Worry-Wart Mom says Why Do This?

chisueSeptember 20, 2009

I haven't seen this house. DS and DIL are considering buying a home on the NW side of Chicago. (Built 1906; not 'historic'.)

Assessor says it's 1620 sq ft. Two-story with basement and large attic. Has maple floors, doors, interior trim, coffered DR ceiling -- wood would have to be stripped of paint. One bath upstairs, which prior resident ripped out to replace plumbing and never finished; four small BRs. I suspect there's clapboard under the current cedar shingles. Three bays, enclosed back porch the width of the house. Needs new windows, roof, HVAC, plumbing, electrical. Has original 'octopus' furnace in basement. Basement has shower bathroom (only functioning bath/toilet in the house).

House is on two standard Chicago lots: there's a 50-foot frontage. East is a single family stucco; west is a brick two-family. Down the street are some SF mixed with multi-family buildings (up to six apartments). There are some nicer homes within a few blocks, but not along this stretch of this street.

It seems to me that there's nothing to save except the woodwork and a stained glass window. What would make it worthwile for YOU to undertake this?

Background on family: DIL teaches in a Chicago school and is required to live in the city. DS is a paramedic and finishing his college degree to start training as a medical tech. They have a DS who is four and a half. Their current house isn't very different from the proposed 'remodel'. It's also on the NW side, on a double lot, but had been renovated when they bought it in 2001; they just completed a new open kitchen. The neighborhood is less attractive and the street, although also 2-lane, is busier. House is 1300 sq ft, mostly brick, w/finished basement. Plumbing, electrical, windows, HVAC etc. all up to date. Has 2 1/2 baths. No attic. Oversize newer 2-car garage, on alley. (Proposed has 1-car, on alley.)

MY idea for the proposed property is to investigate its land value -- selling its two lots to someone who wants to build a four-flat. The woodwork and stained glass window could be salvaged and put into a New Old House in a better location.

I can't imagine that renovating this house will cost less than building new. Your thoughts, please.

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Why are they considering the purchase? Potential? More desirable location? Larger? Old house nerds would consider homes characteristic of a certain style desireable, and those built turn of the last century would qualify if they were examples of a certain style. The heating plant, possible asbestos and lead contamination and plumbing issues aren't cheap fixes. There must be some really strong reason they're looking now and at this one. Been there and done that with one spouse in school and looking at property. It's not the most wonderful time to go into open-ended investments.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2009 at 1:24PM
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You really aren't giving enough information to know if this is a deal or a money pit. Any 100 year old house that hasn't been updated is going to need new HVAC, plumbing, electrical etc. That doesn't make it a bad deal as long as it is priced appropriately. Also, in a city, location is everything. If the area is "coming up" it might be the perfect time to renovate a home there. If the area is "going down" even a bargain home could turn into a money pit. A couple of blocks can make a HUGE difference in home value.

Also, are the kids asking for advice? If so, be diplomatic but honest. If not, I would just ask questions. eg "It's been years since we had to buy a HVAC system, how much do they go for now?" You can help them understand what they are getting into, but ultimately, it is their decision to make.

    Bookmark   September 21, 2009 at 9:59AM
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It may not cost less to renovate than to build new, but that may not be the point.

The new place sounds like something I would snap up in a minute. It sounds like it has great lines, nice features, a fabulous lot, and is a nice space. The location sounds fine to me - not that I know Chicago - but then I live in a small stretch of houses in a semi-industrial area myself.

And I guess we are old house nerds :-)

We took on an old house when we had a toddler, and we did it in complete ignorance of what it would take to fix it, just because it appealed to us, we like old things, we're handy and we like projects, we liked the location... and because we liked the woodwork (trust me, it's not the same to move it. It just fits here).

We had a year of weekends in advance of moving in to do major work, and I would recommend a similar chunk of time but many people seem able to dispense with it. That gave my parents a lot of time with our toddler, which they enjoyed, no matter how misguided they thought our endeavor was. And there's no question that it was misguided, given that we were heading into what were going to be the busiest years of our lives anyway. There's no question it's been a tough row to hoe, and sometimes the house feels like a millstone on our lives. However, I don't think anyone could have talked us out of it, and if they had, I'd always be wondering "what if?" As it is, we've had the experience and we could sell any time.

And that is perhaps a key, this proposed house sounds like it can only be improved. So even if they go for it, do a bit of the work and decide it's too much, they can probably sell it as a better product than it is now.

Your DS/DIL sound as if they have had some experience with renovations, and as if their taste in houses is consistent. It also sounds like a logical step up in many ways - better street, better neighbourhood, slightly bigger. Doesn't sound stupid to me, even if it is different from what you would do in their shoes. And that's what we have trouble accepting as parents, isn't it?

As far as money goes, the nice thing about renovation vs. new construction is that with renovation, there is some hope that you can earn the money at the pace that it needs to be spent. With new construction, you take on a big debt. That may feel more daunting to them than the work needing to be done in this house does to you.


    Bookmark   September 21, 2009 at 11:41AM
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calliope -- Thanks for reminding me about the asbestos and lead hazards.

billl -- Nice idea about some 'soft' questions!

KarinL -- What you describe is one of the things I fear -- a house that takes over your life. Soon your children are grown, but you're still working on the house. You may hate it, but can't sell it because "it's not finished". Their kitchen renovation was not DIY and turned out well for not a great bundle of money, but they hated living in their basement all summer while it was done.)

My opinion has been asked. I was asking for yours to help me balance my totally negative one. LOL

I think DS and DIL are going about this the wrong way. Instead of looking for a larger house in a better area they are trying to make this a fit. They've been offered 'a deal' on this property because a family member has inherited it and doesn't know what to do with it, given the state it's in: old, vacant, torn up with prior owner's various attempts at DIY projects that were never finished.

The median prices in both areas are similar: projected neighborhood $285K; present one $236K. The projected saw a big swoop up in 2006-07 -- even some million dollar homes, and now looks grim. It looks to me like others bought into the renovation idea and are now overextended. (The only stats I have are Zillow so who knows!) Neither area is 'coming up' at present. Both are declining, however present home was bought pre-bubble.

I appreciate the time you took to give me your ideas. Thanks!

    Bookmark   September 21, 2009 at 5:28PM
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That last piece of information you've given is key, and I sort of agree with you. If they'd gone house shopping and picked this one, it would be because something inside them wants to be doing this. But if the "opportunity" has fallen in their laps through events not of their initiating, they should not feel pressured into it. Perhaps they've been secretly coveting this house for years, but if not, they need to ask themselves what they really want to be doing while their child/ren are small, and where and how they want to be living.

Especially because, if it goes bad, they'll resent that other family member forever! And the house can go on the market as is... there are other crazy people out there who will bite :-) (being one myself, I can say that)


    Bookmark   September 22, 2009 at 12:31PM
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I'll start by saying that I've renovated 4 homes and because DH and I did much of the work, we have had some very good $$$ returns. We're now just west of Chicago. I'll also acknowledge that from reading your posts over the last year or so, I know you are a "tear it down" and build new kind of person...ie, you're not much into restoration.

This house - I would undertake it in a minute and without blinking. You say it's on 2 standard lots - that's a huge plus in Chicago. I've very very rarely encountered an old home in Chicago that 'needs' new windows. Yes, they might need weatherstripping and storms, but they do not need new windows. Why does it 'need' new plumbing and electrical? We're still living with some of our 1918 pipes and water function is just fine. I would not rip out plaster walls to put in new electrical...ever. If the octopus furnace is still working, why replace it now. Depending on whether the house has vents or radiators, a new boiler isn't too bad an expense. A new furnace will obviously cost more, but do it when it's needed or if they get the house at a great price, do it before moving in.

Please remember that this possible new home is for your kids, not you. There's only one thing I'd strongly encourage you to ask them to think about and that is their willingness to do work on the home or to live in a home that's undergoing work. If they aren't willing to do that, they have a huge issue. If they are willing to put in some sweat equity and are tolerant of messes, then I say go for it. An old home, with plaster, original wood and stained glass can be a great home....for the right people.

Oh, by the way, as long as the child doesn't chew on windowsills and the paint isn't flaking off, lead paint is not an issue (especially if latex is painted over it).

    Bookmark   September 26, 2009 at 8:06AM
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I live in Chicago and agree with much of what Lido and other have said above.
Another thing to consider is "will it sell"? Things are tough here. I have 2 friends that are realtors here and both have taken second jobs to keep them going. Depending on the neighborhood, a builder may or may not be able to utilize the space in such a way as to make it worth their while to buy and make into condos. Because of the number of older homes being torn down and 2, 3 or even 4 flat condos going up, some aldermen have enacted very strict rules about building new multi-unit buildings. You definitely want to do your homework here.
Just another thing to consider.

    Bookmark   September 26, 2009 at 6:58PM
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lido and cosmikcat -- Thank you for your replies. Had to laugh about the lead paint. It reminded me of when former neighbors sold their 1950's home to a couple who had a much-doted-upon, late-in-life baby. The buyers were concerned that the house had lead paint in it. (The sellers had two children they'd raised from infancy in that home who were on full scholarships at prestigious universities.)

DS called me yesterday to say THEY decided that this isn't a good idea for them. I haven't talked to them for two weeks -- just been doing my 'homework' on the forum with forum help.

I evidently put the right question to them. I'd asked them whether they would have chosen this neighborhood or this house if it had not been offered to them. The answer was, "No."

It's not where they would prefer to live. It's not much larger than their present early 1900's home -- which is also on a double lot but was already renovated when they bought it, into which they put a new kitchen last year. They are not DIY-ers and hated camping out in their basement all of one summer while the first floor was being worked on. They are both fully occupied with their work and study right now.

BTW, you may misunderstand me. I love old homes, historic homes. I spent many summers in my mother's home state, RI, where 'old' means built in the 1700's. DH and I have loved staying in listed properties owned by the National Trust in the UK. There are other homes in the area that was under consideration that I think are well worth renovation, but not by my 'kids' at their present stage in life.

So...lido! Wanna buy an old house in Chicago??? LOL

    Bookmark   September 27, 2009 at 5:27PM
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I've already got one in Oak Park, but thanks anyway, chisue!

Plus, with the move into the current house, we've agreed that our next move is going to occur when we are in the 'dust to dust' phase of life (or should I say death)!

    Bookmark   September 28, 2009 at 8:48AM
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lido -- Oak Park is such a pretty place. DH is a DOOPER. Well, I *think* he qualifies. He graduated from OPRFHS.

    Bookmark   September 28, 2009 at 12:08PM
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