Fix it up or tear it down? Some people preserve old homes, while others want something new

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 12 2013 6:30 a.m. MST

Mike Arman, 66, a former mortgage broker for 20 years, is a self-described "serial property owner" in Oak Hill, Fla. He has little patience with older homes.

"Tear it down! Tear it down!" he says. "If it is 40 to 50 years old, tear it down. I know that sounds terribly heartless and not politically correct."

Arman can list the reasons to stay away from older homes faster than a Harley on a highway. Older homes haves no insulation, no air conditioning, bad wiring and bad windows, he says. They always need a new roof, new water heaters and new lighting fixtures. They feature rot, termites and mold. They smell bad.

And he's just getting started.

Arman lived in a home in the Daytona Beach area built in 1946. He moved there in 1972 and lived in the home for 38 years. He has owned homes built at various times from 1929 to 1960.

In 2009, he built a new home from scratch — including a steel frame to ward off termites, a steel roof with a 50-year guarantee, inorganic wallboard that won't rot or mildew and double-pane windows to save on electricity costs. "The works," Arman says with obvious pride.

He says people fall in love with an older home and say "O, what a gorgeous house!" But this is a recipe for disaster because "emotion makes your decision," Arman says, "not your calculator."

Going with the heart

On the other side of the country, in Sacramento, Calif., Frank Casanova, 65, fell in love with a 1937 home near downtown.

"I'm going with my heart," he says. "I'm going with my emotion when I am feathering my nest, within reason."

For Casanova, owner of The Studio Center, a video and media studio in Sacramento, the main appeal was the location — near all the entertainment and cultural attractions downtown. It was a walkable neighborhood.

The house, however, was a neglected derelict.

"More squirrels were living in the attic than people ever lived in the house," he says. "My greatest fear is they will come back someday for a family reunion."

Like Arman's parade of horribles, the home had no air conditioning. The walls were full of squirrel nests and squirrel feces. The roof needed to be repaired. The wiring and plumbing all had to be redone.

So the Casanovas bought it for $170,000 as is and put $30,000 into fixing it up it.

That was January 2001.

"We built a brand-new home in a shell of a 1937 house," Casanova says.

He also proudly replaced all the old windows with new vinyl ones.

That last point is the sort of news that sticks in Yapp's craw. He says there are 32 million window sashes that end up in the dump every year.

"Perfectly usable windows that were sometimes used for 100-plus years," he says, "that with a very little weather stripping and a small amount of labor you could make that window energy efficient and usable for another 100 years."

He is helping to write a book about windows that he hopes will help people realize newer "environmentally friendly" vinyl windows won't last as long and are not as efficient as people think.

Embodied energy

To Yapp, nothing is greener and more sustainable than rehabilitating older property.

"The least environmentally sound thing you can do is build something new," he says, "because of embodied energy."

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