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3 places not to scrimp on home improvements

Jacqueline Leppla | Improvement Center Columnist | September 1, 2015

Building codes generally protect consumers from shoddy construction throughout every major phase of a project. But they can't cover everything and there are gray areas where builders and homeowners can cut corners to minimize up-front costs when undertaking a home addition, remodel, or even during new construction.

It's important to understand where spending a few extra dollars during construction can save you from significant expenses down the road. One big way you can save on future utility bills later (not to mention save your peace and quiet) by not skimping now? Insulation. Here are three areas where it's worth it to spend.

Interior walls

"One of the top things that people decide not to do is insulate interior walls," laments Jim Warner, of Jim Warner Insulation Inc. Contractors and homeowners aren't generally required by building codes to insulate anything but exterior walls, ceilings, and sub-floors.

Warner always offers to insulate interior walls as an option, but builders and homeowners sometimes elect to shave costs in this area. It's unfortunate because the least expensive way to provide sound insulation is to install it for about $0.50 to $0.60 per square foot during initial construction, or as you build a home addition. Warner estimates that interior walls for an entire 2,500 square foot home could be insulated for less than $500-$600. A home addition, bath, or kitchen remodel would likely cost less to insulate, depending upon the size of the project.

Why it matters. Have you ever tried to sleep in a bedroom adjacent to a bathroom without interior wall insulation? The shower sound rivals Niagara Falls' roar in the early morning hours. Warner says, "A wall with nothing in it has a Sound Transmission Rating (STR) of about 25, while a wall with three-and-a-half inch insulation in place should have an STR of 50." An STR between 45 and 50 is preferable, according to Warner.

Potential fixes. If you are planning a bathroom or kitchen remodel, be sure to have insulation installed while the walls are all open. Retrofitting insulation is not only more costly than doing it properly at the onset, but it often isn't as effective. One approach is to drill 3.5" to 4.0" holes at the top of interior walls and pump insulation downward. "You're working sight unseen, and horizontal studs can block insulation from filling the interior walls completely," Warner cautions. "If you miss an area the size of your hand, sound will find the path of least resistance and come through to the other side." Warner estimates the cost to pump insulation into interior walls as more than three times as much as if walls were insulated during original construction, or about $1,800 for a 2,500 square foot home after factoring in dry wall repair and painting.

Another solution is to hire a dry wall contractor to build metal resilient channels (vertical or horizontal) along interior walls. This involves removing outlets and switches along a wall (or changing them so they protrude 1.5 inches beyond their present positions). The metal resilient channel is laid on the wall allowing for 1/2" of air space, then a 1/2" thick sound board is installed, finishing with a 1/2" thick piece of dry wall. This approach prevents gaps in coverage and provides good sound insulation, but costs more than five times as much as insulating during initial construction; Werner estimates about $3,000 in cost for building metal resilient channels for a 2,500 square foot home's interior walls. In some cases, the loss of 1.5" in room space can be problematic, depending upon the placement of vents, windows, and moldings on adjacent walls.

Between floors

Ideally, when building a two-story home or a second-story addition, insulation should be placed between the floors. Typically, batt insulation (16" or 24" wide by 4' to 8' length by 6" thick) is laid down between floor boards to provide both sound and thermal control. Warner acknowledges that there can be exceptions, "such as when the homeowner wants heat from the first floor to rise to the second floor," but generally when in-between floor insulation is omitted, it is an attempt to cut costs.

Why it matters. Imagine trying to sleep in the upstairs master bedroom while teenagers in the family room below watch a movie, play foosball, or simply visit with their friends. Either you are going to be tired the next morning or your kids are going to decide that they should hang out at someone else's house.

Potential fix. Although it is technically possible to build a metal resilient floor on top of the existing second floor, this approach can be very expensive because it involves destruction of the existing flooring. Carpet costs vary widely, wood and tile can be pricey; unless you are undertaking a major renovation, the most practical way to solve a second-floor noise problem is to pump in insulation. The estimated insulation cost approximates $2.00 per square foot - more than three times what it may have cost during original construction and repairs to existing flooring may add to your overall expense.

Around doors and windows

Building code requires that foam insulation be applied around doors and windows, but Warner says, "There can be a big difference between applying foam insulation and doing it thoroughly." Proper application of non-expanding foam insulation around the doors and windows of an average 2,500 square foot home, during original construction, may cost around $350, Warner estimates. Costs for a minor home addition would likely fall below $350.

Why it matters. "You can install a quadruple-pane window, but if it doesn't have proper insulation around it, it's like a port hole," explains Warner. In addition to unwanted drafts, unwelcome pests such as ants and mice can take advantage of insulation gaps and enter your home. Horizontal rain may seep through small openings and lead to warping or mold.

Potential fixes. In a worst case scenario, it might be necessary to cut away dry wall, foam around windows and doors, then patch the walls. The cost for this type of project would depend upon how much wall is removed but is likely to be a significant expense.

A relatively simple solution involves applying latex or silicon caulking to fill up penetrations that you can see. Unfortunately, Warner notes that "you're not able to get to the real problem, which is behind the dry wall." While caulking has a minimal cost (Warner estimates you might spend around $200 in caulking material for a 2,500 square foot home's repairs) you might also have to go back repeatedly as new gaps are discovered over time.

You may have no choice but to pursue expensive insulation upgrades if the home you purchased wasn't built with good insulation to begin with, but you can control how you insulate when you build an addition or remodel your kitchen or bathrooms. It may be tempting to cut costs in an area that isn't immediately visible to your family and friends, but your quality of life and wallet may suffer down the line if your home isn't well-insulated. Avoid noise, drafts, and insects with properly sealed walls, doors, and windows. Budget for insulation beyond the minimum required by building code so that you can fully enjoy your home.

Photo credit to Myryah Shea

About the Author

Jacqueline Leppla has renovated homes from California to Massachusetts. She has remodeled or improved nearly every room in her current home.