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Real Estate Live
with Maryann Haggerty and architect Stephen J. Vanze
Friday, July 21, 2000, 1 p.m. EDT

Most people believe that architect-designed houses are exclusively for the very wealthy. That may not be the case anymore, especially for savvy dreamers who were willing to stick to a budget and risk unconventional designs. Their experiences show it is possible to build an architect-designed house at prices similar to those charged for higher-end builder-designed products.

Today's guest is Stephen J. Vanze, partner at Barnes Vanze & Associates, an architecture firm in the District. He regularly teaches a class for the public on how to work with an architect; it's sponsored by the Washington chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Maryann Haggerty has been the Post's Real Estate editor since 1999. Previously she was a Post reporter, covering commercial real estate.


Maryann Haggerty: Hello, all. Thanks for joining us. My guest here (as you see above) is architect Stephen Vanze. He's used to answering real questions from real homeowners, because for several years he has run his seminar on how to deal with architects. If you have pressing non-architecture, general real estate questions, I will try to field those. But frankly, I think Steve has more interesting things to say than I do. A reminder: Neither of us is a lawyer, so we can't give definitive answers to legal questions. Also, we can't make specific recommendations about what contractor or builder to use, or similar things. So let's go!

Sterling VA: We are buying a new construction home. Last week, a day after a big thunder storm, we went to see the progress on the house. I was shocked to see that there were puddles of water everywhere, big and small, mostly on the main level and basement level. (three level townhouse) This couldn't possibly be "normal" in the house-building business, is it?? Wouldn't the puddles damage the wood? Cause rotting of wood? I am not positive where the majority of the water came from, I am assuming it was because they left some windows open, or maybe the roof in order to have that many puddles? The stage of construction is nearing pre-drywall within a week or two. We have also found a few vertical wall wood-beams to be curved instead of straight, is this also normal?? Please help.. any advice on this would be greatly appreciated, thanks..

Stephen J. Vanze: First remember that it is the contractor's responsibility to deliver to you a satisfactory finished product. If he has not kept it watertight during construction and the water has ruined finishes, that is his problem to fix. It would take years of repeated soakings to rot the wood. So don't worry too much about this but feel free to mention it to your builder. It is not that uncommon.

Louisville: Hi sir!

I don't know whether this is an appropriate query for ya, but how do you improve drainage near the foundation of a house? My house has poor drainage in the front and on one side.


Stephen J. Vanze: Water runs down hill, so it is generally considered good practice to have a good positive slope away from all foundation walls. A good rule of thumb is to have the grade slope away from the house for at least 6'. I regraded around my own house by hiring a bobcat driver for a few days.

Charlottesville: HI!!-!

I have a house that faces north. I have noticed that the east and west windows get lots of sun and help heat up the second floor quite a bit. What can I do about this?

What are other issues concerning the different sun exposures?

Stephen J. Vanze: You can deal with this with either window treatment, ie blinds, or landscaping, ie trees. Landscaping has the advantage of providing shade in the summer and allowing more light and wanted heat in the winter.

Washington, DC: Why do home projects ALWAYS cost more than they say? I've talked to friends who have done renovations and contractors - and no one has ever said it was done on time and within budget. Why is residential construction so unpredictable?

Stephen J. Vanze: If you have complete documentation of your design intent, that is good construction documents, before you start construction there should only be two kinds of extras. One kind is where you change your mind or add some work (I'ld rather get the granite counter top than the formica) and the other is where something is hidden before construction (a pipe that no one could have known was in a wall must be removed). The first kind of change is controlled by you. The second should not amount to much. Schedule is a matter of getting a good contractor and being the squeaky wheel.

Maryann Haggerty: I think part of it is people like telling horror stories. I know this is hard to believe, but I had a renovation project done this year--gutting my kitchen--that was completed both on time AND in budegt. Of course there were glitches--everybody's human--but nothing major. I think that was because the contractor and I talked it through in a lot of detail in advance, & they kept to their word & their schedule throughout.

Alexandria, VA: Do architects know how much a project will cost? Or do you have to get a price from a contractor?

Stephen J. Vanze: Architects might have a rough idea of project costs based on other similar projects and square foot costs. But estimating a project by sf costs is a little bit like trying to buy a car based on dollars per horsepower. A ferrari is more per hp than a taurus. So it is a good idea to get a budget estimate from a contractor early in the project to check your and your architect's assumptions.

Arlington, VA: Stephen, thanks for participating in the discussion.

You might mention to Louisville that it's a good idea to call and get the public utility companies to mark where water/gas/power lines are buried underground before regrading. Otherwise they might get a nasty surprise using that bobcat.

Stephen J. Vanze: Great advice.

Maryann Haggerty: Still, I know that people like to have SOME idea of cost per square foot, even if it's vague. How much for the Ferrari? The Taurus? The used Subaru?

Stephen J. Vanze: A ferrari might be anywhere from $300 to $500 per sf. A taurus $150 to $250.

Fairfax: Hi Mr. Vanze, Ms. Haggerty:

Has the DC-area real estate market slowed down over the last few weeks? What's the outlook for the next few years? I am trying to decide whether to buy now or later. I will be in this area about 10 years....


Stephen J. Vanze: This is Maryann here. (Computer glitch, too hard to explain!) We hear anecdotal evidence of some slowdown, and the numbers from the District for last month actually show it, too. (I haven't analyzed the 'burbs.) But even at a slowed pace, things are still running ahead of a year ago. Alan Greenspan said yesterday the housing market nationally continues to show signs of slowing. Long-term, I wouldn't dare predict--except that no one has yet gotten rid of business cycles. Now, back to Steve...

mcLean, VA: I've just purchased a 1947 brick and wood flat top home. I'm looking for decor ideas and books on mid-century american houses. Do you have any suggestions?

Stephen J. Vanze: Start with "A Field Guide to American House" and discover the actual style of your house. Then you can get some more detailed books on the particular style.

Bethesda, MD: Hello. Two quick questions... We've just entered a contract to build a house in Edgewater. I am interested in installing "home run" wiring (to allow future electrical expansion easier), but was wondering if you know a fair price range? And regarding grading/flooding, do you suggest installing two sump pumps for security against seepage?

Stephen J. Vanze: You should talk to an electrician about the pricing of electrical work. Home runs are now very common. Also consider using all cat 5 wiring which will give you a lot of flexibility and allow data audio etc.

Maryann Haggerty: A design question: Why is the contemporary-style house so rare in the Washington area?

Stephen J. Vanze: Because we live in a very conservative and traditional city. This is good and bad.

Washington, DC: Is there some way--other than word of mouth or happening upon some design that you like--to locate an architect whose designs are compatible with your own taste? Is it possible to find architects who will design small scale renovation projects, i.e., one or two rooms?

Stephen J. Vanze: You should call the DC Chapter of the AIA (667-1798), and ask for recomendations. They have a design resource center there that exhibits many architects portfolios and will tell you what kind of work different architects are interested in.

Alexandria, VA: Why do you see so many modern home projects in magazines that obviously don't meet codes (like stairs with no railings) - don't architects have to design everything to be up to code?

Stephen J. Vanze: Architects do have to design to codes, and in almost every jurisdiction there are very thorough inspections by the local jurisdiction to ensure code compliance. When you see something that is not to code almost certainly the owner was very insistent as to what they wanted and modifications were made after building inspections.

DC: Mr Vanze:

I just bought a starter home: a 1971 cape cod with 4 beds/2 baths. The rooms are pretty small, as are the baths. I'd like to re-do the baths, the kitchen and other improvements. I have a husband and we are not having any children, so this house could satisfy our needs for quite a while. My question: How do you determine how much remodeling to do to your home?

We love the neighborhood and intend to stay in the area at least 10 years.

Thanks!! Stacy

Stephen J. Vanze: It might be a good idea to talk to a realtor and discover how much money you can put into your home without pricing yourself out of the market. Then make a list of what you want to do, in priority. Get prices for each piece and match the final scope with your budget.

Washington : These online chats are a great resource
-- but you might want to let everybody
know that the happy crew at Washington
AIA is always available to answer
questions and help people with
resources in their search for an architect.

Stephen J. Vanze: You are oh so right. 667-1798

Fairfax: Mr Vanze--
My parents are building a home in a high-demand area here. There was an accident with the roof--misplaced trusses and it was dropped, demolishing both the roof and the entire second floor. The builder has agreed to replace the damaged staircase and to examine the subflooring. My parents are nervous wrecks, trying to anticipate what problems might arise and whether to bail on the house (they feel they hold little over the builder, who could sell it easily if they backed out). Can you suggest likely structural problems arising from this accident?
Thank you -very- much!

Stephen J. Vanze: I would hire a structural engineer to see what happened and make sure it is properly corrected. Have he or she inspect the work as it is being constructed to give you piece of mind.

Kensington MD: My husband & I have a rambler style house & lately he has begun talking about "raising the roof" to add some space. Probably won't do it for a couple of years but what types of things should we do to prepare for this? I know that we need some professional help for a job of this size, just not sure what kind.

Stephen J. Vanze: When you try to occupy your attic as a bedroom level you will discover that you will probably have to increase the structural strength of the floor (attics are not designed for bedroom live loads). You also will discover that it will probably be harder than you think to get the required headroom. Hire a professional.

Mt. Rainier: I keep wondering who is buying these expensive clones of real estate that I call bankers' houses. (Only a banker could have that much money and that little imagination). They are so uniform, so predictable, such a hodge-podge of styles, so graceless - why would someone spend that kind of money to own that? The amount of wasted space is so Victorian - the signpost that says I am so wealthy I can afford waste by the acre. So wealthy, and yet so dull...

Stephen J. Vanze: I don't know. They are generally not the kind of people who hire an architect. The people who do hire architects are generally a self selected group who want something unique or aesthetically pleasing.

Arlington, VA: I'm friends with a few architects, and they said one of the toughest and more discouraging parts of the job is trying to get clients to pay for their work. Often, if the client decides to change something in the middle of the design process, they don't want to pay extra. Or the decide in the end they don't really want to build a house, and don't really want to pay for the many hours the architect has already put into a design.

I was really surprised that this happens as much as it does. Why are people so unwilling to pay for an architect's time and skill?

Stephen J. Vanze: Problems like this often result from lack of communication between the owner and architect. When you choose an architect you should find someone who not only does work that you like but also that you can communicate easily with. An architect should select clients with the same criteria in mind.

Alexandria: My parents are preparing to sell their home and they have been doing lots of repair things with the thought that the repairs will result in a higher sales price. I agree that a new roof, new ceilings, and new central air will definitely have an affect on the sales price, but now they're death-spiraling into new carpets, new landscaping, and other projects that I suspect the buyers will end up junking in order to do their own thing (espec. the carpets). At what point are repairs not going to matter? Like I say, i understand that the old roof wouldn't have passed the home inspection, but to me, new carpets seem like a waste of time and effort. What are your thoughts/advice?

Stephen J. Vanze: They should talk to a real estate agent to confirm the edge of diminishing returns.

Maryann Haggerty: Talk a little about tract-built or production housing. From an architect's point of view, what are the good/interesting trends, and the bad/dull ones?

Stephen J. Vanze: When Henry Ford starting producing Model T's it was a good thing socially and probably even aesthetically. There is nothing inherently bad about production homes, as long as they are well designed.

Maryann Haggerty: Any other good architecture questions lurking out there? If I don't get anything soon, we're going to call it for the day --it's way too pretty to sit inside.

Maryann Haggerty: OK, we're outta here. Thanks a lot, Steve. I've found your advice helpful; I hope others have too. Good day, all...

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