Ask the Architect

Renovate or tear down?


Q. I just bought a house that needs a lot of attention. It has little if any insulation, a sagging first floor, cloth-covered wiring with only a few three-pronged outlets that I doubt are grounded, and water stains in the ceilings. I’m thinking it may be cheaper to tear down, so I want to look into making the new house totally state-of-the-art, meaning energy-efficient and storm-resistant, with computerized, wireless controls for a new boiler, sound system, lighting and security. I just wonder if, after investing in all this, is it worth it? Am I over-improving and out-pricing the house so I’ll never get my money back?

A. Home ownership is a challenge in many ways. For some, a home is a place to shelter, sleep, cook and entertain. For others it’s a little more like a place to enjoy time by a fireplace and a haven to relax or turn into a laboratory of gadgets and gizmos. If you’re concerned about value versus overpricing, then, other than a basic home, more upgrades are relative to comparable homes in the area. Making your home more, I often tell homebuyers, is based on your level of expected benefit and how long you hope to live there to enjoy the rewards of your hard work.
State-of-the-art is ever-changing. Decide why you need the upgrades and how long they will last. If the upgrades have a return on investment, like superior insulation that reduces energy bills, solar electric or water heating, reflective or wind-resistant roofing and siding or radiant heat, then reducing bills makes the value greater. Adding a superior sound system, built-in computer and voice-controlled appliances, or a swimming pool and outdoor kitchen, are luxury items that may either become outdated or increase maintenance and insurance costs, which can actually lower the attractiveness to some future buyers who are looking at affordability.
The traditional home, built 100 years ago up to the present, has basically the same structural configuration, either using amateur or unsound guessing to be over- or under-built or, since around the 1950s, a more enforced, regulated engineered construction. It’s pretty costly to just throw a home away, so you have to be sure to compare the existing with a replacement.
Good design starts with sight orientation, the sun, winds, sounds and adherence to municipal zoning requirements. Decide if the size and shape of the existing home are a benefit or not. Insulated windows that allow uniform daytime lighting save energy. Properly sized overhangs screen harsh summer sun rays and allow windows to be open during a rain for fresh air. Look at what you have, what needs are not being met and how costly the renovation will be before starting over. If the home has a lot of dry-rotted structure or a crumbing or sinking foundation, replacement makes sense. If not, consider what’s useful to keep, and start from there with a trained, licensed professional. Good luck!

© 2021 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.