What You Need to Know to Plan Your Remodel Project:  Part I

It’s all about what you are Allowed To Do and Who Controls that?
By Jeffery M. Wolf


Congratulations on your decision to remodel your home!  Now comes the first Fun Part:  Planning. Throughout the course of your project, you’ll appreciate more and more the importance of thorough and early planning.  This activity is key to producing an end result that will closely match what you hoped for and at a cost that won’t inflict too much damage on your budget.  A lot of early planning comes in the form of Information-Gathering, and that is the focus of this article.   Here are a few questions to help you get started:

1.     What jurisdiction are you in? 

If you live in an incorporated town or city, it may have its own Building Department.  If you live in an unincorporated area, it may be the County Building Department.  The Building Department will have permitting authority over most types of work at your home if it involves changes to the structure, plumbing, electrical, roofing, or windows.  You or your remodeler will want to establish a good working relationship with the Building Department staff.

2.     Do you have a survey showing all structures that are on your lot?

You may have an older survey in your house file from when you purchased your home.  If not, your builder or architect can recommend a surveying firm who will produce an updated, certified survey.  Most building departments will want a survey showing where the house sits on the lot so they can verify 1) if it meets current setback requirements and 2) if any new additions will meet setback requirements.

3.     How old is your house?

If it was built in 1978 or earlier, you will need a lead paint inspection for the area you want to remodel.  Your architect or remodeler can recommend a licensed inspector.  If lead is present, there will be requirements to prevent the spread of lead dust and you’ll want to discuss this with your remodeler and the Building Department.

4.     More questions from (or to) the Building and/or Zoning Department may include: 

a.     What are the building setbacks for your lot? (How far from the front, rear, and side property lines does the house have to be?)  What are the height limitations for your lot?       Is there a limit on total square footage on the lot? (This is generally not a constraint for a residence)

b.     What amount of impervious area (building, sidewalks, and driveways as a percentage of total lot area) is allowed on your lot?

c.     Based on the regulations above, can you expand the footprint of your house? (Is there enough room within the setbacks? Will there be enough pervious area after an addition?) Can you add a second floor based on height limitations?

d.     Are you in a flood zone? This is controlled at the Federal level under the Federal Emergency Management Act (FEMA) but it is interpreted by your local Building Department.

                                               i.     If you are in a flood zone you will need to know the elevation of your lowest finished floor and equipment such as air conditioning condensers outside.  This should show on an elevation certificate and can be provided by a surveyor.

                                             ii.     If the finished floor is below the required base flood, your construction budget will be limited to 50% of the depreciated value of the structure only.  In many areas you can find the value assigned for this from the county tax assessor’s office. You can provide an appraisal to show a higher value but you would have to pay for the appraisal and it might not get much more than what the tax assessor allows.

                                            iii.     If your finished floor is above the required base flood elevation, the 50% rule does not apply.

e.     Are you in a Historic District?  If so, you’ll need to ask about any regulations for modifications to the house.  Generally this will only affect changes to the exterior of the house.

5.      Who will draw the plan for your project and how will you define it?

The more clearly you can define what you want, the more likely a contractor can properly plan and execute the work and build what you want.

a.     Architect-drawn plans

                                               i.     An architect will charge for the drawings.  But they can help you define your goals and they can provide specifications that will allow a contractor to properly price the project. They can also inspect the work of the contractor to lend a measure of control to the process.

                                             ii.     They will need to measure your home, or at least the parts that are being affected so they can draw plans that show the existing and proposed conditions.  If you have plans for your existing home it will save time on the part of the architect.     

b.     Design-Build Contractors

                                               i.  A Design-Build contractor may draw up the plans for a reduced fee or as part of the cost of the remodel project.

                                             ii.  For simple projects this may be more economical but the firm that draws the plans is also responsible for the construction.  You need to make sure that finishes, fixtures and materials are all well-defined before the start of work.

                                            iii.   As with an architect, the designer will have to measure the existing structure or work from your existing plans if you have them.

6.      Are you prepared for the impact of a construction project on your daily life?

A construction project will bring noise, dust, and early morning visitors into your home for an extended period of time.  You may be without utilities or portions of your home during the construction.  In some cases you may need to move out of your house during construction.  Are you prepared for that? The above list is a good starting point for any remodel or new construction project.  Once you know all the constraints applied by government regulation, you can figure out what you are allowed to do.  Then you can plan what you want to do within those limitations and within your budget.

It is helpful to select a remodeler/contractor early in the design phase.  He or she can help you match your goals and your budget as the project develops.  We’ll discuss the contractor selection process in a subsequent article.  Hiring a contractor from a reputable organization like NARI is a good place to start.

# # #Copyright © 2013 by Jeffery M. Wolf All rights reserved.# # #

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