Answers to Your Questions #7

Here's a grab-bag of questions from the last couple of months. Not all are real FAQ's, but some interesting questions and hopefully helpful answers. Have a question? E-mail us at

And now your questions:

Does the floor need to be replaced in an old home?

Not necessarily. Our floor does need replacing (although for assorted reasons, including the fact that it runs under some of the walls, we are going to merely cover it over with a new floor). It really depends on the condition of the floor.

Signs that a floor might need replacing are large holes in the floor (though these might actually be repairable), the disintegration of the floorboards, and massive, uniform damage to the floor that goes deep into the surface all over the place, such that replacing a few boards or just sanding the entire thing will not solve the problem.

Ideally, even in a house where the floor is really trashed, you would be able to refinish the floor, filling the gaps with flowable floor filler, and maybe just replace a board or two as needed. Of the people we know who are renovating old houses, only one other household had to/was willing to undertake anything like replacing a floor. (They also opted to just put a new floor down on the old.)

How often do you refinish a wooden floor?

There are a couple of ways of dealing with wooden floors. You can polish them, refinish them, or sand them. Polishing you can do before you have a party, or as often as the floors get scuffed up, if you are that kind of person. Refinishing is a major undertaking and I would say it's the sort of thing you do when you're completely reworking the look of a floor (like if you want to change it from glossy to semi-matte). Sanding goes beyond refinishing to remove a layer of the wood. You should do this as infrequently as possible, because floors have a finite number of sandings in them.

Some refinishers always want to sand when they refinish, but it really is not necessary to do a complete sand every time you refinish; it can be a much less invasive process than that. On the other hand, refinishing is a huge disruption and not something to be undertaken lightly.

What is this black, sticky paper under my floor tiles?

A lot of times, black paper under tiles is tar paper. But that may vary in your case, so you should handle it with care and consider having it tested for asbestos.

Why they sometimes put tar paper under floors is anybody's guess. I've heard differing explanations from "surface prep" to "moisture protection," all of which sound plausible.

If I act as my own contractor, can I get discounts on materials?

Maybe, but probably not. You may be able to get volume discounts, or discounts for paying in cash on delivery. But real discounts to professionals are a courtesy extended because the contractor brings a dealer a lot of business. So while you buy bathroom fixtures for your house once, a contractor may put in five orders in a month. You just don't offer the dealer much incentive to lower his prices (unless you have a lot more bathrooms than average).

You can always bargain. If you're willing to take returned stock, for example, or odd ends of lumber, you can usually get very good prices on those. But be aware of where the dealer is coming from.

One possibility is that you can go get a general contractor's license, a business license, and a reseller's permit, and that will enable you to buy goods at wholesale and sell them to yourself (you must pay sales tax on those goods, of course). But that doesn't seem like an easy way to get savings on construction materials unless you already wanted to be a contractor.

How did you learn all this stuff about houses?

Well, you know, architecture school taught me some of it. But most of it we learned from books.

Yep. We got some decent books on house construction and home repair, took some others out of the library, and just went to work. When we want to learn something new, we get a book and study it for a while, and then we go for it. The worst thing that can happen is the house collapses and kills us all, right?

Can you use a steamer to take wallpaper off drywall?

If you are lucky you can. Lucky means that the person who put up the wallpaper had the good sense to prime the drywall before doing so. Preferably with a few coats of primer to really seal the paper surface. If they didn't, you will be looking at a very painful job removing that wallpaper, and a steamer is not going to help you. If it's unprimed, you are going to reach the point where you think it would be better to tear down the drywall and redo it rather than try to remove all the wallpaper. I'm not sure you would be wrong.

Also, if you are planning to hang wallpaper, for heaven's sake prime the wall first. Or better yet, just don't hang wallpaper.

What do you mean when you talk about your library?

We have a double parlour. The front parlour is the front parlour, but the back parlour is the library, called so because it currently houses about 2,000 of my books (the design books and most paperbacks are upstairs in other shelves, and most of the cookbooks are in the kitchen, taking the load off the shelves in the library until we can afford to pay for larger built-in bookcases).

I've been told it sounds pretentious to call a room primarily used for storing and reading books a library. I'm not sure what else I'd call it.

What did it cost to build your wooden shed?

The chicken house cost about $1500 to build, all told (the original budget was $1000; we spent more on doors and windows than we hoped, and the trim had been underestimated). That doesn't include buying new tools or the use of some materials we had on hand, but it does include replacing one messed-up piece of siding, and a bit of excess material bought as a contingency. That's under $30/square foot for the shed, which is pretty reasonable (prefab "cute" sheds cost ten times as much, and we once had a contractor quote us $125/square foot for constructing a shed; of course, no cost for labour is included in our cost).

We will add slightly to that cost over the next year (we plan to add a water spigot and electrical power out there, and there's a good reason for making a South-facing roof). You could certainly spend a lot less money on such a shed, because for the most part sheds do not need two doors and four windows, nor do non-chicken house sheds need an interior wall and loft. But I wanted cute in addition to functional, because this is such a large part of our garden.

If all you are looking for is storage, our metal shed cost about $500 including the cost of concrete for the slab (delivered). That was well worth it for the use we have gotten from that shed. We're planning to replace the shed with a greenhouse in the not-too-distant future, and the shed will be going to live with a friend who has much more extensive junk storage needs than we do (he's an antique dealer).

How do I know if I need an architect?

You are likely to be required to hire an architect or structural engineer if your project involves moving or breaking a hole in a bearing wall. You can see where bearing walls are in your house by making a floor plan and foundation plan: the bearing walls are the ones that rest on the foundation, or are above (or in the case of our house, close to above) a foundation wall.

A wall is definitely not a bearing wall if it runs in the same direction as the floor joists of the room above it, or if it stops short of the ceiling. But be careful: bearing walls hold things up, and moving them around can result in parts of your house collapsing, so it makes sense to be careful when you deal with them. Your mileage as far as whether an architect is required to help you plan changes in bearing walls will vary from state to state, but face it: building codes are a bare minimum intended to keep you from being flat-out killed by your house, so try to take a little more caution than they require.

But beyond pure legality, hiring an architect means having somebody who is on your side. By law, an architect acts as the owner's agent. An architect can help you work your way out of design problems, and they've probably dealt with your specific design issue before many times. During construction an architect will oversee construction for you and make sure you don't pay anybody until the work is actually completed. They will make sure the job is done according to the agreement.

The biggest fear I hear from non-architects about working with an architect is that they don't want some crazy modern design. Clearly, this is in part a matter of choosing an architect who has a similar design aesthetic to yours, but also it is a matter of choosing an architect who listens to you and lets you be the guide for the design. If you're considering hiring an architect, don't just choose the first one you come to. Interview a few architects before making your choice. Make sure they are listening to you.

If your project is very small, you may have difficulty finding an architect to take the job. Designers will often work just fine for things like kitchens and bathrooms; many architects hire designers as consultants for kitchens. And kitchen designers will hire architects as consultants as needed, too. So don't be afraid to choose a non-licensed designer (being a certified designer is not the same as being a state-licensed professional, but it's not necessarily a sign that a designer is a dud). The most important thing is to choose somebody who you are very comfortable with as the interpreter of your ideas.

Are you an architect?

With that long and self-interested answer about choosing an architect, you might think so, but no. I graduated from architecture school last December, and I have about two more years of internship units to earn, plus eight tests to take (seven computerized tests, of which I have passed one, and one oral exam given by the State of California) before I can be a registered architect. And when I am, my practise area is science/healthcare rather than residential (though I might be interested in doing some houses if I find the right clients), so I hardly have a bone to grind about home renovation and the role of architects there.

When are you going to show us your grand renovation plans?

We've been talking and planning and fiddling with plans for adding a couple of bedrooms on the back of the house (turning it from a 2-bedroom, 1 bath house into a 4-bedroom, 2 1/2 bath house). It's something we have wanted to do since we bought this house, and we plan to do the actual work sometime after I get registered as an architect. At this point we're considering doing most of the construction ourselves, since our experience with contractors has been really mixed.

We've got most of the design worked out, but we'll post the drawings when we figure out how we want the bathroom upstairs to work. Which means spending some time planning it, which we just haven't had a free moment to do. Now that the rain has started and outdoor projects are pretty much over, that may happen sooner.

Technorati Tags: , , ,

posted by ayse on 11/05/08