1. The first bit of advice is to remember why you bought an old house in the first place.
People don’t select an antique home for the spacious front entries and abundance of built-in closets. You fall in love with an often-neglected piece of history. You feel the overwhelming desire to “save” the structure. You are filled with dreams of what it once was and what you can “do” for it. As with a child, your patience will be tested. Don’t get depressed. A proper restoration project, by nature, will take longer to complete than new construction. It is also more challenging and rewarding. Old homes carry with them a unique history…a history of which you will soon become an essential part.
2. Do educate yourself on the actual costs of proper restoration.
Many first-time antique homebuyers are unfortunately unaware of the costs of good restoration. Old homes can be a “bargain” in today’s housing market. These price breaks are usually in direct correlation with the degree of disrepair in which they have fallen. Do your homework before you purchase. Restoration and remodeling of an old house can easily cost 3-4x the price of new construction.
3. Complete one essential room in the house – such as the master bedroom – before tearing everything else apart.
When living in a house under construction, you need a finished place where you can escape. The other option, if money is no issue, is to simply move out.
4. Put down the level and slowly back away.
Antique home framing members may be ½-inch or more off from perfectly plumb and straight. Not an indication of loose standards, your old home has been settling on its foundation for 1-2-or 300 years. Understand and investigate the difference between cosmetic and structural imperfections. While structural problems will need to be addressed, cosmetic variations can be considered “character.” (Unless, of course, you’re trying to hang a door in that wall.) Walls that will support kitchen cabinets will need to be plumb, and rough-openings for doors and windows will need to be straight.
With your modern tools out of reach, sit down and think outside the box. What drew you to the house? What do you like about the interior space? Chances are, you appreciate the characteristics of plaster and how it conforms to the dips and ridges on the original frame. What don’t you like? Is the existing plaster deteriorated beyond repair? Are there numerous caked and flaking layers of paint screaming to be removed? Is there no insulation in the walls? Chances are: All of the above. You may be tempted to string lines on original walls and ceilings. Resist the temptation, and allow those curves to be looked upon as character, not imperfections.
5. Save as much plaster as possible.
This is one of those instances where ‘reasonable’ should be addressed. Original horsehair plaster is extremely valuable and desirable to die-hard antique homeowners. However, removing, storing, and re-mixing that plaster can be a nightmare. Another concern is that in many cases, when that original plaster crumbles off the walls, it will be mixed with plenty of lead paint chips. Consider your living situation. Have you moved out of the house and do you have the time to sift out the paint and save the plaster in buckets?
Modern sheetrock is flat. It is made to fit on top of plumb, straight walls. Your old framing members are crooked, cupped, and warped. If you were to sheetrock the space, you would need to straighten the existing lines first. In other words, you would be stick framing a new, straight and plumb room inside the existing framed room. Think of the timesavings in not having to use your instruments of accuracy for re-framing.
6. Make structural repairs when you have the chance.
This is the time to strengthen floor joists. Affix 1/2″ plywood between exposed joists for added stability and strength. After dry-fitting CDX plywood between the joists, use a diamond-trowel to “tool on” all-purpose construction adhesive. Use the proper length screw for screwing the plywood in place. Choosing too long of a fastener will result in penetrating through the top of the finished floor upstairs.
7. Don’t try to sand the crown out of your wide-plank floors.
Over-sanding will weaken the boards, causing extensive splitting and cracking. The grooves on tongue- and- groove boards can break off, greatly reducing their original strength. A vibrating floor sander (instead of a drum sander) brings out the beauty, without taking off too much substance. On soft woods such as pumpkin pine, a little goes a long way. Remember, the trademark crowning of old floorboards is part of the charm of an antique home.
8. Don’t be a purist.
Antique homeowners often find themselves amidst a delicate balancing act. With all good intentions to preserve the integrity of the house, we struggle to ensure the necessity of comfort. Look to very modern solutions for problems such as how to illuminate old homes. We suggest “museum lighting.” Low voltage, directional, recessed lighting with slot aperture, or pin lighting mounted on cables, are all great options. Not only will these fixtures brighten your home, they will accent the antiquity. Consider reproduction pieces for their purity, not their lighting capability. Reproduction period lighting, while fun and decorative, does not offer the functionality of more modern options. Combining both in your home offers a balance between authenticity and functionality.
9. Don’t try to do it all yourself.
Finding good subcontractors will be essential to the success of your project. While many of us think we can tinker around with plumbing and electrical, now is not the time. Research subcontractors in your area who have experience with antique homes. Get your mechanical work done upfront. Inevitably, plumbing, heating, and electrical upgrades will all be part of your project. Planning ahead for these elements will save time and money in the long run.
10. Don’t believe that “they don’t make that stuff anymore.”
There are many resources available for both authentic antique building materials, as well as very good reproductions. The Internet and eBay are worth some research time. Trade magazines such as Old House Journal and Period Home, as well as the Restoration & Renovation Convention all offer sources for finding old house replacement parts. Historic Housefitters Co., located in Brewster, NY is a personal favorite for reproduction lighting, latch sets, and hardware.
-BY ANDREW PAYNE, OWNER OF WILTON-BASED BENCHMARK BUILDERS
As written on request from Fine Homebuilding Magazine