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Fixing up an historic home

Buying a home So you want to fix up an 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.

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, 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 an 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."

An 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.


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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 an historic house, Johnson once again recommends 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. 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 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," Johnson says, noting that push-button light switches were popular years ago.

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 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," 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," Johnson says.

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 current code.

"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."

-- Posted: July 1, 2003


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