The 5 Worst Mistakes of Historic Homeowners (Revisited)

By Scott Sidler • August 19, 2019

The 5 Worst Mistakes of Historic Homeowners (Revisited)Back when I first started this blog in 2011 one of the very first series I wrote was called The 5 Worst Mistakes of Historic Homeowners. I went back and read those posts recently and realized that my conclusions close to a decade ago deserved a revisiting.

Are those five items still the biggest mistakes, or have times changed as we journey further into the 21st century? Well, let me lay it out for you because the years have changes my views partly, and I want to hear your thoughts and see if you agree.

Mistake #1 Window Replacement

This is still number one on my list and hasn’t changed one bit. If anything I have only become more passionate in my defense of preserving original historic windows as I have seen another decade of failures and broken promises on the part of replacement windows.

I hardly call them replacement windows anymore but prefer the term “disposable windows” because that is exactly what they seem to be. Disposable windows marketed to the replacement generation that is too afraid or too busy to repair or maintain anything.

Disposable windows promise quick energy saving and clean trouble free windows. How long will they last? That depends on the window you buy, but as my experience has grown I have rarely found a double-panned window past 20 years old without major problems.

Rot, broken balances, warping frames, fogging glass, leaking joints, the list goes on and on. The only thing certain about a disposable window in my experience is that their list of potential problems is as long as the life of the historic windows they replaced.

The energy saving promises rarely live up to the hype, the aesthetics never do, and yet people still persist in believing the myth that a historic window cannot be energy efficient when it has been proven over and over again that a historic window properly repaired with a storm window can meet the same level of efficiency.

Mistake #2 Wood Floors

This mistake while still common seems to be on the wane. Through the late 1990s I saw so many occasions when original hardwood floors were covered with carpet, laminate, tile, or some other inferior low maintenance flooring material because of style preferences. Thankfully this trend has largely been stopped by current design trends. Thanks Chip & Joanna!
When wood floors are covered up today the culprit is usually not design influences but rather a lack of knowledge that these wood floors can be restored and refinished. Yes, it takes time and more money in extreme cases to bring them back to life, but the lifespan of a historic wood floor can be centuries if given minimal care and the finish is renewed every 5-10 years.

The one room that homeowners seem to believe cannot and should not have wood floors is the kitchen. This is a myth. If an original wood floor is in your kitchen don’t believe the hype that they must be replaced. Unless you plan to leave sitting water on your kitchen floor a solid wood floor can look and perform wonderfully in almost any kitchen.Give those wood floors another chance because you may be surprised how well they come out looking and how well they hold up.

Mistake #3 Siding

The vinyl pirates are still out there though less common are the aluminum siding salesmen these days. It largely depends on your region though. If you think that wood siding can never hold up to the abuse that vinyl siding can then you’re sadly mistaken.

Vinyl siding is often installed over top the original wood siding, trapping moisture and cause hidden rot and water issues. I’m sure there are people who prefer the look of vinyl siding over wood, but they seem to be rare in my experience. Most people choose it for the promised lack of maintenance and that is true. You cannot and do not need to maintain vinyl siding. But that doesn’t mean it does have its issues.

It doesn’t take paint well when you decide on a color change one day, it melts from reflected heat from low-e windows or simply in hot southern climates which can cause wrinkling and warping, and it obscures the proper architectural dimensions of a house flattening out walls and creating odd details around windows.

It may take work every so often to maintain wood siding, but the strength and beauty of old-growth wood siding should not be taken for granted when it comes to deciding what to do about your siding.

Mistake #4 Plaster

Those gloriously imperfect plaster walls. We’ve gotten so used to perfect things in our world of computer generated images and robot manufactured consumerism that when we see something as imperfect and irregular as a historic plaster wall we scoff at it as outdated or amateurish when in reality the truth is the opposite.

Your plaster walls and ceilings are hardly the works of Michelangelo and DaVinci, but they are certainly the handiwork of a master plasterer who left his marks just as these great artists did. Every famous painting could likely be done more perfectly by a computer or animator today, but is it the perfection that gives it its value? No, it’s the imperfection, the uniqueness, the handmade aspect that adds value.

How much more does a Rolls Royce (which is built by hand) cost? How about handmade clothing or shoes rather than those produced in a random factory? Combine that uniqueness with the fact that plaster walls are thicker, stronger, better insulators, and more eco-friendly than drywall and you have a strong argument to keep your original plaster. You can read more in my previous post 6 Reasons to Keep Your Plaster.

Mistake #5 Energy Efficiency

This one is a new mistake! Previously I felt that the removal of unique details like historic fixtures, trim elements, etc. was a big mistake and while it still troubles me times have changed and so has my opinion.

The massive push to bring all our buildings up to the current energy standards in current events like the Green New Deal have galvanized people into loosing track of the fact that the greenest building is the one that already exists.

Yes, we need to be realistic about energy use in our homes, we need to preserve our planet, but destroying our built environment will not save our natural environment. Being practical and strategic is a better plan than to make sweeping statements that cause panic and poor decisions.

You might be surprised that the low-hanging fruit of home energy savings does way more than the expensive and sexy energy retrofits do.

DIY projects like installing blown-in insulation in your attic, weatherstripping doors and windows, adding storm windows, installing energy saving thermostats, choosing energy star appliances and lighting can do more than stripping a historic house to the bones to spend six figures on a deep energy retrofit and a small fraction of the cost. Wondering how to make those things happen? Here are some great posts to get you started on proper and affordable energy saving projects that pay back in months or years rather than decades.

All in all things haven’t changed too much since the first time I covered this topic. As a preservation contractor you may think me biased, but the opinions here are not so much bias as they are experience.

I see these mistakes, and the accompanying issues and failures too often and little has changed in the last decade. I just hope that by my sharing my experiences you’ll learn from and avoid the worst mistakes of historic homeowners.

Share Away!

11 thoughts on “The 5 Worst Mistakes of Historic Homeowners (Revisited)”

  1. I live in a historic neighborhood. I am an architect who works on historic homes. Here’s my #1 no no when it comes to old homes. Please, please do not convert them to an “open floor plan”. In my neighborhood you must get approval from the architectural review committee to do anything on the exterior but the interior is up for grabs. Every bungalow I see has had walls removed between the kitchen and dining/living room and awkward additions tacked on to the back and sides.
    My #2 no no….. Please stop painting all the woodwork white. I’m not a fan of making a bungalow overly authentic with dark paint colors and large heavy furniture but please let the wood shine through in the living and dining room with some sanding and polyurethane instead of painting it white.

  2. Don’t overlook the usefulness of heavier curtains in the winter to assist those storm windows. I once had a vinyl palace and the double paned, tilt in windows were leaky as hell and failed miserably. Keep up the fight!

  3. I think you need another one: #6: Tearing down walls to create “open space”. The architectural trend toward open space came in with central HVAC. And it needs to go out with the reality of climate change! If nothing else please add under Energy Efficiency to try to maintain the separation of rooms so that heating and cooling can be zoned and so that smart thermostats can do their job!

    Also rooms were created using classical proportions which are lost if essential pieces like a wall no longer exist. Character is lost without the interest of separate rooms. Privacy is lost. Specialization is lost – the coziness of a lady’s sitting room, the centering quality of a library, the special child’s world of a nursery). And sound is allowed to be uncontrolled (conversations, TV, kids playing) inescapable unless people hide in their bedrooms.

    The house started as one space and it was considered an architectural advancement as rooms were added!

  4. My husband and I had the simple goal of hanging a porch swing on our circa 1904 house. This unveiled a long standing porch leak under the vinyl ceiling and, long story short, we have ripped off the vinyl siding, the asbestos siding underneath that and have been restoring the original wood siding that was shockingly intact all things considered. The framing behind it was a mess but the siding was salvageable with the help of good ole Abatron and lots of patience. For now we are only tackling the front of the house but hope to eventually do the entire exterior of our home. One thing we have found is how difficult it is to find new wood clapboards these days! It’s become rare, precious and expensive. All the more reason to try to save every piece of original we can.

  5. Realizing that you likely are “preaching to the choir,” I still say “Amen, brother”! I delight in the ease of use of the original double-hung windows I’ve gotten working again, and I look forward to getting the rest of them restore! I was very fortunate about 20 years ago. A friend of mine bought an old camp to tear down and replace with a new structure. Thankfully, he let me salvage all the double-hung windows — casings, hardware, etc., all included. They were a perfect match for those already in my house, except that most were in even better condition than mine! I do have some replacement windows in sections of the house that had been remodeled before I purchased it. Most of them are ok…for now. But there’s one installed when we renovated a horribly remuddled bathroom (fixtures were actually appropriate if not original, but three layers of ceiling were evidence of some poor thinking years back, as was the layout, which we restored to something closer to original). Sadly, we used a replacement window, which in turn had replaced an awful and quite inappropriate jalousie window, and that replacement window is in desperate need of…REPLACEMENT!

    Oh, did I mention that many of the downstairs plaster walls and floors were covered with cheap paneling and shag carpet, respectively, when I first got the house 30 years ago? That was the first to go! 😀

  6. Yes, yes, yes!!!
    I sometimes feel like a lone voice in my community of historic homes. The 20yr old trend of “replace over repair” is such a battle with homeowners. Trying to convince them that the additional cost of repair, (in some cases) is actually cost savings later on is so hard to make clear.
    “I just want it done now”, vs. “But you save over the life of the house” is tough to pitch.

  7. I have an 1876 Victorian home in Galveston. What are your thoughts on spraying closed cell foam under the first floor crawl space to help prevent heat loss in the winter? Every hundred years or so we do get a hurricane that can get a small amount of water into the first floor from storm surge, 6”-12” max.

  8. Good recommendations! Question: In painting exterior wood siding would you recommend “flat” latex paint or “satin” latex paint? I have a house on a busy street corner and car exhaust/street grime seems to stick to the white wood siding that was painted flat. House is a big duplex and I am paining it white as I think white is the best color to maintain over time? Also with Sherwin Wms. . latex products I assume you would not recommend oil based paint or oil based primer?

  9. It’s good to read that my old house has at least 3 out of 5! Unfortunately the last owners of our house changed out the windows and removed historic light fixtures. But we still have wood floors, plaster and wood shingles. When we painted the exterior of the house a few years ago we had family members shaking their heads recommending we do vinyl siding but it didn’t feel right. We have a Foursquare (known for its modest adornments) and I want to save as much character and uniqueness as I can! And just a new coat of paint freshened it up and looks perfect. Great article.

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