Rehab or Re-Build: That is the Question

As far back as 100 years ago urbanites from Boston, New York and other cities throughout the northeast had the dream of creating summer communities cradled in the natural beauty of this spectacular Cape Cod landscape. That dream has been realized all across Cape Cod and is as alluring today as it was back then. The challenge we face now is that many of those charming cottages no longer meet the needs of their current owners who intend to spend more time here each year, or who want to be able to accommodate a growing extended family. This challenge is further complicated due to the fact that the process of designing, permitting and building homes here on Cape Cod bears almost no resemblance to that which existed when these cottage communities were originally constructed.  In fact, the requirements today are quite different than they were even one year ago.

This is especially relevant for owners of older homes who are considering a major renovation or addition, or perhaps even rebuilding their home on the same property. The myriad rules, regulations, restrictions and requirements that must be reviewed and addressed to determine whether a project is even feasible can often be overwhelming. This article touches upon some of the major issues that homeowners should at least be aware of.

After the devastating effects of recent storms and the damage caused by high water and surging tides, FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Association) has re-drawn the Flood Insurance Rate Maps (F.I.R.M.) that designate areas as Special Flood Hazard, Moderate Flood Hazard, or Minimal Flood Hazard. These new maps became effective July 16th, 2014 for the Town of Mashpee and, in many areas, vary substantially from the previous maps. Owners of homes located in a Special Flood Hazard Zone are limited to the amount of work they can perform on their house (repair, renovation or addition). This is often referred to as the 50% rule and it states that the value of the work performed on the home cannot exceed 50% of the assessed value of the home. (Note: it is NOT the assessed value of the property AND the home; just the structure only). If the value of the work will exceed 50% of the value of the structure, then the entire house would be required to be raised above the base flood elevation. Similarly, if an older home located in a Special Flood Hazard Zone is torn down, the new home would need to be constructed so that it is elevated above the base flood elevation.

Several years ago, Massachusetts adopted the International Building Codes which govern how all buildings are designed and constructed in the commonwealth.  Once again, the history of storm damage to buildings from hurricanes and other weather events has led to more stringent structural requirements that will enable a home to withstand 3 second gusts of wind up to 110 mph.  Additional structural connectors are required that will provide continuous load paths from roof rafters to walls to floor frames to basement walls to footings.

In addition to the increased structural frame requirement, all windows and other glazed openings must be protected from breakage due to wind borne debris during a hurricane such as tree limbs or an airborne 2x4 from your neighbor’s 1960’s cottage. These windows must either be purchased with special glass and certified as “impact resistant”, or some alternative means of protecting them must be provided. Plywood panels, rolling metal shutters, and Kevlar screens are examples of some currently acceptable alternatives.

As of July 1st, 2014, Massachusetts construction projects must comply with a new International Energy Conservation Code which, among other things, mandates increased insulation levels and tighter exterior wall construction that will minimize heat loss and cooling loss through the building envelope. Unlike the flood zone and structural requirements, the new energy code requirements will provide an immediate payback to the homeowner in the form of lower operating expenses.

Although we’ve barely scratched the surface, these are some of the major considerations that will need to be addressed in order to make an informed determination on whether to renovate or rebuild. Consultation with a licensed design and construction professional can help to identify a solution that best suits your needs and desires while navigating the various regulations that may apply to your particular property.