Ask an Expert // Adding on to your home: Up or out?

When you first decide your growing family — or your expanding collection of vintage appliances — needs more space, your first question is, “Should I stay or should I go?” But once you’ve committed to adding onto your own home rather than entering the real estate market, your next decision is just as important: Where will that new space come from? Should you go up or out?

We asked Susan Denk, owner of White Crane Construction, what homeowners need to consider when making the “Up or out?” decision.

She named a wide range of factors, from the footprint of the house to future plans for aging. Surprisingly, however, budget wasn’t one of them. Of course, finances are a concern during every project — “for even the most well-heeled customer,” Denk said, “everybody has a limit” — but there’s no across-the-board answer on whether adding a story or expanding the footprint of the house is more expensive.

“It depends on the house, the design of the existing structure and what you’re trying to get done,” Denk said.

The first part of the decision process is pretty much outside of the homeowner’s control: Is there enough room on the lot to increase the footprint?

“The first thing to understand is that all projects will go through zoning before they go through the permitting process,” she explained.

The zoning department will look at three things. First, what is the required setback on your lot? This may vary according to a number of factors, including whether you’re on a corner lot and the standards in your neighborhood. Any addition to the house, of course, would have to fall within the allotted setbacks.

Second, the zoning department will look at how much of the property is covered by the
house with the new addition.

“In general in Minneapolis that number must be less than 50 percent,” said Denk. The third calculation is how much impervious surface is on the property. That includes the house, driveway, patios and other hard surfaces. That is capped at 65 percent of the total property area.

The existing structure is the next factor to consider. Homeowners need an expert to determine what is under the existing foundation and what kind of shape is it in. Will the existing foundation be able to carry a second story without adding additional structural components?

The builder will also be interested in how easy it is to access the property. Building outward requires digging a foundation, or even a full basement, and that calls for heavy equipment. If a backhoe can’t reach a backyard, it can be hard to build there.

When the zoning and structural limits are clear, the fun part begins. Homeowners need to determine just what sort of new space they need and how it can fit in with the flow of the existing home.

“What type of space you need is important, whether its bedroom, kitchen, entertainment space, master suite,” Denk said. “Typically adding out does not involve bedroom living.”

Often adding a story involves changing the existing finished space much more than adding on outward would — and that can be a budget-buster for some. Another budget consideration: “Taking the roof off almost entirely entails moving out of the house,” Denk said. “There are additions you could put on that do not require you to move out of the house, but that would be another thing I would consider.”

Increasingly, Denk’s customers are looking toward the future, as well.

“Up means stairs,” she explained. “We’re seeing situations where it makes a lot of sense to put a master suite on the main floor. We leave the upstairs smaller and put the large master suite on the first level. That’s a factor in what we in the business call ‘aging in place.’”

But, ultimately, she said, the biggest question when deciding whether to go up or out is, “What is the best building bang for the buck. You’re trying to get the majority of your needs met within a budget that you are comfortable with.”