How to Survive a Whole House Rewire
Get Ready for an Electrifying Experience
Few home improvement projects are as invasive as having your home totally rewired. It is a lengthy, messy and tedious undertaking. Speaking of undertaking, this home improvement job is absolutely NOT a DIY project. While you may know something about electricity, there are a slew of codes to follow and a few rules that, if not clearly understood, could cause your house to burn down and possibly you and your family as well. While I hate hiring contractors, this is one job that is best left to a licensed professional. Even if you think your are up to the task, there a a very good chance that local codes, laws (and your insurance company) will only allow a licensed electrician to rewire you house. Not only are there building codes to follow, but your city will also likely require a permit. This allows the city to inspect your contractor's work, and more importantly, fill their coffers by cashing in on your home improvement.
You might think it is as easy as hiring an electrician to just get the job done. And it might be that simple, but not likely. You will be counting down the days that you get the electrician and his crew out of your house and can get on with your life. It is a trying time that, if you are not prepared, can make renting a condo seem like a life change worth looking into. If you are hellbent on having all of your wiring replaced, here are some tips to make it less painful (although it will still be painful).
Do You Really Need a Whole House Rewire?
While not as bad a used car salesmen, contractors are all over the spectrum of trustworthiness. You might only need a distribution center (AKA breaker box) replaced, or just new breakers, or just a room or two rewired. Up-selling is a sure way contractors keep working and the checks rolling in. This is not limited to contractors, but many fall into up-sell category.
If you have the old “knob and tube” wiring in your house, then the answer is easy; yes, you need an entire rewire. Also know that while aluminum wiring used in the mid 20th century is not ideal, and it does increase your chances of an electrical fire, it is not a ticking time bomb. Educate yourself on aluminum wiring if it comes up in the conversation with your electrician. Get at least three quotes with a list of what needs replaced or updated. If all three claim you need a complete rewire, then you probably do.
Choose Your Electrician Wisely
Firstly, know that not all electricians do whole house rewires. It's a serious undertaking that not every craftsman is willing to tackle. Electricians, like all contractors, run the gambit of great to terrible. Check their Better Business Bureau rating, Google and Yelp reviews, and insist on getting a referral from at least two previous customers.
Also ask who will be working with your electrician. He will most likely have an unskilled helper to assist in pulling wire, cleaning up, etc. Tell him you want a background check of anyone that will be working with him that is not part of his permanent crew. Electricians, like many contractors, find laborers from Craig's List and other sketchy resources. You may end up with a felon or addict in your house. My electrician had a helper. He seemed like a nice guy. He also stole my beer.
Prepare for Sticker Shock
You will have family and friends tell you that a whole house rewire should cost no more than between 3 or 4 thousands dollars. And it probably did when they rewired their house....in 1987. If you live in a normal 1200-1400 square foot home, and you need everything replaced, expect to spend at least 8 thousand dollars. It can go up quickly from there. I thought that was exorbitant too, so I did a lot of research. It turned out that was about the standard price. You might find some a little cheaper, but don't count on it. Budget accordingly.
Insist on a Detailed Contract
Make sure you get a contract and ensure it spells out EVERYTHING the electrician will do and supply. Rewiring your home is messy and somewhat destructive. Holes are necessary and messes unavoidable. Does the price of your rewire include repairing all damage to your walls and cleaning up debris daily? If not, the after rewire repairs could end up tacking on a few thousand dollars to your project budget.
Ask if there is anything you will be required to supply or pay extra for. My electrician conveniently forgot to tell me that the actual circuit breakers and smoke detectors were not included in the price. That added a few hundred dollars to the bill. Know what you are getting before the first hammer falls.
Make Certain Your Plan is Complete
Know exactly what you want before you start and that is is in your contract. If you decided you want a light switch on a different wall, or an outlet somewhere else, that is known as a change. Changes are not free. Expect a several hundred dollar fee for each change to your rewire plan.
Be Prepared for Destruction
If your home is newer, you will be spared some of the drilling and pounding of holes into your walls and framing. But if you actually need a rewire, chances are you live in an older home. Know this: the interior of your house will look like a block of Swiss cheese. Hence knowing who is going to patch those holes after the electrical part is finished is important.
You should take everything off of the walls to give the electrician a clear work area, and to keep those things from falling off the wall. There will be hammering, pounding, reciprocal saw action and tons of drilling with huge drill bits. Save your keepsakes and put them up during your rewire.
Prepare for the Invasion
Rewiring an entire house will take at least a full week; probably more. It will be dusty, noisy and at least one stranger in your house. There will be power outages (at the most inconvenient times), that will last hours or days. Your home will become a quasi construction zone. Not only will it be irritating, it is no place for children to be playing.
After signing a detailed contract, it would be a good time to take a family vacation or visit relatives for a week or so. Trust me, you will want to be out of your house as much as possible during a rewire.
If you live in an older home, all of that destruction in your walls can produce some pretty nasty air. There may be dust from lead based paint, or even asbestos from old insulation or plaster. If you must be at home during the event, wear at least an N95 rated dust mask. Also, wipe down all food preparation surfaces and eating areas before preparing or serving meals. You will likely want take out food for part of the time if you decide to stay at home. Be sure to factor that cost into your budget.
Don't Forget Your Pets
While all of the noise, dust and strangers will annoy you to no end, it can be downright frightening to your pets. It may be so distressing they may bolt and possibly never return. If possible, board your dog or have a friend or relative watch it. Same for cats.
Don't Be Cheap
Take advantage of the opportunity to add meaningful upgrades to your home. It used to be that 50 amps was plenty to run a household. There were lights, a radio and that was pretty much it. Everything else was gas or hadn't been invented yet. Today, 100 amp services is the minimum requirement. If you have an electric dryer, water heater and/or stove, 100 amps is pushing it. Spend a few extra hundred dollars and upgraded to a 200 amp distribution center if you have anything less than 200.
Your circuit breakers should also be replaced. Your electrician will want to use the old ones or replace them with the same type. That's because regular circuit breakers are cheap. Today, electrical code requires AFCI circuit breakers for circuits that service certain rooms. They are an excellent safety feature. They also cost at least $30 per breaker, compared to a dollar or two for a regular breaker. If your electrician will not provide AFCI breakers in his quote, pay for them yourself and have him install them.
The same goes for smoke detectors. If you do not have hardwired and connected smoke detectors in your home now, you will likely be required to install them in a whole house rewire. While it adds cost to the project, it is money well spent. If the smoke detectors are provided by the electrician in your contract, ask him to deduct the cost and choose your own. Get high end, ultra reliable and maintenance free detectors that also monitor carbon monoxide levels.
Before you sign off on your contract being fulfilled and compete, check every single outlet and device.
Wiring is tedious work, and it is easy to miss a wire or make a mistake. Many outlets are wired in series, meaning they are daisy chained together. If one outlet doesn't work, the rest of the outlets downstream from it will not work either. Plug a nightlight into every socket to ensure it works. I had several outlets that didn't work after my rewire. The electrician did comeback and correct his mistakes, but the point is they do make mistakes. Avoid a callback and check everything before he leaves your house.
Also check that the outlets and light switches are installed right side up. My dude installed a few of mine backwards. Rather than endure another callback, I corrected it myself (I have years of electrical experience and training courtesy of your tax dollars via the US military). Make sure the GFCIs work (they have a test button). Also, now is not the time to learn that you are responsible for installing the outlets into their boxes in the wall. This is probably the worst part of wiring. There is never enough room in the box to hold all of the wiring and you end up having to stuff 10 pounds of crap into a 5 pound sock. This was not included in my contract. It took me the better part of a week to get all of those outlets in their boxes and faceplates installed.
A Lifelong Investment
Eventually, it will all be over, you will get your house cleaned up and life back to normal. Your new wiring will make your home safer and you will no longer have to worry about tripping circuit breakers when you try to iron clothes and run the microwave at the same time.
This is a home project that, as long as you stay in the same house, you will only have to do once in a lifetime. Despite the cost, if your wiring is suspect, it is well worth the investment. If you don't address faulty wiring, then it will also only be a once in a lifetime event; only that lifetime will be much shorter. Be safe, be smart and get your wiring checked out and replaced if needed
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.