General Guide Home Improvements and Renovations

Many people now are deciding that they can best satisfy their housing needs by improving the house that they currently own or by purchasing older houses and renovating them.

It is human nature to begin planning how to make a house a better place to live in as soon as the new homeowners move in. This is true regardless of whether the home is a brand-new contemporary ranch or an authentic 300-year-old Colonial.

Based on studies conducted by the National Home Improvement Council, Inc., the following are the most popular American home improvements listed in order of popularity:

  1. Insulation installation.
  2. Storm windows and doors.
  3. Roofing.
  4. Siding.
  5. Regular window replacement.
  6. Kitchen cabinet and counter replacement.
  7. Kitchen remodeling and additions.
  8. Major room addition.
  9. Bathroom additions and remodeling.
  10. Attic additions and remodeling.
  11. Basement refinishing.
  12. Garage and carport additions.
  13. Porch enclosures.
  14. Wall paneling.

A wide range of popularity occurs within this list. There are approximately ten times the number of insulation jobs as there are wall panelings and three times as many siding jobs as there are bathroom additions and remodeling.

The three major reasons that home improvements are made are that the house lacks something that the homeowner wants (like a garage or carport), that something is worn out or damaged (roofing, siding, etc.) or that the design and construction don't meet modern standards (kitchen and bathroom renovations).


Appraisers frequently are asked whether proposed home improvements will add value to a house that's equal to or greater than the cost. In most cases, the answer they give is “no.”

What home improvements cost depends on who does the work and if the homeowner does the work, how much he or she values his or her time.

This does not mean that the home improvement shouldn't be made. Often it's more economical in the long run to replace a worn-out roof or siding rather than just patching up either of them.

The pleasure received from an extra bathroom is hard to measure in dollars alone. The American house remains one of the best investments a family can make measured both in dollars and in improved life-styles.


Many different interior home improvements are possible. Following is a list of the most popular home-improvement areas that are covered in this section:

• Kitchens.

• Bathrooms.

• Shelving and storage spaces.

• Attics.

• Porches.

• Garage conversions.

• Basement finishing.

• Painting and wallpapering.

• Floor covering.

• Hardwood floors.

• Fireplaces and woodstoves.

• Electric-system modernization.

• Plumbing-system modernization.

• Heating.

Kitchen Remodeling

The most common reasons for renovating a kitchen are as follows:

• Insufficient counter space.

• Inefficient or outdated appliances.

• Inefficient layout.

• Inadequate or inaccessible cabinet volume.

• Dreary or deteriorating decoration.

• Poor lighting.

• Poor ventilation.

Because of the tight fit of cabinets and counters, plus the economy of using standard-size components, a kitchen renovation requires careful and complete planning.

Kitchen design and layout are covered in Section 3, as are the various materials available for kitchen improvements.

Hints and Cautions. Special care should be exercised when dismantling the old cabinets and counters to avoid causing unnecessary damage to the walls and ceiling.

The water must be shut off and the electric-supply lines disconnected before anything is removed.

Before installing new cabinets and counters, the walls and floors in the cabinet area must be thoroughly prepared, making sure they are solid, free from voids and obstructions and plumb and level. The old floor tile may have to be stripped off to accomplish this.

Despite advertisements to the contrary, the best range hoods are the ones that vent to the outside; therefore, the range should be located on an outside wall to make the range-hood installation easier.

Because corner cabinets tend to waste space, they shouldn't be used. If this is unavoidable, install a lazy Susan or rotating cabinet shelves.

Most standard kitchen counters and cabinets are designed for 7-foot, 6-inch ceilings. Higher ceilings will require the installation of soffits to prevent small hard-to-clean open areas. Lower ceilings require special cabinets that are more expensive.

Sufficient electric power should be available for the new appliances that may require more power than the ones being replaced. If rewiring is needed, extra outlets should be installed at the same time.

A kitchen renovation often is a major undertaking. Careful planning is needed and expert help often is desirable. Because a substantial portion of the time at home is spent in the kitchen, a good kitchen renovation adds substantially to a family’s happiness.

Bathroom Remodeling

Bathroom remodeling includes adding a bathroom where none exists and improving existing bathrooms.

Adding a new bathroom where none previously exists is a complex project. The new room must be serviced with a new water supply, drain and vent pipes. The underlying floor joist may have to be reinforced to hold the heavy fixtures (especially tubs filled with water). Floors and walls must be waterproofed.

Bathroom design and layout is covered in Section 3, as are the various materials available for bathroom construction and improvements.

Hints and Cautions. One of the biggest problems in any bathroom renovation is the potential need to replace any rotted wood caused by leaking in the past. Often there is rotting under the toilet, under the flooring, and under the tub and shower.

When replacement fiberglass tub and shower units are used, special care must be taken to level and plumb the floor and wall surfaces and correctly locate the plumbing lines and drain lines.

The installation of the dry-walling and tile work requires special care. Special water Sheetrock should be used.

Gloss or semigloss paints hold up better than flat paint and are easier to clean. When wallpaper is used, it should be washable.

Generally, ceramic-tile bathroom floors are best.

When a house has only one bathroom or lavatory, it suffers in the marketplace; thus, overcoming this deficiency often is a good investment.

Adding a lavatory or bathroom may be complex depending on where the existing water and drain lines are located. Good preplanning and professional help are desirable.

Shelving and Storage

A common complaint is that a house lacks sufficient convenient storage. The fundamentals of good storage design are covered in Section 3.

Hints and Cautions. An important consideration when designing storage space is the convenience of the location and its height, which is based on the size of the person who is going to use it. Objects should be easily reached by the people who are the primary users of the space. For a normal-sized adult, the most convenient heights are between 2 and 6 feet. Adding a low pole to a child’s closet makes a world of difference.

Every area needs well-designed, convenient storage. Attics, basements and garages can be improved by adding shelving and lighting to make them easier to use as storage areas.


The addition of usable attic space can be accomplished by finishing existing space and creating new space by adding one or more dormers.

Finishing Existing Attic Space. The finishing of a typical existing at tic space involves adding insulation, installing a ceiling, adding wall partitions, running new electric and plumbing lines and laying new flooring or carpeting.

The finishing of a totally unfinished attic space begins with the construction of a floor over the exposed ceiling joists. Construction of framing for partitions is more complex than normal partition construction because partitions must be fitted to the intersection with the sloping attic roof line. Also, especially in older houses, measurements between framing members may be nonstandard.

Plumbing and wiring should be roughed in before the wallboards are installed.

The installation of the ceiling and ceiling insulation requires special planning to be sure that there is adequate ventilation. The rest of attic finishing is similar to any other area of the house.

Adding Dormers. Available usable attic space can be increased by adding one or more dormers. Dormers also provide windows that are needed for light, air and another means of escape in case of fire.

Basically, there are two types of dormers—gable and shed. Head room is an important consideration in dormer planning.

Hints and Cautions. A full ceiling isn't needed except for aesthetic reasons. Many people prefer the look of unfinished roof rafters.

When installing a dormer, it may be necessary to reinforce the roof when more than three rafters are removed.

Rapid completion of the dormer is desirable to restore the weather- tight condition of the roof as soon as possible.

Proper venting is essential to prevent damage from condensation.

Finishing an existing unfinished attic or expanding an attic by constructing one or more dormers often is the most economical way of adding usable space to a house.

Care must be taken not to weaken the roof structure and to provide proper ventilation.


It is far more common to enclose an existing porch than it's to add a porch to a house.

Enclosing an existing porch often is an economical way of adding an additional room to a house. It also is a particularly good beginner’s project for a do-it-yourselfer, especially if the foundation and underfloor framing of the porch is sound and the room does not leak.

Porch enclosures range from screens, louver and awning windows, sliding doors and windows, to solid walls and windows that match the rest of the house.

Hints and Cautions. Often the porch is extended beyond the basement or slab. In colder climates, it's necessary to insulate under the porch floor, which may be difficult because of limited access.

Additional electrical and heating mechanical systems should be in stalled early in the remodeling process.

When sliding-glass doors are installed, they require a correctly sized opening that's level, plumb and square.

An enclosed porch adds attractive economical living space to the house, especially if the existing roof and support structure are well constructed and in good condition.

Garage Conversion

Like enclosing a porch, converting a garage into a new room adds hundreds of feet of living space to a house at an economical cost. Common conversions are into family rooms, living rooms, kitchens and sometimes to poolside cabanas. Often, the overall appearance of the house is improved.

Substitute car storage is made available by relocating the driveway and sometimes adding a new garage or carport.

Hints and Cautions. The garage floor may be below grade level or pitched to provide drainage. The floor must be protected from outside flooding.

A garage, especially if it's attached as an integral part of an existing house, is an economical way to add a large amount of additional living area at a reasonable cost.

Basement Finishing

By finishing a basement, an area that previously was used primarily for bulk storage can be converted into usable living area, such as an additional living room, party room, den, family room or, where not illegal, additional bedrooms.

To make a basement usable for these purposes, it must be dry. If this isn't possible, it's wise to abandon plans to finish the basement.

Because the area already is enclosed and out of the way, finishing a basement is an ideal do-it-yourself (or with some help) project to be accomplished at a leisurely pace. Here is the sequence to follow when finishing most basements:

1. Waterproofing.

2. Framing walls.

3. Roughing in mechanical systems.

4. Opening and installing any new windows.

5. Installing wallboards and covering.

6. Finishing floors and ceilings.

7. Completely installing mechanical systems.

8. Installing cabinets, built-in bar, wall systems and cabinets.

Most of the techniques used to finish the basement are the same as those used elsewhere in the house and are covered elsewhere in this text.

Hints and Cautions. Using a dehumidifier is a good idea even if the basement appears to be dry most of the time.

Sealing the walls and joints with waterproofing even when they appear dry is a lot easier to do before they are covered.

Leaving a way for the air to circulate from the heating system into the finished area will use heat that otherwise would be wasted.

A dry basement provides substantial potential usable area that can be economically or elaborately finished at a pace that suits an individual family’s needs. Making sure it remains dry is critical.

Painting and Wallpapering

Paint provides protection for wood and metal surfaces as well as decoration. It is relatively easy to paint when the surfaces are in good condition and hard to paint when surfaces are in poor condition.

Good surface preparation is the secret to an attractive long-lasting paint job. Waiting until the paint on a surface chips and peels before applying a new coat is false economy for the time and effort needed to pre pare the surface outweighs the savings obtained by waiting.

The term wallpaper is an old-fashioned word that now includes a variety of “wall coverings,” such as fabrics, burlaps, grass cloth, metallic foil, cork, vinyl and a wide variety of synthetic materials. Some of these new materials are specially made to be applied by amateurs. Some are even pre-pasted so that all that's necessary is to wet them.

Regular types of wallpaper require a variety of different kinds of paste to hold them properly to the wall surface.

Like painting, surface preparation is the key to success. When the pa per is applied over existing wallpaper, it all must be tight.

Hints and Cautions. To determine what type of paint to use and how much will be needed, help should be sought from a reliable paint dealer. An unknown brand of paint is a blind item and often what appears to be a bargain isn't .

Paint dealers are used to helping amateur painters and should be able to provide whatever information is required.

Hanging wallpaper is a challenging experience for many, but new materials make it easier than it used to be.

If this is the first attempt at wallpapering, try a small area first before tackling a large room.

Buy all the paper that's needed at one time for color changes from one print run to the next and a second purchase may not match the first purchase.

Never put airtight vinyl over old wallpaper, for this may cause mildew to form.

Never put new paper over old foil, vinyl, flock or other textured wall papers.

Work from the top down. If possible, get help from an experienced friend for the first attempt at hanging wallpaper.

Paint provides protection as well as decoration. Wallpaper offers a wide variety of patterns, textures and colors. For both, good surface preparation is the secret of success. Waiting too long is false economy.

Floor Covering

The five most common types of floor coverings are tiles (ceramic and vinyl), sheet goods, parquet flooring, carpeting and rugs. A substantial amount of information about these products is included in Section 7, Building Materials, and Section 9, Materials Manufacture.

Vinyl tiles should be installed according to manufacturer’s directions, starting from the center of the room working outward toward the walls. Over-application of the adhesive is a common problem easily solved by re moving the excess with a cloth soaked in a solvent that will dissolve the adhesive (this solvent should be obtained along with the adhesive product that's used).

Ceramic tiles now come in sheets of up to four connected tiles that greatly simplifies their installation.

The best way to install them is to imbed them in a layer of portland- cement mortar. This is a difficult procedure.

The alternative method is to use a thinner layer of adhesive that attaches the tiles to the subflooring.

Both methods require filling the spaces between the tiles with grout.

Parquet and wood-block flooring tiles are available in squares and strips of various sizes and lengths. Many varieties are installed similar to vinyl tiles. Some of the thick varieties have tongue and grooves, which make them harder to install.

Wall-to-wall carpeting originally made primarily of wool now is available in many synthetic fibers. Carpeting normally is installed over padding by attaching it to tackless strips placed around the room perimeter. The hardest parts of the installation process are making the seams where required, cutting it to size and stretching it tight against the wall. The stretching can be done with a knee kicker or power stretcher. Both of these tools take some practice to use.

The advantage of sheet flooring is that it has no seams. The most common material is vinyl. It replaces linoleum flooring, which no longer is manufactured in the United States. Most varieties are available in widths of up to 12 feet; this often makes it unnecessary to make a seam, which is the trickiest part of the installation. Adhesives are available for almost every surface, which should be roughed up and made reasonably level.

Rugs require no installation and can be moved from place to place as needed.

Hints and Cautions. Vinyl tile should be laid, not slid into place, with no space left between the tiles.

Ceramic tile requires a dry and clean surface for good adhesion. The amount of effort it takes to prepare an old floor often is greater than the cost in money and time of installing a new floor.

Parquet wood-block floor tiles look much better when they are laid in pyramid or staircase-step sequence because there are small discrepancies in their size that are magnified as the number of rows increases.

All wood-block tiles expand and shrink, so unlike vinyl tiles, they should be laid with some expansion space between the floor and the walls.

Wall-to-wall carpeting must be stretched tightly or bulges soon will develop.

Sheet flooring shouldn't be used in a moist basement.

Rugs wear longer and are less likely to skid and injure somebody when they are laid over padding.

New floor covering is an excellent way to improve the appearance of a room. When installing new floor coverings, be sure to follow all the manufacturers’ instructions and have available all the special tools that are required.

Hardwood Floors

Hardwood floors may be installed in a new addition, the attic or where carpet or tile previously existed. The floor-covering sections of Sections 5 and 7 contain substantial information about hardwood floors.

Hints and Cautions. Use a floor-nailer machine that can be rented from a rental center.

Prefinished flooring saves a lot of time and effort and is worth the extra cost.

Hardwood floors add natural beauty to a room that's hard to duplicate in any other way.

Fireplaces and Wood Stoves

If the goal is to produce heat, a wood stove should be installed. If the decorative effect of burning logs is desired, a fireplace should be built. In both cases, either a new chimney must be built or an existing one must be tapped into. Each fire must be connected to a separate flue. Both wood stoves and fireplaces are covered and illustrated in Section 5, Basic Construction.

Building a new fireplace is a tricky masonry job best left to professionals. Nothing is more aggravating than a poorly constructed or designed fireplace that pours smoke into the room every time it's used or, maybe, only when it's windy outside.

Freestanding fireplaces are available in pre-constructed kit form. They are relatively easy to install. Prefabricated hearths also are available. Because these units stand away from the walls, expensive and time- consuming room preparations aren't required.

Wood stoves are relatively easy to install. Prefabricated flues are available that are quite adequate when properly installed according to the detailed manufacturers’ instructions that come with them.

Hints and Cautions. A normal fireplace has about a 10-percent heating efficiency, which means that 90 % of the heat goes up the flue. Some of the special heat-circulating fireplaces can produce as high as a 40-percent efficiency, which is about half that of a normal heating system. Efficiency can be further increased by locating the fireplace in the center of the house rather than on an outside wall.

The success of a wood-stove installation largely depends on the design and installation of the flue pipe. Kits are available that contain every thing needed, including detailed installation instructions. Care should be taken to keep the pipe straight and plumb. When the stovepipe is connected to an existing flue, the best results can be obtained when the size of the stovepipe is the same as the size of the flue.

Fireplaces are for appearances; wood stoves are for making heat. Shortcutting the installation steps or not following instructions may result in creating a significant fire hazard.

Electric-System Modernization

Increasing the Power Supply. Electric systems can be modernized by increasing the amount of power that comes into the house and by improving the way that the power is distributed throughout the house.

If a house is fed by an old-fashioned two-line power supply, ask the utility company to install a modern three-line, 240-volt system. This isn't a do-it-yourself project.

Modernizing the Distribution Panel Box. Once adequate electricity is coming into the house, the next step is to modernize the distribution panel box to take advantage of the increased electrical capacity. The use of a professional electrician is highly recommended.

Electric systems are described and illustrated in Section 8.

Adding Additional Electrical Outlets. With proper training, many homeowners can run additional electric lines from the distribution boxes to where the lines are needed when this is permitted by local building regulations. Smaller old lines can be replaced with lines of the proper size. Additional wall outlets and fixture outlets can be installed as needed. The switching system can be improved and expanded.

Home Automation. Many new functions described in the “Home Automation” section in Section 8 can be added.

Hints and Cautions. Planning is essential before any electric-system work is started.

Try to think ahead regarding what future needs will be and plan for them now. When in doubt, add the additional circuit, switch or outlet now rather than wait.

Do not operate outside the law. Check local building- and electrical- code regulations. Use the materials and installation techniques they pre scribe.

Electricity is dangerous. Do not drink and work on the electrical system. Do not work on live wires. Be sure to have all the correct tools that are needed.

Leave an access to all connections. A common requirement of all electrical codes is that connections must remain accessible and not be covered up with anything except removable covers

Inadequate electrical power may be caused by overtaxed transformers that only the utility company can replace, inadequate feeder lines and power services that usually require an electrician to replace, limited ser vice-panel capacity, overloaded circuits and an insufficient number of and poorly located outlets and switches.

Good home-improvement manuals provide detailed instructions and many illustrations showing how electrical work can be performed satisfactorily by do-it-yourselfers who are willing to plan and follow instructions.

Plumbing- and Heating-System Modernization

Sooner or later, most homeowners wish to expand or modernize their plumbing systems. The basics of how plumbing systems work are de scribed in Section 8.

Here are some of the most common things homeowners do to improve their plumbing systems:

• Add bathrooms and lavatories.

• Improve the domestic hot-water heating system.

• Add and replace appliances.

• Improve the heating system.

• Replace plumbing fixtures and fittings.

• Replace old pipes and vents.

• Improve the water supply.

• Replace the septic system and leaching fields.

Adding Bathrooms and Lavatories. A standard bathroom consists of three fixtures (water closet, tub and shower and lavatory). A half bath or lavatory does not have the tub and shower. A deluxe bath may have two lavatories, a bidet, a whirlpool tub, a separate stall shower and a storage space for the linens. Adding and renovating bathrooms already has been covered in this section.

Improving the Domestic Hot-Water Heating System. Increasing the size of the domestic hot-water tank will increase the amount of available hot water. Oil produces the most hot water the fastest in the smallest tanks. These systems are expensive to install for they require a storage tank for the oil and a separate flue.

Adding and Replacing Appliances. Some appliances, such as dish washers, washing machines, clothes dryers, garbage disposals, etc., may require plumbing, electrical work as well as carpentry to upgrade them.

Improving the Heating System. The cheapest and best way to reduce the cost of heating a house is to install an automatic timed thermostat that will reduce the heat setting during the night and during the day when no one is home. It is an old wives’ tale that a heat level should be maintained because it's expensive to run the temperature up and down.

Old heating units are inefficient and should be replaced. Changing the type of fuel increases the cost of the replacement. A professional is needed to install a replacement heating system.

If the house has central hot-air duct work, a heat pump should be in stalled. These units (which are described in Section 8) will cool the house, too, and will save money.

Replacing Plumbing Fixtures and Fittings. Replacing an old toilet with a new one will spruce up a bathroom. If the piping is relatively modern, replacing the toilet is easy to accomplish.

Before replacing an old cast-iron tub, keep in mind that these tubs can be cleaned and resurfaced to look like new, and they probably are bigger and more comfortable than the replacement fiberglass models.

Modern bathroom basins (lavatories) and kitchen sinks may be a substantial improvement over the existing fixtures. As part of their re placement program, new cabinets and counters should be considered.

Replacing Old Pipes and Vents. The pipes in old houses may be re placed with modern ones when they become clogged or begin to leak (especially around their joints). New bathrooms and other additions, such as a wet bar, a refrigerator with an icemaker, a washing machine, etc., re quire water and waste pipes.

Replacement and new pipes may be cast iron, galvanized steel, plastic or copper depending on their use and location (see Section 8).

The most difficult part of do-it-yourself plumbing is joining pipes together and attaching them to fixtures and equipment. To do this requires the proper tools and equipment.

Plastic pipe is gaining in popularity. Some building codes permit its use only for waste and vent lines. Other codes also permit its use for water lines.

For the do-it-yourselfer, plastic pipes are much easier to use both for extensions and replacements. There are a variety of special joints available to connect plastic pipes to existing metal ones.

Every fixture must be properly vented. Whenever possible, plan to cluster proposed new fixtures in an addition around a soil stack. If sewer gas is smelled escaping from a fixture that was venting properly in the past, the vent may have become clogged.

Improving the Water Supply. As a house gets old, the amount of safe water available may decrease. When the water comes from a well, the well may have to be deepened and /or a new well pump installed. If there is a water-softening system, it may require repair or replacement.

When the water supply is from a municipal water system, the pres sure at the meter should be at least 30 psi (pounds per square inch). When the pressure is below this level, the pressure at the curb valve should also be checked and if it's low, the problem must be resolved by the municipal water company. If the pressure is sufficient, a new feed line is needed. This is a job for a plumbing professional.

Replacing the Septic System and Leaching Fields. A properly functioning septic system is essential if the house isn't served by a municipal sewer system.

The septic system should be checked regularly by a professional and pumped out as needed.

If the septic tank still does not drain correctly after the sludge has been pumped out, something is blocking the leaching fields. Perhaps some roots may have to be removed. If the leaching-field tiles are clogged, they should be replaced.

Hints and Cautions. There are many ways to add to and improve a plumbing system. Few families have enough bathrooms and lavatories. Old heating systems are inefficient and waste fuel. Everyone likes new modern appliances and a domestic hot-water system that provides an ample supply of hot water. Pipes, vents and fixtures become clogged and discolored and they leak and break.

An ample safe supply of water and a satisfactory method of liquid waste disposal are essential for a family’s health and happiness.

These systems are installed according to most plumbing codes. Bent pipes are a sign that the planning was poor and the work was done by an amateur.

Plastic pipes expand and contract more than metal pipes. Enough play must be left to allow for this expansion and contraction.

Improperly vented waste lines are a health hazard. Traps don't re main filled with water between uses and sewer gases escape into the house. This often is caused by the siphoning action that's created when the distance from the fixture to the vent pipe exceeds the recommended distances or the diameter of the vent line is too small. The maximum distance when a 3-inch (inner diameter) line is used is 6 feet. The stack should rise 18 inches or more above the roof.

Consider replacing the water feed line from the street to the house regardless of the pressure if the line is made of lead.

Because many septic systems malfunction at least once a year, a hookup always should be made to a municipal sewer system if one is available.

A grease trap added to the plumbing system may eliminate any backup caused by cooking grease.

Fast-growing grass in the area of the septic system is a warning sign that something is wrong with the septic system.

When renovating old bathrooms, wood rot often is encountered. All rotted framing members must be removed and replaced before proceeding with the renovation.

Domestic hot-water supply can be improved by adding another tank in series to the existing tank or to the boiler that now supplies the hot water. In warmer seasons, fuel can be saved by turning off the boiler.

When installing a dishwasher, don't box it in so that it can't be re moved for repair. Sooner or later, it will overflow, so anticipate what potential damage will be done and how it can be minimized or prevented.

A garbage disposal shouldn't be installed if there is a septic system, for the disposal probably will damage the system.

Washing machines also damage a septic system and sooner or later will overflow. Clothes dryers produce lint and heat. Provisions to remove both are needed.

Do not install an oversized heating system. It wastes fuel because it goes on and off more frequently.

Automatic vent dampers will pay for themselves in a few years.

Heat pumps work best when the average winter temperature is at least 5 to 10 degrees above freezing.


There are many things that can be done to a home to make it more spacious, more attractive and more livable. The following is a list of popular exterior improvements that are covered next in this section:

• Adding insulation.

• Building an addition.

• Fixing the foundation.

• Repairing or replacing the roof.

• Installing doors, windows or skylights.

• Adding siding.

• Repairing or replacing gutters and downspouts.

• Adding decks.

• Building patios and walks.

• Working on landscaping, walls and fences.


Adequate insulation saves energy costs and makes a house feel more comfortable. How insulation works and what materials are available are de scribed in Section 5.

The most effective things to do to save heat are to weatherproof any holes and cracks that are letting cold air blow into the house and to make sure that there is at least 6 inches of overhead insulation.

The cost-back time for these two steps should be less than three years. Other types of insulation additions, such as under-floor installation, storm windows and doors, additional wall insulation, etc., will not save their cost for at least seven years and maybe as long as 20 years.

Building an Addition

A house can be expanded by adding a one-story or two-story addition. Obviously, small one-story additions are easier for do-it-yourselfers to build than large multistory ones.

Planning an addition carefully is the secret of success. Here are a few of the many planning decisions that will make for a better addition to a home.

1. The foundation should be designed so that the footing extends down to frost-free undisturbed earth.

2. Avoid using a new material for the siding that does not match the existing house siding.

3. Locate doors and windows so they blend in with the house.

4. Plan to prepare the existing wall for the addition before starting.

5. Figure out what materials are needed and order them at one time to save money. Give the building-supply company the whole list and ask them to quote a price including delivery.

6. Plan for delays. Build flexibility into the schedule.

7. Get the help that's needed. Do not overestimate your own abilities.

All additions except those over an existing part of the house require a new foundation and footing. This work is best left to professionals.

Installing the Windows and Doors and Attaching the Siding

Once the basic addition has been constructed, the interior finishing is very similar to what is required when any unfinished portion of a house is finished. All these steps are described elsewhere in this section and in this guide.

Fixing the Foundation

The major problem with foundations is that they leak and , therefore, make it impossible to utilize basements for living areas. Here are some common causes of wet or damp basements:

1. High humidity resulting in condensation.

2. Inadequately waterproofed walls.

3. High groundwater table.

4. Exterior site slopes toward the wall instead of away to allow proper drainage.

5. Water from the roof not collected by gutters and carried away from the foundation by downspouts with adequate water-disposal facilities.

To start waterproofing, install a dehumidifier, fill any cracks, seal the walls from the inside and make sure no water is collecting at the edge of the foundation on the outside. This should solve the problem.

If this does not work, seek professional help. A professional may recommend installing a sump pump, excavating around the outside of the foundation and then waterproofing on the outside and installing drains around and under the foundation. Needless to say, this work can be very costly.

Roof Repair and Replacement

After getting over any fear of heights, fixing a roof or installing a new one is easy to learn how to do. The different roof-covering systems are de scribed in Section 5.

Shingles are installed from the bottom up, starting with a double- thick starter course.

Doors, Windows and Skylights

The nice thing about doors, windows and skylights is that they are available completely assembled and finished including the glass. All that must be done is prepare a hole in the roof or wall of the correct size. Then in stall the door, window or skylight according to the manufacturer’s instructions and the job is complete.


There is a substantial difference in what architects, designers and planners believe is attractive siding and what is being used by many home-builders and accepted by the American public.

The former believe that siding should be one or two simple materials at most and the latter believe the more the better and the more elaborate the better. One look at a house will tell who was responsible for the siding selection.

The thought of never having to paint a house again is a tempting reason for changing the siding from wood to some other material. This rarely makes economic sense unless the wood siding is in poor shape and already needs replacing. The different types of siding are described and illustrated in Section 5.

Gutters and Downspouts

The installation of gutters and downspouts is previously discussed in Section 5.


The addition of a porch or deck is an easy and economical way to expand a home. If an uncomplicated design is selected, this is a manageable task for many homeowners.

Decks range from single 8-foot x 10-foot ground-level ones that cost a few thousand dollars to large complex decks that cost up to $10,000 and sometimes more.

Correctly designed and constructed footings are the hardest part of porch and deck installation.

Several simple additions that can be added to a deck are built-in seating, eating and serving facilities, other seating and planters.

Adding a roof to a deck increases its usability. Deck roof construction is no different than regular roof construction that's covered in houses-basic-construction-0.html.

Another possibility is to add a deck to the roof of the house. This is more complex than a ground-level or elevated deck for the roof must be checked to see if it can support the additional weight of the deck plus the people who will be using it.

Patios and Walks

Patios and paths are other ways to make yards more attractive and livable. Brick and stone are the most popular materials. They can be set in sand or mortar.

Landscaping, Walls and Fences

American yards range from flat sand and covered lots to beautifully landscaped yards complete with pools, courts, shrubs, trees, flowers, fences, walls, etc.

There is no end to how much time and energy can be spent on this type of home improvement. Bookstores are filled with books on this subject and in most areas there are ample landscaping contractors prepared to do the work.

Hints and Cautions. When building an addition, check the lot-line requirements to be sure they aren’t extended over by mistake.

Adding insulation is the number-one home improvement. Unfortunately, many homeowners decide to add insulation based on fuel-saving estimates that are totally unrealistic.

Cracked roof shingles look awful. Use a chalk snap line to draw care fully measured guidelines.

There is a significant difference between the cheap doors, windows and skylights that are widely available and the quality brand-name products that cost significantly more. Cheap skylights often leak. Cheap windows stick and leak air; cheap doors warp and those that are finished often don't last.

Pressure-treated deck materials are more costly, but they are well worth the extra expense for they will last substantially longer than untreated wood.

Keep in mind when designing a deck that there may be potential future trouble such as dampness, undesirable plants and animals underneath the deck, so there must be a way to get under the deck.

In cold climates, the ground swells during the winter. To prevent damage to patios and walks, they should be constructed to resist the ground swelling.

Landscaping should be done because of the pleasure that it will afford the homeowner, for its cost will rarely be equal to its value.

Exterior home improvements make a house more livable by expanding the usable area, saving energy and keeping the house in good repair by fixing doors, windows, siding, trim, roofing, gutters and downspouts, etc., and replacing them when needed.

Many projects require some professional help but also provide good opportunities for do-it-yourself work, especially when ample time is al lowed to complete the project.


As the cost of new construction rises and rooms become smaller, ceilings lower and walls thinner, the amenities of old houses are increasing their popularity all over the country.

Some of these houses are beautifully restored to their authentic original condition and others are “remodeled” into visual horrors.

Old houses in poor condition often can be purchased at bargain prices. The more work the homeowner does, the bigger the potential savings.

Many of the techniques used in old-house renovations are the same as those described in this section and elsewhere in this guide.

One of the big differences is the need to locate wood that has rotted or otherwise become damaged and then to repair and replace it.

The same is true of all the mechanical systems that must be inspected and repaired as needed.

Old-fashioned interior designs may not be satisfactory, though the temptation to tear up the inside of the house should be resisted. When ever a wall is removed, there always is the possibility of unexpected trouble. Contractors know this, so it's hard to get a firm estimate for a remodeling job that involves the removal of walls, unless the contractor inflates the bid to allow for unexpected problems.

Many old houses have beautiful woodwork that has been covered over with paint. The most popular subject discussed by people involved in old-home renovations is the techniques they use to strip paint.

Many books and the magazine Old House Journal provide information about old-house renovations.

Hints and Cautions. If you are thinking about buying and restoring an old house, take advantage of the substantial amount of information and help that's available. Here are some suggestions on where to locate free help:

1. Look in the telephone book for the numbers of the local- and state- government information hot lines.

2. If they exist in the community, contact the Redevelopment Agency, the Urban Rehabilitation Department, the Housing Authority and the City Planning Department.

3. Try to locate nonprofit better-housing groups that exist in the area.

4. Check local banks—often they know of special low- and even no- interest programs.

5. If the house is old or in an historic district, contact the local and state historic commissions and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Old houses have large rooms, high ceilings, beautiful woodwork and many other features not found in most modern houses. Their popularity continues to increase.

Substantial free help is available for planning and financing a restoration. There also are tax incentives.

The best advice of all is “when in doubt as to what to do, leave it the way it was.”

Also see: Common Problems of Houses

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