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Check basement, foundation before tearing down walls

It sounds like a great idea: Tear out that wall and turn two rooms into one open, airy space. But if it's not done correctly, that remodeling project could cause serious damage to the structure and safety of your home.

Before you even pick up a hammer, the first thing to do is determine if the wall you want to take out is a load-bearing wall, according to HGTV's Mark Clement. "A good rule of thumb is that if the wall is toward the middle of the house and running perpendicular to the joists above, it's carrying weight —and lots of it," he says.

The experts at WikiHow suggest taking a look in the basement or crawl space. "Once you've reached your house's lowest point, look for walls whose beams go directly into the concrete foundation. Your house's load bearing walls transfer their structural strain into a sturdy concrete foundation, so any walls that interface directly with the foundation should be assumed to be load bearing walls and should not be removed."

Mitchell Parker at Houzz.com recommends hiring a professional to evaluate the walls before tearing them down. He spoke with architect Jeffrey Veffer about this. “I’ve been in houses and said, ‘I don’t think that’s a bearing wall,’ and then go into the basement and find that it is. It may not look like it, but it’s best to figure out before you start swinging the sledgehammer,”  Veffer said.

Wall removed between rooms. Photo by Houzz.com

Another consideration: Are you removing this wall in a ranch home or multi-level house? Parker at  notes that "removing a wall in a one-story house is much different than in a two-story house, and the cost can be significantly more in the latter. "

“A two-story home definitely needs a structural engineer,” builder Jeff Andreson told Parker. “It’s a major engineering effort to accommodate the stress the second story will be putting on the other walls.”

Even if a professional inspection determines that the wall you want to remove is truly a load-bearing wall, that doesn't mean you can't remove it. It does mean extra work, however.

"Posts and headers must be installed to replace the wall," Clement says. "This isn't super-advanced carpentry, but there are lots of details and heavy lifting that have to be approached properly or you're basically guaranteed problems."

If your wall turns out not to be a load-bearing wall, you still need to consider what's inside that wall before taking it down.

"Most walls hide electrical cables, HVAC vents, water pipes, and even gas lines," says Jennifer A. DiGiovanni of Coldwell Banker. "Shifting around the infrastructure of your house is possible, but you will need to gain an accurate picture of the work involved in transferring and rerouting wires and other various elements inside your home. Removing one innocent-looking wall may require the additional services of an electrician, a plumber, and an HVAC technician, or, at the very least, a highly skilled general contractor, and may significantly increase the cost of your home-remodeling project."

You also need to be aware of what's covering the wall, DiGiovanni  adds. Walls in older homes may have lead paint, and "you will need to follow certain governmental guidelines for the disposal of drywall and other debris."

And you never know what surprises might be waiting for you in the walls. Veffer recalls removing a wall in a 1920s house and discovering an unused gas line running to the second floor. He had to bring in a professional to remove it.