“I am interested in a pop-up and pop-down”

by Prince Of Petworth April 29, 2016 at 2:15 pm 35 Comments


“Dear PoPville,

I have row house in DC (just east of the NoMa metro) and am interested in a pop-up and pop-down (about 750 feet a floor) (Zoned R4 – I’m familiar with the regs (35 feet)). It’s a two storey house that was built in 2002/2003. No basement, just crawl space. I spoke to one developer & architect team and they wanted to charge just for coming to give an estimate. That’s new to me (coming to give an estimate / bid), although I understand time is worth money and almost everyone related to the construction industry is extremely busy (so much construction in the area). I’m serious about it and have lined up a home equity line of credit. Does anyone have any experience with this? Can recommend a team? I’d like to get a couple estimates before deciding to pick someone to go with. Any guidance would be appreciated.”

  • Evan Tupac Grooter

    I did a dig-out in Bloomingdale. My recommendation is to find an architect that you like, hire the architect to do the plans, then ask for bids from contractors. At that point you can ask for contractors that your architect has worked with before or find a recommendation from some rando on the internet.

    • AdmoDan

      This is your best bet.

  • AnonV2

    You will probably pay if you are asking for a design/build firm to come in and basically sketch out full plans and provide an estimate. Architects don’t work for free. You may get a better idea on costs by chopping up the work into distinct pieces. Get somebody to come in an give you a bid on the dig out. Look around for people who have done a comparable work for finishing a basement, same for the pop-up. Total up a ballpark figure, add 30-40% and see if that is in your expected budget.

    I’m concerned about a full dig out for what you describe as a crawlspace. What kind of headroom is down there now? Gaining a foot or two is a LOT different than going down 4-5 feet (essentially rebuilding your foundation rather than extending the existing footers).

  • anonymous

    I can tell you- Costs will be around 550k maybe more being all you have is a crawl space. Just went through this process(architect/estimates etc). 4000sqft total though.

  • poppers

    Hire an architect first and expect to pay them to do this. There’s no way to do this cheaply (well, there is, but you’re not a flipper so you don’t want to go there). Definitely agree with hiring the architect first. When it comes time to build, we had a great experience with Impact Construction – contact Justin Sullivan and tell him the people who he did the 2nd st nw pop-up recommended him.

  • ERD

    I found an architect I really like and did the plans for a dig-out. Got a HELOC which I thought would be enough. I interviewed 25+ contractors, and was working with two during the design phase. I spent a year getting permits. A day before the contractor we picked started, he upped the price tens of thousands of dollars. Other contractors also upped their prices. I gave up, and am no longer doing a dig-out. The costs escalated higher than I was willing to pay. Fortunately I’m only out the architect/permit fees.

    Lessons learned from my mistakes:
    1) Take your architect’s first estimate of cost, then double it. Use that number as a starting point for your project.
    2) “I don’t want to paint with a broad brush here, but every single contractor in the world is a miserable incompetent thief.” -Ron Swanson
    3) The contractors will give quotes regardless of what’s in your plans. They act like they know what’s in the drawings, but they don’t actually look at them. They don’t have time to give you real estimates. So they don’t look at the plans in earnest until you are about to start.
    4) Don’t do anything remotely interesting, otherwise it will blow your budget. Only stick with what contractors have done in the past. If they haven’t done it, don’t do it. Don’t do any steel supports, don’t try and enclose previously unenclosed spaces.
    5) Hire an expediter to deal with DCRA. They took a solid year to review my plans. I spent every Friday there for months. It was not fun.

    • SF

      Listen to this guy. I’ve also tried to pursue a digout and expansion over the years and have hit dead end after dead end. EVERYONE is either incompetent, negligent, underinformed, and wildly off the mark in one way or the other. Initlal “ballpark” quotes of 60-90K for a digout ballooned to 120-150K once I tried to dial it in with a full proposal– I can only imagine what this would be if you have a crawlspace. additional footers are incredibly, incredibly expensive for every additional foot. And God help you if you’re trying to add on to the existing structure. It’s just not worth it. Better to sell, take the proceeds and buy a house that has the basement and popup that you want ready for modification. Turn back while there’s still time. This path only leads to anguish and disappointment.

      • dunning-kruger

        These folks know whatsup.
        I dug down ~24″ (for +18″ finish height) over ~ 900 sq ft, needed new footing, and paid about $55k for it (literally just the dig, structural framing was done by another contractor the excavator left it shored temporarily, doesn’t even include the slab). For comparison, I also dug out an 8×12 crawlspace which was $8k on its own (discounted slightly). I’m not going to tell you who I used because even though the price was ok I can’t recommend them. This is iconic of this type of work, the footers they built were fine, but not what the engineer specced, and as a result we had to make some compromises on the slab in order to get the ceiling heights we needed. This is because, as ERD correctly states, most do not look at your plans.
        Good luck. You’re gonna need it. Along with more money probably. You’d need like a 100% HELOC to build what you’re talking about. I’d also not be the least bit surprised given the date your home was constructed if it is unable to support a pop up without significant additional structural work. It is probably wood framed with brick cladding not 3 course brick like the old homes they stick popups on every day.
        My advice is start with a structural engineer, aside from money, structural is what may limit your scope and bring your project back down to earth. They aren’t cheap but your project isn’t going anywhere without structural.

        • Cassie

          All of you are so right. And I want to especially emphasize that the contractor will NOT build according to the engineer’s specs because the contractor wants to do it the way they’ve always done it, and not the most structurally sound way.

        • TheOtherAnon

          We were quoted ~$40K for just the dig out and new slab (also going down 2 ft+ to gain about a foot of finished height). Budgeted another $40k for finishing the rest, ended up spending about 50% on top of everything ($120 total) due to things we found in the plumbing/electrical and a bunch of upgrades that it just made sense to tackle while the floor and walls were opened up (new HE furnace, radiant, re-routed some drainage, moved all mechanicals, cut a new doorway.). Did almost all of the final finishes and some framing/drywall myself, though, which probably saved an additional $20-30K. About 700 sq ft.

          • Cassie

            Did you have to underpin and install a French drain?

          • dunning-kruger

            The OP would be remiss to dig that deep and not waterproof/sump pump. BTW I did it as an add, just in the front and back (cuz rowhouse) it was another 6k if I recall correctly.

          • TheOtherAnon

            Yes, we had to underpin about 2 feet and add interior french drain/sump (the latter is trivial once you have the floor ripped up and dug out!). We didn’t do anything to the exterior. $35-40K was on the lower average range of our quotes, and we went with a smaller contractor with references. The big engineering firm estimates started at $70K and went north of $100K just for the dig out and underpinning, but they also all wanted to remove the existing support columns and run new steel beams (I was fine just boxing the posts in or including them in new walls). It was …. a process. Me with my 1 year of college engineering courses and access to Google had to correct the workmen several times. The main contractor wasn’t always around, but I was comfortable being an on site supervisor with the engineer’s drawings. YMMV.

          • TheOtherAnon

            Oh, I will also note that working with DCRA on the structural stuff was a nightmare. I would have gotten a permit expediter involved MUCH earlier had I known. Worth every penny not to have to set foot in the offices. From breaking ground to finished project was almost 18 months (but I did lot of the nonstructural stuff myself which just took 10x longer than hiring a crew). About 4 months of that was just waiting for DCRA to approve the underpinning, and back-and-forth with our contractor to make minor edits to the drawings.

          • Evan Tupac Grooter

            Amen on the structural review. The reviewer I dealt with first made me go back to my structural engineer have him put all of his calculations on 8.5×11 paper, stamp them, and submit them. The calculations were fine and there were no changes required to the plans. It was just a power trip.

          • Cassie

            Who did you use for the dig-out and slab for $40K?!! I’ve been quoted $150-225K (from 10 contractors, Landis being the $225K quote of course) just for a 700 sq ft, 2-feet dig-out with underpinning, plumbing rough-in, and slab with NO finishing!

        • annonny

          Second, third, and fourth on the need for a structural engineer and the very unlikely chance you can do a pop-up without major structural investment. Almost anything residential built in 2002/2003 was done so to meet the structural needs of what was put up, not in anticipation of growing the property as you describe. Also agree that you should just sell what you have and put the money toward a bigger place if space is what you need. Will save you time, money, and heartache.

          • textdoc

            +1 to “[Y]ou should just sell what you have and put the money toward a bigger place if space is what you need.” The expense/hassle factors are why the vast majority of pop-ups are done by developers rather than owner-occupants.

    • dat

      I think it would be useful for others to know the approximate square footage, depth you were planning to dig down, and ballparks of the quotes you got.

  • Cassie

    “I don’t want to paint with a broad brush here, but every single contractor in the world is a miserable, incompetent thief.” – Ron Swanson
    A finished basement with kitchen and bath, dug out from a crawl space is going to be $400k minimum, even more this time of year when contractors can do whatever they want. I’m not sure about the cost of a pop-up, but would estimate at least $200k without any plumbing.
    Never pay for an estimate. Even though this time of year is the busiest for contractors, a $600k+ project is just the kind of thing they want, so they’ll be willing to come out for free.

  • Kingman Parkian

    I own my house, so I’m clearly not a renter or jealous of OP for owning, and I absolutely hate the popus in my neighborhood because they all look like a village of morons designed them.

    Obviously, OP can build whatever (legal) popup he/she likes, but I’d hope they employ a solid looking design.

    • Kingman Parkian

      Apologies, this was in reply to a comment now deleted.

  • cjohn1986

    I do 5-10 of these per year. Send me an email to discuss.

    Email me at cjohn1986@yahoo.com

    • Anonymous

      Considering you are still on your 20s I would be nervous about your experience

  • petworthian

    wait for a market/housing slowdown. contractors and architects will be looking for work, rather than cherry picking projects. this could drive costs down some, although you don’t want to go too low, as you need to make sure they make a profit still.

    • SF

      This is good advice. Contractors can do whatever they want right now– the markups on work are just incredible, and the demand is such that they just throw huge figures out and see who bites (and right now, somebody will). All of this is being funded by financing– like the HELOC that OP mentions– and once things inevitably slow the prices for work in this area will decrease as people actually have to save and pay out of pocket.

    • Cassie

      This is why what should be a $150-175k finished 750-sq-ft underpinned basement dig-out (two-feet) ends up being $250-300k: because contractors are able to find another project that’s at least $250k, so they have absolutely no need to do anything for less.

  • gene

    I think it is a little strange that you are setting yourself up to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the thing that annoys you is the couple hundred bucks to have someone come out and give you an estimate.

    Here… you are going to spend $1,000 per square foot of added space underground and about $150-200 a square foot for the pop-up.

  • Urban_Architect_but I don’t do residential

    Call Emotive Architecture – ask for Jason Grant. http://www.emotivearch.com
    They know their stuff and do quality work. It’s not a cheap project by a long shot, but he will get you a realistic bid for the work.

  • PurpleReign

    The price really depends on your finishes – kitchens and bathrooms can easily blow your budget. I just finished a complete renovation of an 800 sf basement (new slab, drainage, plumbing, electric, kitchen, and finishes) for $120K. The original foundation was underpinned to increase ceiling height from 7′ to 8.5′.

    • Cassie

      Wait, you got the underpinning included in the $120K?
      Who are you people hiring?! Why can’t I find them?

  • rico99

    01- hire an architect to do preliminary drawings from which a few contarctors can give a realistic estimate..
    02- most reputalbe architects have contractors they can reccomend that do quality work and fair price..(at least we do) schedule usually gets compromised ….
    03- digging and underpinning IS very expensive – AND the architect will have an engineer involved (will need these drawings for permit)
    04- the role of the architect is to make sure the contractor follows the drawings ….
    05- last basement dig out we did was 300K+/- – 1,400sf underpinning- 9′ ceilings – 2 bedroom 2 bath –

  • PrincessET

    We are getting a pop-up and extended back, which has caused us to dig out. Check out http://www.thealliedgroupllc.com/

  • I’m a partner at DBMC Design LLP and would be happy to assist. We’re a small 4 person architecture firm located in DuPont. We’ve worked on underpinning (digging down) and flat conversions you’re looking to do. You should note that the zoning regulations are changing in September 2016, and depending where you are this could affect your row house.

    Send me an email at mcorell@dbmc.us if you want to set up a time to talk about your project.


  • tony

    Im happy to say i have a very reputable company that is set to dig out my crawl space. They are digging out 6 ft of dirt and installing new footers and a concrete slab with 2 egress windows. The space is 32×16, not huge but for less than 50k. License, insured and bonded and the price will never change. Send me your name and contact information. Just fyi, the reason I’m asking for your info is that the company offers discounts for referrals and if I can get you a better price from a reputable company then hopefully you are ok with me getting a discount. … email me at tlucas@919social.com


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