Common Construction Wisdom

There are a bunch of widely disseminated bits of construction truisms and myths out there. I hear them quite often during my inspection work. Most are oversimplifications, some contain a kernel of truth, and some are just plain wrong!

Here is a collection of some of my favorites. I would be happy to add any of your favorites to this list, just write to george@soundhome.com.

Index

  • Well, O.K. I agree, there are a few fine old buildings out there with great woodwork, over sized framing members and great bathroom tile installed on a concrete base. But, when it comes to electrical, plumbing or heating systems, foundations, seismic stability, drywall (vs. lath and plaster), windows (which actually open and close), insulation, etc... I think you get my point. With very few exceptions, most modern construction materials, codes and practices are superior to "the way they used to do it."

    Besides, I think we judge "the way they..." on the buildings still standing. And the best examples of those have new electrical, plumbing, etc. which cost a great deal more to install than a similar system in a new construction.

    See: Is It Worth Remodeling

  • One of the advantages of wood frame construction (the vast majority of single residential construction) is the ease with which one can alter or eliminate a load bearing wall. Your contractor will need to know what he/she is doing. It might even be necessary to have some engineering calculations to figure out the size of the beam needed for the job. But in terms of the total cost of the job, the cost of such structural alterations is likely to be less than the cost of the electrical components of the project.

  • The sad truth is that a new simple bathroom will most likely cost a MINIMUM of $8,000, and could cost many times that. The additional cost of plumbing the bathroom, where you actually would like to have it, may add 10% to the total cost of the project. But having it in the right place would seem to me to be well worth that

    This bit of shortsighted wisdom leads to some funny basement bathrooms. I am thinking of the ones with the toilet on a pedestal, a real throne.

    See: Bathrooms and Plumbing

  • I am a great fan of energy efficient construction, and have purchased some of the most efficient glazing systems for my home and cabin, but retro-fitting windows is a very expensive proposition, and unlikely to create an investment return equal to a passbook savings account rate.

    • Installing energy efficient windows in new construction has a much lower marginal cost and makes a lot of sense. (It is also most likely required by your local code).

  • Unlike cars, furnaces, and appliances, windows (and other insulation) can last for decades, and thus providing for long term energy savings.
  • Replacing those old windows has some other advantages: the new window will actually open and close; they may look better; they can help with soundproofing; and they will reduce interior convection currents. See the topic page on Preparing for Cold Weather.

    The bottom line: New windows may have all sorts of advantages but they are unlikely to "pay for themselves".

    See: A Field Guide To Bad Home Repair and Remodeling Contracts

  • This one is almost always wrong. With the exception of some kinds of heat pumps, it is always a good idea to adjust the heating or cooling temperatures to the current needs. Setback thermostats are one of the few energy saving devices which will likely pay for themselves in one year.

    By the way, houses need some heat, so it's best to set the lower temperature setting to between 50 and 55 degrees.

    ...and for some tips to reduce your cooling needs, see: Air Conditioning

  • There are some folks out there who make their living as speculative remodelers. They are very careful in which houses they buy, and what exactly will be worth doing to those structures. But speculative remodeling is not for the amateur or the faint hearted.

    Most remodeling projects don't increase the value of a house by an amount equal to the cost of the work. The primary reason to remodel a house is for your own use and pleasure.

    See: A Building and Remodeling Checklist.

    And what should you do in preparation for the sale of the house:

      1. Concentrate on low cost and "elbow grease" items. Keep in mind that every dollar spent on preparing the home for sale must result in more than one dollar in sale price.
      2. Remove all junk from the property - even that stuff that has been stored in attics and crawl spaces.
      3. Reduce the amount of furniture and other stored material from the home. The house will look larger...
      4. Clean up the home and yard.
      5. Use paint and other inexpensive methods to brighten up the home.
      6. Don't make too many assumptions about what will make the home more appealing to buyers.
  • I recall a conversation with a city fire chief a few years ago, he had a problem recruiting "fire fighters." In his suburban town, the occurrence of home fires was down and this was largely due to the superior construction methods, materials, and codes. As a result, most of the work and training of his staff had very little to do with fires and a lot to do with medical and other emergencies. And, it seems that fighting fires was much more exciting, and a better recruitment tool. What a nice problem to have! There are fewer fires in new construction, and as a result, it is harder to recruit fire fighters. (And, by the way, I wish we had more codes requiring fire sprinkler systems!)

    New homes also use much less fuel for heating and cooling; require fewer plumbing repairs; and are less likely to be built in a swamp. And most of that is due to those "stupid" codes. Codes are not fun to follow. They don't often allow for special circumstances or innovative approaches. Codes are slow to change. And yes, codes contain some "stupid" provisions.

  • This is true some of the time. Some complicated project permits may take years and cost thousands of dollars, others will never receive a permit. For example:

    • construction in a sensitive area (hillsides, wetlands)
    • complex structures
    • zoning variances
    • construction in understaffed, unorganized, and/or developing areas

    However, in most cases getting a new construction or remodeling permit is not a major problem. Proper Planning usually allows for the permit Application Process to proceed along with the design, planing and bidding process. The costs of permits can be quite high in areas where a development tax/fee is added to a new construction application (these are intended to pay for the new services required by the new construction - roads schools etc.). In remodeling, the permit fees are usually less than 1% of the project cost. Electrical, mechanical, and plumbing permits are usually available on the day of application.

  • Construction estimating and pricing requires a great deal of skill and discipline. It also requires detailed plans and specifications, as well as, a lot of luck. New construction is usually easier to estimate than remodeling since there are fewer surprises to be uncovered when building a structure from scratch. Custom construction with special and unusual details is harder to estimate and price than construction with stock plans and standard details. But, with very few exceptions, it should be possible to develop good estimates and relatively accurate prices for almost all types of construction.

    Even preliminary estimates require some good information about the proposed project. For example; Will the kitchen remodel require moving a wall? Are the cabinets medium priced prefabricated units? Will the floor be vinyl or ceramic tile? A change to any of these, and many other factors may add thousands of dollars to the project. And yet, it is possible to come up with a realistic budget if some basic assumptions are stated up front.

    A good construction contract will require good drawings and many details in order to be accurate and complete.

  • House construction practices tend to follow predictable patterns. For example; the wiring tests and practices found inside the electrical panel, the crawl space and the attic are usually good indications of the quality of wiring to be found inside framing cavities. So, if it seems that all of the "inspectable" wiring was installed by a good quality electrical contractor, then chances are good that the wiring found inside the walls will be of the same quality. Furthermore, it is also very likely that the work performed by the other tradespeople employed by the same general contractor will be of equal and uniform quality.

    Unfortunately, the opposite conditions are also very predictable. If the wiring inside the panel looks like a rat's nest then chances a quite good that similar disasters are to be expected in other systems installed by the same clan.

    Quality general contractors choose quality subcontractors. And, quality subcontractors will avoid working with poor quality contractors who fail to select other quality subcontractors. The subcontractor who is hired to install millwork can do a better job in less time if the drywall is even and smooth. The drywall contractor depends on quality framing practices in order to complete the job on time and avoid callbacks for drywall defects which are often largely the result of poor framing practices. The framers want to work on a good foundation, etc...

    A good home inspection should result in a list of specific findings, as well as, an overall assessment of the construction practices employed when the home was built and during any subsequent remodeling work. This information should help in predicting the level of surprises to be found in the inaccessible areas. See the topic page on