4 Questions to Ask Before You Gut a House

gutting a house

As a lifelong remodeling contractor, I’ve heard the phrase “this place just needs to be gutted” more often than I care to remember. It’s a frustrating phrase to me, but not nearly as frustrating as “we completely gutted the place,” which is often said with a strange sense of pride. At least with the former, I have an opportunity to stop the carnage, but with the latter, it is what it is. More often than not, what it is is a waste of money.

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Gutting a house is a concept fueled by house-flipping TV shows and exacerbated by the opinions of people who just don’t know any better. To the untrained eye, a scope of work can seem like a “just gut it” situation far sooner than it should.

If your remodeling project is tempting you to break out a sledgehammer and go to town, ask yourself these questions before you take that first fateful swing.

1. Is It Necessary to Gut the House?

The most common mistake in major remodels is the removal of more existing building than is necessary. Be thoughtful about what you’re really trying to accomplish. Can the electrical be rewired if you only replace one side of the walls? Can the ceilings be saved? Can the door jambs be left in place? It’s not necessary to tear things out just to create a sense of accomplishment! Think through the whole project and save what you can. It’s usually no problem to achieve that “all new” look without having to go with literally all new.

2. Can You Do a Partial Gut?

Certain types of upgrades really do require the exposure of the “bones” of the house. Upgrading insulation, electrical, plumbing and HVAC are all the kinds of things that sometimes lead to a full “down-to-the-framing” interior gut.

The replacement of cabinetry can sometimes be a great opportunity to get inside bathroom and kitchen walls without completely demolishing the rooms down to the studs.

But sometimes these upgrades can be accomplished with only partial demolition. You might be able to replace electrical by only removing the lower part of your walls, and then going back with a wainscot paneling, which completely saves the upper portion of the walls. Plumbing re-pipes can be done with far less demolition than you might think, if the plumber is experienced and willing to do a little bit of extra work. The replacement of cabinetry can sometimes be a great opportunity to get inside bathroom and kitchen walls without completely demolishing the rooms down to the studs. (You can access the walls behind the cabinets while they’re out.)

There are always creative ways to get to the systems and components you want to replace and a full-blown demolition project is only one of them.

3. Are There Structural Considerations?

Before you start swinging away with that sledgehammer, think about the structure of the house. Are you considering removing any load-bearing walls? Are you looking to change the heights of your doors or windows? If they’re in a structural wall, you’ll have to do some temporary shoring while you replace the header or lintel.

If your house is a legit “handyman special,” it may have some real issues with rot or insect damage. In that case, it's important to consider structure even when you’re just removing the drywall or plaster. Believe it or not, sometimes those “decorative” finish surfaces are the only things holding the wall up!

4. Are You Ready to Go All the Way?

This is the last thing I’d suggest you consider before you do a real-life “cut and gut,” because you may have to! I’m referring to that unfortunate situation where the uncovering of the walls reveals something unexpected. For example, I recently did a full rebuild of a home that had old wiring. The thing is that the owner had already paid an electrician over $10,000 to replace all the old wiring. As it turns out, the homeowner had been taken to the cleaners: The electrician hadn’t done the work as promised. As we worked our way through, we found old wiring intermixed with new, and another $12k was spent on wiring!

This kind of thing can happen with any of the following house systems:

  • Electrical
  • Plumbing
  • HVAC
  • Insulation
  • Framing
  • Roofing
  • Windows

All of these are susceptible to “oh no, we didn’t know that was in there” kind of situations and once you’ve uncovered it you might have no choice but to fix it, whatever the cost.

This Place Just Needs to Be Gutted!

Sometimes, yes, it’s a true statement and the beginning of an exciting whole-house remodel. But sometimes it’s overkill. Ask yourself a few questions first to be sure you’re on the right path!