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Remodeling: A New House Without Moving

Difficulties in selling a house, the high cost of trading up and a wish to retain community roots are some reasons why Americans who used to move every few years are choosing to stay put and remodel.

But the expense and inconvenience of remodeling can be even more complicated than building from scratch.

“It is actually easier to design and build a new house than it is to extensively remodel,” says Roger Bartels, an architect in Westport, Conn.

“But if you like the location, remodeling makes sense, especially in communities where a vacant lot with character is hard to come by or prohibitive in cost.”

The architect recently helped Ernst and Margriet de Flines totally do over a nondescript builder’s colonial on a rare waterfront lot in Rowayton, Conn.

The family loved the location on Long Island Sound and had deep roots in the community. They even found their house acceptable. But the remodeling has turned an adequate residence into a perfect one from their point of view.

“On a scale of one to ten, it was a five. Now it’s a ten,” says Margriet de Flines. “We love the way Roger has opened up the whole ground floor into one big room with a view of the water from every point.”

The project took about a year, during which the family stayed put, camping out in a guest bedroom. She got used to walking on plastic and stepping over this and that. But she found the final stages of the project nerve wracking.

“The fact that we were living in the house made it easier for me to supervise, but I also saw a lot more,” she says. “At the end, I had a long checklist with the carpenter, electrician, the tile man, et cetera. They always knew I was right. But when the job was done, the contractor asked me if I would be his precision-control person.”

The work encompassed a completely new exterior, new windows, new roof, a new full-height brick chimney and a large terrace. The interior layout was changed on the main floor, and bedrooms and baths on the second floor were all redone. Even the living room fireplace was replaced.

By bumping the street side of the house out by about seven feet, Bartels was able to enlarge both the downstairs and the upstairs bedrooms and to add a new guest room and study.

The property’s strongest point, the waterfront view, is now visible from almost everywhere inside the house, including the entryway. Essentially, the downstairs area has become one big new room. Architectural elements such as columns, arches, built-in shelves and a freestanding interior window physically separates the space without closing any of it off.

The exterior is now a dramatic reflection of the house’s nautical setting. A turret and a two-story bay window impose a strong sense of character, and a builder’s colonial is now a shingled beauty in the Arts and Crafts style of the early 20th century.

The new living room now includes a European limestone fireplace mantel that recalls the de Flines family’s roots as French Huguenots who emigrated to Holland in the 17th century. The most original new feature is the two-story chimney decorated with a cut stone insert showing the outline of a boat. This plaque also recalls the family’s Netherlandish heritage.

“In Antwerp and Amsterdam, the old houses have names carved in relief on their stone plaques,” says de Flines. “We have a Dutch flatbottomed boat instead.”

Their house also flies a banner - in this case it is actually a piece of cut sheet metal - with the pine tree insignia of the community’s beach association.

The cost of the renovation was not revealed. However, remodeling is just as expensive as new construction, according to Bartels. In this area of Fairfield County, costs typically range from $150 to $200 a square foot.

“Anything can be done,” says Bartels. “Whether it should be done depends on the value of the property.”

Those who opt for extensive remodeling must learn to be patient.

“It takes time - at least three months of architectural planning before you can start building - and the building process takes between six months and a year,” Bartels says.

Anyone contemplating a renovation also must factor in the time and expense of obtaining a building permit, which is always needed when doing structural work.