Remodel or Scrape? How to Decide

Homeowners often ask us if they should remodel or scrape and build new. It’s a great question – unless you’re already working with an architect, it’s impossible to know just how much of your home can be changed with a whole house remodel. Is it color and updating the windows, or a completely new look from top to bottom? People often look to remodel because older homes prioritized spaces differently than we do today – kitchens were separated from the main living spaces; ceilings were lower and there was less emphasis on outdoor living.

While we prefer giving the client’s existing home a chance, sometimes there are structural issues, or the home may have undergone multiple renovations that make it either impractical or incompatible with a whole house remodel. Or, sometimes a whole house remodel is the perfect solution! And then, in other situations, a lot of money can be poured in, and the design gets close, but the homeowners end up making too many sacrifices and changing their wish list to make it work.

All this is to say that the decision of whether to remodel or scrape a home is a personal one that is unique and depends on the condition of your home and how you’d like to live in it. When you’re just starting this process, it involves reflection and keeping an open mind. As architects, we help you work through important questions and considerations when weighing the pros and cons of remodeling versus scraping. While this early stage may feel overwhelming at first, when it’s approached with a spirit of discovery, it can be eye-opening and enjoyable. You’re getting closer to creating the home you love, which is a wonderful and exciting experience!

Table of Contents

1. Do You Trust Your Architect?

This may sound obvious, but it’s so important it bears mentioning. Creating a working relationship with your architect built on mutual trust is one of the most important things to establish early on in your home project.

You must feel confident that your design professional is looking out for your best interests and that your home is a reflection of your style, not the architect’s. You should feel heard, understood, and like the valued project team member that you are. “I meet the clients in their home and do a lot of listening to understand what brought them to this point of wanting to make a change,” says KGA Designer and Project Manager Brent Paul.

Whether you intend to remodel or build new, trusting your architectural team will help you articulate your priorities and preferences to create a home you love. 

2. What Is the Home’s Condition?

This question seems straightforward (at least at first). If a home’s overall structure and systems are in such disrepair to render a home inhabitable, a demolition and rebuild are necessary.

But most of the time for remodeling projects, one of the primary questions we address with our clients is whether or not their current home can support the proposed new design. “The discussion sometimes comes down to whether the original home, even with major alteration, can serve the needs of the homeowner,” said KGA Senior Partner and Architect Paul Mahony. If the foundation or structure isn’t sufficient to accommodate the planned structural improvement, a scrape is usually the only way to achieve the new design.

It’s also important to be aware that unwelcome surprises can and do happen during remodeling, and they often involve structural issues that can quickly change the scope of a project. A home may appear to be structurally sound initially but prove otherwise once demolition begins and we see what’s behind the walls.

With this in mind, we do everything possible to avoid surprises. In the case of Mahony’s Cherry Hills Village custom home, he and the project’s structural engineer decided the existing home’s foundation was substandard early in the structural design phase. “It was a ranch home, and we were adding an upper level. The work we would have had to do to strengthen the old foundation was cost prohibitive.” Transitioning the project from a remodel to a scrape allowed Mahony to design out the areas of the home that had been constrained by the old foundation. The end result was the clients getting the exact home they wanted.

Front elevation of a traditional english cottage style custom home by KGA Studio Architects
This home started as a remodel, but transitioned to a new build based on findings during the initial structural design coupled with our knowledge of the age of the home and an understanding of building practices at that time.

3. What Are the Local Zoning and Code Requirements?

Sometimes your city’s or town’s zoning or building codes play a role in whether or not you choose to remodel or build brand new. For example, zoning codes could affect a home’s maximum height and setbacks. Density restrictions could also influence your decision if you are planning a site with an accessory dwelling unit or other structures on the property.

For some clients, their existing homes allow for specific features that are no longer permissible under current jurisdictional requirements. Lot placement, size, building height, and bulk plane are a few examples of code changes that must be evaluated to understand a project’s scope.

In a scrape, the new home must meet current building codes, which are updated to reflect newer technologies. This can add considerable costs to a project. Conversely, many remodeling projects can grandfather in older building codes depending on the scope, resulting in significant cost savings.

In Colorado for example, new residential structures must adopt the state’s green building codes to include certain solar-ready and electrification features. Many new builds must also include sprinkler systems for fire safety.

And finally, community challenges to tree removal can and do happen, which may also affect your project. Neighborhoods in general want to keep their mature trees, so check your community’s design guidelines to understand what’s allowed and how to go about seeking any necessary approvals for removal.

4. What Are the Costs?

Costs will undoubtedly influence your project’s direction. Budgetary estimates in the earliest project stages can be tough because every home site, structure, and client is different. But to give you a very general idea of the construction cost range for whole house remodels and scrapes/new builds, here are price ranges for many KGA clients as of November 2023:

  • Whole house remodel cost range: starts at $300 per square foot
  • Scrape/new build cost range: $450 to $700 per square foot

Keep in mind these costs are for construction only and do not include permitting costs, architectural fees, structural engineering, and costs for any other consultants your project may require.

There’s also another cost you should consider, and it’s more than money. Your personal happiness with your new home is something to think about as you work through these questions. We get into more detail on this below — does it pay to settle for a home that’s full of trade-offs and sacrifices?

In general, a scrape costs more than a remodel, but not always. Mahony has worked with remodeling clients who pivoted to new builds when they realized they weren’t happy with the amount of sacrifices they would have to make. “They found themselves spending a lot of money for something that didn’t fully meet their needs. Then, we discovered that it costs less to remove and replace, and they ended up with exactly what they wanted for less cost.” Your project is a financial investment and a commitment to your future happiness in your home.

5. How Long Do You Plan to Live There?

Your life stage and future living arrangements should be a consideration in your building plans. While every client and situation is different, on the whole, if you’re planning to move and sell within the next five years, a remodel is usually the better option, as the financial return on your investment is typically higher than you would receive from a scrape and new build.

When our clients fell in love with a Cherry Hills ranch home from the 1960s, our team created a design that allowed them to keep the existing brick exterior. We opened up its choppy floorplan, raised the ceilings, and added a wall of windows to the main living area to create a comfortable family home filled with natural light.

A whole house remodel completely transformed this 1960s era ranch home in Cherry Hills Village.

If this is your forever home or you plan to live in the home long term, get what you love, says Paul. “Get what you want, whether that’s a remodel or a new build. If you’re planning for more than 10 years, you’re guaranteed to get a return on your investment.”

Your return on investment is also an emotional one — not having to settle for less than what you want will bring you joy and happiness for years to come.

The trickier timeline is between five and ten years, which reflects the average amount of time people tend to live in their homes! This tends to be more of a gray area when it comes to deciding between a remodel or scrape. If you fall in this category, here are a couple of factors to consider:

Are most of your changes interior improvements?

If you’re generally happy with the home’s layout and circulation, a remodel may be a better choice. Focusing on interior improvements usually costs less compared to major structural changes. “Structure work is pricey, so just shuffling rooms can save a lot of the foundation and be a big benefit to a client’s budget,” said Mahony.

If most of your changes are exterior and structural, what’s the size ratio of the addition(s) to the existing square footage?

Generally speaking, a large addition to a smaller home is often better served as a scrape. On the other hand, a smaller addition to a larger home is a common remodeling project, depending on its scope.

6. What’s the Best Option to Get What You Want?

Part of your decision-making process may include taking all of the changes and improvements you want to make to your current home and determining if a remodel is feasible. You will have to understand if a remodel can get you exactly what you want without having to settle. “Moving several rooms, relocating the garage, repairing cracks in the foundation — there are some things when taken on the whole, are impossible to fix by doing a remodel,” says Paul.

Trade-offs are common in home remodeling, and the important question to answer is whether they are tolerable to you. Older homes especially can be notoriously quirky, and you may need to decide if the quirks that must remain are part of the home’s charm or if they are unacceptable.

Keeping the big picture in mind is essential as you have these kinds of conversations. This is your home and your financial commitment. And if it’s a home you plan to live in for a long time, sometimes sacrifices in design can become sources of frustration and unhappiness.

On the other side of the spectrum, sometimes it’s the quirks that clients decide to embrace. A home’s eccentricities can even help create a bespoke home that’s truly one of a kind. “In certain circumstances, settling for the quirky becomes the gem of the project,” says Mahony.

7. What Kind of House Person Are You?

This all brings us to our final question (at least for now). Get ready to do a bit of soul-searching to understand the type of home you prefer. We’ve found there are generally two kinds of house people: those who appreciate the “soul” of a home, its history, and its quirks; and those who love the idea of a brand-new home designed just for them.

Both preferences are wonderful and perfectly valid! One isn’t better than the other, but they are quite different. Knowing on which side you fall may help you decide which project direction is right for you.

Still Unsure Which Direction To Go?

If you’ve answered the questions above and haven’t made a decision either way, that’s perfectly fine and expected. This exercise is simply a starting point as you begin the design process with your architect.

Whether you choose to remodel or scrape and build new, the process is exciting and can feel overwhelming at times, but is ultimately incredibly rewarding when complete. Trusting the professionals you hire, along with honesty and a spirit of self-discovery (and to expect the unexpected) go a long way to creating a home you’ll love for many years. 

Learn more about whole house remodeling, new construction, and the KGA process:

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