The Last Great Endeavor

Are We Too Old for Home Renovation Projects?

Everybody says the primary determinant of price for domestic real estate is the value of the land your house sits on. A house that will bring one or two million in certain locations will only sell for $200k in other places. That kind of variation is most notable between different geographic regions but can be nearly as great between different neighborhoods in the same metro area. As a result, some urban neighborhoods are rife with renovations to old houses while others feature teardowns and infills with huge new “Country Cottages” or other McMansions.

My neighborhood is one where renovations and major additions, even to 75-year-old brick colonials, clearly outnumber the infills — although those Country Cottages are starting to appear over demolished mid-century ramblers and split levels. My house is one of those renovated 75-year-old colonials. And here we go again! We’re preparing to redo our basement. No extra space, just refurbishment.

My wife and I bought this place, our first house, 38 years ago. We’ve raised two sons in it. Both chose to live in our area as adults, one raising two kids of his own here. There must be some draw to these neighborhoods surrounding us in Northern Virginia. We are no strangers to renovation projects in this house. Immediately after moving in we enlisted the help of my handy father-in-law and re-paneled the finished basement ourselves. Then, when the kids grew too big to fit in their tiny bedrooms, we “built on” – a family room off the living room and expanded bedrooms above it for both boys. New landscaping went with that family room.

We experienced a hiccup when our next-door neighbors measured the setback after the foundation was laid, discovering it to be 18 inches too close to their property. Zoning rules, including setbacks, are determined by the county building code. This forced us to rip up the foundation and revise our plan — at our expense.

Seven years later, undeterred, we built a new kitchen on the rear, with master suite above. An answer to our dreams. Not only did we finally enlarge our kitchen to a livable size but gained an extra bedroom upstairs. Again, new landscaping followed. Even more elaborate than what we did for the first addition, this included a patio and walkway with pavers connecting backyard to front. A smaller backyard was no loss by this time: less maintenance, no kids, we could simply enjoy our new patio furniture. For a while. Ever restless, we next renovated two bathrooms as we watched the grass die in that smaller backyard – too much shade?

So here we are, now in our mid-70s, ready for yet another renovation – that same basement we re-paneled 38 long years ago. We’ve contracted with the same builder from the first addition twenty years ago (still in business here). We’ll likely make another attempt at landscape design as well. Anticipating the disruption to our lives, at our advanced age, is scary. We’ll be without a laundry for the entire project and lose the second refrigerator-freezer which stores my beer and frozen dinners. My wife will forfeit her office in the basement, she’ll have to move it to the kitchen. Sigh. And, worse, as the weather gets colder, we’re facing at least a few days of no furnace or hot water heater as we replace the gas appliances with heat pumps. And our contractor estimates the job may take three months with supply chains what they are. We don’t yet have a firm start date either – courtesy of our county’s permitting process.

Are we too old for this?

Why do people renovate anyway? We know that selling our house, whenever, will not be hard regardless of any further improvements – assuming the domestic real estate market here remains relatively stable. Is it that we expect to gain extra value by living in the renovated space commensurate with our investment (and suffering)? It seems the answer must be “yes.” We’ll have to stay in the house several more years to feel it was worth it. That’s our gamble. The price point is most likely irrelevant.

Also, perhaps there is a sense of well-being that comes from having a house we can be proud to show people. “Keeping up with the Joneses” may still be a motivator. This peculiar form of “giving back to the community,” however, is highly questionable. Beyond the construction jobs we create, and higher real estate taxes paid, I would be hard-pressed to justify the project socially. We probably have a basic NIMBY orientation in this neighborhood — I see the yard signs opposing an upcoming zoning question. A better gift to the community might be to tear down the entire neighborhood and build multi-family dwellings in its place! But nobody is doing that here.

Bottom line: we must convince ourselves that we intend to enjoy our home even more during our final years living in it. Maybe ten more years, if we’re lucky? I suspect we’re already among the more senior residents of the neighborhood. Those Country Cottages are sold to younger, growing families, I presume. Perhaps our buyer will be similar to them, and the neighborhood will continue to flourish under a new generation. Too bad they’ll have to be richer than previous generations who lived here …

— William Sundwick

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