Old house, new house

Sam Brace likes to build new houses and restore old houses. And on an old street in Seattle, he is getting the chance to do both on adjacent lots. This makes him uniquely qualified to discuss one of the bigger questions urban homeowners raise today: Should I fix up an old house or just tear it down and start new?

Good question, says Brace, a fourth-generation Seattleite whose great-grandfather operated a lumber mill on Lake Union.

On one hand, a new house is appealing because it can be a solid, low-maintenance structure full of things that work well and are easy to use. Plus it comes with a warranty.

But an old house contains irreplaceable charm and craftsmanship, Brace says. It may be costly and messy to remodel, but it comes with a bonus--its size doesn't need to conform to modern land-use codes if it was legal at the time it was built.

In other words, it's possible that it can be larger than a new house put up on the same site.

But if size isn't important, one might want to just bulldoze an old house and put up a new one, he said. There are a number of other factors to consider:

** Resale value: While older houses may have antique value and charm, many buyers prefer new houses. Brace figures he may end up selling his new and remodeled houses for about the same price.

** Dealing with the unknown: Major remodeling jobs often uncover more old-house problems than seen at first glance. And those repairs can involve more design changes, more permits, more work, more money and more conflicts between the builder and homeowner who's trying to keep costs down. Unless the homeowner has an unlimited remodeling budget--"Money solves everything," Brace says.

** Dealing with the known: Remodeling old houses often means the costly removal of such things as asbestos, lead paint and underground oil tanks no longer in use. But as Brace points out, these things eventually will have to be dealt with anyway.

The factor that often tips the balance toward remodeling is size. The adjacent houses Brace is working on vividly show why. The new house is 2,600 square feet and built on a vacant lot that came with the old house.

The old house was built in 1910 and is 3,200 square feet, largely because it is allowed to jut out into the back yard more than the new house. It also is allowed to stand within 3 feet of the neighboring houses. (If built today, it would have to be set back at least 5 feet from the property line.)

The more generous codes of the past are the reason you sometimes see all but a small section of an old house--sometimes not much more than a wall--left standing where a buyer is planning to build a new house on the lot. By retaining some portion of the house, the owner usually can keep the larger outer footprint of the original house. Such projects are examined on a case-by-case basis, said Alan Justad, spokesman for Seattle's Department of Design, Construction and Land Use (DCLU).

But the homeowner must prove that the old house needs to be demolished because of damage due to "acts of nature" such as dry rot, termites and earthquake damage. One way some people get around this requirement is by rebuilding the house in phases over the years, which is legal but can be a drawn-out, expensive process.

Brace said his decision to buy the old house and remodel wasn't easy. For one thing, he didn't know exactly how much work would be involved. Turns out the plumbing and wiring needed to be replaced, along with the rear porch. He's also installing new windows and a new sewer line, basic stuff that's good to do every hundred years or so anyway.

"It (remodeling) costs a lot more money than tearing it down (and rebuilding a new house)," he said, adding that a new house would be smaller and lack that old-house character.

As wealthy homebuyers have rediscovered older in-city neighborhoods, the trend to rebuild older houses has grown. You don't have to drive far in Seattle to find a house that's being gutted with an industrial-size trash bin out front.

No figures are available on how many old Seattle houses are undergoing major remodels. The permits are filed as an "addition/alteration," which can range from bumping out a kitchen wall to a major remodel, Justad said.

The DCLU is in the midst of remodeling its own land-use regulations, which have been changed and modified so much over the years that they can be confusing to property owners, costly to follow and difficult for the city to enforce.

One problem is the challenge of finding and reading old building plans and permits to help determine what kind of house was allowed on a specific property in the first place.

Plans for houses were not maintained before 1975, and permits between 1894 and 1908 are not indexed. "Permits even into the 1920s are poorly microfilmed and hard to read," a new DCLU report says. "Property owners and DCLU staff are often frustrated because they cannot find permits, or the permits they do find are hard to interpret."

The report contains recommendations to improve the process and save money and frustration. It eventually will be presented to the City Council for approval.

"The cost of research, preparing applications and in some cases attending administrative hearings or making court appearances can easily run into hundreds or even thousands of dollars for small projects," says the report. "The process can be frustrating for these homeowners and applicants and require months to complete."

One phrase that pops up frequently in codes is "nonconforming uses," which means anything that wouldn't be allowed under current land-use codes. The DCLU report found more than 77 references to nonconformity in the land-use code, many of which could be consolidated.

The DCLU's goal is not to bring old houses up to modern land-use standards, but to make the process of remodeling them easier, thus helping to maintain the character of older neighborhoods, the report says.

The agency is also suggesting that the City Council establish a new "amnesty date" of July 24, 1957, meaning that houses built before that date could be repaired or rebuilt along the same land-use codes as the old house. Current code considers anything built before 1923 to be the legal standard (except north of 85th Street, where the annexation date of 1954 is used.)

The DCLU estimates the changes could save the department up to $125,000 a year in staff time spent reviewing plans, answering technical questions, enforcing the code and explaining the issues to customers.

Brace said the process has been relatively easy for his two Wallingford houses, which is why he jumped at the chance to buy the property. It's rare enough to find a vacant lot in the city on which to build, and being connected to a fixable old house was a bonus, he said.

He said he enjoys upgrading and rewiring the interiors of old houses to make them appealing to 21st century homebuyers with their need for personal computers and other high-tech items. When finished, the house will combine old and new.

Standing in front of the big hole dug out under the main floor, where a new two-car garage will go, Brace marveled at the thick posts holding up the house. They were cut nearly 100 years ago from old-growth fir. He proudly pointed to the seamless 30-foot-long floor joists, which might have come from his family's mill down the hill.

"I thought about tearing it down. Probably more so as I got into it," he said, looking at his remodeling project. But then he added, "I can imagine all the labor that went into building this."

Bill Kossen's phone message number is 206-464-2331. His e-mail address is: bkossen@seattletimes.com