New Series – The House Gut

The House Gut is a new series written by HumaneFoodie. She lives in NoMa.

Looking for, buying, and gutting a house in D.C.

Buying a house in the District may seem as unfathomable as a paycheck over $25K did when you first moved to this city. But if you’ve stayed past the two-year cutoff period for D.C. residents who never change their drivers’ licenses, you’ve probably started thinking about the long term: Rents are increasing, neighborhoods are changing, and you can’t afford to live in the city forever on a teacher/non-profit/government salary.

So, you start looking to buy a place.

There are three types of houses/condos to buy in D.C.:

1) Gently used (very hard to find),

2) Flippers (Is that a granite backsplash covering up shoddy electrical work?), and

3) Gut job (huge undertaking, but in a town of people who like to “fix and run things,” could there a better option?)

So after six years here, my huuuusband and I charged into the world of buying, gutting, and living in a house by adhering to the mantra we learned growing up in the ’80s: Reduce, reuse, recycle (snarky PoPville commenters, eat your hearts out).

Continue after the jump.

Before you buy a house, you have to look for a house.

And in an inventory-low city, you have to look a lot. We went to open houses almost every weekend, and scoured the listings every morning. After looking for roughly two months (Is this long or short? How long have others looked?), we decided that gutting a house would be our best option. We had heard stories from friends about paying for electrical work, plumbing, a new roof, and more when they had just paid up for a “new home.”

Why go for the gut?

A gut is not for everyone. You have to know what you want, and after looking at oh-so-many houses in D.C., it’s not that hard to soon figure out what you want. We wanted a front porch, open kitchen, and backyard.

We also were fortunate to have an architect in the family, but a lot of contractors in D.C. work with architects. In this case, it simply brought us to our decision a little earlier.

We also wanted a very energy-efficient, low-impact house. We wanted to use as much salvaged and recycled material as possible. A gut job was a good way to achieve that.

And so one Saturday, we found our house.

Just like that. It was clearly in need of lots of work. For starters, I saw that we had to strip the fake wood paneling, open the kitchen, and do something with the basement.

We put an offer in the next day, and by Tuesday, we had a verbal agreement. Not everyone’s experiences are quite like that, but ours was an estate sale, so things went quickly.

Next up: picking a contractor, choosing the right design, salvaging materials, and making it energy efficient!

54 Comment

  • diploj

    I like the series — look forward to the next installment. I’d be curious to know what neighborhood the house is in, what its stats are (size, bedrooms, bath) what you paid for it, and what you budgeted for the gut job. My wife and I are thinking about going this route if/when we graduate from condo to row house.

    • I understand your curiosity about these details, but really, would you share this type of financial information about yourself and your home?

      If you need advice relative to your future purchase, see a realtor.

      Someone is generous enough to share their story with the PoPville peanut gallery – and you think they should also share their address, their purchase price, the size of their home, their renovation budget, etc.? So then everyone can start judging them on their financial decisions on top of everything else?

      • I think at least the neighborhood and the reno cost would be very helpful. I, for one, think that people grossly underestimate how much a job like this will cost with nice finishes. People complain about the granite and stainless kitchens, but do do anything more unique or higher end can double the cost. I always chuckle when people talk about buying a place and spending $100k for a full reno. Only if everything is plastic.

        • Just finished my total renovation project in January this year… I did a 203k and honestly now wouldn’t go any other way. I’ve been meaning to do a write-up for POP (I have lots of before & after pictures) but I’ve been too busy at a new job (working to pay the project off also). I had a good contractor, but I had to learn a lot considering I’ve done projects like this before a few times, if you’re not prepared to know materials and techniques (Even though youtube can be quite helpful) a contractor can rip you off blind if you’re not careful. You have to be a bit of a hard liner in negotiations and in making sure quality is reinforced into your project. If you’re not prepared to argue and stick up for yourself, these types of projects are not the best for you.

          I put about $230k into my Petworth home with a $29k reserve, still a few items like landscaping had to be scaled back, but otherwise, lots of top notch things like premium wood floors throughout, dual zone HVAC, new roof, new windows, new copper water lines, blown insulation everywhere, + all new electrical wiring were essential in my project. Just 1 month after the project was completed, I did have a gasket blow on a sink in my house which flooded the kitchen. Luckily my contractor covered the repair of the floors and fixed the source of freezing.

          Renovations like this often take a year (mine took me about year and 4 months). The contractor I hired did his (construction) work after I completed demolition for 5 months within about 8 months after permits were secured. getting permits was much easier than I thought they would be, by going to the Homeowner Center at DCRA with solid floor plans. I hired a great architect as well that helped me to render my ideas, and she briefed me on what I needed to get a quick permit approval. Permits cost me around $5k, no comment on the validity of that cost though.

          Be careful when selecting a HUD consultant. After losing a $1,000 deposit to an arrogant lazy bum who drives a yellow Hummer, I realized that I needed a better consultant. The consultant you choose for your 203k can hold up your project if you choose the wrong one, so BE CAREFUL in picking one. This is the person that will inspect renovations as they are being done. You want someone who is impartial enough to call your contractor out if they are cutting corners. My contractor referred me to a Hud Consultant he had worked with before that wasn’t a close friend, so I vetted the consultant carefully and he worked out quite well.

          There’s a lot more to the process, but quality and building equity should be the supreme guide. If you have any questions, let me know- I love talking about this stuff.

      • Diploj did NOT ask for the address. Don’t be ridiculous, reasonable questions to ask.

      • These are hardly unreasonable questions. If other commenters are going to judge, that’s on them, not diploj–who sounds like he’s quite amiably asking for some specific advice that might help him in his future reno (from a neutral third-party who’s been through the experience, not a realtor whose financial advice could be influenced by self-interest). And no one’s badgering the OP for details–she’s free to share as much or as little as she’s comfortable with, or offer to message diploj privately to discuss further, or whatever.

      • All of this info can be found on the googles anyways. Anyone who has bought a house, seriously looked for a house, or has done online dating (read: background checks!) knows this. It’s not an unreasonable question.

        • No it can’t. I’m in the middle of this process myself, and there is no way to find on Google how much your renovation should/will cost. There are too many variables, and too much misinformation on the Internet besides.

          I also think this information would be useful for the author to share, and I’d willingly share it myself if I were participating in this series.

          • Aaaaaaand I should have read your post more carefully. Same anon here. Yes, some information can be found on Google, although not the cost of one’s renovation.

      • Way out of line here Jen. These questions are essential to the narrative. The interest in the story lies in thinking about doing things yourself. If money’s no object, this is boring: Buy a house you like. Pick the best contractor on angie’s list, an architect, interior designer, whatever. Have them make the house you want. Rent a hotel room while they do the work.

        Financial decisions are pretty much inseparable from renovation.

        Are you a realtor?

        • I disagree that these details are “essential to the narrative” – but obviously HumaneFoodie did not mind the questions, so no problem. Just suprised me.

          (And the neighborhood is mentioned in the very first line of the first post – hence my thought that people wanted the address.)

          And no, I’m not a realtor.

      • If you are willing to submit photos of the inside of your home before/after, I don’t think it’s a stretch to share your neighborhood, purchase price, basic home details and the cost. To me, the series is almost useless unless dollar figures are provided.

        My wife and I are considering doing a gut/reno and only have an idea of the cost.

        • Wow, thanks for all the comments. OP here. Neighborhood is Noma/Near northeast. Glad this is helpful for some people- part of the reason for doing this is that we could not find information about a major renovation when first getting into this. Purchase price was about 500k, and if it had been priced much lower than that, I’m fairly certain developers with cash would have gobbled it up and flipped it. This was also a year ago when inventory wasn’t quite as low as it is now. Renovation was (is) a little under $200k, but would have been more if we had gone with high-end finishes, not gotten lots of materials salvaged/used, not kept as much of the original house as possible (some flooring, doors, exterior) and not painted ourselves. 203k loans are a good option, and so are Chip loans that keep the down payment minimal. No parental contribution here, but we put about $40k on 0% APR credit cards as part of this, and have roommates, which helps us pay that down. We also got an estimate from a contractor right after we put in an offer, which came in just a little under what we spent. Hope that helps.

  • Which neighborhood is this in? We have a fireplace almost exactly like the one in the pictures and our kitchen is in the same place. We also have the same pocket door. Our kitchen wall was opened up by the last owner and we love it like that.

  • I’m really looking forward to following this, um, adventure…? Thanks for your willingness to share.

  • Chapter 1: Asking dad for a downpayment…

    Ch 4: We decided on an open kitchen, but fought over the cabinet handles were fierce.

    Chapter 12: My kids just ruined our hardwood floors when the sippy cup leaked cranberry juice into our bamboo laminate…

    Post script: 2033. We’ve sold the house. The new owners ripped up our renovation and put up paneled walls to eliminate the open kitchen/dining area that we created.

    • Seriously? Twenty-four minutes after the first installment, and you already know this person’s life story?

      If you aren’t interested – or think you know it all already – don’t read it. No need to impose your smug prejudices on the rest of us….especially as you are “Anonymous.”

    • As Nigel Tufnel so wisely said, “There’s a fine line between clever and stupid.”

    • Go the 203k route and there’s no need for very much down payment. Just sayin’.

      • agreed. We did this and it was worked out well.

      • Don’t you need to use certain approved contractors for the project though? I thought a friend said that was quite limiting, but I could be wrong

        • You do, but many, many contractors in the DC area do 203k. A quick search of Angie’s List turns up many highly-rated contractors. We were able to get bids from a number of contractors with substantial 203k experience.

  • We have that same mantel. On ours, the tile work was actually not tile. It was painted on. Be sure to check it carefully before putting any cleaning products on because you may inadvertently strip the paint. When we bought our house, this part of the mantel was painted over with latex paint. We used paint remover to take it off, not realizing that the “tiles” underneath were also paint and everything came off.

  • This does look like a great series (and for the record, my house falls into category #2, and I’m afraid to have an electrician come in!). Can’t wait to hear about contractors!

  • I like this series idea. Thanks for sharing. I ended up going with a flipped house partially because I didn’t think I’d have the knowledge, energy, or time flexibility to deal with contractors and making all those choices. The other reason though was because it seemed hopeless to bid against the professional renovators who snatched up the best houses with cash offers that beat out my conventional loan offer. Wondering if you found that not to be a problem since you got a place in 2 months?

    • I thought that too, but then we found a realtor who knew her stuff. We went the 203k route, and she put an escalation clause into our offer. In the end, because we were willing to pay more for the house than the flippers, we got it.

      • Most flippers know how much the will spend on the house to make money. If they can’t buy the house and fix it for X price and still make money they will leave. Most owners threshold for buying may be a bit higher because they plan on living in the thing after it is done and while they wouldn’t want to over spend on buying/fixing they have a bit more flexibility because of they don’t have to make the same profit margin as a flipper who is using this house to finance the next.

    • Also, there are types of foreclosure sales that builders/contractors/etc. are prohibited from bidding on.

    • Oh no, developers with cash were definitely a problem. We could not even see some houses because there were already several offers from developers by noon the same day!!!! But I think this was a little higher than developers were willing to pay, so they didn’t pounce. We also saw it the day after it went on the market and put in an offer the day after that.

  • My fiance and I are doing the same thing. I want to know the details myself about address, purchase prices, etc…… we purchased in 2009. Just wait till hit the unexpected surprised & crap. For example: we had an issue with a company that we bought supplies from, and we just had to issue them a letter of demand… next step… small claims.

  • That staircase has to be from the Home Depot of the time. Have the exact same style in PPlains/CH.

  • Interesting series idea. I look forward to future installments!

    • Thanks! I also hope that @jack5 continues to comment, as it sounds like s/he did a lot of the demo and construction, whereas we worked 100% with a contractor.

    • HumaneFoodie, any chance you could re-post the “basement collage” photos in non-collage form? It’s hard to see the details (and to read the captions).

      I am also curious how you (and others) define the word “gut.” I had always taken it to mean “everything must go — the walls, the fixtures, etc.”… but maybe (I hope?) you are going to retain some of the original features of your house, like the first-to-second-floor stairs and the wall with the pocket doors? (Or at least the stairs?)

      Certainly what I can make out of the basement from the photo collage looks like a gut job, except maybe for the stairs. Was this a “finished” basement that had undergone a lot of water damage or something?

      • This is a good question. I called it a gut. Our contractor called it a gut. But my husband didn’t think it was a full gut.

        Will go into detail in my next two posts about the work we did, so let me know what you think.

  • Hm…If i were doing a gut job, I’d think about developing a relationship with a good contractor during the house search. Sure, sounds optimistic. But i did work with a good structural engineer and general construction contractor before i closed. Real piece of mind.

  • gotryit

    We’re doing the same thing now in 16th street heights – about mid-way through the demo phase. Your trim looks just like ours – neat stuff.

    Thanks for sharing your process. I think we’re too private to share all that info in such a public forum.

  • This series brings up too many memories for me. My husband and I bought a row house located in 16 street heights in 2010. The house was in bad condition, but was structural sound. The project was a complete gut. We used a 203K loan to finance the home and renovation. I am an interior architect, so I was able to create the construction drawings for the project. The majority of the construction money went to mechanical, electrical, plumbing and structural work (this is very typical). The total budget was 150K, not including the basement. It should have taken 6 months to complete, however there were several adventures/ surprises along the way. It ended up taking a total of 10 months to complete. We are still working on the house to this day.

    All houses are different and there is no magic renovation number. Things to keep in mind: 1) There are typically budget surprises along the process. 2) Renovations are never pretty process. 3) Good contractors that don’t cost a fortune are hard to find in the DC area. 4) DCRA can be a nightmare to deal with.

    I wish anyone attempting a gut renovation the best of luck.

  • Non-working fireplaces were not standard in the early 19th c. Yours was probably a gas fireplace, which were fairly common.

  • Thanks for this, love the stairway. Keeping original touches in a reno like the classic woodwork or floors keeps the soul of the house alive.

    I am a new Bloomingdale buyer and would love tips on quality contractors. Looking fwd to more posts and happy to share my experiences as well.

    BR

  • Hi All — This is great! For those of us who are trying to maintain the original character of our row homes (Columbia Heights), it would be great if we could have (maybe with this series) an exchange of some sort to salvage (baseboard, floorboards, doors, etc) from the gut jobs. We beg renovators to let us dig through their dumpsters now…

  • Yup, this is a great idea.

    Had a similar buying experience as the OP. We looked for about 6 mos before buying our Bloomingdale home. We were lucky to get our move in ready house at the price we did. It does need a lot of work, tho.

    We’re in the process of renovating our home. It was one of those quickie renovations from 2005 where they slapped some appliances in the house and hoped no one would notice the hole in the upstairs floor, shoddy electrical, counting a bedroom in the basement with a ceiling height less than 6′, etc. etc… i like to call it the house of wasted space. Our realtor looked at us like we were nuts when we started to negotiate the price. The owners had the house on the market for a month or so and just could not understand why they werent getting $750k for their house.

    But I digress…

    Right now we’ve gutted the basement, putting in new plumbing, new water heater, pouring concrete, opening walls. Without finishing touches, i think it will be $30k in all. We have a contractor who so far has been good. We met him through his niece, who is our neighbor. She is completely gutting her house, and he is doing the work for her. So far so good.

  • Looking forward to this series too. I’ve gutted my house (former GDON) and am slowly putting it back together. It will be interesting to see someone else’s experience to guide me as I move forward.

  • Hey that’s my neighbor’s house! This is such a cool idea to write about your experience. You guys seriously did a phenomenal job and I really love that you are keeping original details.

    Sadly, a flipper got to our house before we did and stripped it of its past. I’m really looking forward to hearing about where you got your materials. We want to start restoring our place with period-appropriate details so it doesn’t look so blah anymore!

Comments are closed.