Home Improvement: New construction or restoration?

When choosing between patching an old pair of jeans and buying a new stiff pair, repurposing last night’s dinner or starting from scratch, or deciding whether to renovate an old house versus starting from the ground up, we are often faced with decisions about salvaging the old versus investing in the new. Depending on the matter at hand, we can be tempted to either latch on to something old and sentimental or abandon what exists and start again. Neither approach is better than the other, but when it comes to home construction projects, there are potentially costs and benefits to both.
New construction offers the clear benefit of freedom to creatively design and customize your home. Building factors can be more controlled, and fewer unforeseen crises typically occur. It is often easier to stick to a predetermined budget and schedules are usually met.
New homes also offer the benefit of being made with more energy-efficient, modern materials. Items like double-pane windows, high-performance furnaces and high-efficiency lighting units have replaced their outdated relatives and in the years after you move into the finished house can save dramatically on energy bills.
However, starting from scratch on a home comes with a price tag many buyers are unprepared to swallow. Aside from the expected costs of materials and labor, building from the ground up can put you tens of thousands (or even hundreds of thousands) of dollars in the hole before you even begin to see the form take shape.
Infrastructure projects to clear the property, build road access and connect to water, sewer and electricity are big-ticket items that can easily be overlooked in the excitement of planning a new dwelling. Design costs, material considerations and choices about types of construction (stick-built vs. pre-cast, for instance) all come into play. Landscaping needed to transform your home from a job site into a home can come just when you may think the bills have ended. Furthermore, new construction is largely happening on the outskirts of towns, which dictates a higher dependency on vehicle use and gasoline consumption (a serious consideration as gasoline prices continue to rise).
Perhaps buying an existing structure that needs some sprucing up seems like a more attractive option? There are hundreds of old homes around Vermont with decades if not centuries of character and history within their walls. It is a romantic vision of many Vermonters to rehabilitate, renovate, repurpose or at least reuse these old structures, and many of these classic dwellings have been immaculately maintained.
It is nearly impossible to deny the charm and craftsmanship in many old homes; higher-quality materials were standard, finishes were done more carefully, and durability was prioritized over haste.
Furthermore, working with existing infrastructure and choosing to inhabit existing structures versus expending the resources to create new ones is the clear choice for environmentalists concerned about limiting waste materials and optimizing dollars. Investing in an old home close to a town center can also help revitalize the town and bring a new buzz to the community. It can also lessen your dependency on gasoline and help encourage walking or biking. 
However, fixing up one of these grand old dames isn’t all bread and butter. 
Old homes are a lot of work. Even if you manage to dodge major catastrophes or huge system updates (you never know what your contractor will find under that old floor), there are seemingly endless lists of projects to chip away at. And, if you are among the less fortunate, you may run into snowballing troubles with those larger issues such as water damage leading to mold and infestations of termites or other critters within your walls. You may need a new roof, new pipes, new siding, new insulation, or even a new foundation to keep your home comfortable and high functioning.
Old homes are particularly risky for the uninformed homeowner without the skills to identify or fix troubles at hand. However, for those with a few skills up their sleeves and the willingness to tackle problems themselves, investing in old homes can be an extremely fulfilling and fiscally wise choice. Labor costs are typically the most expensive item in the construction budget, so if you are able to cut that cost by performing some of the work yourselves, you will set yourself up to save big.
Local designer and builder Sam Ostrow says he operates on a guiding principle with construction projects that weighs the relationship between time, quality and money. You can have two out of the three at a time, he says. In other words, you can have a fast and inexpensive project, but the quality is going to suffer. Or you could plan a high-quality project that sticks to a limited budget, but it may take a long time to complete. Alternatively, you can get the highest quality building at record speed if you’re willing to write a bigger check.
The code has yet to be cracked, Ostrow believes, that provides a fast way to build inexpensive, high-quality homes.
With this theory in mind, homeowners wanting to perform a renovation or considering a move can schedule a realistic building plan that can achieve the home of their dreams for a budget that works, in a timeline that they can be happy with. Perhaps a new home that may go up quicker and with fewer stumbles will work better; or maybe the old home renovation project makes more sense with the budget and quality at hand.
Building projects are very circumstantial and there is no definitive rule for making these choices. However, with a clear set of goals for the outcome, a realistic vision of your resources, and the time to research and understand all of the options, you too can transform your house into the home of your dreams. 

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