Remodel Home vs. New for Green Construction

The Age Old Question… Whether to Build New or Remodel?

This article was original published for the Talkin’ Green column. Download a copy of the column from the Lake Geneva Regional News Real Estate Guide.


Reality is, for the price of a used home, you could get a brand new residence. On a cost-per-square-foot basis, remodeling is usually much more expensive than new construction. But the decision to do one versus the other should not be based on construction costs alone. There are many things to consider.

The Basics

So why is building a new home more cost effective than a whole house remodel? That is an easy answer – because constructing a home from the ground up, you start with a clean slate to build on. You gain huge efficiencies in scheduling because everything can be planned out in advance. First the foundation is dug and poured. Then the walls are framed. Sheathing, windows, doors, roofing, siding and then the plumbing and wiring is installed. Insulation is next and then the wall studs are covered with sheetrock, etc.

On the other hand, when a whole house remodeling project is undertaken, the builder is forced to work in an existing structure. Walls must be removed before they can be rebuilt. If window and door locations are being changed, the old openings have to be closed up on the exterior and interior, and then new opening cut into the walls. Work crews from the various trades often work almost on top of each other. Existing home problems (such as cracks in plaster or drywall) may force the builder to make compromises to connect the old and new portions of the house together. Making an open concept design change means removing walls. And the challenge there is that you don’t really know what’s inside that wall. With remodeling you can always count on surprises and all surprises cost extra money.

While whole house remodeling is almost always more expensive than new construction, the cost of a home is only part of the equation.

When should you remodel versus looking to build new?

  • You love your neighborhood.
  • There are no available building lots in your neighborhood.
  • You have an emotional attachment to your home and have the money to make the changes.
  • You would rather invest money in your home than in closing and moving costs.
  • Property values in your neighborhood are rising.
  • Your home value is not at the peak for the neighborhood.
  • You’re looking to buy in a mature neighborhood with grown trees and landscaping.

When should you look at the option of building a new home?

  • Building lots are available in your neighborhood or a neighborhood you really like.
  • The cost of remodeling your home will outpace its resale value.
  • You want a home with changes that can’t be added to your current home.

But don’t think you’re getting off easy by building a new home; it is still a lot of work. And the construction of your home is not the only costs you’ll incur. When budgeting, you’ll need to include non-construction costs such as architect, financing, closing costs and moving expenses.

Renovation versus New Construction: Which is Greener and Better for the Environment?
The process of new construction, with all of the advanced green building systems, is often faster than renovating an existing structure. But when you factor in having an existing building and infrastructure, which then has the biggest impact environmentally?

While the ease of new construction might be preferred, the greater potential for reducing your carbon impact during a renovation compared to a new construction is very apparent over a 75 year life span of a home or building. The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently stated that the greenest building may be the one you already own.

A new building that is 30% more energy efficient than the average building could take 10 to 80 years to overcome the negative carbon impact that comes with new construction versus renovation. There is an immense amount of energy and CO2 locked into existing buildings from the foundation, materials, energy to make new materials, transport materials, etc. that provides a savings in carbon dioxide compared to the demolition (energy to destruct and haul away) of an existing structure and the creation of a brand new building.

CO2 emissions from homes or buildings include two distinct sources; “embodied” CO2 given off during the building process and the manufacture of the materials during the building of the home, and “operational” CO2 given off from the energy use of living in the building. Obviously renovating an existing building saves substantial CO2 emissions, but over a life span of 50 to 75 years there will be a crossover to where the 30% more efficient new building would save more CO2 emissions through energy savings. But the question is – are short term CO2 emissions more important than long term bigger savings, assuming everything else stays the same?

Remodeling and building are both viable options. Consult with a professional Realtor before making your final decision.

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Fritz Kreiss

Fritz has been involved in energy procurement and the field of sustainability for close to twenty years, with expertise in alternative energy development including geothermal, wind and solar farm developments.