Renovate vs teardown: is it smarter to renovate a Michigan lakefront property or tear down and build new?

Asked by Erin B.
Lake Orion, MI

We're looking to purchase a 1930s set of two smaller lakefront cottages needing total renovation. The power hasn't been on in 9 years, all electrical needs replacement, insulation, windows, bathrooms, kitchen, etc. Are there incentives or financing options available to renovate these and make them as green as possible, as opposed to tearing down? This is a property with what once was eight cottages that have been renovated, circa 1920-1930 so not quite historical yet, but they have historical significance. Owner selling last two for someone else to tackle. We love this property; my 5x great grandfather created this lake and we would like to tackle this project but fear the expenses may exceed our young family's budget. We've renovated before, know what's ahead, but do you think it's smarter to tear down?


Randy Potter

Answered by Randy Potter

Alameda, CA

September 7, 2010

While I'm really not familiar with building costs in Lake Orion, Michigan, I think that the relative difference between renovating and building new is about the same whether it's in Michigan or the Silicon Valley where our company builds. The other thing that I really am not qualified to comment on is the historical value to you of the original buildings.

That being said, I can certainly comment on new construction vs. complete renovation of a 1930s structure in the condition you describe.

  • The biggest difference between estimating new construction cost vs. renovation is the level of certainty.
  • Any builder who works in your area will be able to tell you within 5-10% what it will cost per square foot to build what you are thinking of.
  • Renovation, on the other hand, is far more difficult to predict accurately beforehand, especially with an 80-year-old house that has not been maintained. 
  • It really will depend on how much of the structural portion of the cottages can be saved and the extent of the structural work that will need to be done. 

A local builder should be able to tell the extent of structural work somewhat by inspecting the cottage. (Check GreenHomeGuide's nationwide directory of green builders to find one near you.)

Our experience is that older historic homes that are brought back in a green manner from the state that you have described end up costing more than building new. Generally in these cases we give our clients the option of having their old home deconstructed so that raw material and other fixtures can be reused in the new home. This way, you can take comfort in knowing that you have responsibly reused as much of the old structure as possible while still enjoying both the cost and efficiency benefits of a durable green home that will last for generations.

One option you might want to think about for green cottages in a rural environment would be one of the green kit type products.

  • This would allow you to know exactly what your costs would be, and kit homes can be built in a very short time.
  • Check out Green Cabin Kits; they have a wide variety of architectural styles and sizes.

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