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Fixing up a historic home

So you want to fix up a historic home, eh?

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.

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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.


-- Posted: April 1, 2003




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