Ask an Architect
How An Architect Can Help Before You Buy A House
Ever heard of someone buying a house only to learn their big remodel dreams aren’t possible? The competitive real estate market can add pressure to buying a home before you have the full picture. That’s where we come in! An architect can help you understand the potential of a house before you even make an offer.
March 24, 2022
We are living in very strange times. The real estate market across the country, and especially in Seattle, is ridiculous. Houses sell within days and for far over asking. The idea that you’re going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and not have enough time to make an informed decision is frightening.
If you have concerns about a house you’re viewing, a well-meaning person (maybe a real estate agent or your uncle who remodeled his bathroom once) will assure you that you can remodel or add on to the house. Do you trust them or are just trying to make the deal close?
Questions going through your head might be endless.
Will we be able to remodel this house?
Can we expand the footprint of this house?
How will this house feel in the winter? Will it get enough sun?
Can we add another story?
Is it on a steep slope? Is that okay?
So, what do you do when it seems there are no other choices, and you have to use your instincts to decide to buy a house or not?
You call an architect.
We’re able to offer a service called a pre-purchase consultation. We study the site, research any applicable codes, and help you understand possible scenarios for any anticipated changes to the house if that’s something that will help you make a more informed decision.
What kind of information can be determined in such a short period of time?
You’d be surprised! There’s a lot of information we can learn in a pretty short amount of time because we know what to look for. Asking the right questions can help you feel like you know what you need to make the right choice for you.
Environmentally Critical Areas (ECAs)
Especially in the Northwest, so many sites have ECAs overlaid on top of them. This could be a steep slope that limits where you can build, a shoreline with setbacks, or even a bald eagle’s nest. Knowing the limitations and considerations around any ECAs that impact the house you’re considering will help you make a more informed decision.
The Feasibility of an Addition
This includes adding out, adding up, or simply adding square footage somewhere in the house, whether that is underground or at grade. Each jurisdiction is going to have different rules about where you can add on and by how much.
If you’ve ever read local zoning codes, first, I apologize as I’m sure it was not a pleasant read. Second, while you’ll likely understand them, these codes are nuanced and complicated. (We often joke that we should send flowers to people that write these codes for keeping us busy.) Frankly, the average homeowner or real estate agent isn’t going to have all the information or experience they need to interpret the nuances of these codes. But an architect does and can help you make sense of how they’ll apply to the property you’re considering.
Are the mechanical systems of the house up to modern standards? A home inspector is an indispensable resource to bring to the table. Often, however, they are just looking at how well-maintained the system is. A good architect can help you understand how sustainable and economical the current system is and what future options could be.
Site & Yard Options
Outdoor spaces in Seattle are extensions of our living space. They are breathing room and beautiful spaces to spend time in all year long. If you see a house on a glorious June day, it may look perfect. But what does that house look like in November? Is there enough sun? What are your goals for gardening, outdoor dining, or relaxation? If every plant you love requires full sun, but your yard is all about shade, then you could be in for a disappointment. Having a landscape architect review the property can give you a fuller picture of what you’re getting into outside the home and whether it meets your desires and needs.
Potential Future Costs
This has to be the most common issue with less-than-ideal houses folks buy without learning more. It usually starts with a well-intentioned real estate agent telling someone that they can just knock a wall down to open up the space. Even worse, they may drop numbers for the suggested work that are wildly unrealistic.
It can be a disappointing situation to find yourself in. You get excited, buy the house, and then call an architect to start your desired remodel only to find out the remodel you were banking on isn’t as simple as it seems and costs many times more than you were expecting. Going into an offer with real information and an accurate estimated cost for your plans allows you to enter this major purchase with your eyes wide open.
What is the real scope of work for a likely remodel? Sometimes your house is in fantastic condition and really does just need a fresh coat of paint and some updated light fixtures. Most situations, however, are far more complicated.
A remodel that touches every single room, even just a little bit, is going to cost a lot more and be more disruptive to your life inside the home. You need to understand the implications of all of your dreams, including the full scope of the work your wish to pursue. Even just removing a closet in a corner of a room requires numerous trades to come out on-site to do the work. Costs can quickly balloon, and it is worth understanding that big picture view.
Often, the house you were looking at is either empty and looks much bigger, or is staged with appropriately scaled furniture. You need to know if the furniture you have or like is properly scaled for the home. A good design team will have an interior designer who can weigh in on the scale of the room.
I know of a client who bought a big empty house and was sold on the giant-looking dining room they were assured would fit their table. It didn’t and they had to sell a family heirloom. Don’t let this happen to you!
Views Now and Later
The view from this new house is amazing but will it always be there? Understanding not only the height limit for your potential property but the neighboring properties, too, is essential. It is your responsibility to understand how high the neighboring properties can go. With very rare exceptions, views are not a guarantee. This is easily the biggest surprise to most new homeowners. Unless you have the means and desire to purchase adjoining properties to guarantee the views you love, then you should understand the full situation around you.
Is part of this house grandfathered in and no longer allowed? Sometimes this is okay but sometimes it means not-so-good things. A good architect can walk you through what this all means. You do not want to assume something major is possible and then find out later it is not.
Is there a large tree on the property? Does this large tree impact your ability to add on to the house? You would be surprised.
A proper pre-purchase feasibility study should take a few weeks, but most of the time we only have a few days to figure these things out. The information provided in a study like this is usually rather high-level and has plenty of caveats. It is still, however, the best information you can get to make an informed decision in a fast pace situation. A study like this will still need to be verified in a proper pre-design study by an architect; however, this will be a fantastic foundation to build your offer on, and allow you to sleep a little better at night.
Finally, I want to add that one of the big themes here is making sure you find a fantastic real estate agent. There are lots of really great ones who know what they are talking about and can be your advocate. Make sure to find those and not the ones who sell you on a dream that is just not realistic.
Purchasing a new home is an exciting but overwhelming thing to do even in the best of times. Get ready with the right team to help you make the most informed decision you can.