Old house renovation, is it for you?

There is something hauntingly magnetic in a century-plus old, neglected house. It sits on its site like a stray puppy, staring at you with mournful window-eyes, sprouting vegetation and drooping shutters, whispering, “Imagine how great I could be if you fixed me up.” You can visualize yourself in a rocking chair on that wrap-around porch sipping lemonade in a future fixed-up version. Can your dream match reality?


Before you sign on the dotted line, you might want to look at what it will take to get to that fully-renovated-rocking-chair scene. Use the following pros and cons to determine whether you are a good candidate for owning an old house.


Pro: Neglected old houses can be had at rock-bottom prices.


Few homeowners are willing to do what it takes to fix up an old house. Ideally, you should have some home repair/improvement experience to defray costs, but in general, fixing up an old house has great investment potential.


Con: Sometimes buying an old house that needs renovating is equivalent to the cost of buying a brand new home.


That is not always true, but unless you look closely at the house and calculate the cost of repairs with a large margin for error, you could be in for a shock. Get a detailed home inspection before you agree to buy. The largest renovation expenses will be replacing a foundation, roof, plumbing system, electrical system, and installing HVAC where there was none before. Decide whether you would rather buy a brand new house over an old one which has been renovated for about the same money.


Pro: Old houses were built to last a long, long time.


Construction methods and engineering may have come a long way, but that does not mean new homes are better. At least with an old home you know what you are in for: the basic building blocks, and some fixing up.


Con: Nothing lasts forever.


An older home may have withstood the test of time, but you can safely assume something is falling apart. Your first major concern with any house, old or new, should be the foundation. Take a marble and drop it in each room of the first floor of the house. Does it roll as if it is on a hill? Pay attention to how the floor feels in different parts of each room. If the floor feels spongy, bouncy, or makes something else in the room jiggle when you bounce, the foundation has problems. That doesn’t mean you should abandon that particular house, but be ready to spend a lot of money for a structural engineer, heavy equipment to jack the house up, and a new foundation. A qualified home inspector should be able to tell you how much work will be needed, both for the foundation and other major issues.


Pro: An old house has character.


Even to the person with no education in architecture or design, the difference between a modern “box” house and an older home is screamingly apparent. Wood is everywhere, sometimes with intricate detail. The light fixtures range from ornate to charming. Even the hardware (light switches, doorknobs, hand-made nails) has character.


Con: Character is seldom square.


Whether you plan to hire a carpenter for repairs or do the work yourself, just give up on the idea of anything going like clockwork. You have to employ a lot of creativity and experimentation, and sometimes you will have to have some features custom-made.


“Character” can also be translated as drafty and noisy (old homes creak and moan a lot). Sometimes you can repair, restore, or replace, but often you will just learn to live with the negative side of “character.” If you plan to resell, keep in mind that many prospective buyers may not fall in love with the more eccentric characteristics of your old house.


Pro: Any materials that lasted this long were quality.


Old homes were often built with heart pine, cut from the center of ancient trees so fat with resin that they naturally repel insect and water damage, seemingly forever. Craftsmen and builders used real materials; there were no shortcuts, façades, or cheap substitutes. Central heat and air were non-existent, so architects often incorporated passive solar and ventilation design to take advantage of air flow and inhibit mold which is a positive if these design elements are still functional.


Con: Old house materials are sometimes toxic, and expensive to remove.


Two notable examples are lead paint and asbestos, both of which carry potential health hazards, either during removal by breathing the dust, or if some young person in your home decides to interact with them (picture a toddler gumming the windowsill).


Pro: You can afford more square footage with an old house.


Some of those old homes are huge. You can get lost in the square footage, going sideways or vertical. And the ceilings heights keep smaller rooms from feeling boxed in.


Con: The mortgage is affordable, but the utility bills are through the roof!


Older houses are off course cheaper, you pretty much just paying for the land as the house is too old it might not add much to the value. But chilly drafts, lofty ceilings, a large, rambling house – it’s a recipe for a nightmare every time you get the mail. Updating an old house to be energy efficient is tricky, especially if you own a historic home with local commission requirements to do nothing to the home that would compromise its historic integrity, such as replacing leaded glass windows with energy efficient vinyl ones.


Pro: An old house that you turn into your home will be uniquely yours.


It will not be a cookie cutter house, looking like the one next door, nor will it be boring. No one else will have one like it, and it will become a part of your family.


Con: Becoming attached to an old home can bring heartache if you have to give it up.


Economic recession, job relocation, and better schools are all reasons that families move from one house to another. When your heart, sweat and blood are poured into a house, it can really hurt to give it up.


Are you still in love with that neglected old house? Then go for it. A love for old homes is the most important prerequisite to owning one and unveiling its former glory. Old house renovation is unpredictable, but it will enrich your life.


By E. E. Kane