Ask the Architect

Making an old home newer


Q. Our new home is pretty old, from 1920. We want to update it and have a lot of concerns, with taxes if we enlarge it, cost if we get rid of walls, widening our driveway to park more cars and what you think about getting rid of our garage for more room instead of building up. It’s a one-story with low ceilings on the second floor that are really too small for bedrooms. My parents have been reading your column for many years and suggested you could help. What can you tell us?

A. It’s hard for me not to feel as old as your house when you put it that way, but after writing this column for 33 years, I’m often doing work for children of former clients, and have gotten your question thousands of times. First, almost anything you do that adds space to your home also adds value, and value increases taxes. Cosmetic changes like siding, windows or an asphalt or concrete driveway generally don’t affect the value, but luxury materials, such as stone facing or interlocking pavers, will.
Most of the time, people complain about taxation but rarely, if ever, do they collectively attempt to do anything about it. The methods for deciding value, or even using value as a gauge for tax increases, are questionable, especially because we used to be taxed based on square feet. As we transition into not leaving our homes, communicating digitally, the tax system perpetuates without challenge.
In many villages and towns, garages are required, and hard surfaces for any kind of paving are considered “impervious,” not replenishing groundwater. There are limits on how much of your total property you can cover. You will need to investigate your specific jurisdiction’s requirements. Sidewalks, patios and driveways are all impervious, but pools and decks generally are not.
You’ll need your property survey, which is a map of your lot, house size and location, but you’ll also discover that surveyors generally don’t provide the dimensions of porches, sidewalks, driveways or steps. Get out a tape measure and accurately document the property’s hard surfaces if you’re in a community that requires impervious-area information. When you hire an architect or engineer, that’s what we have to do.
The only way to answer questions about removing walls is to assess the whole house: where to disperse loads, how to brace exterior walls against wind shear, how to handle snow loads and wind uplift, where pipes and wires would be relocated, how the spaces function and will be finished. Package all this to be reviewed by building officials and receive permission to build — sounds simpler than it is, especially when workers leave details out or change something and we start adjusting all over again, only after much discussion, time and money. That’s also part of the age-old process. Avoid changes once you decide, save money doing so and your old house will be like new again.

© 2022 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.