Even if your proposed renovation concerns only interior spaces—say, a new kitchen, or converting an old closet to a second bath—a thorough examination of the exterior is still essential.
At a Distance. Begin by taking the long view. Look at each elevation of your house from 100 feet or more away. It may help you to squint slightly as you try to see the house as a whole and not be distracted by individual elements or colors. The idea is to see the forest for the trees.
Try to look and think in three dimensions: Do you see one uniform symmetrical volume? Are there apparent parts to the house, such as the main block with one or more smaller elements stepping down on one or both sides? Does a simple shed addition stand out distinctly as a later alteration to an otherwise symmetrical house? How about a boxy protrusion along the length of the building (a wing) or an addition that extends at a right angle from the main building (an ell) from the rear?
Keep in mind that only a generation or two ago, most new houses were typically more modest in size than new homes today. Children shared bedrooms and the whole family shared a bath. There were fewer single-purpose spaces (laundry rooms were a comer in the cellar, home offices rare, family rooms retrofitted into base-were remodeled. On narrow in-town lots, additions were often extended off the back. Dormers may have been punched through the root offering light to living spaces on the top level of the house. A recent trend has been to remove the original roof altogether, to strengthen the old ceiling joists, and to add a whole new story and roof above the old main floor.
Most builders in the past tended to keep a uniform roof shape, so if the roof line and pitch change dramatically from one section to another, they may indicate where changes were made. Are there dormers on the roof? They, too, could be the result of renovations, especially if the placement is eccentric. Houses built before 1850 tended to be symmetrical, and Victorian houses built in the next half-century often were L- or T-shaped. If your house was built before 1900 yet isn’t recognizable as a box, an L, or a T, try to determine why. On the inside of the foundation, a cellar that is not of uniform height and appearance can be another clue. An old, low-ceilinged crawlspace with a rubble stone foundation adjoining a full cellar of neatly laid up cement block is a dead giveaway: there’s the old section, here’s the addition.
Get a Little Closer. To get a fresh vantage on the dwelling you see every day, try examining your house with binoculars. Look at the place from both near and far. With the binoculars shaping your view, you may see details and compositions that surprise you. It’s rather like seeing snapshots of people you know well—sometimes they just don’t look like themselves, largely because you detect features you hadn’t noticed before.
Next, focus on the front door. Often the main entrance is the single best exterior clue to the floor plan of a building. If it’s located at the center of the house, that may indicate a balanced arrangement of rooms on either side of a central hall. Is there a discernable pattern of windows? Do the details on each window frame match the others? How about the sash: does each have the same number of lights (panes of glass)? One or several that are trimmed differently, contain different-size sash, or are out of alignment with the others may indicate an addition or remodeling. Is the trim at the comers and the roof line consistent from one portion of the house to another?
Now think about the house in two dimensions. In a traditional home, you should see a series of perpendicular lines on each plane. Is the roof line straight or does it dip in the middle? When you see wavy or undulating lines of siding or a wall surface that bulges, that may indicate a structural problem. If it is apparent to your eye that supposedly horizontal surfaces are not level and vertical ones are not plumb, you and probably a contractor should find out why. In an eighteenth-century colonial, elements that are out-of-square may be regarded as part of its character and the house perfectly sound. In newer construction, however, such signs may represent something to worry about.
While you are standing at a distance, can you detect any curling or missing shingles or other signs of roof deterioration? How about the chimney: Does it stand straight and tall, or are the mortar joints deteriorated so that it’s angling to one side?
Moving closer to the house, continue your examination on the south or southwestern side. These exposures are subject to more weathering, as the warming and drying of the sun exaggerates the effects of wind and rain.
What is the external wall covering? Wood is the most common siding in North America, with roughly 90 percent of houses clad in wood. Is it clapboard, shingle, board-and-batten (consisting of wide vertical boards, with the joints covered with narrower boards)? How soon will a paint job or more serious scraping, patching, and painting be necessary? If the walls are of brick or stone, is the surface in good condition? What about the mortar joints—do you need to repoint (replace the deteriorated mortar joints)? With stucco houses, look for cracks and bulges. If the siding material is aluminum or vinyl, check for dents, missing pieces, and discoloration. In an older home, these artificial sidings may have been added on top of the original clapboards or shingles which may be intact beneath and well worth restoring. Later in the process, you may want a contractor to help you investigate this option. If so, make a note on your wish list.
Look closely at the windows. Is there peeling paint? Where the vertical frame members abut the sill, are there signs of decay like softened and discolored wood, mold, and blistering paint? Is there missing or cracked putty where the panes of glass join the frame and muntins (the elements between the panes in a divided-light sash)?
Look at the foundation. Is it of uniform material and finish? Do the walls appear plumb, solid, and the mortar joints sound? How close are wooden elements to the ground? If any siding or other wood is closer than six inches to the soil, that’s a problem that needs to be addressed. The excess soil should be excavated to prevent decay.
Walk around the perimeter of the house and look carefully for problem areas. If there is a porch, examine it with particular care. Porches are exposed to the elements, so posts, floorboards, and railings are subject to decay. Have you noticed soft spots on the porch floor? How about railings that tend to give a little? Look with care at the joining of the house and the porch. If there is decay, that may indicate that water has been moving from the porch into the structure of the house.
Before proceeding inside, try to think about the exterior of the house as a unified whole. What do you like (or dislike) about it? If your house consists of several sections that were constructed at different times, do they work together nicely—or maybe the last addition seems somehow wrong and you’d like to devise a way to make it look more of-a-piece with the rest of the house. Perhaps you think the front of the home looks dull: many a plain ranch in recent years has been given a more stately appearance with the addition of an imposing entranceway. Perhaps there’s a design detail that you especially like—a decorative window, a band of molding, a porch post, an unusual building material like glass block, or some other element that you might like to revisit in your proposed renovation.
Muse a little on what you see. Dream a little about what you’d like to see.