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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