For many people, owning a historic home is a dream come true. The classic style and old-world charm attracts homeowners all across the country, ready to get their hands dirty rebuilding that Victorian-style beauty on the corner or that old west-style ranch across town. But many historic homeowners quickly discover that owning a historic home is much more complicated than you might think. From zoning regulations and historical society rules to structural damage, old homes can really throw you for a spin. How can you be sure you haven’t bitten off more than you can chew?
We asked our experts for their advice on how to approach a historic home remodel, and they had a lot to say–and a wealth of personal experience to draw from. Here’s an easy step-by-step guide to making sure your historic home doesn’t turn into a historic headache.
1) Do Your Research
As Richard Koller of Criterium-Tauscher Cronacher Engineers reminds us,
“Municipalities and historic societies can sometimes dictate what and how you perform certain renovations and upgrades. It’s best to do the research and due diligence ahead of time.”
Historic societies have rules and regulations for everything from roofing tiles and landscaping to window height, dimension, style and material. Some societies are more relaxed than others, so it’s important to know what your local restrictions are before buying. This is all in addition to regular housing codes, which must also be met. Before you get too attached to a single house, make sure that the renovations you want to make are allowed by local ordinances, or else you’ll wind up frustrated.
2) Find a Reliable Contractor
Having a professional on your side is always a good idea, especially when big-budget renovations are in the works. Be sure to find a contractor who understands both what you are looking for, and how to work with a historic home. And don’t just take them at their word: “check references, and walk properties that the contractor has worked on,” expert Matthew Kettner of MLK Construction urges.
“Trust me: if that contractor did a great job, his or her clients would be willing to show you some of the work that he or she did. Also, make sure they have insurance. Nobody plans for accidents, but that’s why they’re called accidents.”
Having a good contractor from the beginning can also help you evaluate a house before purchase; he or she will know what to look for better than you will. When it comes to historic homes, an expert opinion is your most valuable asset.
3) Have a Plan of Action
A lot of work goes in to a historic home renovation, and it can be easy to lose track of all the details. As expert, Pablo Solomon warns,
“The biggest mistakes that people make in restoring historic homes are not making a thorough structural evaluation and not having a sequential plan of action. You must have a good roof and a substantial structure before you do anything else. You will save loads of time and money by sticking to a well thought-out sequential plan. Too many people put the cart before the horse and start doing all sorts of cutesie decorating before making the house structurally sound.”
Start with the big things–foundation, walls, roofing, etc.–and work your way down to the more aesthetic choices. After all, it’s a lot easier to replace the wall paper than it is to fix a sagging wall–and the latter is a much bigger problem. Prioritize from the beginning and you’ll stay on track.
4) Keep Your Historic Period in Mind
While historic homes offer an old-fashioned charm that you just can’t find in modern homes, they often lack some of the things that modern living considers necessary. For example, old-style houses are almost always divided into distinct rooms, whereas modern layouts favor an open atmosphere. Expert Laurie Gorelick encourages homeowners to make the changes they really want, but always keep the original style in mind:
“When renovations combine multiple spaces into one, be mindful to add period details that echo the original architecture. You don’t want to skimp on the details when renovating historic properties.”
And remember to check with the local historical society and to consult local laws and ordinances on historic homes, to make sure what you want to do is compatible with regulations.
5) Do it for Love
Owning a historic home comes with a host of additional challenges and tribulations that regular homeowners don’t have to deal with. Renovating a historic home is a lot of work, it takes a lot of time, and it can cost a lot of money, so it’s important that you really love your home and are committed to it. As expert Nancy of Baywolf Dalton puts it,
“It’s a lot like owning a wooden boat: you really need to love it, because it takes ongoing work.”
*Photo courtesy of Jerry Johnson.