Fixing up a Historic Home
First things first. Unless you want to tear out the electricity
and put the chamber pots back under the beds, it's not a
restoration. It's a renovation.
And it's a rehab if you tear out the old and
replace it with a modern style and look, completely changing the
feel of the house. A rehab has no place in an historic home.
Get a detailed inspection
If you're lucky enough to be reading this while you're still
shopping for a house, the first item on your list should be to
hire an experienced inspector.
You need someone to objectively size up the problems. You need
someone who can recognize if the wiring is up to code or if
there are problems with the foundation, things that can knock
your feet out from under you.
You need a detailed, written report on the estimated cost of
renovation, not just a one-page checklist. The inspector
probably won't be the cheapest in the book, but the investment
of a few hundred dollars could save you thousands of dollars in
the long run.
Another thing a good inspection will do is help
you decide if you need to just gut the interior and start over.
In some communities, if the renovation involves more than 50
percent of the house, the entire house has to be brought up to
code. In others, the simple act of taking out a building permit
triggers that requirement.
Know your historical limits
If the house is in a historic district or is listed on the
National Register of Historic Properties, you will be limited as
to the kind of renovations you can do, at least to the exterior
of the property. You'll save a lot of time, frustration and
money if you get a copy of the preservation guidelines before
you start a project, and go to your historic commission before
you start a project.
If they're not put under pressure, they can give you a lot of
helpful ideas. They can be resources if you go to them early. We
constantly ran into people wanting to add new decks onto older
homes. They had already poured the footings and had the
contractor standing in their yard, ready to build, when it was
in the guidelines that decks were inappropriate for these homes.
A historical commission may also be able to provide you with
photos of the house when it was first built, or even put you in
touch with family members who lived there for clues about
missing details, such windows and woodwork.
As a side note, if you have a contract to buy a
house, make sure you put in writing which pieces you want left
in the house, and then make sure they are there on your final
If they're not attached, there's no guarantee they'll be left
If you already own a historic house, we recommend contacting
your local preservation society or historic commission for names
of experienced contractors.
That's important because when the house is more than 100 years
old, the chances of encountering unexpected problems increase
exponentially. Set extra money aside because we know we'll find
problems you have to fix.
Also be on the lookout for asbestos and lead in the paint.
The good news is there are plenty of resources available to help
your home look like its old self but perform like new.
A lot of people don't realize you can buy modern push-button
light switches rather than toggle switches, note that
push-button light switches were popular years ago.
Plaster walls and wood floors need constant TLC. Plaster cracks
and peels, and can disintegrate if it gets wet.
One very important piece of advice is to be
realistic about the costs and the return on investment. Yes, you
can have someone come in to do new plaster walls, but it would
add thousands, or even tens of thousands, of dollars to the
cost. You can simulate the look by using wallboard covered with
a textured paint.
Cutting costs without cutting corners
There are some ways to save money. While
electricity and plumbing are best left to professionals, Johnson
says nearly any homeowner can save money by sanding floors, or
stripping paint or old varnish from doors or woodwork
themselves. They also can install missing woodwork, such as
crown moldings, chair rails and paint rails.
Wood is very forgiving.
As for varnishes, take advantage of modern
technology. Shellac was the finish of choice 150 years ago, but
it's very fragile and flammable. Get a polyurethane varnish with
a satin sheet.
High gloss is not associated with historic homes.
The floors are usually a mess. You can sand them yourself, or
hire a floor service to do the sanding and do the staining and
finishing yourself. That would save you about half the cost of
having a professional do the whole thing.
If the floor has water damage, it will usually be in front of a
door, where water blows in (doors didn't always have weather
stripping). New wood never matches; use wood from the floor of a
closet in the same room and hide the new wood in the closet.
Another way to save money, and to have the most accurate
renovation, is to go on a treasure hunt of your home's attic,
basement, garage and any outbuildings. It's quite possible that
you'll find old windows, doors, sinks, tubs, doorknobs or light
fixtures that were removed during earlier upgrades.
One issue to be aware of in reusing original or period materials
is that if you bring them in from another house or move them
from one place in the house to another, you may have to meet
Usually if they stay installed in their original location, they
don't have to be brought up to code. If they're torn out and
moved from one place to another, it's another issue.
Code enforcement officers pay particularly close attention to
life safety issues, such as open stairs, railings, balconies,
low windows, electricity and fire places.
The biggest mistakes that homeowners make in renovating historic
homes, is in letting their enthusiasm get ahead of them. They
wind up reducing the value of the house by stripping out
original details because they didn't know what they were.
Start with an easy project to build your confidence and skills,
and work on one room at a time to reduce the amount of
disruption to daily life. Don't buy tools until you need them,
and rent tools that you'll only use once or twice.
The one other thing to think about for historic
renovations is that a 40-year-old ranch house will be historic
in another 50 years or so.
You don't want to be the one to strip out original materials
just to make a change. The lifetime of house should be for the
life of several owners.
The most common mistakes are homeowners who under budget for the
project and who try to rush through the process.
Haste makes waste here. Be patient. The process
takes time, a lot of money and you need more people in your life
than normal because the rules are strange. If you can do all of
that, it's awesome. There's nothing better. If you live in one
of these homes, it's an incredible value."