Renovation Diary

Honey, I Tore Down The House!

published Jun 24, 2016
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(Image credit: Eric Striffler)

Name: Maxwell & Ursula
Type of Home: Single-family home built in 1967
Square Footage: 1,800 (Before)
Years Lived In: 18

You see that cute house up there? The one I’ve repaired, maintained, painted and decorated for nearly twenty years? I just ripped it down. Want to see? Keep reading…

Starting with this post, I’m going to lead you through a year long odyssey that I’ve never been on before: the building of a new house. After thinking hard about renovating the kitchen, repairing the roof, replacing the windows and trying to put in a basement, I’ve decided it makes more sense to start from scratch. I’m going to not only tell you why, I’m going to show you how the whole new thing gets built – step by step – over the next ten months.


June, 2012

(Image credit: Eric Striffler)

Why Tear It Down?

This house has been so good to me over the years. I bought it about 18 years ago because it sits next to my mother’s house. It had been quickly and cheaply renovated just before I bought it, and I decorated it nicely so that it could be rented out in the summer to pay the mortgage. It’s a very simple house, only four bedrooms and two bathrooms, a breezeway and a garage. There is no basement and the kitchen, living room and dining area all share one communal space.

But it’s aged. The basic house was nearly fifty years old.

(Image credit: Eric Striffler)

Here it looks lovely on a bright summer day just a few years ago, in the height of it’s summer glory, but behind the cheerful facade a number of large issues have grown recently:

1. It leaks heat. The insulation, caulking and windows have been failing to the extent that I’ve been unable to heat the house above 70 degrees during the cold days of winter.

2. The roof is sagging, separating from the chimney and window wells, and leaks are beginning to occur.

3. The ground floor is warping due to some leakage in the basement crawlspace (you drop down a hold in the hall closet and crawl on your knees in sand to all of the mechanicals) and uneven settling of the cinderblock foundation so that the doors are rubbing against the floor.

(Image credit: Eric Striffler)

4. There is no basement! Boy, would it be nice to have one.

5. The kitchen drawers and doors are beginning to sag after numerous repairs.

In short, the roof and windows need to be replaced and renovations need to be done to the kitchens and bathrooms.

(Image credit: Eric Striffler)

The Only House On The Block Not Renovated

Most of the houses on this block have been majorly remodeled. One of the best ideas has been to move the kitchen to the breezeway and extend the inside of the house. This has been something I’ve thought about for a long time.

(Image credit: Eric Striffler)

SO, with all these issues and desires paired with the fact that INTEREST RATES ARE AT THEIR LOWEST IN MY LIFETIME, and that I’m in the design business, but I’ve never done a real renovation, let alone build a house, I decided that it would be a better investment to start from scratch, build a house for the next 100 years and not try to improve on this old one.

(Image credit: Eric Striffler)

So, starting last summer I began talking with my close friend, John Berg, who is an architect and has built many houses out on Eastern Long Island, and I approached my bank, who pretty quickly approved me for a refinance on the existing house, which paid off the old mortgage and gave me some money to invest in building the new one.

(Image credit: Eric Striffler)

The Mortgage Market

I learned that the mortgage market IS very good right now and continues to be, although interest rates have been threatening to go up for awhile now. Getting approved for a refinance was easy as well (boy, I thought, how crazy easy must it have been before the housing crisis!), though I did it through the same bank that already served the mortgage and whom I bank with (JP Morgan Chase).

(Image credit: Eric Striffler)

The only catch was that they were very careful about HOW MUCH money they would lend me, and it was conservatively based on a smaller part of the overall value of the house – which they also gave a very conservative valuation to.

In short, the bank was very easy to get a loan from at an excellent interest rate, but they wouldn’t give me to0 much money. They are a lot more careful than they used to be! This meant I had to face building a house with only a partial loan and the use of most of my savings.

(Image credit: Eric Striffler)

The Inspiration

I’m a constant designer and visual thinker, so I’ve been dreaming of what I’d like to do to this house for years, and ironically it was to pretty much keep it like it was, add a basement and just add a little more room to the rooms (oh, and really make it fuel efficient). I even had drawings of my ideas, and it was with these that I sat down with John Berg in the early fall last year.

(Image credit: Eric Striffler)

I will show you the overall inspiration as well as how it transformed with John’s guidance in my next post, and tell you now that my guiding vision was to keep it really simple in the fashion of a contemporary barn with lovely, airy rooms, not too many windows and a long, continuous, shingled roof.

And I also wanted the whole house to be black.

(Image credit: Eric Striffler)

Getting Started In The Fall… Oh, Actually the Spring…

With excitement riding high and a clear vision forming fast, John and I thought that we might be able to tear the house down and get the foundation in before the winter freeze. No such luck. If there’s one thing I’ve learned so far, it’s that the paperwork to get a major building job done takes a lot longer than you expect and there are hoops you need to jump through that you will never know about until right before you’re told you need them.

(Image credit: Eric Striffler)

In the township of East Hampton, where this house is, they’d gone and added regulations that John didn’t know about because they were brand new. We were surprised again and again, but it all finally ended with the paperwork coming through NOT before Christmas, but in March, just a few months ago.

The benefit of that? My family all got to spend Christmas in the house, and I didn’t have to face the enormous task of moving everything out until the new year.

In the next post, I’ll show you what that looked like and share the early plans.

Best, Maxwell

Just Before

March, 2016

(Image credit: Eric Striffler)


April, 2016

(Image credit: Maxwell Ryan)
(Image credit: Eric Striffler)
(Image credit: Eric Striffler)
(Image credit: Eric Striffler)



Architect: John Berg, Berg Design Architecture
Contractor: Peter Germano