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15 Tips For Living in an Old House

tips for living in an old house

So you’ve got an old house. You love it, you hate. Welcome to the club! Historic homes can be a great joy sometimes, but they are definitely different from new homes and understanding those differences can make life in an old house more enjoyable.

LIfe was different 100 years ago and these houses were built to accommodate the lives of the people who built them. There was no internet, sometimes no cars, sometimes not even indoor plumbing so these houses have had to evolve a bit as the lives of their occupants have as well.

This series of tips will help you not only get along better with your old house, but also help you protect the value of your old house so you can get the most out of it when it’s time to sell.

Tip #1 Keep Private vs Public Spaces

The trend of large open floor plans in homes today has led to many historic homes having their walls knocked down willy nilly. Homes built before the 1960s traditionally had a greater separation of public and private spaces. Public rooms such as foyers, living rooms, dining rooms, or parlors were given more expensive finishes like nicer wood floors, picture rails and crown moldings. The private areas of the home such as bathrooms, kitchens and bedrooms, meant mainly for the occupants use, were given less formal finishings and ornamentation.

Before you begin tearing down the walls of your historic home to make a new great room or open kitchen/living area, consider some period appropriate ways to give your house a more open feel without totally destroying the hierarchy of these spaces.

  1. Find out the architectural style of your house.
  2. Look for pictures of that particular style to find options for different interior layouts.
  3. Use half walls and architectural elements like built-ins to delineate rooms.

With a little research and creativity, you can find a period appropriate way to get a more open feeling in your home without losing its historic integrity. It’s up to you!

Tip #2 Respect Your Home’s Vintage

Whether your home is Victorian or Craftsman, Greek Revival or Colonial, plain or elaborate you should respect its vintage. It is what it is, and trying to change it will only lead to trouble. There’s something incredibly jarring about one type of home masquerading as another. Your home has a vintage that is completely unique unto itself and that vintage should be respected. Mixing genres and decades not only destroys your historic home’s intrinsic value, but also its financial value.

This principle applies not only to its exterior appearance, but also to the integrity its interior spaces. This isn’t about updating a house- it’s more a matter of turning it into something it was never intended to be; like adding a beautiful Victorian bathroom in a Craftsman Bungalow. It may be historic in design, but that doesn’t make it correct.

The best way to care for your house is to preserve its vintage. Though you may love the idea of a retro 1950s style kitchen in your 1920s Bungalow, that is usually not the best choice. Stick with the style and decade your house belongs to. Sure, you can take creative license, but glaring inconsistencies in decades and styles makes for a confused house and that leads to fewer willing buyers in the future.

Tip #3 Keep the Exterior Proportions

Your historic home’s proportions were carefully thought out. They were planned by a designer or architect to work together and complement the overall style of the house. An out of scale addition like an oversized dormer or an undersized porch will only serve to confuse the look of your house.

If you’re planning a renovation, it’s important to keep things in proportion with your home’s existing design. Have the new windows not only match the style of the old ones, but the size as well. Keep roof lines and eaves the same too. For example, don’t add an eye-brow dormer when the existing one is a shed dormer.

Keeping these exterior proportions true to the rest of the house will keep your house looking like a cohesive piece of architecture. And, it will keep photos of your house from appearing on my Instagram.

Remuddled Victorian
Not a wise addition to this Victorian

Tip #4 Study Your Neighbor’s Houses

Your home wasn’t built all by its lonesome. It has friends all around the neighborhood, built at roughly the same time by the same people using some of the same techniques and materials. Just like you can learn a lot about someone by asking their friends, your house is no different.

Maybe your historic house has been terribly remuddled somewhere along the line. To find out how it originally looked, your best bet is neighbors and their homes. You might be lucky enough to find someone who has lived on your street since the time your house was built. They can be an invaluable resource for stories and details about your old home.

Often, you can take a walk around the area and find a house that bears a striking resemblance to your own. Builders are rarely blind to architectural trends of the time and neither are envious homeowners who beg, borrow, and steal their favorite designs from neighboring homes.

So, when you get stuck on a project, take a look out your windows before you turn to designers and magazines for ideas. You might find the answer hiding across the street.

Tip #5 Start Outside

So many folks go a little crazy with the seemingly endless list of repairs they inherit with their first old house. It can be overwhelming. There is too much to do and too little money and time that they freeze up and don’t do anything! Well, don’t become one of those people. There is a definite place to start, and that place is outside.

You should always start any restoration project on the outside of the house. Is the roof leaking? The chimney? Does the siding need repair or replacement? How about the windows? Once you take care of the outside building envelope, which protects the rest of the house, you can breathe easy. You don’t have to hurry and fix something before the next storm causes a leak or winter comes too early. Whatever the weather outside, it’s always perfect DIY weather inside.

Fixing the outside first will let you relax and plan the work on the inside to make the house exactly what you want it to be. And that saves you from spending money on quick fixes or having to do a project over again. Grab a copy of my Historic Restoration Plan eBook to help you plan your renovation.

Tip #6 Be a Detective

Every old house is hiding some pieces of its past, and it’s up to you to figure them out. Many folks want to restore old details that have been removed or covered up over the years. And while some remodels may have completely wiped out any signs of the past, there may still be ways to discover how your old house once was.

  1. Attics, Basements & Crawlspace – A excellent pace to start looking for missing windows, screens, moldings and even old possessions of the previous owners. You might have to dig through some insulation or in cobweb filled corners behind boilers, but there is usually something useful hiding.
  2. Something’s Different – Old paint lines where a molding was removed. Differing plasterwork where a new wall was added. Perhaps some clapboards covered in dozens of layers of paint while a whole section has a few clean coats. Maybe all your windows are the same design except for 1 or 2. These are all signs that point to a change somewhere along the line.

Your house has little reminders and hints of its past hiding in plain sight. The question is: When you look what will you see?

Tip #7 Hire a Specialist

I think my family doctor is great. He really is! And one of the reasons he is so great is because he sends me to the best specialists in town. He sent me to a no-nonsense ENT (ear, nose and throat specialist) when I needed my tonsils out, a very sweet-natured allergist when my hay fever almost killed me, and I’m sure he will know the perfect specialist for whatever my next dilemma is.

He is smart enough (he is a doctor after all!) to know that nothing beats a well trained specialist! The same holds true for your historic home.

If you are planning a renovation the best thing you can do is hire a historic home specialist. The biggest blunders I run into are from handymen and general contractors who don’t know how to work with the unique materials and techniques present in an old home. Plaster walls aresn’t the same as drywall. Balloon framing is different from platform framing. And wood windows are worlds apart from vinyl. If you want to keep your historic home looking historic, hire a contractor who specializes in historic renovations.

Tip #8 Make a List

Sometimes the amount of work that needs to be done on an old house is overwhelming. Every little project seems to fall victim to The Mushroom Effect and your budget fades into a distant memory. The project gets so big that many homeowners get paralyzed and don’t know what to do next. But you can avoid “renovation paralysis”with one simple fix.

A checklist, a honey-do list, or just a plain to-do list. Whatever you want to call it a list helps you see the big picture and prioritize.

Here’s how to do it:

  1. Write down every improvement or repair you want to do to your old house. (Include little stuff. i.e. fix bedroom doorknob)
  2. Together with your spouse pick the order of importance for each item. (Hint: start outside)
  3. Rewrite the list in order of importance
  4. Place the list somewhere prominent
  5. Start at the top and work your way down

Making a list keeps you focused. It eliminates distractions, and help you accomplish your goals. And including little repairs in the list gives you small victories that help keep you motivated. Just be specific. If your list says ‘Renovate House’ you may have missed the point.

Tip #9 Find Old House Friends

Restoring an old home can be rough. Often times, you’ll come to the end of your rope either from lack of energy, funds, knowledge, or all three. When that time comes (and it will come), it’s time to look outside yourself.

Finding a “tribe” of old house lovers to be a part of is the best way to get inspired and push past those times when you hit the wall. All of us were made for community. You need a place to get new ideas and hear support from others who’ve been there and done that.

A community is not just a place where we go to get answers to our own problems. You’ll find great satisfaction in helping others with pieces that you’ve picked up through your experiences.

Here are just a few Facebook groups dedicated to old housers that I have really enjoyed being a part of. There is probably one dedicated to your style house too.

ceiling medallion
An ornate plaster ceiling medallion

Tip #10 Blend Your Story With Your Home’s

Every old house has its own story, and each one is unique. Once you move in, your family has now become a part of that story too.

While I may talk a lot about saving the historic and original features of your home, I realize that an old home is not a museum.

Maybe the original owners loved the formal parlor for entertaining, but you want to turn it into a bedroom or media room. You should! Don’t get hung up on original uses for rooms and materials. Make your old house work for you and your family. It’s the 21st century, not the 19th. And while an outhouse may have been fitting in 1864 it certainly isn’t today. Find creative ways to make your house fit your sensibilities and style.

Of course, it’s easy to go too far and destroy the value of your historic home, but in healthy moderation, your home should be tailored to fit you and your family.

Tip #11 Preserve or Restore Before Replacing

In historic preservation, there is a hierarchy of how to care for a historic structure. And when you own an old house, it’s a good idea to follow that hierarchy.

  1. Preserve – The first step is always to preserve your house as you go along. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Make little repairs along the way, and maintaining that house regularly keeps little issues from being big issues.
  2. Restore – When things have gone a bit further than a simple repair, it’s time to restore. Restoring is a more involved process that may involve heavier work to whole portions of the house in the style of the original house.
  3. Replace in Kind – If all else fails and your problem area can’t be repaired or even brought back to life with a more thorough restoration, it might be time to replace. But if you replace an item, it’s important to replace in kind. Try to find a replica or construct an item that is as close to matching the original as possible.

Follow this plan for your old home and you’ll not only save a few pieces of history, but add immense value.

Tip #12 Keep Period Details

When it comes to your old home’s exterior, nothing is as important as the details. Fish-scale shingles, jigsaw cut balustrades, creative cornices. There are so many things that make your old house unique. And saving them or replicating the missing pieces distinguishes your historic home from its neighbors.

If you own a crumbling Victorian or an aging Craftsman, what better way to increase not only your own enjoyment of your home, but also its value than to restore its own special details.

Occasionally, I find beautifully designed shingle patterns hidden under vinyl siding. They may be worn and rotted, but for the home to lose that design feature causes it to lose a bit of itself. So, save what you can and replicate what you can’t. Just remember, the landfill doesn’t accept returns.

Try to think of a detail that’s hidden or missing on your old home and make a note to find a local craftsman who can replace it. I guarantee that piece (no matter how small it may be) will be the proudest part of your historic home.

fishscale shingles
Fishscale shingles on a Victorian house

Tip #13 Save the Wave

If it’s your first time in an old house, it may seem troublesome looking out the windows at the blurry images surrounding you. Generally, the older the house, the more waves and ripples you’ll find in its old windows. And despite the perfectionist in us all, this glass, though old and outdated, is a rare feature that is definitely worth saving.

The less there is of something, the more value it has. This is a simple exercise in supply and demand. Antique glass, glimmer glass, wavy glass- whatever you call it, it is quickly disappearing from old homes across the world. Each year there are approximately 25-30 million replacement windows sold in America. And many of those replaced historic wooden windows in old homes just like yours. As those millions of old windows make their way to the landfill, we are left with that much smaller of a supply of antique glass.

This wavy glass is not dangerous or any more fragile than modern glass. Window glass was most commonly 1/8” thick 100 year ago and it still is today so don’t fear that it will shatter if you look at it sideways. In most cases it’s just as strong as any other window glass.

You see, each window pane in an old house is unique. I can tell you exactly which windows in my house have bubbles, and it’s that character- that uniqueness, that drives me to save each and every pane I can. The old windows in your house are like its fingerprints. Each one is unique and beautiful in its imperfection, just crying out to be saved for the generations to come.

Tip #14 Open Up That Porch

If you live in a part of the world like I do, where insects are a daily nuisance, you’ll want to pay close attention to this tip.

With mosquitos and other annoying pests just waiting for you to step outside, you might be tempted to screen in your wonderful open air porch so you can get a little enjoyment out of it.

My wife and I tried almost every product on the market to get rid of mosquitos. Sprays, candles, foggers, lures. None of them made a big enough difference to allow us to enjoy our front porch. Until we tried one very simple idea. A ceiling fan.

You see, mosquitos are weak fliers and can’t fly in breezy areas. And a ceiling fan creates a strong enough breeze that they will have a hard time getting to you. Not to mention, the breeze helps throw off the scent trail that they follow to find you in the first place.

So, before you change your historic porch by adding a screen enclosure where one was never intended, try a simple ceiling fan and take back your porch!

Tip #15 Take Your Time

We’ve been told that patience is a virtue all of our lives. Well, it turns out that when it comes owning an old house, it can be more than just a virtue. Patience can save a historic homeowner buckets of frustration and piles of cash.

Planning your renovations on an old house is pivotal to success. Zig Ziglar used to say, “If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.” You have to have a plan. And that plan needs time to percolate.

Before you make any big changes to your house, live in it for at least a year. I’ve found that it takes at least that long to begin to appreciate a historic home’s quirks. Buying an old home is like buying a new pair of shoes. It takes some time to break things in until you really know just how comfortable (or uncomfortable) it will be for you.

Don’t rush to tear down walls and replace elements you don’t like. Give it some time, and the solutions that will work best will reveal themselves. Remember, once you tear it out, it’s gone forever.

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6 thoughts on “15 Tips For Living in an Old House

  1. Why does repairing an old house have to have a 1950 recommendation that includes “Together with your spouse pick the order of importance for each item. “? Is this after making sure dinner is on the table? What does a single female do with your step #2?

  2. I like all your tips but there is one example you give that I have a quibble with and that is the one that says not to put a bath that works in a Craftsman into a Victorian. I live in Berkeley CA and after the 1906 SF Earthquake, Berkeley had a building boom as folks moved over to the East Bay. At that time all styles were being built at the same period .. in fact I am in what is called a Victorian/Craftsman Transitional.. Basically all styles here were using unglazed porcelain mosaics tile on the floor and subway tiles or just beadboard behind clawfoot tubs… stylistically you see both features as part of the original build. Mine as Craftsman panel in the dining room yet the roof line is closer to Victorian silhouette. I think there similar in other places like Pasadena and Venice CA….

  3. Just look at the small towns in South Georgia-(towns like El Model & Newton) a lot of them are old, falling apart yet they are not in any hurry to obliterate them like here in FL. Inspiration aplenty!

  4. I always look forward to your information. I have some of your books. I think tbe best part is your understanding of old homes and how they are different. Contractors do not get it. Thank you

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