The News and Observer, 2001

Everything Old is New Again

By ELIZABETH COZART, Correspondent

Byrd St., Raleigh

The big blue porta-potty in the front yard is always a dead give away.

Muddy tire tracks through the lawn are another good clue, as is a dumpster in the driveway. Add a contractor’s sign prominently displayed in the front yard and it’s easy to see what’s going on. A renovation in progress.

Renovations, additions, remodeling jobs, retrofits; the process has many names. It usually starts with an older house, often inside Raleigh’s Beltline. Perhaps there’s a growing family, or changing needs, maybe it’s just a restlessness with this particular floor plan.

In any case, it’s going on everywhere you look. Every neighborhood, nearly every street, it seems, has houses being worked on in some fashion.

“It’s mind-boggling,” said Raleigh builder Michael W. Powell of the addition explosion. “It goes from houses being completely torn down and rebuilt to additions on the rear to adding second stories, as well as smaller repair work.”

“I think a lot of it is Hurricane Fran-driven,” Powell continued. “When a homeowner got a builder to work on their Fran damage, many times they decide that if their lives are going to be disrupted from the storm damage, they might as well go ahead and do an addition. Many of them have been mulling over a project and figure this is the time to go ahead with it.”

Powell said that the reasons for renovations are as varied as the projects themselves. People like their neighborhoods, the kids have friends in the area, schools are good.

“And the price per square foot of homes selling in this area has gone up so dramatically,” he explained, “that people are making money when they do additions. Builders are charging less to do the additions than people are making when they resell the house. In some places you’d lose money, but in most neighborhoods inside the Beltline, people are making money.”

Powell said that his company is doing remodeling work all over the area, up to 40 percent of it outside the Beltline.

Sigmon Construction is another outfit that’s keeping busy with renovation work. Owner Hardin Sigmon says that he usually keeps about 15 projects going, lots of it work on kitchens and additions of master bedroom suites.

“Raleigh has grown so much,” he explained, “that inside the Beltline property is rarely available any more. And people who want to be in close proximity to downtown, instead of buying a new house, will renovate a house. And the typical ranch is extremely renovatable because they’re basically boxes. You can manipulate inside or outside to meet your needs and walls can be reconfigured with different openings to change the whole inside of the house.”

Realtor Gilbert Hensgen of Hodge & Kittrell said that additions are going on “everywhere.” He sees kitchens being redone, master bathrooms being added or expanded, and lots of sunrooms being put on. He also said that finishing off of attics is a popular renovation choice.

“And if I were doing a major addition, I’d want to move out,” he advised. “Otherwise, the contractors have to clean up at the end of every day and the work will go more quickly and cost less money if you can just let them have the house while the work’s in progress.”

Hensgen advised against doing a renovation for homeowners planning to move within two years.

“There are additions going up all over town,” he pointed out, “and with the work that contractors have from the storm, right now I’d think prices are high.”
A recent survey in the trade journal Remodeling said that, on a national average, homeowners can expect to get back 104 percent of their investment in updating a kitchen. That’s the best return of the twelve popular renovation projects covered. Other high-return jobs include addition of a bathroom (98 percent) and a master suite add-on (91 percent).

“But what you want to do is a factor,” Hensgen pointed out, “not just money. If you can afford to do what you want to make your home more livable, then do it.”

Hensgen said that a well-done addition can make his job as a Realtor much easier.

“What’s really wonderful and unique,” he explained, “is when you show a home and you really don’t know it’s an addition. Then I think it was done correctly, when you really can’t tell from the street or from inside. But that’s more the exception than the rule.”

One project that more than meets those criteria was the renovation of Healan Barrow’s home on Raleigh’s Byrd Street. Done by Michael Powell, the work was recently honored at the Remodelers Showcase Awards as the best “whole house renovation.”

“This was my mother’s house,” Healan explained. “We moved here when I was nine months old, in 1940. It cost $6000 and it was my inheritance.”

She said that she had been away from the area for about 30 years until moving back in 1994. The house, a one-story ranch with a walk-up attic, was vacant at the time. Her mother refused to sell it but it was too small for Healan and her husband Bill.

“We raised the roof,” she explained, “and now have two bedrooms and a bath on the second floor. Michael kept the hardwood floors and the front door, and that was it. He renovated it down to the studs and did a fantastic job.”

The job, which took the house from 1800 square feet to 2600 square feet, ended up taking nine months, Healan said, a period when they were living in another house. They moved in on October 3 of last year.

“And two weeks later, I brought my mother out for the first time,” she remembered. “She kept saying, ‘I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it, I really like this house.’ And she died in the middle of December. There were times when I thought she was hanging on just to see it finished. So this house means a lot to me.”

Not all remodeling attempts are quite as uplifting as that story, but they generally turn out for the best. A renovation project can be a headache and a sense of humor comes in handy. (Vandals turned over the porta-potty in the Barrows’ front yard and put a “For Sale” sign on it.) They can also be costly, and whether you get your investment back at resale time depends a lot on the market and on how well the job was done. But if you love your house and your neighborhood, a quality addition or renovation can mean you get to keep your address. Good planning is important, as is open communication with your builder.

“One of the main things we do is ask the client a long list of questions,” Powell explained of the preconstruc-tion process. “We try to make this process as simple as we can for people because it can be a bit daunting sometimes. Usually, our goal is to integrate the addition seamlessly into the house so it appears that it was always there. I’m happiest when clients approach me and I tell them that I did a second story on a particular house and they tell me that they would have never known.”