Define “Beyond Repair”

By Scott Sidler • February 25, 2019

define beyond repairWhen the economy is chugging along and money is flowing through our society, it seems to me that some terms get new definitions. The line between “need” and “want” is blurred beyond recognition. Another couple phrases whose definitions get a little hazy is the difference between “have to” and want to”. While these can be annoying, there is another phrase that is tossed about with no regard to its actual definition and that phrase is “beyond repair”.

How often have you really come across something that is truly “beyond repair”? Sure, it may be too expensive or even sometimes impractical to repair, but that’s not the same as “beyond repair”, Beyond repair implies that there is absolutely no way to fix something. It’s irreparably damaged, old, worn out, or whatever. Let’s be careful with our words, though, because words have meanings and when we change those meanings, the results are not good.

In this post I want to talk about “beyond repair” and what this potentially dangerous term means in historic preservation, because I feel like it is being used to justify all kinds of architectural wrongs and I want the damage to be stopped.

What is Beyond Repair?

Typically, we use this term the same way we talk about a car being totaled. It’s not that your mechanic couldn’t fix the car, but it will likely cost more to repair than the book value of the car is worth. Why sink $4,000 into a car that is only worth $2,000, right? So, something is beyond repair if the following formula applies.

Value in Good Condition – Cost to Repair ≥ $0

What do you think? Can we agree on that definition of beyond repair? I feel comfortable with it since it can be applied across a wide variety of items and their valuations. So, then we need to agree upon a method to accurately find the value of an item. As you’ll see below, this can prove a bit more difficult.

How Do You Value Old Buildings?

The book value of a car, or a piece of land may be easy to calculate, but the value of a historic building is not as clear. Yes, you can go to the local property appraiser and find out what your home is “worth”, but would any of you feel good about selling your house for what the property appraiser lists it at? How about selling your house for what the insurance company values it at. No thank you!

So, then for difficult to value items like historic buildings, how do we come up with an appropriate value? For most real estates, a local realtor can help with a basic valuation since the price of real estate is extremely localized. But, how do you put a value on the endless intangibles incorporated in an old building? Things like custom woodwork, wavy glass, unique and hard to find hardware, old-growth lumber, etc. Those are hard to value with any degree of certainty. We all know they are worth more, but how much more?

Then there are the really intangible things like local history. Was your house built by the first mayor? Was a famous writer born in the house, or the town’s first doctor? Maybe it was part of the underground railroad during the civil war, or it had a distillery in the basement during prohibition. There are so many stories incorporated into our historic buildings that are almost impossible to value. After all, the house built by the town’s first mayor is the only house like it in the world. How do you pull that comp?

What about valuing a building during the great recession in 2009 vs in 2019? It’s the same building but those numbers would be vastly different. Does that mean that in a down real estate market there are more buildings that are “beyond repair”? Struggling through this valuation we can see that determining a true value of a building that incorporates the book value and intrinsic value is really difficult if not impossible.

Copping Out

If you wanna know the real reason most people toss this phrase around, it’s because they are copping out, in my humble opinion. Here are some of the responses I’ve gotten on projects I’ve sometimes been awarded and sometime lost to the wrecking ball to show you what I mean.

  • Saving Original Windows: Developer says, “they are beyond repair” Translation: It’s too expensive to restore them to turn a quick profit on this project.
  • Saving Historic Brick Facade: City says, “it is beyond repair” Translation: The new anchor tenant wants to move in quickly and restoration will take longer than demolition.
  • Painting Wood Clapboards: Homeowner says, “they are beyond repair” Translation: Wood requires regular maintenance and I want vinyl siding because I’m tired of maintaining my house.

Ultimately, this comes down to private property rights and how much tenacity local historic preservation ordinances have. I don’t think I would have a problem with the phrase beyond repair if it was used to accurately describe the situation, but that is not the case. Using it as a cop out so you don’t have to be a responsible property owner and steward of the piece of history you own is no excuse.

Bottom line for me is that if you don’t want to fix it, then have the guts to tell us that’s why you want it replaced/demoed/razed, but stop lying to the rest of us that the reason you’re choosing to NOT restore is because it’s “beyond repair.” Put on your big boy pants and tell the truth, that’s what adults do. If you own a piece of architectural history whether it’s a house or a high rise, have the guts to tell it like it is and let the cards fall where they may.

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21 thoughts on “Define “Beyond Repair””

  1. Recently a circa 1920 wood frame bungalow was demolished in Winter Garden because it was “beyond repair.” It’s a bummer when even your local Arc Review HP board sides with developers. It was lived in, it needed work, but now the lot will be parking. I could go on and on about this topic.

  2. I have a 1922 bungalow and luckily lots of original character intact. I have original, built on site cabinets in the kitchen with many layers of lead paint. Someone is helping me strip them, and he called today to say that after three coats of stripper lots of the paint won’t come off. The doors are fir or birch, some soft wood. I won’t replace them, but I really wanted to get the bare wood exposed. It may not be possible. Suggestions? Also, I am restoring the kitchen. I currently have vinyl flooring, in the kitchen, wondering how to proceed with getting the issue resolved? I know the cheap way is to put down more vinyl but I detest vinyl. I am not opposed to new genuine linoleum, but am wondering if the original wood floors may be intact? What issues will I discover if there is old linoleum under the underlayment?
    Help!!!

    1. I’ve worked for an antiquarian here in Montreal stripping furniture sometimes a few hundred years old. There is no paint that won’t strip. Even antique paint made with natural ingredients.

      Sometimes the chemical stripper wouldn’t work as fast. Sometimes after a few coats of chemical stripper we would remove the added paint with careful scraping instead of the using a chemical product, in order to preserve the original paint coating. Sometimes we would only use scraping in order not to damage that antique and valuable original color. But I’ve never seen paint that cannot be removed. If it has been put on, it can be removed.

      In my humble opinion, maybe the contractor is not happy with the length of time it would take to do the job, or he is using a safer but ineffective paint remover and doesn’t know or want to use anything else, or he doesn’t know how to scrape paint, etc. But paint can be removed from wood.

      Sometimes it might take longer, or a more complex way of doing it might need to be devised in order to preserve the safety of the people due for example to the presence of lead in the paint (like having an aspiration system, such as a shop vacuum, to pick up paint flakes and dust as they are being created if the paint is being scraped) but that does not precludes the removal of the paint while maintaining safe conditions.

      So there might be other ways to do it while maintaining optimal safe practices than what your contractor knows about or is willing to do.

  3. I moved into a 1908 wood bungalow – very simple Craftsman. Lots of original gone by the time I got here. There are 10 remaining original windows. However, at some point, and we think around the 1960 or 1970’s the owner tried to upgrade: Ropes removed, about 1″ of wood trimmed off each side (top to bottom), strips of aluminum or other metal (zinc?) were wrapped along the edges of the windows top to bottom and also inserted to run from top to bottom where the ropes where. So basically the windows are trimmed in ugly grey metal from top to bottom – visually about an inch of metal. Then, each window has two round metal thing-a-ma-jiggers protruding out along the bottom front – about a 2″ diameter. It took me one year to find someone who knew why this was done and what that thing-a-ma-jigger was. It turns out this was an early design of tilt-in windows. The windows can now lift and tilt in as newer windows do. And that thing-a-ma-jigger allows the windows to rotate in. The metal trim and thing-a-ma-jigger are really ugly. After asking two local historical window guys (that’s all I could find willing to come look) they both said, “beyond (or not worth) repair.” Each window would require adding wood back – about an 2″ inches total and re-roped. Except for one window that has broken panes, all the other windows’ glass is in good shape. I’ve been advised to get Marvins which is what I think I should do. The wood mostly seems in good shape, however, it is hard to tell since it appears to have 100 years of paint slopped on them. I do think this may be one of those genuine “beyond repair” stories.

    1. Get a $22 heat gun and set it to a med heat and hold it about 4-6 in and if the original shellac heats up under all the paint, bingo! Scrape off as you heat. I have been restoring old paint blobbed 150 yo wood windows, so beautiful! With original shellac worn in places, the paint stain cps. This can be scraped off, then use denatured alcohol after paint removal to clean. Then paint with model paint from the hobby store, thinning where necessary with lacquer thinner. The patches and old scraped wood looks great when done! It’s like time travel. Love the old windows. Save what you can; they will never return.

  4. My house is 103 years old. It has a basement and the walls are crumbling. When you say beyond repair, everyone I ask for a bid from say it will cost more to repair than the house is worth. Infuriating!

  5. I’m going to be contrary and take the opposite view.

    When someone asks me to do an “upgrade” with modern materials, I’ll explain to them once the value of preserving the old materials and workmanship. If they don’t see the point, I will happily rip out anything they want and remodel it the way they want. It’s their house and they can do what they want to it (within the limits of local historical preservation rules, if applicable.) Remodeling is how I earn my living, and if my taste does not match yours, yours takes priority as long as you’re paying me. And it’s even better if the next owner wants me to put it all back, I still get paid.

    And I will take your money and use to repair and modify my own Frank Lloyd Wright mid-century modern house, which looks and works better now than it did when it was new.

  6. Gale, sorry to hear that you’re recent interaction with a contractor was negative. What happened to turn it negative? You referred to him as ‘decent’ so was it workmanship? Communication? All too often, I’ve seen homeowners who only vaguely have an idea of what they want, then we work begins on a project, they make all kinds of changes/additions to the project. This can be very fustracting. Not saying that happened here, just what I’ve seen.

    Are you interested in running the business nextdoor? Or are you just interested in the buidling? Youtube is a great resouce for DIY information, perhaps you could find some videos there to help you.

    1. Contractors do not have the same vision for restoration as beloved homeowners who want to preserve the character of the homes they live in. If I wanted all the modern conveniences, large closets, etc. I would have moved to the burbs. I love the character of my Craftsman bungalow. I too am having trouble finding contractors to work with.
      I find the local handymen, better.

  7. Totally agree. Someone replaced most of the windows (heartbreaking) in my house with vinyl. Thankfully enough of the beautiful original windows are still in place to appreciate and enjoy.

  8. Scott SOOOO TRUE, we are battling this exact issue here in the Panhandle. We have lost so many beautiful old structures to the wrecking ball, like our San Carlos Hotel http://www.pensapedia.com/wiki/San_Carlos_Hotel and now we are battling a demo for an old USO building https://www.pnj.com/story/news/2018/11/14/downtown-pensacola-apartments-hinge-demolition-old-ecsd-site/1935367002/, where the claim is it’s beyond repair! Once the buildings are gone they are gone, there will never be a way to replace the craftsmanship and material that built them. Thank You for your efforts! Keep up the good fight!

  9. Couldn’t help but think of all the victorians I see around the Bay Area that are stuccoed! Wood siding DOES require maintance and upkeep,but Stucco? Can’t even imagine what that’s doing to the wood underneath. Someone somewhere along the line of owners, said, I’m going to make this easy on myself and turn this old house into a low effort rental.

    1. Exactly. That’s why historic preservationists need to get involved. Old ways of restoring wood need to be learned and taught. Let’s pass on our passion, knowledge, and reuse, recycle mindset. The newer generations of homeowners don’t know how simple it can be to find a workable, cost effective, sensible, restorative solution!

  10. While I understand completely where this is coming from, there is a turn of the century store rotting next door. I’m emotionally entangled and can’t see how I can salvage it, once/if the family trust gets around to my claim on it. Neither my husband nor I have the skills to repair it. I would love a plan and/or guidance from someone who could help me give it another 100 years. My recent experience with a decent contractor was negative.

    1. YouTube and pioneer home building articles and books have taught me what I need to know. Clean an item to get a good look at it. Find out what it’s called. Find out what the pieces are called. Do an hour of research. Watch a video. This will inspire and give you confidence. You can fix almost anything they made by machine or by hand in the early 1800s- mid 1950s. Things made then were meant to last mostly, or to be repaired later. Good luck. Have fun!

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