Remodeling Old Homes on a Budget in Boston
How to take on older home renovations in Boston (on a budget) for energy efficiency and function
With a 250-year-old history, the Boston housing stock is flush in centuries-old buildings. Here, Colonial, Federal, and Victorian styles are among the many that enrich the residential landscape. While many exteriors tend to be well-preserved, interiors commonly need to be updated.
Sweeten offers an outline on what to know before starting older home renovations in Boston (plus, which rooms get the most bang for the buck!) Sweeten matches home renovation projects with vetted general contractors, offering advice, support, and financial protection—at no cost to the homeowner.
Upgrading electrical in Boston homes
What makes us comfortable in our homes? What will most improve the layout and/or function? Before you start with the obvious, consider what’s not visible, but is still very impactful.
No matter what the scope of your remodeling is—the whole house or just a kitchen and/or baths—electrical service may need a boost. One 100 amp circuit box may not be enough. For a 2,000-square-foot home, 200 amps are optimal. It’s better to go bigger, allowing for add-ons in the future, since it’s more cost-effective. A professional electrical audit helps determine what needs upgrading (like adding GCFIs where there is water, in kitchens, baths, laundry rooms, for example).
Older home renovation “Must”: Bring the HVAC up to speed
Depending on the age of the heating and cooling systems, you may want to replace units for more efficiency. Newer systems have been designed to work better. Sizing is calculated according to square footage; sometimes two or more furnaces and air conditioners are needed. Make sure ducts are insulated. Zoning spaces also is smart, so that you can shut down areas of the house that may not be used all the time.
Note that AC units manufactured before 2010 contain Freon. That R-22 material has been banned by the EPA (as of this year) because it’s ozone-depleting. It’s still available, but much more costly. Eventually, those air conditioners will need to be retrofitted for a new refrigerant or replaced as supplies run out.
Hot water heaters generally have a shelf life of seven years. If you need to replace one, consider high-efficiency tankless heaters. They supply hot water on demand.
Improve window efficiency
Even the best HVAC system won’t work optimally if you have leaky windows. Single-pane glass common in older homes often is a source of heat loss. Consider replacing windows with Energy Star-qualified ones. Options include all-wood, vinyl, aluminum-clad with wood inside, and fiberglass.
Features to look for:
• Low-E, or Low-Emissivity, with metallic coatings that allow windows to reflect rather than absorb heat
• Double or triple panes
• Gas-filled (argon or krypton gas) between glazed layers to improve heat insulation and slow heat transfer
Allow for contingencies
“We try to work within a budget,” says Sweeten general contractor Jeff who is based in Boston. But once you open everything up, he says, there may be structural work beneath a ceiling. Or fixing a slant on a floor. “I recommend allowing at least 10 percent extra,” he says.
Boston-based Sweeten general contractor Peter, for example, talks about problems inherent to Boston buildings 200 to 300 years old.
“A lot of structures in Downtown, South End, Back Bay neighborhoods, sit on wood piles. There’s a regulation many don’t know. When you renovate, you have to put in rainwater discharge to maintain water level. That’s so the piles don’t rot when the wood gets exposed to oxygen.”
How to preserve the best elements of your older Boston home
One blessing of older homes is inheriting original features. Hardwood floors, crown moldings, and wood built-ins add warmth and character. If the materials are generally in good shape, it’s best to restore. Even if repairs are in order, costs usually are far less than replacement. Lifting up wall-to-wall carpeting may reveal intact hardwood. Sand out tack holes and refinish the floors. Yellowed boards can also be fixed with sanding. Stain, or leave the floors natural, topped with non-yellowing polyurethane. And relocating a built-in can save thousands of dollars. It’s possible, for example, to repurpose a kitchen cabinet as a linen closet.
Make a master plan
Once you’ve brought electrical and mechanicals up-to-date, you’re ready to dive into room remodels. Create a wish list in order of your “must-haves” and “nice-to-haves.” Sweeten gets you started with a renovation cost guide for the interiors in Boston here. One way to keep the costs down is to maintain the existing floor plan. Add about 10 percent more to your final budget for contingencies. Don’t forget to factor in the cost of permits and dumpsters.
The kitchen: the hub of the historic (and modern) home
For most, remodeling the kitchen is the biggest game-changer. It’s at the core of today’s living—no matter what your lifestyle. For those who love entertaining, it’s even more pivotal.
The price tag for a kitchen remodel, of course, is affected by materials and appliance choices. You may want to splurge on a dual fuel range and choose a more modest dishwasher or refrigerator. Once you start comparing prices, you can play the balancing act. Decide what’s most important for your lifestyle. Ultimately, there are a few key kitchen renovations you can do (on a budget!) for an older home in Boston.
Communication is critical, particularly in kitchen re-design. Contractor Jeff says that always involves prioritizing. “I am honest,” he says, about helping to choose appliances. “It’s about balancing the budget.” So he might discourage a very high end brand refrigerator, especially if resale is an ultimate goal. “You won’t get your money back if you’re going to sell,” he says.
Cabinetry and countertops
The choice of countertop and cabinetry materials can reduce line item cots. “You can go to a lesser expensive quartz,” says contractor Peter. “And there’s a lot of frameless off-the-shelf cabinets that look nice. These might even have soft-close features. These days, many prefer clean cut, straight lines.”
If the cabinets are in good shape, they may be candidates for a new stain or paint. Replacing the fronts with simple shaker-style wood panels is an easy facelift. New hardware also can raise the style quotient. For some, storage may be an issue. Reconfiguring interiors with slide-out shelves or adding deep drawers for cookware are one answer.
Adding or extending an island also may improve its efficiency. The additional surface extends prep and eating space. Then, you can build in more storage below it.
Keeping or moving plumbing
In a minimal remodel, it’s more cost-efficient to keep the plumbing in place. Re-piping or relocating pipes for remodeling adds between $5,400 and $7,000 (based on 1,500 square feet). Amping up the supply line from the main sewer to your home will assure a good flow of water throughout the home. If your water pressure needs help, ask your contractor whether a booster might work. Obviously, an overall kitchen and bath plan for plumbing is ideal. Also be sure plumbers check for lead in pipes, valves, or faucets.
Create a functional layout for your older home
Floor plans in older homes may not work for today. Some are too small or have chopped up rooms. An addition may not be in your budget, but it may be possible to borrow space. Look at closets, small rooms, hallways, even a sunroom or porch. There may be enough space for a breakfast room. Creating a new layout may even net a family or a bedroom.
A powder room on the first floor is a must-have today. It also can provide a canvas for instant style. Since it doesn’t require a large footprint, you probably can find the square footage. Some have even tucked powder rooms under back stairs. Without a shower or tub, a powder room is less expensive than a bath. So you might feel more comfortable splurging on some materials.
Refreshing a master bath
A spa bath may be on your wish list but not in your budget. Still, there’s a lot you can do to get a more modern look. Replace the fixtures. Get a new vanity. Install light sconces as well as an overhead chandelier. You can give it all a luxury look with porcelain tile instead of marble or limestone. There are so many stone lookalikes at a fraction of the cost. A mid-range bath remodel recoups close to 59 percent of the job cost.
“Try to create as much space as you can,” says Sweeten contractor Peter. “A tub takes up a lot of space. We often install showers instead.”
Both Sweeten contractors say that rain showers are high on Bostonians’ lists, and there’s a large enough price range to suit most budgets.
Even modest renovations to an older Boston home can be transformative! You’ll certainly realize there’s an upside: the more you live in your home, the more you’ll see its full potential with future renovation projects.
Doing renovations to an older home—in Boston or beyond—is crucial for protecting it from the winter cold from pipes and roof to masonry.
Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, scope, and style. Follow the blog, Sweeten Stories, for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation with Sweeten.