The days of bigger is better and supersizing -- not only one's french fries but also homes, turning them into McMansions -- is not that far gone. Although waistlines may still be expanding, the housing market has decidedly contracted over the past several years.
However, our craving for architectural size remains. What's the solution?
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It's as simple as opening the floor plan in your home. Take out an interior wall here, move something over there, and maybe bump out an exterior wall, and what once was a cramped area has become a spacious retreat.
"A lot of this stems from what was being built in the 90s -- the McMansions with the wide open floor plans," said Mike Dew, owner of Oak Tree Construction in Schaumburg. "Of course, no one is building those anymore and no one can afford to move up to larger houses, but people still want to have that spacious feeling."
A significant portion of the remodeling that occurs in homes today makes livable space more efficient. Most homeowners looking to knock down walls and open interior areas have homes that are 20 years and older, with many built in the 1960s and 70s. Kitchens are by far the most popular area for this type of renovation, but even dining rooms and living rooms, and in some cases, bathrooms, also lend themselves to renovated floor plans.
"People who are doing this are planning on staying in their homes for an extended period of time," said Randy Franz, owner of R&W Construction Co. in Cary. "They have formal dining rooms, formal livings filled with furniture that they don't use and they realize that those spaces are just sitting there."
Most homeowners approach contractors with a vague idea, knowing that they want something done, but fuzzy on the details. Yet others are insistent, sometimes to the point that it can be detrimental to the project at hand.
"People believe that things can be done because of what they have heard or seen, but without knowing what really is behind all of the work," said Bryan Sebring, owner of Sebring Services Inc. in Naperville.
Words of caution are well advised in such a situation. What you wish for may be impossible, or if not so, may produce a negative effect on your home. The bottom line is if your contractor is uncomfortable in tearing out a wall -- don't do it. There's usually a good reason for it.
Oddly enough, if the wall between your kitchen and your dining room happens to be a load-bearing wall, which essentially means it helps support the house, that's a lesser worry. Support walls can be erected until reinforcement can be achieved through installation of horizontal support beams. Greater problems occur when you want to remove an interior wall that contains plumbing and ventilation ductwork. Such was the case when Pat Hoffman of Woodridge wanted to remove a wall between the kitchen and dining room in her townhome.
"We found that there was plumbing in there for the dishwasher and the sump pump, so it had to be moved," said Hoffman, who had her kitchen remodeled by Oak Tree Construction.
The rule of thumb here is listen to what your contractor says. Most likely, the work can be done, but it may cost extra money to move utilities. Even if ductwork can be moved, however, it may not be a good idea, especially if you live in a two-story house.
"We can do rerouting, but we have to be cautious about not harming the airflow to bedrooms because for every duct that goes up, it could supply two or three bedrooms," Sebring said. "If you don't do it properly, you could have bedrooms that are too hot or too cold."
One of the hidden areas where ductwork and utilities are placed is in the header area over doorways. Even if the rest of the wall is removed, that foot or so at the top is where such problems lurk. Aesthetically, however, homeowners don't want that top foot of the wall to remain, so it needs to be removed and the resident utilities rerouted.
Which walls can be removed depends on the home's type and layout. Dew noted that owners of split-level homes, for instance, often take out the wall between the kitchen and formal dining alcove for better flow, while an interior window between the kitchen and the living room may be added to give a feeling of greater spaciousness. Smaller homes often need a bump out of about 10 feet to achieve the desired effect, particularly if the kitchen is landlocked. Constructing additions or bump outs to make a more spacious floor plan have diminished since the economy has weakened as such plans call for architectural renderings that add to cost, along with the need for foundations and footings, etc. Thus, homeowners have tended to stay within their current four walls for renovation. Doing so, however, raised the risk that you'll remove a bearing wall or one containing ductwork.
Sebring recommends going down into the basement with the contractor to take a look to see where your ductwork and supports are located.
"These things are easy to spot when the basement is unfinished, but it's almost impossible with a finished basement," he said.
Bracing a bearing wall doesn't add considerably to the amount of time needed for a renovation project because other work can occur simultaneously, but it does add to the cost. There are no firm numbers as to how much can be added to the cost, but Oaktree's Dew said it's typical to expect $5,000 to $7,000.
Surprises can even happen when remodeling track homes, particularly semi-custom houses, because even though the homes follow a limited number of architectural styles, differences exist in the way individual craftsmen install the utilities.
"We're always doing educated guesses," Sebring said.
Another cost that sometimes is not considered is new flooring. When a wall is removed, there is a newly bare area on the floor that must be covered with carpeting, tile, hardwood or whatever surface the homeowner prefers.
Most kitchen appliances are left in the same spot during renovations to avoid costs of moving utility lines, but beyond that, what are the hot items for those newly-open areas?
Islands, while once wildly popular, have now given way more to peninsulas and and additional cabinetry, which sounds like it could possibly restrict traffic flow, but actually enhances spaciousness of the area when installed in the proper place. New pantries are also an option, as well as breakfast bars. The key is making the new area work for you.
That's what Catherine Esquivel did in her 1951 Cape Code-style home in Mount Prospect. She had F&W Construction remodel her galley kitchen, keeping all appliances in their original location, but removing a small wall that separated the area from the dining room and living room in order to open traffic flow.
"The removal of the wall allowed for a peninsula, which has been great for prep, buffets and watching the action in the kitchen, which I think, is the big feature," Esquivel said. "We have no added space in the house, but it feels much more current because of the openness."
Hoffman also wanted to improve the functionality of her home, which was built in the 1970s, so she had a wall between the kitchen and dining room removed, in addition to having new cabinetry, recessed lighting, and a new window installed.
"I love to cook and entertain and it seemed like my son and daughter and I were always bumping into each other going from the kitchen into the dining room when we would entertain during the holidays," Hoffman said. "I did this so I could enjoy my kitchen more while I am still alive and so that my family could enjoy holidays more at my home."
Although Hoffman was initially concerned about lighting in the area, she indicated the installation of a new window has made the area brighter than ever. In a nutshell, that's one of the best advantages for opening up indoor floor plans. Let there be light.