Selecting and Renovating an Old House: A Complete Guide

Selecting and Renovating an Old House: A Complete Guide

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by U.S. Dept. of Agriculture

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Clear, thoughtfully written manual tells how to appraise worthiness of an older home, develop plans for remodeling the kitchen, adding a bath, replacing floors, roof, windows, doors, interior walls, kitchen cabinets, and much more. Full glossary of housing terms and 157 illustrations clarify an extremely detailed text.See more details below


Clear, thoughtfully written manual tells how to appraise worthiness of an older home, develop plans for remodeling the kitchen, adding a bath, replacing floors, roof, windows, doors, interior walls, kitchen cabinets, and much more. Full glossary of housing terms and 157 illustrations clarify an extremely detailed text.

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Selecting and Renovating an Old House

A Complete Guide

By Dover Publications

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2000 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-15629-3


Condition Assessment

This portion of the book is designed to help the reader determine

• the general condition of the house,

• specific steps that are required to maintain its basic structural integrity, and

• the feasibility and suitability of various enhancements to make the house more comfortable, livable, and attractive.

Initial Considerations

Professional Assistance

A number of professional firms and individuals offer services for assessing the condition of homes and for estimating the cost of rehabilitation. Many of these firms and individuals are exclusively in the business of home condition assessment, and are often retained by potential buyers. Their services are also available to homeowners who are already living in the home to be examined.

Choosing and Working With Professional Contractors

The Council of Better Business Bureaus, the National Association of Consumer Agency Administrators, the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs, and the Remodelers™ Council of the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) have worked together to create a set of guidelines to assist homeowners in choosing and working with a reputable contractor for home remodeling and rehabilitation. The information and guidance provided by these groups appeared initially in a jointly issued publication entitled Choosing a Professional Remodeling Contractor. A revised edition, published by the NAHB Remodelers™ Council, is entitled How to Choose a Remodeler Who's on the Level. Some highlights from the publication follow.

• Solicit two or three bids for the work you are considering. Make sure all bids are based on the same set of specifications. Do not automatically accept the lowest. Discuss the bids in detail with the contractors.

• Ask for local references, and call them to see if they were satisfied with the contractor's work.

• Check local sources such as the Better Business Bureau and government consumer affairs office to see if they have information about the contractor or contractors you are considering. Ask how long the company has been in business, and find out if there are complaints or other relevant information about the firm on file.

• Check to see if the contractor is a member of a professional association that has a code of ethics or standards for remodelers. Find out if members have pledged to arbitrate disputes.

• Ask the contractor if the company has insurance that covers workers' compensation, property damage, and personal liability in case of accidents. Ask to see a copy of the certificate of insurance. In some areas, such insurance is required by law.

• If licensing and/or bonding are required in your area, ask to see a copy of the license or bond.

• Get all oral statements and agreements in a written contract. If you intend to do some of the work yourself or to hire another contractor to do it, this should appear in the contract. Read and understand everything before you sign. Among other things, the contract should specify all materials to be used, approximate starting and completion dates, cleanup and removal of debris, special requests such as saving lumber for firewood or saving certain materials or appliances, and areas where materials may not be stored. Be sure the financial terms are clear. The contract should include the total price, the schedule of payments, and whether or not there is a cancellation penalty.

• If a warranty is offered, get it in writing, read it carefully, and be sure you understand its terms and conditions.

• You should expect to make a down payment of about one-third of the total contract price when signing. Except for this payment, do not make payments for work that has not been completed. Schedule additional payments at weekly or monthly intervals or after completion of each phase of the project.

• It is recommended that you withhold a negotiated percentage of the contract price, typically 10 percent, until the job is completed. If a building permit was required, do not release the remaining money until the building inspector has approved the job.

• Never sign a completion certificate until all work called for in the contract has been completed to the owner's satisfaction. Lenders usually require a signed completion certificate before they will release the last payment.

Complying With Codes and Regulations

Various features of your proposed rehabilitation may relate to local zoning regulations. Zoning requirements should be checked, and any needed permits or permissions should be obtained prior to commencement of work.

Most communities and jurisdictions have adopted building codes. These codes vary in their requirements, but they generally specify that a building permit is required whenever structural work is involved or when the basic living area of a home is to be changed. The contractor should obtain the necessary permits.

Planned communities and areas designated as historic districts may have architectural review boards that must approve all rehabilitation that will be visible on the exterior. For both planned communities and historic districts, the requirements generally include visible structural work, exterior refinishing, and all changes in windows and doors.

When a building permit has been issued, the local issuing agency will inspect the work when it has reached a certain stage or when it is completed, or both, to ensure compliance with code requirements. It is the contractor's responsibility to arrange these inspections.

Financing Projects

Various sources of financing are available, including personal loans, home equity loans, credit unions, insurance policies, banks, and savings and loan institutions. Compare features such as interest rates, terms, and tax considerations from the different sources.


For large rehabilitation projects, protect yourself from liens against your home in the event the contractor does not pay subcontractors. Local laws about liens vary, so a lawyer's assistance may be desirable to secure the requisite protection.


The Better Business Bureau and the National Association of the Remodeling Industry conduct a program called Remodelcare™. Participating contractors agree to

• subscribe to the Remodelcare™ code of ethical conduct,

• adhere to the Better Business Bureau standards of practice for the home improvement industry, and

• sign a pledge to arbitrate disputes that cannot be resolved through mediation.

Information on the program can be obtained from local Better Business Bureaus or a comparable governmental agency. If the contractor you are considering does not participate in this program, you may wish to have an arbitration clause written into your contract.

Health and Safety Assessment

You should consider several health and safety factors when assessing a home for rehabilitation. These factors, and the means for assessing them, are described here. Their mitigation is discussed under "Hazard Control" in the "Rehabilitation" section of this book.


Radon is an invisible gas that is a byproduct of the radioactive decay of uranium. It occurs everywhere in the earth's crust, although concentrations vary in different locales. In addition to naturally occurring concentrations, factors such as soil type and porosity affect the amount of radon that migrates toward and into a home.

The level of radon in the atmosphere is too low to pose significant health problems. However, radon can enter the house through cracks in basements and foundation walls, sumps, and drains. In the enclosed space of the house, it can reach concentrations that exceed the levels in the general atmosphere, sometimes reaching hazardous levels. Radon decays into several short-lived elements called radon daughters. These elements—polonium 218, lead 214, bismuth 214, and polonium 214—which are solids rather than gases, undergo further decay in a series of processes, that ultimately produce a stable element—lead 206.

The decay of radon and the ensuing decay of the radon daughters is accompanied by the emission of energy in the form of alpha, beta, and gamma particles. Of these three, alpha radiation is generally regarded as posing the greatest health hazard. Radon emits an alpha particle when it decays into polonium 218. Polonium 218 and polonium 214 both emit alpha particles when they decay. Radon daughters attach themselves to dust particles, which are inhaled and become lodged in the lungs. There the emitted alpha particles can cause cellular damage to lung tissue. Studies on miners indicate that exposure to significant amounts of radon over substantial periods of time can cause lung cancer.

Radon levels are measured in picoCuries per liter of air (pCi/L). A Curie is a measure of radioactivity, and the prefix pico means a multiplication factor of 1 trillion. Another measure is called Working Level (WL), which is a measurement of the potential alpha energy for the decay products of radon. A WL is equal to 1.3 × 105 million electron volts (MEV). Generally, 200 pCi/L = 1 WL.

Radon Detectors

To measure radon levels in a home or building, three types of detectors are generally used—charcoal canisters, alpha-track detectors, and electronic perm (EP) detectors. Other methods exist, but they are expensive and are typically used only in research.

Charcoal canisters and short-term EP detectors are useful for measurement periods of 3 to 7 days. They are used to secure a quick initial determination of radon levels, called a screening measurement. Radon levels in homes can fluctuate substantially, even within an hour or a day. They also tend to fluctuate seasonally; radon levels are often higher in winter than in summer, sometimes by a factor of two or three. Charcoal canister and short-term EP detector readings, therefore, do not provide an indication of the average annual radon level, which is the critical measurement from the standpoint of health hazards. When additional measurements are needed, alpha detectors or long-term electronic detectors, which provide readings over longer periods of time, are used.

Short-term EP detector measurements that fall within certain broad parameters can be used to determine whether or not additional measurements should be taken as indicated in the following paragraphs.

The EPA publication A Citizen's Guide to Radon states that initial screening measurements should be made in the livable area at the lowest elevation of the home—the basement, if the house has one. All windows and doors should be closed for at least 12 hours prior to the start of the test and kept closed as much as possible throughout the testing period.

The Radon Abatement Act of 1988 defines an elevated indoor reading as any reading that exceeds ambient outdoor levels. The EPA's Citizen's Guide, which was published before passage of the Radon Abatement Act, used 4 pCi/L (0.02 WL) as a benchmark radon level. This benchmark is reflected in the first of the recommendations regarding followup measurements that appear in the Citizen's Guide and are reproduced here:

• If the screening measurement result is less than about 4 pCi/L, followup measurements are probably not required. If the house was substantially closed up prior to and during the test period, there is little chance that the annual average will exceed 4 pCi/L.

• If the screening measurement result is between 4 and 20 pCi/L (0.02 and 0.1 WL), retest with detectors exposed for 1 year, or make measurements of no more than 1 week's duration during each of the four seasons.

• If the screening measurement result is between 20 and 200 pCi/L (0.1 and 1 WL), retest with detectors exposed for no more than 3 months, with windows and doors closed as much as possible.

• If the screening measurement is greater than 200 pCi/L (1 WL), retest with charcoal detectors exposed for no more than 1 week with windows and doors closed as much as possible. The homeowner should consider taking immediate steps for mitigation.

Taking Measurements

Carefully follow directions accompanying charcoal canisters. If one canister is used, it should be placed in the lowest living area of the house—the basement (if the house has one). A second canister is often placed in another area. After a period specified in the instructions, typically 3 days, the canisters are resealed and sent to the distributing firm or laboratory for analysis.

As with charcoal canisters, instructions accompanying alpha-track detectors and EP detectors should be followed carefully. The detectors should be placed in at least two lived-in areas of the house.

A number of commercial firms and laboratories offer radon detection services. The EPA issues a quarterly list of testing organizations (agencies and businesses who make radon measurements) who have voluntarily met EPA standards. Firms are placed on the list after meeting certain EPA proficiency standards. Copies of the list can be obtained from state agencies or regional EPA offices listed in the Appendix.

You can learn if high levels of radon have been found in your area from the state agencies listed in the Appendix, and you may also be able to obtain additional information and publications.


The two principal sources of lead contamination in the home are lead-based paint and drinking water containing small quantities of dissolved lead.

Studies have shown that ingestion of even minute amounts of lead can have serious effects, including damage to the brain, kidneys, and red blood cells; hypertension in middle-aged men; and injury to the fetuses of pregnant women.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) regards lead as one of the foremost toxicological dangers to children. Until recently, it was believed that children primarily ingested lead from lead-based paint by chewing chips of old paint or chewing surfaces, such as the protruding edges of window sills. Continued study, however, indicates that dust containing particulate lead in homes where lead-based paint is present is probably a more common source. As with asbestos fibers, these particles can be extremely small, can float in the air as dust, and cannot be fully gathered up by conventional household cleaning methods.

According to the AAP, even low levels of ingestion can cause children to suffer partial loss of hearing, impairment of mental development and IQ, growth retardation, inhibited metabolism of vitamin D, and disturbances in blood formation. Studies have traced intellectual impairment to very low levels of lead in the blood. A report released by the EPA in 1986 said that as many as 250,000 children have suffered measurable IQ losses as the result of drinking lead-contaminated water.

Lead-Based Paint

Lead-based paint was widely used in residential applications until the early 1940s and continued to be used to some extent, particularly for dwelling exteriors until 1976. In 1971, Congress passed the Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act. In 1976, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) issued a ruling under the Act that limited the lead content of paint used in residential dwellings, toys, and furniture to 0.06 percent. Lead-based paint is still manufactured today for applications not covered by the CPSC ruling, such as paint for metal products, particularly those made of steel. Occasionally, such lead-based paint (for example, surplus from a shipyard) gets into retail stores and the hands of consumers. A study conducted for the EPA in 1986 indicated that there are about 42 million U.S. homes that still contain lead-based paint.

There are several techniques for determining the presence of lead-based paint, including the use of an X-ray fluorescence analyzer. Such tests should be performed by qualified professional personnel. If in doubt regarding the possible presence of lead-based paint, assume that it is present, either as an outer coating or as a coating that has been painted over.

A report issued by a Task Force on Lead Based Paint in Housing, convened in 1987 by the National Institute of Building Sciences, states

The most serious drawback of present abatement methods [that involve removal of the paint] is the enormous amount of particulate lead, including particles in the respirable range, which is created and can be disseminated throughout the dwelling.... Whether micron-sized particles can be removed from old housing surfaces with ordinary vacuum cleaners and scrubbing is extremely doubtful, particularly if splintered flooring is not sealed, covered or replaced.

A number of factors enter into the cost equation for the abatement of lead-based paint. In addition to the present degree of deterioration, the homeowner should examine the structural soundness of the painted surface, the presence or potential presence of water damage that could accelerate deterioration, and, for reasons cited above, the condition of the flooring.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) listed three approaches to abating lead-based paint as being acceptable. They are

• covering the painted surface with wallboard, a fiberglass cloth barrier, or permanently attached wallpaper,

• removing the paint by scraping or heat treatment, and

• replacing the entire surface to which lead-based paint has been applied.

HUD prohibits machine sanding, use of propane torches, washing, or repainting as methods for lead-based paint abatement in housing that it owns and operates.


Excerpted from Selecting and Renovating an Old House by Dover Publications. Copyright © 2000 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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