It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you get ready to start renovating an old house. The questions will swirl around your head like tweety birds after a cartoon concussion about where to start and how much it will cost. You need to learn to triage an old house or the patient may die.
I don’t want to dissuade you from buying and restoring an old house, quite to the contrary. I think restoring an old house is one of the most satisfying things you can do! But I want you to have a realistic understanding of what to expect and what it might cost so that your dream renovation doesn’t become a nightmare. In this post, I’ll lay out some of the pitfalls and a general order of operations for your project as well as some budgeting advice.
If you want to dive deeper and make sure you have all your i’s dotted and your t’s crossed, then take a look at my book Living in the Past and accompanying e-booklet Historic Restoration Plan. They have a level of detail and assistance that you can’t get in a single blog post that can be extremely helpful for your plans.
This is always the biggest concern right? There is no renovation without a budget and the bigger the budget the better the results, right? Usually, but not always. You wanna spend wisely and certainly avoid doing double work.
No two projects are the same and no two budgets are the same, so there is no way I can give you specifics, but there are some important things you need to know before budgeting.
First, with an old house you need to have a healthy contingency fund. What is “healthy”? For me that usually means holding no less than 20% of your proposed budget in extra cash so that you don’t get snagged by unexpected issues.
Make no mistake, it’s an old house and there will be change orders and unexpected costs that you will have to absorb. If you don’t have the extra money, then your project can easily get derailed. The bottom line is that nobody knows what’s hiding in those walls, and you don’t know what you don’t know. So, be prepared and it will take the stress off. In the end, it actually saves money!
The House Sandwich
I coined this phrase a few years ago, and while it hasn’t exactly swept the nation yet, I feel it’s very appropriate for how you renovate and old house. Follow this process and you will spend less money and not have to repeat any costly work. You may need to mix things up a bit due to your circumstances, but this will almost always be the most efficient way to restore an old house even if it’s isn’t always the most practical, especially if you are living in the house during your renovation.
You start with the roof and the foundation first…always. That’s the bread of your sandwich. Once you have kept the water from pouring in through the roof and have resolved any structural deficiencies to the foundation, you are ready to move onto the meat of the sandwich.
You got everything stable and stopped water coming in the roof, so now it’s time to keep it from coming in the walls and openings. Siding or stucco repair goes here, doors and windows should be restored and weatherstripped. If you don’t have the money to go the full monty thats fine, but the focus here is, at minimum, making the house weathertight so the interior portions are protected.
Without cheese you don’t have much of a sandwich in my opinion and the cheese stands for the mechanicals. HVAC, Plumbing, electrical. The interior is protected now so you can safely have any mechanicals work done to the building in preparation for interior finishes. Plus, these trades usually make all kinds of messes and cut holes everywhere so I don’t want them coming in after I have just redone my walls or floors.
All the Fixin’s
Now is when you can do everything else. The electrician and plumber are done punching holes so it’s time to patch your plaster and repair your floors. Time for bathrooms and kitchens to take shape with all the intricate details you might want or can afford. Trim, moldings, cabinets etc. They all fit right here in the fixin’s part of your house sandwich.
You don’t want your coworker’s grubby hands all over your sandwich so you gotta put it in a ziplock bag right? When everything is done, it’s time to paint it inside and out. Protect that investment so it will last another hundred years. And continue to keep it painted over the coming decades.
The is just a simple breakdown of the details I go into further in my Historic Restoration Plan e-booklet. You get more details on all these items and a checklist for you that dives deep into each piece of the sandwich.
Don’t be afraid of those old houses- just make a plan and implement that plan and you’ll reach the finish line. And if things go south and your renovation turns into a nightmare, just remember, “when you’re going through hell, don’t stop!” Push through and you’ll come out the other end. Good luck!
Founder & Senior Editor
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.