I’ve been reading some posts by friends of mine who work in historic preservation and it’s got me thinking about the “why” of saving old buildings a little more than the “how” this week.
Each week, I put together what I hope will be an educational post for you to get some work done around your old house, but with all those “how to’s” the “why” seems to get drowned out. The immediacy of a much needed repair trumps a lot of other stuff, and in those times “the why” doesn’t even cross our mind.
That immediacy shows up all to often in our homes. The roof leaks and the plaster ceiling falls, a window breaks and we have to seal it up quickly, the siding is discovered to be ravaged by termites into paper. These things are all immediate needs, and when we make decisions on the fly, we often make rationalizations we wouldn’t normally make.
What’s Wrong With Quick Decisions?
When things go awry with our old houses, which they inevitably will, we react like a reflex.
“Quick, call whoever’s available today!”
“Fix it as fast as possible.”
“What’s the cheapest way to get it fixed?”
These are not the right questions to be asking. While you may be shaking your head at me, think of the last time something big broke around your house. How did you handle it? Do you do your research and screen candidates? Did you get multiple quotes from specialists? Or did you (like most of us) rush to find the quickest and least expensive option to make you whole again?
It’s a rare person who has a fully funded emergency fund and has done the research to know who to call when a problem occurs. We usually Google a few keywords and pick whoever can come soonest, regardless of quality.
This leads to old houses being pillaged of their treasures and left worse off than previously. The guy with a truck who’s available tomorrow is probably available because no one else wants to hire him. Should you?
How to Do it Better
I’m happy to fix the mistakes of the previous contractor, but sometimes there’s nothing left to fix when they’re done. It’s all been ripped out and thrown away, never to return.
I can always fix a bad paint job, but once that original plaster ceiling is gone, it’s never coming back. Sure, we can replicate it as close as possible, but wouldn’t it have been easier to proactively repair it so it never fell in the first place?
#1 Do Your Homework
Put together a list of good contractors who can help you with your old house BEFORE something goes wrong. Plasterer, windows, carpenter, plumber, electrician, HVAC, roofer, these are all trades you will end up needing at some point in your life as a homeowner. So, do the research before hand and know who to call when the moment of truth finally does come.
#2 Preventative Maintenance
This is a such a simple thing, yet nobody does it! You get the oil changed in your car every 3,000 miles, but you don’t do any maintenance to your house until something breaks, I bet. Getting set up with a restoration contractor or other specialist to do annual maintenance checks on the important parts of your house will all but eliminate the need for major repairs.
Wouldn’t it be nice to spot a roof leak when it first starts and pay $200-$300 to fix it rather than $2,000-$3,000 to repair wood rot, roofing, and mold damage a little later? Annual maintenance checks on the important parts of your house are key to preventing damage in the first place.
#3 Think Long Term
Don’t do quick fixes. A proper repair almost always lasts longer and maintains value better than any quick fix could. I would rather spend the money to do it right the first time than to end up fixing it over and over again in a futile attempt to save money. You my be spending more now, but in the long term, it will always save you money to do it the right way.
Why Do We Do All This?
Because despite what popular culture says, old buildings matter. They are an irreplaceable piece of our history. It’s no coincidence that the second part of history is “story.” Our historic architecture, whether it’s grand structures like Penn Station and The Singer Building or some small bungalows in a first rung neighborhood, all have a story to tell us.
They survived a different age and came through it intact as the only surviving example of the times they were born in. Just like the older generation can tell us what things were like before WWII, these buildings can tell us stories beyond what their comparatively short-lived inhabitants can tell.
To walk through a building that was built before the Civil War, or better yet before the Revolutionary War, it transports us back to another time in space that can almost feel like an alternate reality. There is no one left to tell the stories of these times, just the cold books in the library and these warm homes that have survived.
Take a second and listen to their still small voice telling you about the times they came from and what they have seen in the centuries since. Their story is unique and their embrace is warm. So, yes, snuggle up with a good book, but better yet, do it in an old house where the history is written on every dent and scratch and crack. That is a book truly worth reading!
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.