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

What Yapp means by "embodied energy" is all the energy of the laborers, woodcarvers, woodworkers, masons — all of the human energy that went into building the home. To this he adds the energy expended to make the building products, such as the coal burned to heat the kilns that made the bricks or run the steam engines that made the woodwork.

"All that energy has already been spent," he says. "The energy required to rehab a house is going to be far less than the amount of energy necessary to build a new house. No matter how hard you try to be environmentally sound to build something new, it will never, never be as environmentally sound as recycling an old property."

The idea of keeping things in a home is what keeps the price of rehabilitating the home down.

Yapp is working on his 163rd restoration project — an 1859 Italianate home on the Mississippi River in Hannibal, Mo.

"The big lie is somehow historic preservation is expensive," Yapp says. "It is simply not true. The whole concept behind historic preservation is to do no harm. It is to go in and maintain as much of the old material as you can while updating things for the way we live today."

What this means for Yapp's current 1859 project is the old room that was originally designed to be the maid's quarters becomes something else — like a walk-in closet or a master bathroom suite. But even with changes like these, Yapp says it still costs far less per square foot than new construction. This applies to whether the older home was built in 1850 or 1950.

The key to figuring out if working on an older home is worth it, Yapp says, is to compare a similar quality old home to a similar quality new home. You don't compare a high-quality older home to a cheaply made new home, he says.

If people compare quality to quality, Yapp says it could cost as much as double to make a equal-quality new home.

Yapp says he understands that even if people are attracted to an older home and its beauty and depth of craftsmanship, they are often afraid. There might be surprises. There might be squirrels in the walls.

Preservation consultation

Yapp says what people need to do if they are buying an older home is not to first hire a home inspector, but instead a preservation construction consultant. Good consultants are familiar with the challenges of older homes and know what problems to look for. They can provide an existing conditions report, energy efficiency testing and so forth. They also can help plan out what needs to be done to modernize a home's systems and can write all the specifications and estimated costs of rehabilitating a home. They could also design additions.

He says a consultant can cost between $250 for a basic consultation up to $500 or even thousands depending on how much extra architectural design work a client wants them to do.

What Yapp also likes about consultants is they are independent third parties. They won't, for example, recommend pulling out older windows to replace them with newer shorter-life windows in order to make a bigger profit.

In being independent, the preservation construction consultants are a lot like home inspectors — except home inspectors are looking for different things. Yapp says people can make offers for homes dependent not just on what a home inspector says, but on what the preservation construction consultant discovers — a sort of in-case-of-squirrels provision.

Relying on a contractor to decide what needs to be done is dangerous because they may not be experts in historic preservation and they may have a tendency to recommend things that make them more money, Yapp says.

"I believe in free markets," he says, "but people need to quit being sheep. Just because it is shiny and new doesn't mean it is better."

Casanova loves his home in Sacramento, particularly since it was recently appraised (after adding a new master bedroom and new garage) at $430,000.

For Yapp, however, it is about more than the bottom line. It's about stewardship not just for the home, but for society and the environment.

"Preservation doesn't cost, it pays," Yapp says. "It recycles existing houses. It creates more jobs. It is one of the greatest economic development engines in America today."

EMAIL: mdegroote@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @degroote

Facebook: facebook.com/madegroote

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