Renovating an Old House

By Daniel Bernzweig

Renovating and restoring an old home can be a gratifying and fulfilling experience for a new or veteran homeowner. On the other hand, if you aren't experienced in these matters, it can also be very frustrating and stressful. To help newcomers like you navigate the pitfalls associated with restoring and renovating old houses, we have put together this short guide.

Some key points to restoring an old home include:

  • Creating a Deconstruction Plan 
  • Doing Your Research
  • Deciding on a Design
  • Exploring the Surrounding Property
  • Hiring Experienced Contractors

Renovating and restoring an old house is a big project, but it can be invigorating and immensely rewarding. You will learn how to start restoring an old house in this guide if you have ever been interested in doing so. Historic homes are abundant in the Hudson Valley and upstate New York.

Create a Deconstruction Plan 

While exciting, restoring old homes also requires time and hard work. Before you begin restoring an old house, do your research and understand the basics. If you have a young 100 year old house or a much older home, your plan must be solid. From a basic bathroom remodel to a full home addition or deconstruction, take your time and do it correctly. 

Take your time when you are dealing with a home renovation, whether it is a simple bathroom remodel or complete home addition or demolition.

It is important to create a deconstruction plan to ensure that the house is taken apart safely, especially when hazardous materials are involved, and to ensure that as many materials as possible are reused or recycled:

  • Wood
  • Light fixture accessories and full fixtures
  • Cabinets 
  • Vintage home hardware
  • Hardwood floors
  • Vintage pipes that can be salvaged
  • Piping and other materials are saved for reuse. 

In a nutshell, a deconstruction plan outlines all the steps involved in tearing down old foundation walls, home interior, floors, ceilings, doors, windows, appliances, fixtures, and anything else that may need to come out before new construction begins.

This step should involve consulting with an architect, contractor, building inspector, and/or structural engineer who has experience working with older buildings. They can provide valuable insight into how to proceed with demolition and reconstruction. They will also be able to identify and suggest fixes for any structural issue.

These also consider insulation and wall material, lead paint and asbestos removal, and more. This is vital with both fixer-uppers and historic homes.

The remodeling impact report is another useful tool to look at during this phase. These reports examine the expenses of a remodeling project, their financial value, and how customers feel after doing home enhancements.

You want to create a list of which areas to renovate first, what repairs you're going to make along the way, and what original home features you're going to keep, including materials from bathroom remodels, kitchen remodels, and more. 

With a deconstruction plan, you'll be able to carefully break down the old walls and remove the old windows of each room so that it contains only the materials you need for renovation while making sure to retain any historical elements you might want to preserve. 

Do Your Research

Before starting any work on your house, consult with local building authorities about what steps are necessary if there are historical renovations or other structures on your land that have been designated as "historic landmarks." This will ensure that you follow proper protocol for renovating an old home, making things easier during restoration. 

Just because a house is old doesn't make it historic. There is a difference between an older house and a historic house. 

A historic home is a home that has been recognized as having historical value and is documented as such by a professional preservation group, the National Park Service, or an independent state or local landmark designation. The Washington Post often has lists and entire stories on some of the nation's most notable historic homes. 

The value of a historic home can be financial, cultural, and social. For example, the Recreation and Historic Preservation Law was enacted by the New York State Historic Preservation Act to advance the state's preservation of historic homes. North Carolina's Endangered Properties Program serves the same purpose. 

Once you know exactly what you want to do, it's time to start doing some research. Online resources can help you decide what kind of renovations are best for your house. For instance, websites are dedicated to helping homeowners renovate their kitchens, bathrooms, living rooms, bedrooms, and garages. These websites usually contain photos of existing homes that show various design options and costs.

In the United States, any building listed in the National Register of Historic Places is automatically considered a "historic" property. The National Association of Realtors lists the nation's certified historic homes. Many other countries have similar systems for protecting heritage sites, usually under different names.

Anyone considering remodeling either type of house should do some research before renovation begins.

Research the House's History

When researching your home's history, you'll want to pay close attention to finding the home's property boundaries or boundary markers. These are typically found in the corners of properties and maybe at either side of a driveway or border.

The property boundaries that mark where your land ends and another person's begins can tell you a lot about your house and its history. This is essential for country living or historic homes in rural areas. Often these markers will contain information such as how much land an owner had, who sold it to them, and even all sorts of other details about your house.

Get the OK From the City

There are different city rules and regulations set in place regarding renovations. Some pertain to the renovation or real estate itself, while others pertain to renovating a historic home. Check with the city zoning and planning offices to find their local laws on home renovations in your area.

An example of specific city rules and regulations includes removing "historic spindle work" in older houses. The city may consider your home's window decorations historic if it was built before 1950. This means you should seek approval from the city if you want to restore them because simply covering them up without getting prior approval could get you fined.

Make sure that whatever changes you make abide by these guidelines when renovating an older home.

Before starting renovations to an old house, you must research all the limitations set in place by your local government. Doing so will prevent you from accidentally breaking any rules.

Decide on a Design

Before you can move on to creating your floor plan, you need to have a good vision of the property's layout. You can do this by finding an aerial view of the property online. For most properties, it is recommended to maximize the space in the basement, which includes utilizing the full depth of the lot and putting windows in at ground level. 

Some popular design styles often seen in older homes include:

  • Colonial: Symmetrical, with a formal entryway and a central fireplace 
  • Victorian: Most notably built in San Francisco, Victorian homes are asymmetrical, with many small rooms, high ceilings/walls, and long hallways 
  • Georgian: Square or rectangular, made of brick, and features symmetrical windows, shutters, and columns.
  • Federal: A simple square or rectangular box, two or three stories high and two rooms deep.
  • Greek Revival: A symmetrical shape, pilasters, columns, a porch entry, a window in the pediment, and plain or highly decorated cornices and friezes. 
  • Gothic Revival: Pointed arch, used for windows, doors, and decorative elements like porches, dormers, or roof gables.

After researching potential designs, you should narrow down your choices to two or three options. Consult your architect, builder, or designer once you have decided on one option to determine whether you can build your dream home.

Investigating the area around the house

Chances are you've seen plenty of older houses if you live in an older neighborhood. While some of those houses could use some care, others are perfectly fine as they are. Before remodeling your house, it is always a good idea to examine the surrounding area.

Using the floorplan template, you can design the interior of your home once you have chosen a style. There are many factors to consider, from plumbing to a new hardwood floor. Ideally, family rooms, living rooms, dining rooms, and kitchens should all be in one area for convenience. 

Explore the Surrounding Property

Metal detectors offer a way to explore the surrounding property safely. Before taking on a project of this magnitude, it's wise to explore your immediate surroundings. It is never known what may be lurking beneath the ground's surface. You might start with a site survey to locate property markers.

Search for Gold: Finding gold is a possibility with old and historic homes. It is definitely worth looking into before renovations take place because gold has been known to turn up in old paint cans, under floorboards, and more. Some owners have even found bags of forgotten coins beneath their floors! 

Be sure to search through the surrounding area with a metal detector, especially if you suspect something might be around during renovation. Exploring the surrounding land of a historic property has many benefits. You can find: 

It can also help you understand the property better, identify areas to avoid when renovating, and locate underground water leaks. For more information on detecting items on a historic property, check out some of these related articles. 

Use an online map or satellite image services, such as Google Maps or Bing Maps, to see all surrounding buildings. Talk to your neighbors as well.

When renovating an old house, it is always good to have an expert come out and ensure the renovation project will not damage any surrounding properties. For example, if there are historic trees on the property, you should hire a tree service specializing in preservation. If a neighboring building can impact your renovations, such as being too close to the construction zone, it needs to be measured beforehand to know exactly how much space you have for renovation work.

Hire Experienced Contractors

Aim to hire remodeling contractors that have experience remodeling older/historic homes. You'll benefit from the knowledge they have with specifics surrounding historic home renovation and can complete higher-par work within your budget. If you hire inexperienced contractors, it could lead to damage such as water damage to the home. Hiring home builders and subcontractors is very common when carrying out a renovation or restoration. This includes:

  • Electricians
  • Certified removers of Asbestos fibers
  • Plumbers
  • Carpenters
  • Masons, and others, depending on what you need to be done. 

You can find companies by looking online or through word of mouth. You may also need to get quotes from several contractors before settling on one. Home renovation costs vary, but on average, are $100 to $400 based on square footage for historic homes vs. new construction at $100 to $200 per square foot. 

Check that contractors are registered with their respective councils for safety purposes, have references from past customers, insurance cover must be in place, licensing is required according to your county regulations, the company has finance options available if you choose to do so, and look at previous work they have done which you can see online or ask for some pictures. 

Renovating and restoring an old home is an exciting process, but with careful planning and research, it can be done right. A lot of money can be invested in building new rooms or restoring existing ones to bring the old charm back.

Before starting the restoration, be sure to search the surrounding property and do your research to see any archeological, historical, or natural sites. Also, choose your contractor carefully because not all contractors are experienced enough to handle old buildings without damaging them. 

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