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5 Worst Mistakes of Historic Homeowners (Part 2 Floors)

5 worst mistakes historic homeowners floorsLiving here in the Sunshine State, it seems that folks have an unusual penchant for $0.69 sq. ft. 20″ tiles. The most popular colors are blah, boring, and blech. People love to toss these tiles down over red oak, irreplaceable heart pine, and any number of historic floors.

These tiles are spreading like a wildfire across the floors of historic homes. Something must be done! Which brings us to our number 2 worst mistake of historic homeowners…

Flooring

Historic houses are having their floors covered up, ripped out, or trashed in any number of ways to make room for newer, inferior products. Only in America would we be ignorant enough to cover what would be a $15 or $20 per sq. ft. floor with a $.50 per sq. ft. floor. Are we really that shallow? Historic homes have some of the finest flooring available. Have you ever seen a 70 year old vinyl floor? I didn’t think so. How about laminate flooring that has made it even 30 years? Me neither.

Todays floors, even the top quality ones, come with 25 and even 40 year warranties which isn’t too bad, but why would you replace a floor that will last centuries with one that lasts only a third that long?

And in today’s real estate market, most of us are being ever mindful of home values. The typical buyer of an old or historic home is expecting hardwood floors. “Maintenance-free” tile is not a selling point for these kind of houses. And while a click-lock engineered wood or laminate floor may be considered an upgrade on a new home, it is a definite cold shower to your historic home’s market price.

Wood Floor Restoration

Wood floors are prime candidates for refinishing and restoration. If you have pet stains, loose/missing boards, rot, termite damage, or other issues, these are simple repairs for a flooring professional. And if you get someone who says your floors aren’t repairable, they are most likely either too lazy to do the work or trying to sell you new floors. Either way, RUN! I have yet to come across a solid wood floor that couldn’t be repaired. The same is almost never true for tile, laminate, vinyl or even engineered wood floors.

damaged wood floors
Before repairs

Probably one of my favorite jobs restoring a floor was this 1920s heart pine I came across. The home had been used as a business for a time and apparently there had been some damage to the original floors that was patched…well, let’s just say poorly, and then carpeted over. When the new homeowner found the damage she intended to tile over the entire house with the afore mentioned tile.

I was referred to her when her tiling was about halfway done and convinced her (read: begged) her to save the remaining floors because they were not beyond repair. A week later after replacement boards were installed and the floors were refinished, she had what looked like new floors! You can visit our website for more pictures of wood floors we’ve brought back from near extinction. www.austinhistorical.com

old wood floors
Repaired and Restored Heart Pine Floors

Solid wood flooring, like this, found in most historic homes is extremely resilient. It can handle multiple refinishings (done properly) over its life and is easy to repair in a way that is almost certainly unnoticeable. And what’s best is that it can last hundreds of years with minimal care!

So, before you jump to “upgrade” the flooring in your historic home, take a minute and think it over. Do you want a different color? Stain it. A different glossiness? Refinish it. You can even paint your wood floor to look like almost anything. The only boundaries are your own imagination. And if you are wondering if your floor can be repaired, the answer is almost always “Yes!” Search around for a hardwood refinishing specialist or restoration company and you will find someone up to the task of rejuvenating your floors. And trust me, it will be worth it!

Tired of the same old wood floors? You can make quite a statement with some stain or paint. I’ve included some fun ideas of what others have done with their hardwood floors. Get creative!

You can also learn more about the history of hardwood floors in our post A History of Wood Floors

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

Part 1 Windows

Part 3 Siding

Part 4 Plaster

Part 5 The Details

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194 thoughts on “5 Worst Mistakes of Historic Homeowners (Part 2 Floors)

  1. We just purchased a 1878 farmhouse with original wood flooring (heart pine maybe??) underneath carpeting throughout. It’s in mostly good condition that I can tell. Our problem is that the wood flooring appears to also be the sub flooring and there is no insulation as the crawl space is extremely small (about 6 inches, for real!!). Any ideas on how to insulate the floors? Would removing some of the flooring to work in the areas around it be safe to try or blowing insulation through the crawl space vents be an option? Really want to see these babies shine one day without losing our shirt on the heating bill!!
    Thanks so much!!!

  2. We tore up the ugly carpet in the living room of our newly purchased century-old farmhouse. Underneath was plywood covering the wide-plank Douglas fir subfloor. In it, there were uneven spots, huge patches, giant old nails everywhere, and some curious knot holes. Instead of covering it with a generic and too-perfect engineered floor, we took the plunge and refinished it. It took about a month of scraping up very old glue from rugs past, filling in spots, repairing patches, replacing planks, and sanding (drum and hand). We didn’t stain it, but put three layers of high traffic poly and let it cure for a week. It looks amazing. I call it “violently rustic.” the poly turned it beautiful, rich colors that are mahogany in some parts and walnut in others. You can still see the spots where a rug existed decades ago and the sun lightened the wood around it, creating a perfect chocolate square. The nails were pounded back in but are still visible, creating character and paying homage to the people who tirelessly built this place when power tools did not yet exist. It is amazing and everyone gasps when they walk in the door. I highly recommend always choosing to refinish. And if it doesn’t look perfect, embrace it. Make the odd spots look on purpose. We love our imperfectly perfect hardwood floors and wouldn’t have it any other way.

    1. Sorry for the late to the game response but quick question – we’re in a similar boat, after removing 4 layers of linoleum we found the original fir below in decent shape. What are your thoughts on fir in a kitchen (one with two massive dogs, three messy kids, and two less than perfect cooks running through)? Is it worth saving or should we find something hardier for this space? Thanks!

      1. I think fir can work great in kitchens! The biggest issue is spills that sit for a while if you spill water make sure it is cleaned up promptly and the fir floors might get some dents along the way but they will do nicely in the kitchen.

    2. I know everyone seems to love Poly, but it tends to last about 25 years. In the lifespan of many modern homes, that’s a long time, but historic homes are a little different. When poly needs to be removed, your only good option is sanding. Every time you sand, you remove some wood, weakening the floor. Poly also contains toxic chemicals that we know relatively little about, which are re-released into the air as dust when sanded. As someone who has already paid for asbestos abatement, I’m not excited about adding any more strange, potentially hazardous chemicals in the process of doing home “improvements” if it can be avoided.

      Fundamentally, poly is not historically correct, either. If you have this great old wood in your home, stain it with old-style oil stains (or don’t), then seal it with multiple coats of shellac, then wax it with paste wax to help protect the finish & use some rugs in high-traffic areas. If you ever need to remove the wax, it can be done easily with turpentine, which won’t remove the shellac. If you need to remove that underlying shellac, it can be done with alcohol. No sanding. Turpentine & alcohol have been around a long time — long enough for us to have understood their (minimal) health risks & to also have been historically correct for most homes. And, it looks very nice — it’s one of the original semi-rustic looks that a lot of people are trying to replicate with newer, less desirable materials.

      Just my two cents’ worth.

  3. I just had five layers of flooring removed from my kitchen and found hardwood underneath in my 1920’s home. During the entire process I got a lot of “there might not be a decent floor under here” and “it will have probably gone to crap” and “are you sure you want to do this?” From the contractor, the flooring company etc. What I got was gorgeous Douglas Fir floors with hardly any damage or stains! Now everyone has changed their tune. If you think you may have some diamonds in that rough, go for it. I guess hardwood must have gone out of style or something because my floors were perfectly good! ??

  4. I am in the process of restoring my Great-Grandparents 1930s bungalow farmhouse in rural Kentucky. After ripping up the carpets in the upstairs I have found what I believe to be pretty decent pine flooring. In the dormer room and one small bedroom, the carpet had been glued down so the remaining residue is still there. In the other rooms it had been tacked down. However, none of these floors had ever been finished. They were just raw boards. The perimeters of the rooms had been painted and area rugs had apparently been used. What would you recommend doing to these floors? Should a stripper be used to remove the glue and the paint, or should it be sanded down? What kind of finish should be applied? I am in the beginning stages of this whole project so I am open to any suggests. I just want to do it right, even if it takes me longer. This house, although a rather modest home, is quite unique in that it is largely original. It has all of the original paneled doors, windows, door knobs, backplates, locks and latches, literally everything. There are many similar homes in this area but all of the original parts have long been thrown out for updating.

  5. Hi Scott,
    Quick question on my wood floors. I have a house built in 1849. The floors upstairs are wide pine. We bought the house in 1976 and the floors upstairs were a very dark almost black color. We painted over them all except one room. Now I am redoing the house and want to do the floors to be natural. the paint and black stuff comes up really easy with 7 paint stripper. The black stuff is very gooey when i lift it up with a putty knife. Also, i had it tested at a lab and it does have lead in it. The stripping is a lot of work, but is coming out well. Do you have any idea what the finish might be?

    Thanks,
    Gale

  6. Hi! We have a 1903-06 James Burns Craftsman Four Square in Rogers Park, on Chicago’s north side. We believe the wood floors are original (if not, they are still quite old). I think they are gorgeous but they have been dubbed “attack floors” because of the splintering, we are now experts at fast splinter removal. Prior owners had tried to repair with putty and refinish, but the “putty” or fill always seems to wriggle out, and our experience living with their repairs is the same. I do not know if they attempted to have them “restored,” however, we have not been able to find anyone who is willing or able to restore them. We are trying to come up with some DIY solutions that we can do (we are both crafty DIY people with varying amounts of project success.) What would the downside be of using resin to fill in those large gaps, sanding it down and then just using a clear poly finish over it to make it match in sheen? I know that the gap would still be visible, but then it would be less likely to stab us or our dogs or shoeless guests. Thoughts?

  7. Hi,

    I just bought a 1946 craftsman house in southern California. There are red oak floors throughout. Very solid from what we can see. The previous owners tiled over the hardwood in the kitchen and dinning room. They nailed and screwed in cement board to tile the two rooms. Are the hardwood floors underneath a lost cause? Do you have any recommendations for removing the cement board with minimal damage to the oak underneath? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you,
    Kayla

    1. We had much the same situation in our 1906 house. Cement board secured to the yellow pine floor and tiled over. They must have been paid by the nail. It looked as though it was covered over in the 70s or 80s to cover a water stain cause by a leaky water heater. We had a great floor refinisher, Roy, of Kingdom Floors. We took out the tile and cement board with small ply bars and then Roy took over. He sanded the floors three times, VERY, VERY lightly. On the third sanding he mixed the fine sawdust with the poly that he later applied to the floors, and smoothed it out with a large rubber smoothing tool. The large nail holes were barely visible, and once sanded lightly over with the rest of the floor and covered with poly finish they were beautiful. We really don’t notice the holes any longer and if they do come up in conversation it makes a good story. We even left the dark brown stain from the water heater and call it our beauty mark. We are proud of our 100+ year old floors. We think of the many feet that have walked upon them, the stories they have heard, and hopefully how much longer they will live in this house. Good luck. ps. the amount of wood sanded down from the rest of the floors was barely perceptible. there is still a huge thickness of yellow pine.

  8. question i just bought a ten year old basement house it is 100 % tile floor throughout but it is not sealed should i seal the floor they look dull

  9. Hi. I have a old 1904 farm house with what I think is Douglas Fir sub floor. I am refininishing it board by board. We added the old front poarch into the house and I need to match the floors. I would apprciate your ideas of where to locate the same fir
    l. Thank you

  10. My husband and I bought out first home. It’s a1967 split level that was a foreclosure. It’s needed a lot of TLC. When we took up the old carpeting we found beautiful hardwood floors. I don’t know what kind of wood it is. We decided to make the kitchen/living room level an open floor plan so the whole level is open. From the front door to the back of the house there was a hallway with stick tile. We scrapped it all up and are now left with the sub flooring. I would like to take the hardwood flooring from the dinning room use the wood to extend the living room floor clear to the other wall. With the open floor plan we don’t need the hallway and it was never hardwood floor. If that isn’t something that can be done guess we’ll have to carpet the whole thing but I’d love to keep the floors. My grandfather in law said shorter pieces would have to be taken out to weave in the ones from the dining room to make it look right and the old square nails would ruin saw blades fast. Also he was worried it would end up looking like teeth gaps where you run the saw down the crack as the blade would be taking off 1/16″ or so, I think it would be a lot of work so he’s hesitant but in all fairness he is 84. How could we do this using the hardwood from the dining room and get up the shorter boards without busting up saw blades or having the gaping problem?

  11. Hi,
    I just had my 1920’s bungalow floor refinished. It’s Douglas fir and it’s also the subfloor. Any ideas about insulating from underneath? We don’t want pests making a home in the insulation. But I don’t want to freeze in the winter. What do you recommend? Our crawl space is about 3 ft high.
    Thanks,
    Cristina

  12. Hi Scott – thank you for running this blog!
    I have a 1930 bungalow in St. Louis, MO, which I bought about a year and a half ago. Overall, it has been kept in great shape and there’s very little I’ve had to do in terms of repair work. Unfortunately, the kitchen was “updated” at least a couple times throughout the years, to include an awful ceramic tile floor in the kitchen. In addition to not “going” with the home, it’s cold in the winter, standing on it aggravates my arthritis, and it always looks dirty no matter what (it’s dark brown and dark gray checkerboard). I removed the HVAC register and I can see that there’s linoleum under the tile. Beneath that, there appears to be a thin layer of hardwood and beneath that, the subfloor. I assume the linoleum was left in place because of asbestos concerns. My question is this: if, no, WHEN I remove the tile, is it possible to salvage the linoleum? Or will the mortar/grout/whatever have damaged it too much?
    Thank you!
    P.S. I love your “i restore” t-shirts. Please make one in a women’s semi-fitted v-neck in kelly green. 🙂

    1. Lisa, ha ha, that’s a pretty specific t-shirt you’re wanting! As for the linoleum it may have asbestos in the adhesive but linoleum does not contain asbestos (only vinyl tiles). The best way to tell is to take up the tile and see if it survives then send a small 1″ sample for testing to see if it does have asbestos.

  13. We purchased a 1960 ranch style home. It had original red oak floors 2″ x 1/2 ” throughout (except kitchen and family room). I emphasized HAD. We chose to have them refinished a rich dark stain (not black). We had a not so good experience with refinishing our floors. Our contractor made several attempts to get the stain and sheen consistent through out but never got it exactly how we wanted it. Or the finished bubbled on one try or we saw swirl marks in the floor. We then hired another contractor (we saw his results of doing a dark floor). After sanding and staining again, we noticed that the floor was paper thin. This stopped the project. And with much tears, the floor was ripped out. Now we are in a huge quandry. Do we lay new hardwood and go through the process again or go the engineered wood route? To make matters worse, in between all the refinishing, we went ahead and laid more of the same wood in the family room and kitchen because we never dreamed the other floor would have to be ripped out. This floor is still unfinished. So if we go engineered wood, this would have to be ripped out as well. I am feeling that an engineered floor will not give us the look and feel and definitely wont last. But the hardwood, we will have to go through the refinishing process. Any thought or suggestions?

  14. We are working on 1929 Craftsman home. Floors are t&g but appear in god shape under OLD carpet. What should we do about holes from wiring and cracks between boards? Love all information on older homes

      1. Thank you for the help. Cracks in floor are really just small (1/16th inch or less) where boards have separated a little. No real cracks in wood.

  15. Hey Scott… We’ve just purchased a home built 1920 or so. Underneath the cheap tile and linoleum is the 6″ original t&g pine ( I believe). Now the basement is 7′ with concrete flooring but my real question is that without a subfloor underneath the 3/4″ pine , will ripping the linoleum, plywood etc and leaving the pine resting on the joists be sufficient for carrying the weight of the house??

    1. 3/4″ pine flooring is used as a subfloor/finish floor in a lot of houses and if that was the original construction then there is no reason why it shouldn’t be sufficient.

  16. We recently bought a 1916 home with fir floors. The flooring seems to be in decent condition, but there are gaps between almost every plank. The biggest gap is about half an inch, but most are about a quarter inch wide. We are worried filling in between every plank may not look great. Is it harmful to the floors if we leave the gaps as they are, and refinish the floors with a durable water-based poly? Thank you!

    1. I don’t think that finishing the floors and leaving the gaps would cause any issues. To fill all the gaps will likely create problems as the floors expand and contract seasonally.

  17. Oh dear. Just bought a 960 square foot bungalow built in 1900 with 3 additions…but the original homestead has wood flooring. It’s beautiful but so very much in need of repair. Here’s the trick….I have very little time and basically 0 access to anyone who knows how to handle this kind of restoration. The 1 person I asked said thats ince my daughter and her newborn will be living there that I should just cover it up until she decides if she wants to stay there for good and the baby is older (not crawling on it).
    I just spend $2500 on flooring today. 🙁
    It has the original 12″ solid wood molding too.
    I wish I could share pictures. Your plaster and laith repair video will come in handy too….
    Any thoughs on Zonolite insulation? Ya…hello mesothelioma….I called the state…they offer funds for clean up by a cettified tech. (sigh)
    The things we do for our kids. Thanks for the helpful guidance.

  18. I appreciate what you are saying about the quality of flooring in homes of this vintage. We purchased an 1880s Italianate Victorian home a couple months ago and much of the original character has been preserved by the home owners over the years. The flooring in our kitchen and living room is white ash and mahogany striped parquet. In the kitchen it is in terrible condition (I am not being dramatic), it is very BADLY warped and large gaps between many of the floor boards. The hallway between the two rooms is a pine that has deteriorated significantly (I suspect that it was both carpeted at one point, and later painted). Regardless of what path we travel down, we do not know what to do about the baseboard! The baseboard in the home is very nice original 12″ and in excellent condition, and we are quite afraid to try and remove it from the plaster walls in order to begin addressing the flooring situation. We don’t want to damage it, or the walls. However we don’t know how to refinish, repair, or replace the damaged flooring without removing the baseboard. Do you have some advice? I have seen in old homes where people laid new floor over the old without removing the baseboard, and then used quarter round to “cover” the gap between the new floorboards and the trim. We do NOT want to do this. I am loathe to apply cheap quarter round to my beautiful baseboard.

    Can you help me????

  19. I live in Eastern Canada and have recently purchased an older 1930’s home. I have refinished my beautiful hardwood floors and my question is what to put in my kitchen that will compliment the light varnished Douglas fir and birch flooring? I doubt highly that I have hardwood under the linoleum but could encounter asbestos tiles. I want to use a product that will enhance the value of the home and also compliment the refinished wood. Any suggestions?

  20. Hi Scott. I am the proud new owner of a single story 1925 bungalow massive renovation project in St. Petersburg, FL. I was happy to see you comment that you live here in the Sunshine State & I’m hoping that your advice is more relevant than most of the bloggers that hail from northern, cold climate states. I have more renovation dilemmas than I can even begin to articulate here, but suffice it to say that I wish I had run into your blog before I started ripping out plaster walls.

    My question here is about the floors as they are one of the issues I am most torn over. The entire home is floored with 2 1/4″ t&g (what I think is heart pine) nailed directly to the flooring trussed with no sub-floor or insulation. The house is over a 2ft. deep dirt crawl space. Unfortunately, the entire house, including the flooring, has extensive termite damage and numerous holes for floor registers have been incorrectly cut into every room in the house. I would guess that 5-10% of the boards are beyond repair. The bathroom is completely beyond repair and is being replaced with historic hex mosaic tiles. I fear that the only way to effectively repair the floors is to pull up the existing flooring one room at a time, dispose of the termite destroyed pieces, repair the rest and reinstall the original boards.

    I have a few questions:

    First, if I’m pulling up the floors anyways, should I go ahead and install a subfloor in the process or will this negatively effect the houses ability to breathe out moisture? This would be easy enough to do at the same time since I’ll already have the floors up and the base moulding removed.

    Second, what are your thoughts on moisture barrier & insulation under the house? As you know, with Florida climate I need to worry more about the heat than the cold & I prefer not to run the AC unless absolutely necessary. The house was surprisingly comfortable in October, but I don’t expect I’ll be so lucky in July. Based on yours and other posts I am reconsidering adding insulation to my exterior walls.

    Lastly, can you recommend a good source in Florida for reclaimed flooring? I will have to replace the destroyed flooring pieces & I’d rather not supplement with new inferior product. I will have a few salvageable pieces from the bathroom floor but not nearly enough for all of the repairs. We have considered also replacing the kitchen with period correct tiles in order to salvage the boards for the rest of the house, but I’d rather avoid that if possible.

    1. Hello. I saw your post looking into floors as well. I bought a 1925 bungalow in Kenwood (st Pete) in November 2016. I was wondering if you learnt any good information. I have heart pine flooring throughout (less the kitchen and bathroom). There is one patch (5ft x 5ft) that needs attention and likely needs to be replaced, and I don’t know where to turn. The rest of the floor in in great condition.

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