Developing renovation ideas requires that you look at, and really see, your house. You may believe you know it intimately, but the typical homeowner recognizes little more than the obvious pleasures of the place and the irritating aspects he or she wants to change. In order to make the right changes, you need a solid overall feel for the existing qualities, liabilities, and potentials.
Without a thorough working knowledge of your home, you put yourself at risk of rude surprises. There can be excess remodeling costs that could have been anticipated if you had studied the structure and discovered that certain basic work needed to be done, expensive change orders, or the worst circumstance of all: you find yourself wondering at the time of completion why you didn't do certain things to produce a more satisfactory result-and it's too late to change.
Begin your inspection by walking the boundary line of the property. If you've mowed the lawn and trimmed the hedges a hundred times, this may seem absurd. Do it anyway.
If you have a survey of the property, keep a copy of it at hand. It should indicate, through notations of landmarks and measurements, where your land abuts other properties. Particularly with a small plot where the buildings may be close to the boundary lines, it's important to be sure that your understanding of the outside perimeter coincides with the description on your deed and the survey.
The Lay of the Land. Look at the topography: Locate yourself with respect to the surroundings. Are you on top of a hill? In a valley? Is the land flat or does it run down a slope? Imagine you're a low-flying bird: shaping a mind picture of a fly-over view may be helpful in thinking about your house and its context.
Look at the nearby houses. In many neighborhoods, more than one house was constructed by the same developer, often in the same or similar styles. While casting a glance at your neighborhood, look for houses similar to yours. Notice what they have in common with your home and what's different.
Does a neighboring house have an addition that might help you arrive at your own renovation ideas? When differing needs are brought to bear on identical starter houses, strikingly different dwellings evolve. You might also see what you don't want to do. That can be valuable, too.
The Plantscape. What about plantings? Are there trees or shrubs you want to emphasize? Often a large tree or a glade of smaller ones provides a focus for an overall landscape plan. If you're planning on adding to your house, however, great care must be taken to protect the trees and their root systems from the heavy equipment that is used to excavate, pour concrete, and deliver supplies. A good rule of thumb is that no truck should be allowed within 10 feet of a tree trunk, since the fragile root system at or near the surface can be badly damaged by just one crushing visit of a bulldozer track or even the tires of a heavy truck. A corollary is no trenches should be dug within 20 feet of a middle-sized tree, 30 feet of a large one. Small trees and shrubs can be moved, but only with an adequate amount of soil in a root ball. And preferably by experts.
Look at the neighbors' properties, too. Are there mature plantings along your property line or trees that you could use as a backdrop for your yard?
While there may be plantings you want to preserve, chances are that some will have to go. Overgrown shrubs may need only to be pruned; dead trees or bushes will have to be removed. Branches that overhang the roof are hazards, as are tree roots that are heaving up areas of your drive or walkways.
Note, too, a strictly practical consideration. Does the grade around the home slope away from the house at the rate of an inch per foot for 10 feet or more? While the precise pitch isn't important, a noticeable slope away from the house is essential to keep water away. Are there any low spots in your yard that stay wet much of the year? What is the pattern of runoff after a heavy rain or as the snow melts? Water is the chief enemy of any house, whether the structure is stone, wood frame, or brick. An efficient system of gutters, down spouts, grading, and other drainage will prove valuable in any but the most arid climate. If the drainage isn't adequate at your house, this is the time to correct the problem.
The Hardscape. Examine your stone walls, retaining walls, terraces, decks, fences, driveway, or concrete constructions. Consider their condition: Do they need immediate maintenance? Are the walls intact or in need of resetting? Is the patio cracked? Is the deck sound or is the railing so rotted it's ready to give way? Are the walkways level or do they have high spots or potholes that are insurance claims just waiting to happen? Fixing and moving existing elements costs money so, if such work will be required, you should have a landscape preparation and repair line item in your budget.
The Plot Plan. As you go about your examination of the property, update your plot plan (or sketch one if none exists). Incorporate substantial elements that aren't represented: the garage, garden shed, or other outbuildings; the driveway and walkways; large trees; established shrubs, gardens, and other major plantings. Don't forget to indicate the house on the survey. Sketch its outline. Pace off distances and dimensions and try to keep these elements roughly in scale.
Easements. Not everything about your lot can be seen with the naked eye. Easements are rights of access that utility companies and the owners of adjacent properties may have to some portion of your property. If, for example, there's an underground electrical service beneath the site of your proposed addition, you're probably going to have to shift sites.
Are there any restrictions on your deed? Is there, for example, a right-of-way through the property? In one instance in a small Massachusetts town west of Boston, a friend of mine was horrified one day to receive legal notification that a road was about to be cut across his property, right through his vegetable garden. A previous owner had agreed to a right-of-way in the deed and, years later, a local developer took advantage of the option to construct an access road in order to build a subdivision behind my friend's house.
Zoning. Some communities have zoning, local ordinances regarding land use restrictions. Zoning ordinances typically specify what can and cannot be done in designated areas, mapping out residential, commercial, industrial, or agricultural zones. In general, there are fewer limitations as you move down the scale from residential to agricultural. Take a trip to city hall and learn what restrictions, if any, apply in your neighborhood.
Zoning requirements can protect you from undesirable construction or development in your neighborhood, so you won't wake up one morning to discover a dump site next door, or a factory, store, or trailer park under construction. But zoning can also prevent you from doing certain things. In a residential area zoned for single-family dwellings, for example, you probably wouldn't be allowed to rent a “mother-in-law” apartment over the garage to a tenant without first obtaining the permission of the city's planning board or zoning officer. Zoning or municipal regulations often specify setbacks, requirements that houses be a minimum distance from the street and property lines.
Learning what your limitations are can save you headaches now and money later. Many communities have established restrictions on building height. There may also be a limit on maximum allowable lot coverage, meaning you'll have to build up rather than out to comply with the regulations. As we discovered in Cambridge, there are rules here about parking and even on changing the roof line of a house. Find out what restrictions apply to you.
Building Permits. While you are at city hall learning about local zoning, inquire about the procedure for filing for a building permit. In order to put new cabinets in your kitchen you probably won't have to obtain a permit, but if your job will involve rewiring, new foundation work, or major structural alterations, a permit will be required. Find out what paperwork you will need to submit. Many municipalities require plans that have been prepared (or, at least, reviewed and stamped) by a licenced architect or engineer, as well as detailed specifications and a budget. Ask about the fee schedule, too.
Design Review. In some communities there are established design standards to be met. Many developments and historic districts require that construction or remodeling plans be approved by a design review board. This may mean nothing more than that you must fill out one more form when you get your building permit, but the approval process is rigorous in some towns or neighborhoods. You may find your renovation ideas subjected to a detailed critique, and the review board may require design changes. Some communities even specify color choices, thereby limiting your palette to a few designated choices.
Covenants. Restrictive covenants are also found in the deeds to homes in many recent suburban developments. Some are binding rules, others voluntary, but often there are restrictions on the kinds of alterations that can be made to homes within the boundaries of the development. Additions almost always fall within the purview of such covenants, but the construction of pools, tennis courts, and even the manner in which you label your house with your name and street number may be prescribed. Again, find out what the rules are.