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6 Things I Wish I Knew Before Buying (and Restoring) an Old House

buying an old house

I’ve been a restoration contractor for almost 15 years, but before that I was just a newlywed husband who bought his first old house with his new bride, excited for all our restoration and renovation plans. 14 years later I wish I could talk to that guy before he purchased the home and give him some much-needed advice.

Hopefully this post will do just that for you. If you’re thinking about buying an old house (and restoring one) then this post is absolutely for you. If I had read this before taking the plunge there would have been far fewer fights and more money in the bank.

1. Know the Local Regulations

Is your old house in a historic district? If it is, what are the regulations? I see so many people messed up by this one simple thing. Every time you buy a house there’s an MLS listing and on that listing there is a zoning code R-1A, R2-B, etc. There’s always some zoning regulations, and if it’s in a historic district (a local historic district) then there should be a tiny two letters at the end of your zoning that say “HP” for Historic Preservation.

It’s easy to miss, but if this is the case, you need to call the city and find out what the rules are in that neighborhood. Every historic district has different rules and regulations for what you can and can’t do to buildings within the district. Most will say simple things like you can’t replace original windows or you can’t enclose that glorious front porch.

Almost all of them want to review any changes to the exterior, but don’t usually care about the interior. One thing I didn’t know is that if you have a house in a National Register Historic District that doesn’t actually create any rules or guidelines or restrictions on your house. Almost all the regulations fall under the control of the local districts.

Some districts even go as far as regulating exterior paint colors. It can be a tedious process but one that you absolutely need to be made aware of before you sign on the dotted line. Otherwise you may be stuck with the house and a bunch of grand plans that you’re not allowed to do without serious fines.

2. Get a Niche Inspection

During the post-COVID housing boom people were skipping inspections altogether during the buying process, and I think that’s ridiculous especially if you’re buying an old house.

niche home inspection

There are so many potential pitfalls and problems that can cost tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of dollars if you’re not careful. Make sure that you get far more than just simply a four-point inspection.

A four-point inspection is really just for the insurance companies and it confirms the condition of just a few items.

  • Roof
  • Electrical
  • Plumbing
  • HVAC

Yeah, those items matter big time, but what about everything else? Are there termites? Is there wood rot? Are there structural issues? If so what are they?

How about the floors? The plaster? The windows? All these kinds of questions can be answered by a niche home inspector. Find a home inspector that specializes in old homes and can prove it by showing old homes that they’ve inspected and providing you with some references for those old homeowners.

These inspections will usually cost you a few hundred dollars more, but the value of having a specialist spend a day going over your home with a fine tooth comb can’t really be overstated. To spend a few hundred dollars extra to potentially save you tens of thousands of dollars is well worth every single penny you’re gonna spend on a quality inspector like this

3. Have an Emergency Fund 

Buying an old house without having an emergency fund is like getting in your car and filling it with exactly the right amount of fuel to get to your destination. If you hit traffic or have to get rerouted, then you’re out of gas. Don’t let this happen to you with an old house.

Financial guru Dave Ramsey, recommends an emergency fund of 3 to 6 months worth of living expenses and I would say depending on the size of the house you’re getting that that’s usually a good rule of thumb.

Keep your money liquid, keep it ready to go because I can guarantee you that things will break and it’s not always the things that you expect that are going to break. If you can’t handle an $8,000 air-conditioning replacement without going deeply into debt or you can’t afford to repair a major roof leak or an even a rotten window then you’re in no condition to buy an old house.

I know you’re anxious, but just hold off a little while longer till you can save up for a healthy emergency fund. That way, if and when something goes wrong, you’re not skunked and up a creek with no paddle in sight.

4. Budget 150% for Every Project

If you’re not familiar with renovations, here’s how it works: every single renovation project costs more than the homeowner and contractor expect…every time. And the older the house the more over budget it seems to go.

It’s just one of the rules of renovations when you’re working on an old house. You start opening things up on a building that was built before there was a building code, and you find all kind of fun and expensive things.

There were certain guidelines for how these buildings were built, but there was no building code so you don’t know exactly what you’re getting into. Chances are you’re opening up a can of worms.

So the bigger your renovation, the bigger the can of worms you can open up. You need to be ready for that. This goes hand-in-hand with the emergency fund. If you’re planning a $100,000 renovation the chances of that coming in at $100,000 or less are slim to none so budget for $150,000 AND keep that emergency fund on the side in addition to the larger budget.

Don’t trust your contractor here. As a contractor myself, I can tell you we do our best to estimate these things, but it is hard to be spot on every time. Human nature is to underestimate the cost and difficulty of things so we’re fighting that as well. Whatever number they give you you need to add money to it to insure that the project will not get hung up mid-stream.

There’s an old saying that goes, “how do you eat an elephant?” Answer: one bite at a time. That’s good advice when it comes to renovating an old house. If this is your first old house renovation then go slow take small bites to get used to it. Your house will tell you what it needs if you’ll listen.

5. Learn About Architectural Salvage

You can find an architectural salvage store in most big cities with even a little bit of history and you should start looking now.

If you’re not familiar with architectural salvage, these wonderful people go around collecting elements from old buildings that are about to be torn down. You can find historic flooring to match yours. You can find old hardware, windows, doors, tubs, sinks, plumbing fixtures. Just about anything you need for an old house can be found at an architectural salvage yard.

Salvaged boards
Old framing lumber from our architectural salvage yard

Restoring an old house you’re very unlikely to find anything you need other than the basic building materials like 2×4’s and plywood at the big box stores. For anything that really matches your house you’ll need to go to an architectural salvage yard.

Take good pictures of the item you’re missing along with measurements and show your local architectural salvage store what you’re needing. There is a good chance you’ll find it there after a healthy amount of searching of course.

Architectural salvage is a good way to save your butt and budget, plus you’ll keep stuff out of the landfill to boot, and that’s a win-win.

DIY is Possible

When restoring an old house it seems like it’s filled with mystery and difficulty and while it can be difficult, old houses are actually built surprisingly simply. Windows are simply wood, putty, and glass. They’re held up by simple rope. And other elements of the house are constructed in a similarly simple manner compared to houses today.

If you’re willing and may be a little bit crazy like me, you can do a lot of the work to these old houses by yourself. Don’t think that it’s automatically too complicated.

Yeah, maybe you’re not gonna put on a brand new roof or restructure a wall, but to repair plaster or restore windows don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty.

Thank goodness for YouTube and other great old house websites where people have posted tutorials to show you how to do just about anything on an old house. Btw, if you have checked out my YouTube channel there is a ton of extra content to help you on there!

Do be careful that you’re getting some good information or at least confirmation from somebody that yes, that’s the product to use or the technique to try before you jump in with both feet because just like with anything on the Internet, sometimes the information is worth what you pay for it.

Bonus: Enjoy the Ride

Owning and restoring an old house, is like taking a ride down the river. Sometimes there’s rapids and you feel like you may get thrown overboard, but other times it’s one of the most beautiful experiences you’ll ever have a chance to encounter.

No, it’s not the safety of the suburbs. It’s far better than that, and the view from the porch of old house, is something that very few things can compare to. So if you’re brave enough, I’d encourage you to take the plunge just like I did and so many others.

Once you buy an old house, you’ll never want a new house again.

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