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How To: Save an Old House

How To: Save an Old HouseQ: 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.

  1. Repair the roof (if needed)
  2. Repair the foundation (if needed)
  3. 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.

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7 thoughts on “How To: Save an Old House

  1. Thank you I needed to see this today. I have been repairing windows and priming them. I had only found on area of dry rot in the original windows and I took my time fixing it. I found that it was hiden by a big gob of clear calk and painted. Becuse the prevous owner had just done a quick fix my work was doubled reversing what he had doen and fixing it correctly. It took two days to stapblize the dry rot and make the cosmetic repair. I was feeling pretty good about how things were going then I found a window that is in really bad shape. It really bumed me out. It was such a big project. I felt bad about moving on to the other windows that still needed to be done, but I now realize they all need to get done so they do not end up like that one. The bad window will be saved for last. but it will get done.

  2. These are great tips. We have a 91-year-old American Foursquare that’s in relatively good condition, but we’ve had to work on repairs to the stucco, electrical, and ductwork in addition to cosmetic updates like painting, etc. Projects do have a way of taking much longer than you think they will! We’re chronicling it all on our blog, and we know we are in it for the long haul. 🙂

    1. Laura, glad to have you! The long haul is about the only way to do it with an old house. Hopefully, you can find some good resources to help you get the job done on our site!

  3. Thanks Scott, This is exactly what i needed today. Home built in 1920 replacing all the knob and tube. Much more work than i thought when i purchased the property. Slow and steady!

  4. You hit the nail on the head, Scott! Even those of us in the restoration business find ourselves underestimating the time needed for even the simplest of projects. But in the end we know we’ve done all the work necessary to keep the house standing for another 100 years… maybe 200!

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