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5 Worst Mistakes of Historic Homeowners (Part 1 Windows)

5 worst mistakes historic homeowners windowsBeing 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 a 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.

The first flaw 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

Subscribe Now For Your FREE eBook!

66 thoughts on “5 Worst Mistakes of Historic Homeowners (Part 1 Windows)

  1. Hi Scott, we bought an old farmhouse built in the 1800’s. The previous owner removed the original kitchen windows and put three large floor to ceiling windows in. The original windows are sitting in the barn. We have a large wall area to build back up with siding etc because of their decision. Does your book cover how to’s on this? Thank you.

  2. I recently purchased a 1925 Craftsman Bungalow. Over the last 95 years some windows have been replaced with vinyl, some aluminum and some are the original wood double hung. My neighbor pulled out all his old windows with the frame that match my house. Is it possible to install these old windows my house where the replacement vinyl ones are. Every contractor I talked to said “no” you have to get new windows. I want to restore my house with recycle materials back to what it would have been and can’t seem to find someone who shares my passion and northern California.

  3. Thank you for this post! Hopefully, it will encourage people to restore their windows rather than replace them. In 1987, we bought a Greek Revival style home that was built in 1927. While it took a long time, our contractor and I stripped, re-glazed, re-roped all the sash cords and painted all the original 6 over 6 paned windows in the house (27 of them). We followed all the EPA guidelines as we stripped the paint, knowing there was lead in it. We did that 30 years ago and the windows are still stunning today and they function beautifully. I so appreciate articles like this in the hope it will prevent people from “remuddling” their homes.

  4. My house is a Victorian style house built in 1908. Unfortunately, at some point the clapboard was covered with asbestos shingles and they had also replaced the original windows. We are in the process of searching for the best window that would look authentic from the outside and also help keep heat in. Can you offer some suggestions?

    Thank you,

  5. I don’t know how I ended up here. I was looking for sash lifts. As an owner of a 1918 New England farmhouse and a previous owner of a 1928 colonial revival…..DO NOT, I repeat DO NOT replace the original double hung wood windows or any pre war window on any home. Properly restored, with storms and perhaps some spring bronze, they will be as tight as any new window. I can’t tell you how out of place those replacement windows look on a historic home. If they are not true divided lights and have those snap in panes it looks double worse. My first home made me love the windows to the point that I passed on buying a very nice home because they tore out the windows and replaced all the doors. I have no affiliation, but recommend Save America’s Windows as a good read to understand more about historic windows and the importance of them to a homes aesthetic. Basic advice – get the storms installed first (wood if possible, if not metal), then you can work on the windows from the inside. Any homeowner can do the basics if they are not in too bad shape. Save those windows!!

  6. Though we agree, this no longer applies to homes in hurricane impact areas. We’re considering a historic home in central FL, but have no idea how to order impact glass windows that would match the original, historic windows. Do you know of any high quality companies through which we could have them made? Keeping the originals (in terrible shape) is no longer an option in the path of 180mph+ winds. Climate change isn’t going anywhere. As much as we’d love to keep the originals and it kills me to consider replacing them, shutters would ruin the historical accuracy of the home and are still not rated for 180mph+ winds. In FL, at least, they’re considering adding a 6th category to our hurricane systems management because wind forces have increased so dramatically. In FL, if your windows break, it changes the pressure in your home causing the roof to lift and tear off even if your home is made of block and the roof hardened.

  7. Hi Scott,
    I am looking at buying a century home but most of the windows on the original part of the home do not open.
    I know they have been painted shut but I am also curious/confused because I am not sure exactly what it will take to get them open and functioning. I think there are storm windows on now…does that mean we need screens on the exterior once we get the window open & remove the exterior window.Or are there screens that fit into the interior window?
    I am happy to send you a few pictures if you need. Thanks for the help!

  8. Hi, I was wondering if it is possible to put aluminum on top of my wood windows on the outside rather than replacing them. My windows are all wood and single pane. I have a lot of windows and it’s very expensive to replace. I’m looking for a black exterior & interior look.

    Thank you!

    1. Hi Debbie!
      Our best recommendation would be to use our directory thecraftsmanblog.com/directory to find a licensed preservationist in your area that can provide an accurate suggestion upon seeing your beautiful historic windows in person.
      Best of luck to you!
      -Alyssa at The Craftsman Blog

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