5 Worst Mistakes of Historic Homeowners (Part 1 Windows)

Being in the business of restoring and preserving historic structures I have seen many a house that made me cock my head in amazement at some of the frightening things people do to “upgrade” their old homes. The phrase “What were they thinking?” is almost a cliche at my company.

Every year people tear out important (and valuable!) architectural elements and replace them with off the shelf items from the local big box hardware store all in the name of “improvement” or “energy-efficiency.” Don’t get me wrong, I know that the science of building a house has been added to significantly in the last 100 years. And I’m not one to spit in the eye of progress when it comes to green products and energy saving upgrades. Quite to the contrary!

   

The value of an historic home lies largely in its historic features. Remove or cover those up and you destroy the value of the home. So, in the interest of educating some of you about how to invest properly in the value of your historic home and to save some valuable historical elements from the landfill I’ve compiled a list of the 5 worst mistakes we see when it comes to restoring historic homes. This week we’ll touch on the #1 offense, windows.

Replacement Windows

This has got to be the most widespread mistake and my personal pet peeve. Historic wood windows are constantly being torn out of homes today and being replaced with inferior products.

Metal, vinyl, double-paned, triple-paned, argon filled, are promoted as the solution to a drafty old house. And I’m not going to lie, they work! What?? That’s right, they work. For a time these new windows are extremely efficient; however, they have a few flaws that make them a bad choice.

First, is longevity. Many of these windows come with a 15, 20 or 30 yr. prorated warranty. That’s great, but what happens after that? Not that you’ll be in the house then, right? Just because you won’t be there doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.

Your historic wood windows were designed when families planned to live in a house for generations. There are countless original windows in homes built not just in the 19th but 18th and 17th centuries that are still in service today! Properly cared for these windows can last indefinitely.

The use of old-growth lumber, which is more rot resistant than today’s lumber, combined with the simple design and function of most historic windows makes them extremely resilient. Historic windows are simple and everyone knows that the more complicated something is the easier it is to break. Argon gas seals leak causing multi paned windows to fog up and fail. Spring tensioners wear out making it hard to open and close windows.

Aside from too much paint build up or a missing rope, historic windows don’t have any of these issues. You can learn more about the design of historic windows in my post All About Historic Windows.

Secondly, removing your home’s original windows inevitably destroys the character of a historic house. New windows were designed for new houses. And while there are companies that make windows that look like historic ones they are still quite quite right. Lacking this major architectural element almost guarantees a lower resale price for a historic home. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking newer is better. On an old home this is rarely the case.

More than likely, your windows are painted shut or rotting in a few places if they haven’t been cared for. Before you run to replace them call a restorer to bring them back to life. Your wallet will thank you and so will your sense of conservation. Historic windows are a superior product so why replace them with an inferior one?

The Solution

Historic windows need a couple things to perform as good or better than new windows.

First, they need to be properly weatherstripped. Next, they need to be properly maintained and painted when necessary to prevent rot or other issues. And lastly, you should consider adding historical storm windows to dramatically increase their efficiency. You can add these on the outside or even better the inside to preserve your home’s appearance from the street.

If you can do these three things you will have windows that last centuries, retain your home’s value and meet even the toughest energy-efficiency standards today.

I’ve put together a resource page of how to do the most common tasks associated with restoring, repairing and maintaining historic windows at How To: Repair Old Wood Windows where you can find help doing almost anything you might need to save your old windows.

Read the rest of the 5 Worst Mistakes of Historic Homeowners:

Part 2 Floors

Part 3 Siding

Part 4 Plaster

Part 5 The Details

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by Scott Sidler

Scott is the owner of Austin Home Restorations, a company that specializes in renovating and restoring historic homes in Orlando, FL and the creator of The Craftsman Blog. When not working on, teaching about or writing about old houses he spends time fixing up his own old bungalow with his wife Delores and their son Charley.

http://www.austinhomerestorations.com

30 comments

  1. >>Many of these windows come with a 25, 35 or 50 yr. prorated warranty. That’s great, but what happens after that? <<

    More importantly, what happens before that? The window replacement industry wants to keep it a secret, but you should know that many of their so-called "windows" need to be replaced within 8 to 12 years and some don't even last 3 or 4 years. This is no exaggeration. The corporate manufacturers of replacement windows have even admitted in a court of law that 5 to 8 percent of their windows fail before the warranty is up and they never provide warranty service on 55 percent of those that do fail. That means that you can have about a 1 in 20 chance that a replacement window will fail and the manufacturer will do nothing about it.

    John
    http://www.HistoricHomeWorks.com

    • Well said John! The replacement window industry is basically a big trap as far as I see it. Once you buy one replacement window you are forever trapped in a vicious cycle of wholesale replacement every decade. It’s an expensive proposition.

  2. Rick McGrath on said:

    I’m in the camp. Really. I/we can make the argument but we’ve found that much like auto repair there are fewer and fewer trades people who know how to or are interested in repair. While not rocket science to repair a window yourself not everyone is a DIY’er. Seems all a growing % of trades folks know how to do is rip-n-replace parts.

    Secondly, even if we’re able to make the case the first “yeah, but…” we get tima and again is lead. The F.U.D. around this topic needs to be addressed head on and repeatedly. Help me make that argument.

    • Rick, agreed that today’s tradesmen know more about tear out and replace than they do maintain and repair. But John is right that, though restoration trades may be a minority we are a rapidly growing minority.
      Especially, since the economic downturn people have begun to look at houses more sustainably. I’m hoping the age of the quick cheap flip is fading away.

      • Rick McGrath on said:

        Thanks Scott.
        I think our local trades people need to discover this on their own via the their own sources. I’ve been lobbying for some time now and think it’s damaged at least one tradesman/friendship who I believe thinks I’m ill informed, diminishing the otherwise good work that he does or both. Will keep trying.

        Lastly, I chair our Landmarks Commission. Homeowners repeatedly express dire concerns about lead as their trump card. Is there a one-pager somewhere I can hand them?

        • Rick, I’ve been meaning to put all the info we have on lead paint in a one page handout for clients. I’ll do that this week and send it off to you. Also, check out Remodeler magazine this month who cites studies that show how drastically we have cut down on lead poisoning in children since the 1970s.

          • Rick McGrath on said:

            Really? Wonderful! Much appreciated. Yes, decreased lead levels particularly since removal from gasoline. Just need something more authoritative than coming some perceived lunatic willing to throw peoples children under the bus for old windows they don’t want anyway. Thanks for your help. BTW… fantastic site. Great content.

  3. Rick,
    Actually there are more and more trades people who know and are actively interested in window maintenance and repair. I keep a national directory of window specialists, and the directory is growing at the rate of 20% per year for the past five years. The directory has hundreds of window specialist listed, you can find it in the back of my book, Save America’s Windows. Here’s my essay on the growth of the window preservation specialists:
    http://www.traditional-building.com/Previous-Issues-11/AugustForum11.html

    –John

    • Rick McGrath on said:

      I’ve found the book and will order it.
      I should have been more specific. I’m sure what you say is true. I suspect though that it is more pronounced in some regions than others. Here in Southern WI… not so much. I’m in communication with local VoTech teachers on the H.S. level at tech college. Not getting much interest. Suspect interest is market driven and the community/market demand has not reached them. Will keep trying. Thanks for your help.

  4. >>Homeowners repeatedly express dire concerns about lead as their trump card.<<

    This is due to fear-based marketing by the window replacement pirates. There are very simple and practical methods to do all this window work lead-safe. This video
    http://saveamericaswindows.com/?p=39
    shows a couple of lead-safe methods, one at the beginning and one at minute 2:40.
    There are at least 2 or 3 window specialists operating in southern Wisconsin.

  5. matt on said:

    thanks for the article.

    im willing to have our historic windows restored because i agree w/ your points. the problem is finding the right tradesman. how much do you think restoring an old window should be? crazy open-ended question, i know… but for ex i had window guy restoration guy tell me it may be up to $2500 for what appears to me (layman) as a standard old window (1850s new orleans). he said it isnt standard and these projects can be tricky once opened up. i hear that, but at the same time…we cant really expect people to spend $2500/window, can we!?

    • Matt, $2500 sounds quite excessive to me as well. Usually it’s somewhere in the $150-$700 range for a single sash. You don’t always need a full restoration of a window either like John said. Spot repairs can be a real savings. I would look for another window restoration craftsman in your area to compare prices. There is a lot of variety in skill level and pricing in this industry. If all else fails we’d be glad to help you with your windows.

  6. Matt, some people can afford $2500. Many more cannot. I certainly don’t expect people to spend more than they can afford. This is why I often recommend spot repairs and routine maintenance, which can always be done for much less. The savvy tradesperson can offer window repairs and maintenance at any level of funding that is available. I routinely do this for $50-100 per window. The costs can go higher if more need to be done, but I let the homeowner or building owner set the budget and then do the work that is allowed within the budget.

    Here’s a link so show what I mean by spot repairs and maintenance:
    http://historichomeworks.com/forum/viewtopic.php?p=8453

  7. Hi John, and hello from my husband! (Ed Sanchez) We couldn’t agree more with everything you are saying. We find that almost always it is cheaper to repair your windows than replace, and then you get the added benefit of windows that work for 50 years or so, instead of the little parts falling apart on the new vinyl window alternatives. It is cheaper for the customer both in the long run and the short run – that is before even getting into that they won’t be plagued by termites in their old windows as they would with new wood windows. All in all, the beauty of our old windows is their simplicity and infinite repairability. Their parts can also be augmented to replicate the efficiency claimed by new window promoters.

  8. Mike on said:

    30 years ago, I was stupid. I replaced my old windows with vinyl. They were leaking badly and had a lot of rot on many lower sashes. The replacements are actually still quite viable. I guess I got good ones. But, I have an old craftsman Bulgalow. I have been restoring the old trim wood and floors and I now wish I had kept the old windows. My next plan is to remove the old replacement pine claps and restore to the red cedar shingles that should be on the huse. Soooo, good time to replace the vinyl with wood. I have a wood shop and have been researching how to build new wood sash. I found lots of information. Fine homebuilding and fine woodworking, John Leeke, and a bunch of random articles. But no real start to finish, hold my hand, tutorial or video. I know how to make a strong mortice and tenon window with the help of sash cutters on my router. But what are all the measurments I need? Many weight pockets are filled with foam. So the jambs need to be rebuilt as well. Is there a good book, still in print, that will show me how to do this from sctatch? Jambs, weight pockets, pulleys and sash building?

    • Mike, I don’t know of a good start to finish video series on building a sash from start to finish right now. I am working on putting one together but it won’t be finished for a few months. If you find one before then, let me know. Otherwise keep an eye on the blog here!

    • Scott on said:

      This is a comment to mike – hope that you can forward it to him. lost Art Press may have the the solution to what you need. From the website: http://lostartpress.com/collections/books/products/doormaking-and-window-making

      “Doormaking and Window-Making” starts you off at the beginning, with simple tools and simple assemblies; then it moves you step-by-step into the more complex doors and windows.

      Every step in the layout and construction process is shown with handmade line drawings and clear text. The booklets are written from a voice of authority – someone who has clearly done this for a long time.

      During the last 100 years, most of these booklets disappeared. Booklets don’t survive as well as books. And so we were thrilled when we were approached by joiner Richard Arnold in England, who presented us with a copy of each booklet to scan and reproduce for a book.

      We have scanned both booklets, cleaned up the illustrations and have combined them into a 176-page book titled “Doormaking and Window-Making.” In addition to the complete text and illustrations from these booklets, we have also included an essay from Arnold on how these rare bits of workshop history came into his hands.

      By the way this looks like a great blog – just discovered this morning

  9. Check out a new book created by 100+ collaborators including 5 nationally-known window restorationists. It documents the logic of restoring old windows with objective tests done at a historic site in KY. Also gives brief descriptions of steps, tools needed for each step and how to evaluate the quality level you are shooting for with your specific time and money investment: http://www.windowstandards.org

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