What Should I Look For In a House to Remodel?

The following are some tips on what to look for in sizing up a house for a potential remodel. They do not hold true in all cases and are no substitute for a detailed in-person investigation.

Home inspections are only a start and vary in quality. More detailed evaluations by an architect, structural engineer and soils engineer may be advisable depending on the circumstances. The items below may not be make-or-break individually, but they merit consideration in the big picture.


  • Check with the City and specialists (soils, civil and structural engineers) as needed to determine whether there are environmentally critical areas on the site. Common ones include steep slopes and potential slides, but others, like “liquefaction zones” are less obvious. Special foundations and/or tougher permitting could add substantially to the cost of a remodel, addition, or new house.
  • How do adjacent structures affect light, views and privacy? If neighboring lots are underdeveloped, it’s especially important to understand what could be built there.
  • Does the property run north-south or east-west? Which sides of the house receive the most light? South exposures are especially nice because overhangs can be used to provide shade in the summer and admit the most daylight during winter when sun angles are lower. It can be difficult to control heat gain and glare on western exposures.
  • Are there special natural features that are either assets or obstacles to the project? Are there mature trees or rocks that need to be worked around?
  • Visit the property at several times of day and try to imagine it in different seasons with respect to noise, light and privacy. Local business, buses, air and street traffic may all create noise that is not apparent at all times of day.

Situation: look for a house that sits well on the property.

  • How close is it to various property lines? This may affect whether you can add square footage or even windows. Refer to your local zoning code for details.
  • Are there views that could be opened up by changing the landscaping, new windows or a second floor addition?
  • How does topography affect light and views?
  • How do individual rooms relate to outdoor spaces? Are they in a good position to open up to the yard and natural light?
  • What is the local “microclimate?” Slopes, vegetation, elevation, and solar exposure can have an impact on winds, temperature, etc.

Structure: it is very important to have the house evaluated by a professional, but here are some things to look for

  • Does the floor feel solid, even when you jump up in the middle of big rooms?
  • Does the house appear to be “plumb and level”? Cracks in plaster or molding and sloping floors are signs that the structure maybe undersized.
  • Is the foundation and basement slab sound? Major cracks (or patches) could be signs that the house has settled and may continue to do so, especially if new building weight is added. Walls and floors in houses that have settled “differentially” will probably be out of plumb and level which makes new work more difficult.
  • If you are planning to add a second floor, it is especially important to have the foundation evaluated. Many older foundations were poured without reinforcing and may not be up to current seismic codes without expensive retrofitting.

Character—don’t try to turn a mid-century modern into a French farmhouse!

  • Is the overall style (detailing, windows, roof and building shape) relatively compatible with what you like?
  • Are there specific fixtures or finishes that you’d like to keep? What looks dated may look cool and ‘retro’ when paired with new finishes.
  • If previous owners have made improvements to the house, are they in keeping with your tastes? Otherwise, you’d be paying a premium for something you don’t really want.

Condition—Has the house been well maintained? A new coat of paint can only hide so much. Here are some things to check

  • Are there signs of leaks like discoloration, mildew or bulging wallboard? Leaks that “have been fixed” may have caused rot that is not visible. Look for
  • Is the paint ‘tight’ (and not just applied recently to cover flaws)
  • is there rot, especially around the foundation and roof eaves
  • Are the gutters and downspouts working and directed to carry water away from the foundation where it can cause flooding?
  • How old is the roof? Curling shingles, moss, and water damage at overhangs are signs of potentially deeper problems? Pay particular attention to places where water collects (in roof valleys, around drains on flat roofs).
  • Follow your nose. Odors (or air fresheners used to mask them) may indicated mold, rot, or rodent problems.


  • Is the circulation (i.e. halls and stairs) efficient?
  • Are stairs comfortable in width and pitch? If you are planning to change the use of an attic or basement (from unfinished to habitable space) the building code requires that you bring stairs up to current requirements for width, rise/run, headroom, railings, etc.
  • Many remodelers are surprised to discover how much space stairs take.
  • Are the rooms relatively well-sized and proportioned?
  • Are kitchens and bathrooms in the right spots? (even if you redo them, it is generally easier to keep them in the same place)
  • Do you envision needing to move more than one or two walls? Almost anything is possible structurally, but it is generally a good strategy to limit the scope of structural changes.

Systems—again, you may need a more detailed evaluation, but here are some things to look for

  • How is the house heated? How old is the system? What is the cost of fuel (gas, oil, electricity)
  • Do the windows have insulated glass? Is the roof insulated? Are the walls?
  • Has the plumbing been upgraded from galvanized to copper?
  • What size is the electrical service? Is the panel relatively new? Has the wiring been upgraded? Are outlets grounded?
  • Are kitchen, bathrooms and laundry rooms mechanically ventilated? If not, look for mold and/or rot.

Kismet: look for a house whose quirks match yours.

  • What do you love that the “average” buyer won’t? What can you put up with that they couldn’t?
  • Consider how your needs will change over time and how the house could accommodate them. The longer you can stay in a house, the more time you’ll have to recoup remodeling costs.
  • Avoid houses that have been “flipped” if you are looking for value. Look for houses in their original condition if you want to make them your own and maximize value.
  • Be an early entrant into an emerging neighborhood.
  • Fashion comes at a price. Think for yourself and reduce your competition.

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