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Build or Restore a Home, Which is Best for You?

Updated on February 4, 2013
Marye Audet profile image

Marye Audet-White is an internationally known food writer, food editor for Texas Living, cookbook author, and food blogger.

Which is a better option for you?

Ten years ago the question, "paper or plastic?" caused much discussion as to which was the more responsible choice. Today that question has evolved into, "Is it better for the environment to build new or restore an existing structure?". The answer, of course, is as varied as the people that ask the question. Both have merit and both have challenges. More accurately the question to be answered is, "which is better for me?".

Some things to consider are:

  • Budget
  • Time
  • Location
  • Preferences
  • Ability

Our old farmhouse
Our old farmhouse

Things to Consider about Restoring Your Home

Where will you get the money to purchase your home? Many mortgage companies are hesitant to loan money for a 'project' house, especially at a good interest rate. Mortgage insurance may be a problem because companies that will insure vintage homes are hard to find and can be expensive. After you have bought your home you will have to spend money on the restoration process. Sometimes it can truly feel like The Money Pit !

The positive side is that often you will be able to get more bang for your buck. Restoring an old home can be very lucrative financially because you usually end up with a rather large equity. Our home had been abandoned and inside was overrun with raccoons, squirrels, mice, and rats, as well as the occasional transient. You can bet that we offered a much lower price than the asking price or the appraised value. Because we could overlook the visuals we were rewarded with a home that has more than doubled in value in 4 years with the work we have done.

Next, restoration/renovation is a lengthy process. If there is any possibility of a job transfer within a five year period it is probably smarter to build so as to be able to recoup your investment. Time also comes in to play when you consider how much time you have to devote to the on going projects that will be part of your daily life.

Older Home vs New Construction

New constructions are essentially problem free for the first five years or so. Everything is under warranty, brand new, and working as it should. You don't have to decide which closet you are going to sacrifice to install your new, energy star heating unit. The gray water collection system can be put in place as the pipes are laid and so there is no going back and undoing what someone else has done. You can choose the type and amount of insulation, VOC paint, and renewable flooring materials like bamboo. You know what you have from the foundation to the roof and be in control every step of the way.

While you don't have that control in a pre-existing structure there are other benefits. Think of it as the ultimate recycling project. Green Tree says on it's site, Reusing buildings and materials has two significant environmental benefits: it spares the resources that would otherwise be used to make new products, and it prevents the waste of resources that have already been fashioned into products and structures.

We have also found, in our vintage home, that the building was built with the environment in mind.For example, the 10 foot ceilings coupled with the tall, well placed windows make it possible for us to forgo the use of air conditioning even through the hot, Texas summer. Because the rooms can be closed off we normally build a fire in the kitchen fireplace and close that room off during the winter, choosing to carry on our daily activities near the friendly crackle of the fire. ( Our wood is cut from our property, and we use trees that have fallen on their own.) The rooms are made to catch the sunlight making it easy to live without artificial lighting during the day on all but the dreariest of winter days. Newer homes tend to rely more on things that must be purchased; lightbulbs, air conditioning units, et al. Greenbuilding has a fascinating timeline that begins with this:

Pre-20th Century - structures were designed and built by builder-architects who had an ability to understand the entire building from design through construction and lifetime operations. They incorporated enduring passive design and simple mechanical systems to heat, cool and light buildings. Architects in the 21st Century will look back upon these ideas to relearn the basics of climatic design.

Revitalization of Existing Neighborhoods

More and more there is a trend to revitalize inner cities and areas that are in the older parts of smaller communities. Buying an existing structure can give you the opportunity to be able to afford to live near enough to your office that you can walk to work. If you have always wanted a small farm, or a self sufficient life style, being willing to restore an old house can mean that you are situated on a couple of acres with an established orchard and well.

The Audubon Society restored an office building in Greenwich that had been built in 1881 and was a classic Romanesque Revival style. It was quite run down but when they finished it they had created an amazingly green space at about average cost. According to their site:

"Green architecture is affordable. The basic renovation and design costs of Audubon House were completed at a cost of $122 per square foot -- well within the market rate for projects of comparable location, size, and time (which average $120-128 per square foot)."

Do the research. Know your limitations and your abilities and make a choice that fits your needs. As we all make wise choices we will begin to see the evidence of those choices, and that can only be good.


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    • Marye Audet profile image

      Marye Audet 10 years ago from Lancaster, Texas


      alot of that depends on the individual. Historic homes are a passjon for some of us..not so much for others. The point is to get soemthign that is right for your family and will serve your needs as long as you need it to.

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      Ginger 10 years ago

      I had never considered the environmental factor in having a home. Thank you for opening my eyes.

      I do have to say the idea of having a new home where nothing went wrong for 5 years is very appealing for me today while dealing with water leaking from a plumbing issue.

      I can also see that having an historic older home or an older home with beautiful architecture would make the repairs necessary over time more worth while.

    • Marye Audet profile image

      Marye Audet 10 years ago from Lancaster, Texas

      Tracey- That is a good point. Recycling materials keeps them out of the landfills and, a huge majority of the time, the materials are better quality than what is available now.

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      Wendy 10 years ago

      I told my husband about how you're renovating, and he told me how the house he grew up in was a job like that. We're hoping someday to afford to do the same thing. Good post!

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      Tracey 10 years ago

      Renovating our old barn brought many new challanges, Non squared walls (ok, floors too) non standared lumber (it was all cut by a sawmill on site) and non standard measurements. It has been an adventure, but we are loving it.

      Another option is doing tear downs for materials. We did one, friends did several and built over 60 % with recycled materials.

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      Lee 10 years ago

      I love how they used to consider nature in older houses, like you mentioned. Older houses have such charm. Not using AC is amazing!!

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      Dee 10 years ago

      Very informative and interesting. Thanks! ; )