Old houses have made a remarkable comeback to a world they never left. Just look around. Historic home renovations of every ilk—from vernacular farmhouses to ramshackle Victorians—have gummed up Instagram feeds, real estate listings, and a vast portion of our collective consciousness. Everyone, it appears, is ready and willing to live their best old-house dreams.
This is good news. The more exposure there is for old houses, the more acceptance these aged shelters receive as the most virtuous of architectural dwellings: built to endure, often crafted with a replete devotion to detail, and full of unmatched quirk and personality. It’s when ogling an old house turns into investing in one that new homeowners can get tripped up. Most old homes do not come thoroughly turnkey, especially the more affordable ones, which often require plenty of repair projects and restoration quandaries, all just waiting to be addressed.
Find the house that really speaks to you
It sounds simple, but this principle is often ignored by those seeking an old house to call home. Scott T. Hanson, author of the Restoring Your Historic House, the Comprehensive Guide for Homeowners, dedicated his first chapter to this very sentiment. Titled “Finding the Right Historic House,” it is designed to help potential homeowners answer the question: “Is thisone the right one?”
“The goal is not just to find a historic house but to find one that is right for you, or at least one that can be made right for you with minimal damage to its historic character and features,” explains Hanson. “Does it match your lifestyle? Does it have the features that are essential to you? Does it have features that are desirable to you? Is the location good? Does it offer opportunities for rental units to help with the cost of restoration?”
Hanson says that understanding which styles and periods best align with your needs and desires can help to focus your search. “If you love open plans, there is no point in looking at houses built before 1870. Every house has its own pluses and minuses and every buyer their own needs and desires. Take the time to understand yours and find the right house for you.”
Investigate and take notes
Elizabeth Graziolo, founder and principal of AD100 firm Yellow House Architects in New York City, says not to jump into an old home without due diligence: “Getting an inspection report is critical!” Graziolo also says that it’s crucial to receive confirmation that the home’s foundation and architectural framework are intact. “One must confirm the foundation and structure’s stability are solid, as cosmetic restorations are much more straightforward than those that entail structural work.”
In order to know exactly what she’s working with, New York designer and AD PRO Directory member Elena Frampton makes it a rule to thoroughly scrutinize all the built elements, from floor to ceiling, and all architectural details in between. “Leave no stone unturned when it comes to kitchens and baths,” says Frampton. “It’s always worth looking into what lies underneath. Is there wood under the carpet? Do the fireplaces work? Is there enough power for contemporary systems?” Unanswered questions now can turn into emergency projects later.
Assemble the right team
Restoring an old property takes all types: planners, strategists, creatives, and visionaries. When scouting for the restoration squad of designers, architects, artisans, and builders, make sure everyone shares the same vision and commitment to the goal. Frampton loves when a good restoration plan and crew come together. “It’s invaluable to have a team that plays well in the sandbox with architects, engineers, builders, and designers all aligned on the functional and aesthetic goals for the home,” she says. Frampton also doesn’t mind calling in experts to keep the team, and budget, on track. “I’ll bring in technical consultants to raise any red flags associated with structural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and so on, to ensure we have a budget allocated for internal systems, as well as the ‘seen’ interior elements.”
Graziolo says that partnering with a preservation consultant early on is also worth consideration for homeowners committed to preserving the historical authenticity of their domicile. “They can create a detailed restoration plan and advise on the specifications of suitable materials and restoration techniques to best achieve the intended results,” she says.
Research the history
The best information for a historic home renovation can be found in the home’s original documents, if you can find them. Michael C. Kathrens, an author and independent scholar who focuses on 19th- and early-20th-century American residential architecture, recently published Newport Cottages 1835–1890, the Summer Villas Before the Vanderbilt Era. Kathrens says investing in the research of the home’s original form and construction details will often reveal missing pieces of how a home should look and feel.
“Make sure you do the research necessary on the construction details of the home as originally built, so that it remains structurally sound during the restoration process,” says Kathrens. “My advice is to leave as much of the original exterior and interior detailing as possible and replicate what can’t be salvaged, so that you can maintain the period authenticity of the structure.” When information is lacking, access local resources. “I usually go to the town or city offices to see if I can find the original building permit, which will have dates and the architect’s or contractor’s name, but not always a homeowner’s name, especially when it was built as a speculative venture.” The local library—especially one with a genealogy department—can also provide a wealth of information, says Kathrens. “See if there is a digital archive of any local newspapers extending back prior to the home’s construction date. You can find a lot by searching the address.”
Want answers? Get social
Unsure how to tackle a certain project or want feedback on best paint strippers? There is a deeply engaged and excited community of old-house cheerleaders on social media ready to jump in with advice, leads, and words of wisdom, says Amy Heavilin, an old-house owner who operates the Instagram account @amyleigh_1902victorian and is the creator of #52WeeksOfHome on the platform, a weekly social challenge where old-house lovers and owners share thoughts on a common topic. “I think the amazing thing about the old-house community is how we all feel ownership of each other’s homes,” she says. “We all really understand that we’re just stewards and caretakers, and we’d all try to save as many as we could, if we could! So whenever someone has a victory like discovering wood siding, or the heartbreak of unexpected damage, or just sharing the beauty of the architecture, we’re all invested.”
Ask around, and you’ll inevitably find the advice you’re looking for, adds Heavilin. “Some people are amazing at windows, others are fantastic with tile, so eventually you learn everyone’s strengths and who to go to for questions. We all work at different speeds and have different tastes, but that’s the beauty of it.”
Plan for extra time
“The cost of restoring an older home comes in the [form of the] money you spend, but more of it comes in the time it takes to do the project right,” says Austin interior designer Amity Worrel, whose AD PRO Directory–listed firm specializes in period renovations and thoughtful additions. Worrel cautions that “redoing an older home is not for the faint of heart.” Unpredictability is a general expectation of renovation projects, and Worrel says to embrace this by allowing additional time for the process.
“You can expect to find surprises within the walls, basements, and attics of an older home. There might be more time taken to weigh out options such as removing and restoring the windows versus buying new and trying to match,” she says. “There might be structural challenges that cause delays. You might have to take a few steps backward before you can move forward.”
Worrel stresses that taking this time to remain mindful of the home’s character will make for a more successful reveal: “If you’re being thoughtful and preserving what is right to preserve, restoring what is right to restore and carefully starting over or adding in the spirit of the older home when that is needed.”
The greatest investment while restoring an old house often lies in being patient and observational, notes Hanson, who says that rehabbing a house built in a prior century to accommodate life today will nearly always require making changes. “Before rushing into alterations, you should understand what its significant, or character-defining, features are and prioritize preserving at least the most important of them. If possible, live in the house for some time to better understand it before making changes.”
Worrel knows firsthand the emotional investment and rewards that come with a complex renovation project. Weighing each decision carefully was critical in the recent updates she made to her former childhood ranch-style home, which dates back to the ’70s (and where Worrel lives once again). Equally important: following her own intuition about what worked and what didn’t. That meant shirking suggestions to destroy walls and open up spaces, and reimagining a resized laundry room and side entry instead. The payoff was “a super comfortable and livable space for my family,” she says, adding that “the home still feels authentic and true to itself.”
It’s not impossible to live comfortably in an old home these days, especially if there’s thoughtful planning, extreme organization, and an abundance of time to allow for projects to take the time they require. Authenticity and livability is the ideal. But give an old house a chance, and it can become the dream environment for building new memories.