Let me start this by saying that I love old houses! Anyone who starts a company dedicated to preserving historic windows and blogs weekly for over a decade about how to fix up old houses probably should feel that way or they won’t be very successful. But I realize old houses are not for everyone.
Often an old house falls into the hands of someone who, if they owned a newer house, would be a great neighbor and responsible homeowner, but as the owner of an old house they are a terrible fit. Their old house drives them nuts. The little quirks that would be the joy of an old-houser make them consider hari-kari on a weekly basis. And the old house suffers too, having an owner that tries to “update” it but in the process destroys what made it great to begin with.
There are some people who should own an old house and there are some people who should not. If you are wondering which one you are then read on. If you discover that you are a new-houser than don’t be seduced by the charm of an old house. It won’t end well just like those drunken college parties.
#1 You’re a Perfectionist
Old houses are not perfect and they never will be. Ever. It doesn’t matter how much money you spend, you cannot make something designed and built by hand be perfect. Us old-housers call them “perfectly imperfect” because that is exactly what they are.
Plaster walls are not the monolithic splendor of a level five drywall finish. They are hand troweled with textures that weren’t created on a machine, unless you consider Sylvain the 4th generation Italian plasterer a machine. Neither are those walls square, plumb, or level. They’re close, but no cigar.
Painted finishes have layers and layers of paint that aren’t always perfectly applied, doors swing open when left ajar, floors creak, radiators groan, windows are hermetically sealed by decades of misanthropic painters. If this sounds like the setting of a horror movie to you then you are a new-houser. Ignore the cute curb appeal and run for the suburbs or a new contruction home right now.
#2 You Don’t Like Maintenance
That famous “no maintenance product” is a unicorn that is thrown around aggressively in home products, but it is nowhere in the nomenclature of an old-houser. The fact is these old houses were designed with materials that can last for centuries, but they require maintenance. Without regular preventative maintenance they fail quickly and make you and your wallet miserable.
New houses are designed and built with products that usually are not designed to be maintained and instead are designed to be replaced when they wear out. New windows last 15-20 years with no maintenance and then they go in the trash and you replace them. Historic windows last centuries, but require things like regular painting and glazing putty touch ups.
If you buy an old house either be prepared to do regular annual maintenance or pay someone to do it for you. Without that maintenance you will be subject to the snowball effect of deferred maintenance that can eat your lunch.
#3 You Don’t Have a Cash Reserve
I’m not talking Warren Buffet cash, but if you buy an old house be prepared with a healthy emergency fund because you never know what will go wrong. I’m a general contractor who has been working on old houses for a long time and I am constantly surprised but what needs repairs and when.
Some of it you can predict, but some is a total surprise and if you don’t have a good emergency fund of 3-6 months of expenses you can afford to spend then you may find yourself without an air conditioner in the middle of summer or a dishwasher that simply stores dishes rather than washing them.
The older and bigger the house the larger emergency fund you need to have to protect yourself. New-housers still need to have a cash reserve for home repairs, but when you have a new house that is built to current building codes you can have more predictable repairs costs and less trouble finding a tradesman who can get the work done.
Old houses have all kind of surprises lurking behind the walls that may throw a curve and add expenses to what would otherwise be a simple and inexpensive repair, like shoddy wiring or plumbing from a bad renovation 40 years ago. You just never know.
At the very least consider a home warranty if you still feel confident going without a big cash hoard.
#4 You Want a Super Energy Efficient House
Buying an old house with the grand scheme of making it a LEED certified or other energy efficient structure is like buying a speed boat and turning it into a race car. Technically, it can be done if you’ve got time and money to spare, but you’re better suited buying a new house that was designed to accommodate these modern technologies.
If you buy an old house and immediately tear the plaster off, rip the windows out and remove the wood siding so you can add triple pane windows, spray foam, acoustic drywall, and Hardi siding there is a special place in hell for you in most old-houser’s minds.
Why are you buying something and trying to turn it into something it isn’t? If you want new siding, new windows, new insulation, why not buy a new house? You are throwing some many materials in the landfill and spending so much money to change something into something it is not. It doesn’t work for marriage when you marry someone to change them, and it doesn’t work in homeownership.
#5 You Plan to Demo it
I get it, it’s the character of that old neighborhood that you love. The cute little Bungalows and cottages. The brick streets bursting with holmes that look like they were pulled out of a Norman Rockwell drawing. The smell of Americana that drew you to the neighborhood that you just had to live there.
And what would that neighborhood be like if all your potential neighbors tore their houses down and built McMansions just like you plan to do? That won’t happen of course, you just plan to tear down one little house and that won’t change much.
The change doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen and these charming historic neighborhoods can change with just a couple decades of unrestricted development to become victims of their own success. The neighborhood is so desirable for its character that soon that character has mostly been demolished and it looks just like the suburbs all the owners didn’t want to live in.
If you plan to buy an old house just to tear it down, let me save you the trouble. Don’t. Go find another place to live that suits your needs better and leave that old house for someone who could love it for what it is.
So what are you? And old-houser or a new-houser? If any or all of these sounds like you then you are definitely a new-houser. You’ll be miserable in an old house or at the minimum you won’t be as happy as you could be.
Hire an architect and find an empty lot in an old neighborhood and find a new housing development where the houses are more to your liking, but please, leave us old-housers the few old houses that remain. Once they are gone there is nothing for us and we can’t stand to build new.
If you are an old-houser then find that sweet deal that makes your heart sing and prepare for the joys and pains of owning an old house. If you’re looking for a cheap old house you can restore then check out websites like Cheap Old Houses for deals all over the country. There are so many out there just waiting to be adopted by a loving owner who appreciates them for what they are. Perfectly imperfect!
Founder & Editor-in-Chief
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.