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What you need to know before knocking down that wall in your home

These two walls can be removed. It may be an easy job or it may be one that requires great skill and care, depending on what’’s inside them. (Tim Carter)
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I would like to remove the two corner walls in my kitchen that are common with my living and dining room. This will allow me to install more cabinets and a countertop with a bar to eat at. The entire house will seem more open. Can the walls be removed? What’s involved? Who does this work? Do you think the average homeowner can successfully tackle a job like this? — Angel G., Dover, Idaho

I used to do remodeling work of the sort you envision. In the process I made more than one homeowner’s wildest kitchen remodeling dreams come true. You’ll not believe how taking down one or two walls can completely transform a space. Your smallish kitchen will seem triple the size once this job is complete.

The simple answer to your question is yes, the walls can be removed. The complex answer is the one about what’s involved in doing this. You need to determine what’s inside each of the two walls and whether one or both are bearing walls.

A bearing wall is a support wall that transfers load from above down through the structure to another wall, a beam, and/or a foundation. Some bearing walls seem innocuous and are well disguised. I had a bearing wall in the last home I built for my family that had a doorway in it and a large, wide opening. This wall supported huge second floor, attic and roof loads from above. Looking at that wall, you’d think it was just an ordinary wall.

Your two walls can have all sorts of other surprises awaiting you. Once you take off the plaster or drywall from one side, you may discover plumbing water and drain lines, electric cables, low-voltage wires for intercoms, doorbells or sound systems, cable-TV cables, HVAC supply or return air ducts, boiler piping, and even dryer vent piping. All of these things would have to be rerouted to achieve your dream.

If you have an unfinished basement you can sometimes get a good idea of what’s in the wall by going down and looking at the ceiling directly under the two walls. Things that pass up into the walls from below should be readily visible to you. Look for plumbing pipes, HVAC ducts and other things that disappear from the basement up into the walls above.

Electric cables in the walls you want to remove may not necessarily poke through into the basement, as they can be fed from the top of the wall or from other side walls. Electric cables are the least of your problems and are often the easiest thing to relocate.

If you want to determine if the walls are load-bearing, you can often do this by poking your head up into the attic if you have a single-story house. If you have traditional roof trusses that span your entire home, there’s a good chance the walls are not load bearing. It’s possible for some trusses to have internal load-bearing points on them, so if you have any doubt at all, take photos of the trusses and visit a truss-fabricating plant to talk with the staff engineer.

If you determine the walls are load bearing, the job grows in complexity by a factor of three or more. You’ll have to get a residential structural engineer involved, and this professional will produce a drawing showing what beams and columns need to be installed that will replace the walls.

In certain instances it’s possible to hide a beam up in the ceiling so you don’t have it hanging below your finished ceiling. The advantage of having the beam tucked up in the ceiling is you get one nice flat ceiling through the entire kitchen, dining room and living room space.

If you do have to install beams that take the place of the bearing walls, you now have to install columns that support the beams. These can be made from wood or steel. The columns need to transfer the load to the foundation or the soil below. This is not as easy as it seems as it requires you to create a continuous load path from the bottom of the beam all the way to the ground.

I don’t feel the average homeowner can do this job. Perhaps the only thing the average homeowner can accomplish is the demolition of the plaster or drywall. But even then, if done wrong, you can harm things inside the wall.

This job is best done by a full-service remodeling company. The best in the business have seasoned employees who know how to do the demolition and deal with all the things that need to be relocated. They’ll work with mechanical and electrical subcontractors and keep the job moving each day.

If you proceed with this job, be prepared for some pain. It’s dirty, dusty work, and there are usually disruptions with respect to your use of the heating, air conditioning or plumbing systems. Have your remodeling contractor produce a detailed schedule that outlines how long each phase of the job will take.

Only pay for work and materials that are done correctly and to your satisfaction. There’s no need to make any advance payments because there’s usually no custom materials that have to be purchased to remove walls. Remember, your contractor doesn’t pay his employees or regular material suppliers in advance, so why should you have to pay him before he does the work?

Tim Carter is a columnist for Tribune Media Services. Contact him through his Web site:

Catch up with some of Tim’s previous columns:

Damaged plaster wall can be salvaged

How to install an attic exhaust pipe

How to repair blacktop cracks inconspicuously