How To: Triage an Old House (aka Where to Start)

By Scott Sidler • March 26, 2018

how to triage an old houseIt’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.

The Budget

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.

The Bread

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.

The Meat

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.

The Cheese

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.

Packaging

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!

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5 thoughts on “How To: Triage an Old House (aka Where to Start)”

  1. We are about to close on a 1920 craftsman in Palatka. It’s in pretty bad shape but we’re excitedl. The floors have holes in them at various points throughout the entire 2000sq ft home. We will not be living it but it’s not easy or safe to try to walk around avoiding holes. What do you suggest we do temporarily until we are ready to properly repair the floors?

    1. Hi Niki! So happy about your beautiful home you’re about to close on! Feel free to send us photos or tag us in some photos so we can appreciate your home with you. It’s hard to say without physically being there to assess the situation. For your safety, I would recommend finding someone in your area who specializes in the kind of work we do to be sure to approach it in the safest way. We actually have a directory on our site of people who specialize in these things as well all across the nation. I hope you can find someone in your area to help you! We look forward to seeing the progress on your home. https://thecraftsmanblog.com/directory/
      -Alyssa at The Craftsman Blog

    2. Hey Niki,
      We purchased a 1920 house in Waco that had gaping holes in the roof, and of course that weakened the floors and we have holes there now too, although they aren’t very big holes… maybe only 6″ each. We are living in the house now but still aren’t at the point to install new flooring yet, so we just laid down sheets of plywood over the holes. If your holes are larger this might not work for you, but it’s helped us. Good luck!

  2. Hello, what causes old hardwood floors to separate. we replaced a 132 yr. old slate roof with asphalt shingles and now we notice many hairline cracks in our ceilings and walls and our floorboards are separating.

    1. Lorraine, I bought a 90 year old “balloon frame” house some years ago and my boyfriend at the time, who was a registered general contractor and college trained building engineer, who specialized in restoring old houses, stripped and replaced the roof for me. The old roof was THREE layers of shingles (which is a major building code violation, but there it was). That was a tremendous amount of weight on that roof, which was sheathed with boards rather than plywood.

      Since an average “square” of shingles (100 square feet) weighs around 250 pounds, and my roof was 1800 square feet, those 3 layers weighed 13,500 pounds, or almost 7 tons! He warned me that lifting that weight off the roof and replacing it with just 4500 pounds of new roofing would probably lead to some structural shifting. In fact, the house was “bowed” somewhat when I first bought it: balloon frames have walls built to the full height of the house and then the second floor is suspended from those walls — this is different from modern “stick built” homes where the first and second floors are separate framing stacked on each other. In that house all the walls slanted somewhat out at the top so that each angled away from the center. In part this was because it was obvious, when we stripped off much of the second floor lathe and plaster to expose all the wall framing and joists, that the builders had used neither a tape measure (spacing of the roof joists was random, up to + or – 6″ off standard) nor a level of any kind. But also having SO much weight on the framing for decades as roofing layers continued to pile on, may have caused sagging and deflection of the wood, and compression of the structure. The house had also sagged around the perimeter, sinking into the ground while the center, attached to the central brick chimney, was higher. Since the roof bears on the exterior wall, that added roofing weight also could have affected the sinking, since the house was built on loose sandy soil. After we re-roofed, I did notice cracking in the ceilings and walls of the rooms that had been intact before we re-roofed it. We added steel adjustable posts under the main beams in the basement, removing the old fixed ones, and gradually lowered the middle of the house as much as we could, which leveled it a little — but this also caused more superficial cracking.

      In your case, slate weighs about 1000 pounds per square, 4 times what your new shingle roof weighs. If you have a 2000 square foot roof this means you have gone from 20 tons of roofing (yikes!) down to 2.25 tons, almost a 90% weight reduction. This could be a case of what in geology we call “isostatic rebound”. During the last Ice Age most of Canada, which sits on granite, was depressed into the magma of the Earth’s mantle by ice a couple of miles thick. Since it melted off 15,000 years ago, Eastern Canada has been slowly bouncing back up — they say in a few million years it may rise so high that the Great Lakes will empty south. The same thing can happen to buildings in some cases. You have taken a massive compressive weight off the house structure. I can almost imagine it sighing and saying “Whew, that’s a relief!” But it may be reshaping itself a little now.

      Also, did you have a lot of moisture damage visible in the attic space or ceilings from leaks in the old slate roof? If wood has been damp for a long time it swells somewhat. if your attic and inside walls were getting damp from continual leaks, even small ones, or the attic was insufficiently vented and insulated so the attic was getting condensation, it may now be drying out. As long as conditions stay humid the wood would maintain it’s swollen state. But if the wood dries out it will contract — we see this when doors and wooden windows swell slightly and stick in humid summer weather but fit fine in winter when central heating dries them out. If your new roof has sealed up the house so that damp framing can now dry out, it may result in plaster cracking where it overlays wood.

      Also, in a house where you have fixed it to block humid outside air and water leaks and then run heating without a humidifier, floorboards can dry out and shrink away from each other. Tongue and groove floors in older houses are often old growth pine, not technically “hardwood” like oak and walnut. Sometimes they are not even tongue and groove but just straight sided 3/4″ stock. Yellow pine is a good dense wood (sanded and varnished it looks like red oak) but it does shrink more with time than other woods. Both my 1907 farmhouse and my current 1930 bungalow had yellow pine flooring, and both had gaps large enough that slivers of light from the basement are visible through them on the first floor.

      I will be interested to hear what Scott and others say about this, but these were my experiences and what I was told by my personal old house expert. He was kind of a crummy boyfriend, but he was a real expert in old houses and I learned a lot from him.

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