Fixing up a historic home -- Page
That's important because when the house is more than 100 years
old, the chances of encountering unexpected problems increase exponentially.
Dave Karlson, a certified kitchen designer and owner of Karlson
Kitchens in Evanston, Illinois, regularly works on historic homes
in the greater-Chicago area. One of the first things he tells his
clients is to set extra money aside "because we know we'll
find problems we have to fix."
In one house, they found oil tanks that had been sitting
in the crawl space under the kitchen floor for 50 years. The tanks
still had oil in them.
"We had to hire a hazardous-materials team to
remove them," Karlson says. "It was the first time we'd
ever encountered that."
Also be on the lookout for asbestos and lead in the
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," Johnson
says, noting that push-button light switches were popular years
Karlson agrees that it's easy to get the materials.
"Paying for it is the hard part," he says,
"but usually historic houses are in nice neighborhoods and
the people have the resources."
That's a plus because upkeep is expensive. Plaster
walls and wood floors need constant TLC. Plaster cracks and peels,
and can disintegrate if it gets wet.
One 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
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," he says.
As for varnishes, take advantage of modern technology.
Shellac was the finish of choice 150 years ago, Johnson says, 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," Johnson
says. 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," Owens
says. "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 fireplaces, he says.
The biggest mistakes that homeowners make in renovating
historic homes, Johnson says, 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," Johnson says. "The lifetime
of a house should be for the life of several owners."
Karlson says the most common mistakes he sees are
homeowners who under budget for the project and who try to rush
through the process.
"Haste makes waste here," he says. "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."