Welcome to Second Nature, a Q+A series with Jute founder, Ali Davin, that explores all things healthy living, with a fond emphasis on that thing she does best—interior design.
If you have the means, building your dream home from scratch—or undergoing a to-the-studs renovation—can be totally worth it. It can also take years of waiting for permits, addressing unforeseen setbacks, and even battling your neighbors in court.
The good news is that with sharp focus and a little due diligence, you can find the space you want without having to completely renovate it. Here’s what to look for when you’re looking for a new home.
The most important thing is to know what your priorities are. I suggest making a Pinterest board with a visual diary of what appeals to you—I’ve found that people can’t always articulate what they want but can put it together visually. Then you have a checklist for the bones of the house that you’re looking for. For example, if you want open sightlines and a great room, don’t buy an older home with smaller rooms—it would take a significant amount of work to transform that into what you want. The biggest thing is the flow of the space. Once you start taking down load-bearing walls to correct it, things start to snowball.
That’s important, but you really want to look at lot-specific things that could be problematic. You can fall in love with a house that checks all the boxes but might not be well situated. What are the zoning laws in your neighborhood? Is there a bus that goes in front of your house? Are you on a corner? Are you on a Native American burial ground? These are things that you absolutely can’t change, so do your research.
You always want to look at the electrical panel to see if it’s up to code and up to date. If you’re looking at an older house and the wiring is from 1920, you’re going to have to gut the whole thing. Even if the house isn’t that old, don’t assume you can plug two electric cars into your garage without some upgrades. What you think is a small update can turn into a two-year project, especially if you open up the walls and find mold and water damage. Don’t trust the building inspection. Hire a trustworthy general contractor who can look into everything.
The big things are foundations, leaks, dry rot, the shape of your roof, and if anything looks wrongly done. Always check around windows to see if they were replaced correctly with no leaking. Plumbing is not a big deal; electrical is really the big one.
I would also recommend hiring an environmental engineer to do a report on the air inside the home. Is there a lead problem? A mold problem? You can do this during escrow and bring it to the owner’s attention. You may not be able to affect contingencies in a seller’s market, but if you still want the house, you’re armed with the information to come up with a plan.
Ideally, you should look for a house with things you can repurpose—it’s better for the environment and easier on you. Kitchens, bathrooms, cosmetic stuff that will only impact the inside of your home—those are generally easy permits to get, no matter where you live. The important thing is to ask your contractor specific questions about what you want to do. Even something as simple as putting in new light fixtures can require you to rip out your ceilings. Things can spiral out of control quickly.
If you want to avoid a headache, try not to open up or move any walls. The permits for anything that requires load-baring or structural changes on the inside are harder to get and more complicated because there’s structural liability.
Don’t do anything significant to the outside of your house. That’s the type of permit you want to stay away from—it can be denied for many reasons, and you can spend years fighting it. Just buy a house that you like from the outside, that has the right flow, and that has the features you want.
Look for a house that has the flow that you like.