When Demolition Takes Over

Posted by Lamar
Sep 10 2015

PLYWOOD DEMOLITION CHUTES AND GREEN DUMPSTERS have become fixtures on the American landscape. From San Francisco to New York, from Newport to Houston, homeowners are renovating perfectly livable interiors as if their lives depended on it. What were once considered luxury spaces–commercially equipped kitchens, wine cellars, package-wrapping rooms–are, for some, basic necessities now. And while people in different parts of the country have slightly different ideas about must-have renovations, most must have luxurious kitchens and bath space, and lots of it.

lkIn Newport, Rhode Island, architect Jim Estes says his firm is renovating “white elephants” from top to bottom. “There’s a big emphasis on expensive kitchens, which a lot of these houses never had,” he observes. “We’re going well over $200 a square foot and sometimes over $500 for bathrooms.” Also in Newport, Brian Arnold, of B. R. Arnold Construction, reports a demand for home elevators. “I have an older clientele,” he says, “and they need their guests and all their luggage lifted. “A basic three-floor elevator costs around $40,000. Need a lift higher than that? “It’s another five grand a floor,” Arnold estimates.

Renovated kitchens are also big, literally, in Houston. Realtors and builders there say country kitchens have gotten larger and fancier, with commercial stoves, pizza ovens and separate islands for two or more cooks. Just putting in granite countertops can cost $20,000. Outside San Francisco, both kitchens and master bathrooms are soaking up a good share of the money. “The kitchen doesn’t have to be huge, but it has to have a big Sub-Zero, two dishwashers, exotic woods,” says Nan Allen, of Pacific Union Realty in Tiburon, California. Bathrooms feature “slab marble, slab limestone, slab everything.” Renovations, Allen says, are running higher than new construction: median prices are about $150,000 for kitchens, $75,000 for baths.

With new construction starting at $70 a square foot, according to the National Association of Home Builders, and the average new kitchen coming in at 180 square feet–or, doing the math, $12,600–what could possess people to spend nearly twelve times that amount for old, renovated space? Tynes Sparks, of Tynes Sparks Building Corporation in Houston, who is currently building a 9,000-square-foot addition to a 1930s mansion in the city’s River Oaks section, may have part of the answer: “She likes the house, there’s nothing new she’d like better, and she’s not going to move,” he says of the owner. “Her husband and I are just doing what we have to do to make her happy.”

In Aspen, meanwhile, the emphasis in gourmet kitchens and spalike bathrooms is on pricey materials: alder, cherry and maple molding, paneling, doors and floors; ornate stone sinks; tumbled-marble floors. How pricey? “Oh God, I’ve heard rumors of people spending $1,000 a square foot,” exclaims Brian Hazen, of Coates Reid & Waldron, an Aspen real estate and property management company. This being Aspen, where celebrities and business moguls entertain on an ever-grander scale, media rooms and home theaters are also in demand.

Meanwhile, in New York City these days, standard rooms in renovation plans frequently include wine closets and package-receiving rooms. Robert Bray, of Bray-Schaible Design in Manhattan, has designed wine areas to store from a dozen to 10,000 bottles. In a 5,000-square-foot apartment on the Upper East Side that cost $2.5 million to renovate, the firm designed a 14- by 14-foot package-receiving room to handle what Bray calls “the continuous unwrapping of stuff coming in and wrapping of stuff going out.”

Do homeowners get their money out of renovations like these once it’s time to move on? “People recoup the money if they keep it simple” notes Kathryn A. Korte, senior vice president at Sotheby’s International Realty on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “If they do something too excessive or too contemporary, it’s harder.” And yet, who’s counting? “Some people here want what they want,” observes Hazen. “They don’t really care if they get their money out of it three years from now. They want to enjoy it while they’re in it.”