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.
- How To: Install Blown-in Insulation
- How To: Install Spring Bronze Weatherstripping
- How To: Install The Nest Thermostat
- DIY Storm Windows
- 3 Reasons I Chose Indows Windows
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.
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.