Remodel or Teardown?

For homeowners who want more space, each option has its pros and cons.

If the house isn’t quite what you want, is it better to renovate, or raze it and rebuild? Costs are often the deciding factor. Michael Winn, owner and general manager of Winn Design+ Build in Falls Church, says construction costs in this area can range anywhere from $250,000 for a modest addition to $750,000 for a major remodel. Tearing down and rebuilding on the same lot will put you in the vicinity of $1.2 million or more.

Interior designer Liz Mixer in her new, light-filled home office, with her dog, Darcy. Courtesy of Michael Ventura (Mixer Portrait)

Of course those are only ballparks. The total price tag is an amalgam of many factors, including the size of the home, the location, the level of customization and whether the client’s choices of fixtures and finishes lean more basic or high-end. Remodeling can also yield unforeseen (and costly) surprises, such as damaged plumbing pipes that need to be replaced, or decaying foundations that only become evident once the walls and floors are ripped out.

County building codes are another variable that can affect the design and the time frame. In Arlington, many homes built before 1950—when the county introduced its first residential zoning ordinance—have grandfathered setbacks, meaning they sit closer to the neighbors and the street than newer homes are allowed to. But all of that changes once the owners of an older house apply for a permit to renovate or rebuild. Even the slightest modifications can kick off a host of new rules, and a house that’s occupied the same spot for 70 years is suddenly illegally close to its property line.

Homeowners who wish to remodel while retaining their original setbacks must petition the county for permission. Permits that require special approval from the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) can take months, and they aren’t always granted.

Mixer’s remodel features an open floor plan by Moser Architects. Kitchen by Jack Rosen Custom Kitchens. Builder: Key Bridge Properties. Courtesy of Struxture Photography (kitchen)

Large-scale renovations and additions are especially tricky to negotiate in Arlington, where lots are notoriously small and there are limits on allowable building heights. Many of the rules limiting height and lot coverage were implemented in response to community complaints that too often “someone would put this monstrosity next door that was literally blocking out the sun,” Winn says.

But the added restrictions haven’t necessarily curtailed the trend toward larger homes. Responding to clients’ demands, remodelers are still finding ways to max out small lots and use every inch of the allowable building envelope.

At the same time, the red tape has prompted some homeowners to abandon their remodeling plans and buy new.

Categories: Home & Design