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Rambler reno: open plan at '60s prices?

Jim Mallery | Improvement Center Columnist | February 12, 2013

What would it cost today to modernize a 1960s rambler home -- factoring in inflation -- versus the cost of its original construction?

Comparing value over the span of five decades is not an exact science, but it's generally accepted that a dollar in the 1960s would be worth roughly $7.50 today.

To complicate things, the U.S. Census Bureau says the average cost of a house in 1965 was $21,500 and in 2010 it was $272,900, closer to 13 times as much; but according to the National Association of Homebuilders, the average house is about twice the size now of what it was in the '60s. People are spending roughly twice as much for their homes today relative to inflation, but are getting about twice as much house. And as we will see, some elements of the house are actually cheaper today, and yet we haven't tired of going for more bang.

One great room from many small ones

Let's focus on creating an open-plan, entertainment space, non-existent in the '60s rambler. In a typical, cookie-cutter home design of that time the common areas were usually limited to these separate rooms:

  1. Kitchen -- so small that Dad entered only to slice the roast or mix drinks. Sometimes, it had a breakfast nook.
  2. Formal dining room -- so confined that one wrong move passing the platter could cause collateral damage
  3. Living room -- just spacious enough for an entire family of four to watch TV

From these three enclosed rooms you can create a modern great room. However, it probably requires tearing down the walls to create the expansive, open plan comprising kitchen, dining and living area all in one -- a space where you can whip up a batch of fudge at a cook-top island while chatting with guests and watching the game on the big-screen across the room.

Here's what it takes and what it could cost:

1. Roof

Your project can involve gutting the whole area, but you probably can't just tear down the walls -- at least one of them is likely to be supporting the roof.

The smart approach is to completely redo the roof with new trusses. With an open expanse, you want higher ceilings, preferably vaulted. Your old roof is most likely stick-built rafters, and some of those interior walls are supporting the roof. If you are going to tear out walls, you need a monster beam and maybe a post to support the roof -- and you still might be stuck with a low, flat ceiling across your great room.

That's why you would re-roof with engineered trusses. Computer-designed and built off-site, these trusses can span the exterior walls with no internal support; and they can be easily redesigned for a vaulted ceiling.

The good part? When you consider the labor to build rafters and the supporting walls, the truss system is much cheaper than rafters of old. While cost can vary greatly, you might well get a large truss system for a 25-by-25 great room for $1,000.

2. Electrical, plumbing and walls

Electrical must be brought up to code, which includes adding a number of outlets in the walls and kitchen. The rule of thumb for electrical costs is $100 per outlet. And you may have to move plumbing for your newly designed kitchen.

With all this work, figure that you will be putting up new drywall throughout.

Consider the rate per hour for these costs to be comparable with 1960 prices, though the added electrical could boost your expense a bit.

3. Wired for sound

You'll also want to wire for a television sound system, keeping the various unsightly cables and wires hidden behind walls. A 5.1 or 7.1 surround-sound system can cost you from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, counting speakers and amplifier -- those are costs never associated with the original 1960s' house.

Happily, that big-screen television is a steal in 1960 dollars -- actually, you are almost comparing apples and oranges. In the early '60s a 21-inch tabletop, cathode-ray tube, color TV would cost around $400 to $500; that would convert to $3,000 to $3,750 today. Now you can get a 50-inch, flat-screen, high-definition TV for between $500 and $1,000.

4. Flooring

If you are lucky, the old floor in the living and dining area is wood, and it still has enough life for another sanding. The cost for that is actually comparable to 1960 costs -- maybe as much as $3,000 today.

If you are putting down new wood, you should find that old standards like oak and pine are priced comparable to what they were in the 1960s; and in the same price range, you can find modern engineered wood flooring. The big difference today is the huge variety of exotic tropical hardwoods available, such as Brazilian cherry, Santos mahogany or teak, which can run up the price by two or three dollars a square foot.

Your old kitchen floor probably was linoleum, which is both eco-friendly and cheap. Linoleum is still available with new and more vibrant colors. The relative cost for linoleum may be a little lower today than it was then because it is not in as great demand. You have so many choices including cork, bamboo, engineered wood and stone, but they can cost from a dollar to several dollars more per square foot than linoleum.

Outfitting the kitchen

In the kitchen, Americans have fulfilled their dreams of living large -- very large. For all the money you spend on your great room, the majority of the dollars probably will be invested in the kitchen.

1. Counters -- The laminate countertop, often called by the trade name Formica, was the most common countertop material in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. It is still perfectly serviceable. It's inexpensive, if not blah, though laminate's appearance has improved. Depending on quality, it can cost between $13 and $30 a square foot, about the same as its inflation-adjusted price of 50 or 60 years ago. But most homes have moved beyond laminate. Today, people clamor for granite or quartz composite; concrete is another option, as is soapstone or even stainless steel. Whatever the choice, you could be paying from $50 to $85 a square foot or more for choices like these that were not even available when your '60s rambler was built. And to add to the cost, you might be tempted to add more counter space.

2. Cabinets -- Increased counter space and adding an island means more of another big-ticket item -- cabinets. While always a major expense in the kitchen, today's cabinets are even pricier than they used to be. With the open-room concept, your kitchen is more of a display area; hence, there's more pressure for designer cabinets -- raised panel doors, expensive woods and knobs, as well as glass panels in doors, crown molding, and other trim. Inside the cabinets -- at an additional cost -- you can get full-extension, soft-closing, ball-bearing guides, and soft-close hinges. Those 1960 cabinet drawers, on the other hand, were probably just wood sliding on wood.

3. Organizers and other cabinet accessories -- You can build in all sorts of space-saving conveniences to your cabinets these days: spice-rack drawers, pullout pantries, ball-bearing lazy-Susans. For a couple thousand dollars, you can match the dishwasher and refrigerator doors to the cabinets. But all those doodads in a designer kitchen add up. Quality custom cabinets in such a kitchen can cost from $20,000 to $30,000 -- good quality-manufactured cabinets, perhaps a few thousand dollars less.

4. Appliances -- Today, you have choices of appliances that were not even invented or seldom used in 1960: built-in espresso machines, microwave ovens, warming ovens, instant hot-water dispensers and convection ovens.

But like the TV, not everything in the kitchen is more expensive than in 1960. A good side-by-side refrigerator in the middle-1960s would cost around $500, which accounting for inflation would be $3,500 or more today. Now you can buy a couple stainless steel, side-by-side refrigerators with ice and water dispensers for that.

Likewise, a portable dishwasher in 1960 cost $240, the equivalent of about $1,800 today; but you can buy a good dishwasher today for less than half of that.

Bottom line for remodeling

So is modernizing this house going to leave you way out of whack with what it would have cost in 1960?

Well, maybe. True, you are going to spend relatively less for some basics, such as refrigerator and dishwasher, all the while getting an appliance with much more capability. But undoubtedly, you are going to opt for some exotics that were unavailable or rarely used 50 years ago, such as granite counters, fancy cabinets and maybe a built-in espresso machine. The options are there to run up the cost -- but that's your choice.

About the Author

Jim Mallery, a semi-retired journalist and onetime registered contractor, has extensive experience remodeling, repairing and rebuilding homes.