- The Washington Times - Friday, July 20, 2001

As a starter home, the little brick Colonial was a perfect fit for Julie and Justin McInerny. When they bought it five years ago, the young lawyers thought it would be the first in a succession of homes. Then Washington's real estate

market spiraled, and suddenly the value of the little Colonial near the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda had grown far beyond its "starter" charm.

The McInernys who are expecting their second child were faced with a dilemma familiar to growing families: Expand the space or evacuate the place.

It's a difficult choice, say those who recently have hit capacity levels in their homes. Weighing into their decisions are such intangibles as sentimental attachments to home and neighborhood as well as such concrete factors as building codes, costs and real estate market values.

Hassle factors into the formula, too, as people pit the turmoil of moving and unpacking against living knee-deep in sawdust for months at a time.

Then too, not every home is a candidate for a major renovation.

"New construction is so much cheaper than renovation. Sometimes, you'd be better off just tearing down the old house and starting over," said Rockville architect Richard Aitken, who just finished a second-floor renovation that cost as much as an all-new house would on the same site.

Aiding homeowners in their expand-vs.-start-over decision-making are a host of designers, architects and contractors who can help turn almost any cramped cracker box into a dream home.

In an April seminar on the dilemma that he presented for National Architecture Week, Arlington architect Charles Matta tallied up average moving costs, including transaction fees, and concluded: "When you add all the factors together, you can save a few dollars and invest in renovation and remodeling."

Of course, no renovation project comes cheap.

Even the McInernys, who employed a friend to help them design their 1,000-foot addition, ended up spending almost $200 a square foot, the price most of the contractors they consulted were quoting.

But as a proud owner of what once was the "worst house on a good block," Mr. McInerny called the cost "instant equity."

"If you look at the [comparables] in the neighborhood, it's money well-spent. I've lived around here 30-plus years, and it has always been like this," said Mr. McInerny, whose addition includes a new kitchen, family room and master suite.

It took seven months to build.

Before deciding to add on to an existing structure, said Allison Beatty, co-founder of Renovatorsplace.com, it is a good idea for homeowners to examine the value of other homes in the neighborhood.

"You don't want to improve your house too much and price yourself out of the neighborhood," Ms. Beatty said.

If the numbers work out, though, it is time to examine the psychological factors, Mr. Matta said, listing love of neighborhood, attachment to schools, proximity to work, parks and shopping as top factors.

On the other hand, there is a psychological price that comes with living through a renovation, Mr. Aitken pointed out.

"There's a disruption in your life, especially if you're redoing your kitchen," Mr. Aitken said. Workers usually arrive at 7 a.m., make lots of noise, produce dust and dirt, park a 'port-o-john' in the front yard and dig holes all over the property. Sometimes people choose to move out for a couple of months," he said.

For those who decide the price is one they are willing to pay, it is time to sit down with a design specialist.

A family's decision to go with an architect or a design-build contractor depends on how involved the changes they plan to make are, Ms. Beatty said.

"The contractor's focus is always going to be on the technical end, the construction," Ms. Beatty said. "The architect is going to focus on the overall design, how things flow together, consistency within and without; making sure the roofline, windows, trim all complement each other.

One way or another, the consumer pays for design work either upfront or when it is time to sell the house.

"If it's not good construction or it doesn't blend in, they're not going to recoup the cost," she said.

Mr. Matta said he likes to have each family member list renovation priorities so when decisions about cost need to be made, it is easier to match budget and expectations.

"I find that within most couples there are contradictions about what is most important," Mr. Matta said. "Often they like to do more than they can afford to. So we try to find out what's on the list and what's really possible."

Sometimes, Mr. Matta said, after the initial design consultation is done, couples decide to live with the house as it is for a bit longer, save a bit more money and refine those priorities.

"People talk to me to find out whether they're simply dreaming," Mr. Matta said. "It allows them to find out the possibilities, or whether their house has a potential they can work toward."

Or, in the McInernys' case, finally bring a little starter home to the finish line.

More info:

Online

• www.Aiaaccess.com. The official Web site of the American Institute of Architects offers a consumer-oriented explanation of an architect's responsibilities, including 20 questions to ask your architect and a geographically organized listing of licensed architects.

• www.renovatorsplace.com. This news and information service offers tips to help consumers wade through some of the products and projects that tempt them.

• www.NARI.com. The National Association of the Remodeling Industry helps homeowners choose a qualified contractor. Its site includes a section on questions to ask a potential contractor.

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