5 Ways To Tell A Full Renovation From a Remodel

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Grills Change

I tour a bunch of homes and see a lot of remodels passing themselves off as renovations. What’s the difference? Typically, all things being equal, the difference is price. That’s because to me a remodel is cosmetic whereas a renovation is the real-deal, studs-in. Here’s a handy guide to tell the difference.

No. 1: Appliances

Kitchen appliances tell a story, especially when they’re built-in. Why built-in? Appliance sizes change over time and built-ins require any replacement to be the same size (or it won’t fit). For example, 20 years ago, I installed a nifty 27-inch SubZero fridge/freezer into a tight kitchen. SubZero no longer makes a 27-inch replacement. This means when it dies, the kitchen would require a new cabinet layout to accommodate the larger fridge made today (no one makes a 27-incher). One appliance croaking might mean a completely new kitchen.

Finding appliance age will often give you the date the kitchen was last renovated. There are a few tricks here. First, take a picture of the appliances and compare then with the manufacturer’s current models on their website. Often, things like grills on refrigerators are enough to tell you whether an appliance is current or not.

Major appliances will also have a sticker visible somewhere – typically inside a door or on an edge. Sometimes the sticker will list its manufacture month and year (becoming common practice in the 1990s). If not, take a picture of the sticker and visit appliance411.com and enter the maker, model and serial number (from the sticker).

The sticker above is from my not-yet-renovated home. As you can see there’s no apparent date, but appliance411.com came to the rescue. “Products with this serial number format do not incorporate a manufacturing date code so it is not possible to accurately date it from that information. The best we can determine is that this product may have been manufactured in Phoenix, AZ, between January 1984 and December 1984.”

Given the construction date of The Claridge, 1984 is the right year. It also means every day this puppy keeps working is a gift. This is important because the replacement cost of a 36” Sub-Zero fridge/freezer is $10,660. The risk and cost when buying a remodeled home that reused older appliances can add up fast.

For SubZero specifically, there’s no SubZero-Wolf branding. This means it’s older than the 2000 acquisition of Wolf Range Corporation.

No. 2: Cabinets

Cabinet style is the easiest way to check age. Are they today’s ubiquitous Shaker? Are they yesterday’s arch-topped? Is there really old surface trim? All are clues. In the bathroom, how high are the vanities? Knee-high equals old and uncomfortable for taller people to use.

Next, check hinges and drawer sliders. It’s pushing a decade since soft-close drawers have become almost the default in kitchen cabinets. Kitchens without them are very likely to be older.  And that’s fine. Lord knows we all managed to exist without soft-close drawers in the same way we used to roll down car windows manually. Just know what you’re buying.

Overspray is evidence of older cabinets and overall quality of work

Another remodel clue is to see if older cabinets have been painted over, check for paint overspray – especially on hinges.  While not foolproof, you’ll know the cabinets are older but also the skill of the person hired to paint them – a clue about the overall quality of a remodel.

Cabinets can also tell you about water leaks. Look under every sink and feel around for damage – a discolored or blistered cabinet floor. Knock under sink and non-sink cabinet floors and compare the sound. Look around the toe kick for evidence of water.

A lot of remodels get away with painting cabinets and also replacing door/drawer pulls and knobs. Often, they’re of different sizes which means the drill holes don’t match. Look for patched holes.

Older cabinets aren’t necessarily a danger sign, but rather another way to figure out age. And age matters because everything wears out at some point.

No. 3: Countertops

Yes, stone varieties come and go in fashion.  Baltic Brown, Ubatuba, Dakota Mahogany, and anything resembling salt and pepper are all seen as unfashionable or inexpensive (dark stone went with darker wood cabinets). It’s worth a trip to a stone yard just to see what’s on-trend these days. If I wasn’t a stone guru, I’d snap a picture and ask someone at a stone yard what they know about when it was “hot.” It goes without saying that any variety of tile countertop was a cheap decision. And if you see the plastic ickyness of Corian, factor its removal into your budget.

No. 4: Floors

New floors are typically a good thing to see. But you want to understand how they were installed. A lot of baseboard molding begins life fairly vertical to the floor (with original floor tucked under to allow for seasonal expansion). Sometimes when a floor has been replaced, the remodeler doesn’t want to go to the expense of replacing baseboards. The way to cover this up is with what’s known as shoe molding. This can be as inexpensive as tacking on quarter-round or something fancier.

Be sure to look for seams (are they mitered and almost invisible?) and old paint lines. Sometimes a remodeler will remove existing quarter or shoe, install a new floor and then replace it. This often exposes lines of where the older paint stopped. Was everything properly sanded smooth?

Shoe molding can also disguise sloping floors. If you suspect this, bring a marble or ball bearing to see if and where it rolls.

No. 5: Drains, Faucets, and Showerheads

In addition to the obviousness of checking that off means off and nothing drips, look for mineral build-up. It’s really hard to get countertops and plumbing fixtures back to showroom new when they’re mineral stained. The worse the staining, the older it is. Older isn’t the kiss of death, but washers wear out and things begin to drip.

Tip on bathtub and sink stoppers: if they’re gone – broken, lost or rusted-out – it’s old.

Short or tall, check shower head height. If it’s shorter, it’s older. That’s fine if you’re short, but it also says the piping and probably the valves weren’t updated during the remodel. the last thing you want are valves dripping behind the shower tile.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, in part because some things are obvious – painted-over wallpaper seams, raised kitchen floors (hints at stacks of older flooring), or obvious patching (open kitchen with ceiling seam where the wall used to be).

The reason you buy a renovated or remodeled home is because you want everything to be, or at least look, new. But you also want lasting style and function. Remodels, by nature, are a less invasive process than a complete renovation. It pays to know what you’re buying.

Do you have tricks to telling when or how to tell a remodel from a renovation?  Post them in the comments.

Remember:  High-rises, HOAs and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make?  Shoot me an email sharewithjon@candysdirt.com. Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.  

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Jon Anderson

Jon Anderson is CandysDirt.com's condo/HOA and developer columnist, but also covers second home trends on SecondShelters.com. An award-winning columnist, Jon has earned silver and bronze awards for his columns from the National Association of Real Estate Editors in both 2016, 2017 and 2018. When he isn't in Hawaii, Jon enjoys life in the sky in Dallas.

Reader Interactions


  1. CCR says

    If you are BUYING, determining the date of the HVAC system and roof are vital. Age in these two are budget busters. Both should be examined and dated by a reputable contractor, not just the appraiser.

  2. Rabbi Hedda LaCasa says

    Dear Jon,

    You provided valuable and practical information as always. I wish that you could be my general contractor.

    Rabbi Hedda LaCasa

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