Downtown Charleston is one huge historic renovation project. On almost every street you will see repair work underway or completed within the last year or so. That is the nature of the area, historic homes have a lifespan (as do we all) and occasionally need major work to bring them back up to par. A question we are often asked, and one always so difficult to answer is, "just how much will it cost to renovate a historic home?"
It is not that we wish to avoid the answer, it's more that we often do not know. What we do have is historical data on the cost of previous similar contracts both for clients and for ourselves, which allows us to accurately estimate the costs of any new replacements such as kitchens, bathrooms and HVAC. What everyone is less sure about is structural repairs, foundation work, insect and water damage and all those little "unknowns" that do not become evident until we get into a project and start removing walls and floors. It is for this reason that many projects are undertaken on a "cost plus" basis, defining allowances for known parameters and estimates for everything else. This does not mean that the contractor can spend what they like, but it does set an expectation that some costs will vary and very rarely do they go down!
So, for the sake of discussion, let us assume you are buying a historic home and are in the process of completing the "Due Diligence" period and trying to understand how much will be required to renovate.
TIP #1: Repair work
It costs as much to properly renovate a poorly upgraded home as it does to renovate a near derelict one. When buying a home, beware of cheap repair work, short-term fixes, or work that is just obviously wrong in some way or other.
TIP #2: Big-ticket items
Evaluate the big-ticket items. Foundation? Are the chimneys leaning? Is the level uneven and is the building leaning? Fixing foundations is serious repair work and your only chance to elevate the building if necessary. Foundation work on a typical home will run $20-40K depending on the scope and if the building is to be lifted.
TIP #3: Small Ticket Items
Smaller ticket items add up quickly. HVAC - $10-15K, Kitchens - $20 - 25K, Bathrooms - $15K each, Paint $10K inside or out, insulation and sheetrock - $20K, metal roof $15K, Windows - ah windows! The simplest solution is often to seal them shut and paint over. Replacements done within the zoning of the Board of Architectural Review (BAR) are expensive and must be "like-for-like," replacing for example with wooden sash, single divided pane .... Windows can sometimes be overhauled and if you want operating windows, for example to the Piazza, then this is a solution worth looking in to. Allow maybe $500 per window.
So if the picture remains confusing that is perhaps the nature of the project. It may be easier instead to describe a few recent projects that span the range of likely historic homes on the downtown peninsula and the cost associated. Let us start with the largest and scale back from there:
The Gadsden House: $1.3M repair costs, $216 per foot - 1800 antebellum brick-built mansion with ancillary dwellings and a large garden. Complete retrofit of all services, commercial sprinkler, and fire alarm added. Overhaul all windows, paint inside and out, new garden and currently used as a wedding venue.
The Major Peter Bocquet House/95 Broad Street: $250K repair costs, $50 per foot. circa 1770 large brick-built townhouse. Conversion of attic space to a fully appointed apartment, cosmetic upgrade to facilities and internal redecoration.
233 Ashley Avenue: $380K repair costs, $190 per foot. circa 1840 large Charleston single. Complete strip out and renewal of internal walls and services, reframe piazza, new kitchen, and bathrooms.
1 Todd Street - $289K repair costs, $206 per foot. 1850 small Charleston single. New footings, straighten building, major reframe internally, all new windows, kitchens, bathroom, roof and garden space.
Looking at the figures we can see two patterns emerging. The first is reflected by Broad St at $50 per foot for a cosmetic upgrade, which is pretty similar to the costs of upgrading an aged but not historic brick ranch house at about $60 per foot historically. The second is that a fundamental refit is going to start at around $200 per foot and rise from there. We can go down the route of kidding ourselves that savings can be made, but historically that has not happened and we have ended up around the $200 per foot mark for both our own and client properties. By comparison that is roughly the same cost associated as building from new, though in these examples new build is not an option.
Now we will always consider the option of undertaking only the major work and leaving internal decoration, kitchens, bathrooms, etc. for the owner to complete. That does save a considerable cost if they are willing to use sweat equity instead, and is always worth considering for the skilled handyman.
Note: When it comes to renovating a historic home in downtown Charleston, we've had our share of projects and learned from them all. Each one comes with new lessons, skills, and takeaways to which we can offer sound advice. Have a look at our portfolio of construction projects, historic and not, throughout Charleston ...