oregon get lower lever add-ons. I wonder if there are structural reasons for this.
posted by aniola at 4:40 PM on February 3, 2018 [2 favorites]

made of stucco

I'm assuming you mean that this is a stuccoed exterior on a wood frame house? Not a house that is literally "made of stucco", which would be really weird. Really, really weird. Stucco is an exterior (and sometimes interior) finish -- or should be. Though I guess you could use stucco for most things you'd use cast concrete for -- if that's how this house is made you can expect renovation costs to be very high.

Stucco is also used on many other construction materials, not just wood. Concrete block, adobe, sometimes even over other finishes like brick or wood siding (notably in the city of Santa Fe), staw bale, rammed earth, etc. Newer houses sometimes use a stucco skin with a steel frame. I've even seen a drop-in shower over tub that was stuccoed (not a good idea). But wood framing is pretty common.

Get a structural inspection.

Offers are due on Monday so time is limited.

Sounds like this is a deadline for multiple offers that are anticipated to come in? Make your offer contingent on the structural inspection being in line with your desire to add a second story on the house. You didn't list your state so obviously consult with your agent or attorney or whatever your state uses to do this in a way that is legal in your state.

Though if I was the seller and looking at multiple offers, and yours was contingent on that, I wouldn't choose you. I'd pick someone who didn't want their offer contingent on being able to build a second story.

If you aren't building a second story, yeah, if there was an earthquake I'd expect some stucco to fall off the outside of the house. You'd have to restucco, but unless you were standing next to your house you won't be hurt by falling stucco -- it's the structure that's actually holding up your house that matters, not what the outside is coated with. If your area is particularly earthquake prone, you might go with a different exterior finish on a second story that's more durable in an earthquake.

OTOH, if you actually mean it's an adobe house, WTF no, you can't just build a second floor on unless you want to install piers or something to hold up the second floor. And if you are worried about earthquakes you don't want to be in an adobe house in one, especially if it has an earthen roof layer (which could be hiding under a more modern roof) -- you need to know if there is one. Also if this is actually adobe you really need to learn more about adobe -- don't buy an adobe house if your level of confusion in the matter is such that you don't know it's called adobe, learn more first. Adobe can be fabulous (really miss my old house in this regard) but it's pretty different than a lot of other materials. There are multistory adobe buildings in existence but as adobe is very expensive on labor costs if you are in the US and paying other people to build it's probably not what you'd want to add a second story in anyhow.
posted by yohko at 4:43 PM on February 3, 2018

You guys are right that the house is not "made of stucco," but stucco over wood frame.

I am asking my agent to recommend a structural engineer.

aniola: they lift up the first story and build another one under it?? That is amazing, I had no idea that was possible
posted by insoluble uncertainty at 4:49 PM on February 3, 2018

The house was built in 1938 and I have been reading about issues with line-wire stucco

It's likely the house has been restuccoed since 1938 (because being an exterior finish like siding it's not a huge deal to restucco), so it's very possible that concrete stucco was used. Some people feel it's not as good as lime for certain building materials and climates, so you might want to find out what's actually on the house in question if stucco type is a concern for you.
posted by yohko at 4:52 PM on February 3, 2018

Yup I live in a neighborhood with 20s stucco bungalows and the lower-level add on/raising the whole house up is a very common type of remodel. We’re on the Hayward fault.I’ve rarely seen an addition put on top - wonder if there’s structural reasons?
posted by The Toad at 5:01 PM on February 3, 2018

Lower level additions are frequently because of zoning issues. You're not increasing the overall visual mass of the house by adding a level that's partially or mostly buried, so a lot of jurisdictions won't count that addition towards your overall floor area limitation. If your allowable above-ground square footage is already maxed out, it may be the only option. Happens a lot in highly desirable older neighborhoods with smaller lot sizes. It is generally more expensive than adding a second story. I worked on one where the existing wall framing had to be maintained for zoning reasons, so they suspended the existing walls in place by hanging them from a steel frame they built while they dug out the basement underneath.

As for the house in question: Lots of people have added to one story 80 year old houses, lots of people have two story houses that are 80 years old, and a 80 year old house is not automatically deficient in any way (especially if the electrical work has already been upgraded). It's not a big deal in theory. You will almost certainly need to make structural upgrades to the existing house, but it's impossible to know what that will entail without actually designing the house. You may need to drop a column here and there, which you may need to add a footing for. You may need to add plywood sheathing to some walls. You'll probably install a few beams. You may need to remove existing framing because of insect damage that's currently closed up within walls. The stucco may not be a big deal because you may want to take it all off to add plywood anyway, or just to get the stucco on the addition to match the first floor (they will NEVER match if you try to keep the old stuff).
posted by LionIndex at 6:22 PM on February 3, 2018

I wouldn't use an engineer recommended by a real estate agent. Your agent has a vested interest in selling the house to the highest bidder -- they're not going to help you find problems with the structure. See if anyone you know has used a good contractor, and they and/or their engineer can come and look at it. Don't mention wanting to bring in your own advisor till after they've accepted your offer.

Echoing advice above: Make your offer based on the assumption that the house is ready for a second story and then have your expert (or more than one) inspect and advise. You can always bow out.
posted by wryly at 7:28 PM on February 3, 2018 [4 favorites]

Our agent seems unconcerned about

I really enjoyed our realtor-she was very nice, a good listener, sympathetic and would offer me her opinion when asked. She never wanted me to make an offer that I didn’t want to make. She was smart because those kinds of offers tend to fall through and can make you hate your realtor. Your agent is in the people-pleasing and house selling business. He or she is not an engineer or contractor or site developer. They have no interest in talking you out of a sale that you want to make. This question you are asking is not easy to answer. You can get a good opinion/things to think about from a structural engineer but the real work of sorting out how your project would come together at what price and inconvenience is a longer road ahead.
posted by amanda at 9:39 PM on February 3, 2018

Seconding looking into them popping up the first floor and sticking another floor under it. If there is foundation/structural work that needs to be done, this a good time for that too.

Be forewarned that this can cost as much as just buying a 2 story house - i.e. an additional 100-200k.
posted by Toddles at 10:02 PM on February 3, 2018

It won't be possible to ask before Monday morning, but make sure you know what zoning and building permits would be required for this project. Go talk with the people who will be reviewing your plans down the line, and give them the address. Ask them what they'll expect from you, and how feasible they think this addition will be. Are there neighbors who were unhappy the last time someone did a similar addition? Find out before it's too late to back out.
posted by asperity at 10:15 PM on February 3, 2018 [1 favorite]

Don't listen to the agent's advice. They just want to make the sale. Next time i buy I'm going to mention I plan to house elephants in the backyard. I'm sure they'll say great idea, lots of sunshine. They never say anything negative.

Would you buy this place if you couldn't do the extra storey? Would you consider razing and rebuilding for the location? Can you afford to live elsewhere during extensive building works?

My (limited) understanding is that single storey wooden houses cope pretty well in earthquakes but can be terrible if there is an extra heavy roof. I wouldn't assume this was feasible without great expense.
posted by kitten magic at 1:36 AM on February 4, 2018

I live in a SF neighborhood with 1930's wood frame homes and over the years some neighbors have added another story. Most had to add reinforcements on the bottom story to deal with the added weight. A construction project like the one you're considering creates a great opportunity to retrofit for earthquake safety and secure the foundation and existing stories. Pre-war homes in the area tended to be constructed using superior materials, so your home being built in the 30's rather than 40's is a bonus.
posted by quince at 9:50 AM on February 4, 2018

I’m going to guess that building a completely new house would not cost substantially more than the remodel you are considering.
Price both.
posted by littlewater at 12:15 PM on February 4, 2018 [4 favorites]

You're not going to be allowed to build anything that's unsafe. An architect and a structural engineer will be involved in drawing up plans, and they will have to be to code in order to get permits. That means you may be completely rebuilding the lower half of the house as well as putting in a new foundation. The extent of what you can do will be entirely dependent on what you can afford, any existing limitations of the house itself can be overcome.

That said, if you're in California anywhere near the fire areas, good luck finding people to do the work. My friends in the trades think major projects are going to be hugely expensive due to having to compete with all the folks rebuilding. I would be calculating at least 500 bucks per square foot for a ballpark idea of financial feasibility if you're trying to do this in the next couple of years. There just aren't enough crews to go around, and most will choose to work in the fire regions where they can have many projects in a few square miles.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:11 PM on February 5, 2018

The structural engineer said that it was possible, but that the required reinforcing would add an extra 75-100k to the cost.

While I was getting a quote from an insurance agent he mentioned that our city is strict about making people build "out not up," but I went to the planning department to ask about this and they said it was not true, a second story would be allowed. My best guess is that people often don't build second stories because of the added cost of reinforcing. It is technically allowed, but it is expensive.

We noticed that the neighboring house had a 2-story addition that looked reasonable and didn't eat the entire backyard, so we made an offer anyway assuming this would also be an option.

There were 22 offers (!!!) and we did not get the house, but I learned a lot of useful stuff from this question and speaking with the planning department. Thanks everyone!
posted by insoluble uncertainty at 11:11 AM on February 20, 2018 [2 favorites]

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