Congrats! Your fixer-upper is well on its way to be a fixed-upper now that you have a remodeling plan in place and a way to pay for it. You’re almost certainly imagining how lovely a soak in that new bathroom will be after a long day at work or how many family members you’ll be able to pack into your newly opened-up kitchen and dining area. The one thing you’re not thinking about right now is what could possibly go wrong.
That’s ok. We’re here to toss a little storm cloud over your remodeling plans, or at least bring you down to Earth a bit so you’re not blindsided by things you might have never thought to prepare for when redoing your home.
Surprise! Your Remodel Just Got Weird
When you chose your home, you knew it needed work. That wasn’t really a shocker, even as the list from the home inspector seemed to go on and on forever. But now that you’re about to dig in and tackle those projects, now is really the best time to prepare for as much as you can. The older your house, the more surprises you’ll likely find — time has a way of doing that to homes.
Houses constructed more than about 30 years ago were largely built to whatever code seemed fancy in the moment. It wasn’t until 1997 that the International Code Council published the first edition of the International Building Code, which has been updated and reissued every three years since. Before that, many homes were built professionally, but when it came time to remodel anything there were zero standards to hold anyone to. Basically you can kind of think of your home as a time capsule of the most terrifying variety.
Or, you know, it might be totally straightforward. There’s literally no way to know until you get started. So, are you ready?
A Few Surprises to Watch For
No matter how well you think you know your house, you should make sure you’ve got a respirator that can filter both lead paint and asbestos, as well as gloves and work clothing that will protect you from anything before you even think about getting started. These things aren’t a small investment, but if you want to do the work yourself, you need to protect yourself just like a pro would. There are so many things that can jump out and bite you during a remodel, this list contains a few of the most common:
Hidden metal, pipes and wiring. If you’re taking out walls or even taking out tiles with the hopes of replacing them with something more modern, you may discover that your wall interiors are a whole other world. Behind your kitchen’s wet wall, there’s a maze of pipes that snake around to nowhere. Your bathroom has random metal plates just stuck in the wall under some tiles. And, this wire… it goes nowhere. It should go without saying that you should always use tools that have non-conductive handles when you’re working in walls and behind objects that you can’t see through.
Surprise mold and pests. Surprise! You have mold and termites! Wait, that’s a bad thing… hopefully you had a home inspection and a termite inspection that would have found this problem ahead of time, but if you’ve owned your house a few years, pests and mold certainly could have popped up over time. Termites will likely require professional treatment (check the HomeKeepr community for a great pest control pro!), mold is a mixed bag. Some molds are very dangerous for people to breathe, but others are just kind of always in the environment.
At this point, you need to put all the tools away and have a mold test done. While you’re waiting for the results, figure out where the source of moisture that’s keeping this part of your house moist enough to let the various flora and fauna thrive is coming from and repair that problem right away. You may have to adjust your construction budget, but there’s no vessel sink that’s worth ignoring a termite-eaten sill plate.
Dry. Rot. Dry rot comes from similar conditions as mold and pests, but there’s not a pest or mold around. It’s just that your house is sort of rotting. This is not awesome, but it’s an easier fix than some things. Depending on the extent and location, you may want to bring in a structural engineer to assess the amount of repair that’s going to be needed to get your house back into shape.
A really good handyman or general contractor can take it from there. Structural repairs are not really a DIY situation, but if the dry rot is on outside trim pieces or somewhere your engineer doesn’t think is going to influence the way your house functions, go ahead and fix the source of the damage, replace the damaged boards, seal them and get back on track.
Poorly done prior work. This is what you’re hoping to avoid with your current remodel, so take photos as a sad remember that someday, someone else will Instagram your poorly done remodel if you don’t take this seriously. Whatever you uncover, you’ll need to correct it before you move forward. Don’t put good repairs over bad ones, you might as well not bother to remodel your home at all.
Really gross stuff. Homes that have had less than perfect owners or tenants often have less than perfect secrets. Sometimes they verge on the horrific when it comes to the gross out factor. Anything from lively, active pest infestations to evidence of old pest infestations that were completely out of control could be hiding under those layers of wallpaper. It’s alarming what an insect can hide under and still manage to completely disguise itself. (If you find something of this level, you’ll know — call a pest control pro immediately, you do not want to DIY this!)
Really illegal stuff. Sometimes a fixer upper or a repo has had a pretty sketchy history. Illegal activities, especially related to drugs, are not uncommon reasons for someone to lose their home. Most blogs on the topic of surprises in remodels won’t touch on this, but this is a very important consideration if you don’t know anything about the house. The very last thing you want is a needle with an unknown substance and origin falling on you from a drop ceiling you’re taking out piece by piece.
If you find drugs or paraphernalia during your remodel, call your local police department (not 911) for help with proper disposal. Make sure you have all the paperwork with you that proves you just bought the house and make it clear that you want to surrender these things you’ve found during your remodel that are absolutely and in no way related to you. Once it’s all gone, it’s all gone and you can move on like nothing happened. Yet another reason to wear gloves and protective clothing.
Really historical stuff. So as not to send you out on your remodeling adventure on a bad note, let’s talk about something fun you might find. Sometimes, if you’re really lucky, you’ll find some neat historical stuff. You probably won’t see it in an easy to access place, but if you have some built-in cabinets that you’re trying to refinish, for example, make sure you look under and beneath all the drawers. Subfloors might yield coins of unusual age, basements and attics can have all sorts of treasures in them.
These things might not make the Antiques Roadshow, but they’re fun mementos to keep around and they’ll help you tell the story of your home, assuming they’re fit for mixed company.