Fixing up a historic home
So you want to fix up a historic
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, according to Bill Owens, a certified
graduate remodelor who specializes in historic renovations in Columbus,
Ohio, and is the immediate past chairman of the National Association
of Home Builders Remodelors Council.
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 a historic home, Owens says.
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. Your real estate agent or local historical commission
should be able to make recommendations.
"While you're ooh-ing and ahh-ing over
the decorative details, you need someone to objectively size up
the problems," says preservation specialist and author Bruce
Johnson of Asheville, N.C. "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, Johnson says.
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.
"I used this in my last house," Johnson
says. "Once we got the inspection, I used it to get the buyer
to knock $4,000 off the price."
Another thing a good inspection will do is help you
decide if you need to just gut the interior and start over, Owens
says. 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," says Johnson, who has served
on a commission. "They're not police officers. 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 walk-through.
"If they're not attached, there's no guarantee
they'll be left behind," Johnson says.
If you already own a historic house, Johnson once
again recommends contacting your local preservation society or historic
commission for names of experienced contractors.