Q: How do you eat an elephant?
A: One bite at a time.
The logic is simple, but the feat is impressive. The same goes for how to save an old house. There is no easy solution, especially when you’re dealing with a neglected piece of history that has been sitting and rotting for decades.
Neglect takes a terrible toll on our historic buildings, so don’t think that the solution will be simple. But to help you get through the times when it seems particularly overwhelming, chew on some of these ideas before you crawl up in a ball and wonder what you got yourself into.
1. Take Your Time
Your house didn’t get into this condition overnight and it won’t be restored overnight either. There is no rush! Get the roofer to stop the leaks and stop the bleeding, but other than that your restoration shouldn’t be rushed. When you’re in a hurry you do things halfway and settle for cheap quick fixes.
A proper restoration means you’re doing it right, and doing it right takes a while. There is no quick solution, so stop searching for one and get to work with a slow and steady mentality.
2. Make a List
Put everything in order of importance. It should go like this.
- Repair the roof (if needed)
- Repair the foundation (if needed)
- Repair the building envelope (siding, windows, doors) to make sure the weather isn’t getting in
These are the big three items to protect your old home and make sure the damage isn’t getting worse. After those three are taken care of, there is no real hurry or particular order. Just list the projects that are most important to you in order. When one project is finished, move on to the next.
3. Call Your Friends
Friends make everything better. One friend is good, but 20 is better. If you’ve got a big project, call in reinforcements and that will really help get things moving along.
We just did a window workshop this weekend that had about 16 people there to learn and work at restoring old windows. We got almost 20 window sashes restored in a matter of 2 days! These were mostly folks who have never done the work before and were just learning.
A group of friends fueled by cheap pizza and ice cream can make quite a change. Just remember to repay the favor when they need help too or else you’ll notice your crowd of friends has thinned significantly the next time,.
4. Set Realistic Goals
Let’s face it, everything you try to repair on an old house will take about twice as long as you think it will. It still happens to me all the time. “Oh, I’ll just replace those few courses of siding” I think. Then, when I remove the siding, I discover the framing is completely rotted out. A 2 hour project turns into a whole Saturday. It happens.
This doesn’t just apply to big projects. It happens with things as small as removing a hinge pin on a door. So, don’t use the “in a perfect world” school of estimating. If you’re having trouble estimating time on projects, try this helpful formula I’ve spent countless hours developing for you:
(Time estimated) x 3 = (Actual time required)
If you think I’m lying, then you obviously haven’t owned an old house yet. Make your goals realistic and start small.
5. Finish One Little Thing
There is something incredibly satisfying about finishing a task. It gives you a sense of accomplishment and motivates you to continue. Without these little victories you’ll never make it through a single project. Set those realistic goals and make them small. Then go accomplish that one little thing. Pat yourself on the back. Check it off the list. Start the next item.
When I say finish one little thing I don’t mean “Today I will tile my bathroom.” kind of small. I mean “I will setup the tile saw properly.” kind of small. Or maybe “I will get this one window stop installed properly.” instead of, “I will trim out all the bedroom windows.”
Break it down into manageable little pieces. The size of those pieces depends on your skill level and how much you can emotionally handle.
The shows on DIY and HGTV may make you feel like a bathroom remodel is possible in 23 minutes plus commercial breaks, but we all know that is a bunch of bunk, hooey, hogwash and baloney. It takes time to do it right. And doing it right is what restoring an old house is all about.
Founder & Editor-in-Chief
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.