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How To Restore a Historic Home

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Restoring a historic house is no small task. However, it’s definitely a worthwhile endeavor. Untouched fixer-uppers usually include period detail unscathed by previous renovations. However, special care must be taken when dealing with old structures and keep in mind that old houses are full of surprises and costs can start adding up. So here are a few tips and tricks on what to expect and what to look for when restoring a historic house.

Be prepared to live in a historic house

You don’t have to throw period-themed balls but you do need to accept the fact that you’ll probably have to give up some of the comforts that come with 21st century living.   If you’re someone that needs radiant floors and evenly heated rooms, an older house may not be for you.

Watch out for water

Keep an eye out for water damage. This can mean major structural problems. It’s very serious and must be addressed right away. Long-term water damage can lead to dry rot and insects.

One of the first places you should check is the sill plate. The sill plate is the bottommost horizontal component of the structure that runs around the entire foundation. All of the vertical structural supports for the house are attached to the sill plate.

Usually, this plate gets the most strain water-wise because it’s close to the wet ground. If it’s rotten this can contribute to crooked floors.

Find a good team

Bringing a contractor with you for a house visit can help you estimate the amount of work that need to be done. But make sure you’re choosing the right people. You don’t necessarily have to bring an inspector with you the first time. They usually don’t have specific knowledge about preservation.

Do your research – contact people who have experience working with old houses. Try a local historian or contractor who specialized in restoring historic houses.

Above all, bring someone that understands the goal of restoring the property. There’s huge difference between preservation and knocking something out and starting over. You need talented people to help you get through the process.

Start small if you’re on a budget

If you’re on a budget or have never renovated a house before, try looking for a smaller house. It will be more manageable and you can still buy quality materials and renovate less.  Living in a perfectly restored tiny 18th century house is better than a dilapidated mansion with cheap tiles any day.

Start with the roof, windows and masonry

It might be tempting to pick out your kitchen cabinets first but the first stages of a renovation should always be practical rather than aesthetic. You need to fix any areas that could prevent future damage. This includes making the house watertight and fixing the roof, windows and masonry.

Sometimes, the locations relates to the strength and quality of the building materials. In some regions, there’s sand in the mortar, which isn’t good. For example, on Long Island – which has tons of sand in the earth – the 18th century homes’ chimneys were made with weaker mortar and therefore are in need of prioritized attention.

Fireplaces and chimneys are a good place to check to see if mortar is required. Use your hands to conduct a preliminary test – if you tap on the mortar between the bricks and it comes apart, you have a problem.

Technology is your friend

While updating the heating, cooling and electrical systems of a house are usually the most expensive part of any renovation, they wont mess with the original details of the house. “Technology is very kind to preservation – you can break down a mechanical system into smaller units, feed the upper floors from the attic and the lower floors from the basement,” reports a historic preservation expert, “it’s called a split system and it’s a really good way to have not as much damage done ot the historical fabric of the house.”

Embrace the non-threatening quirks

Level out uneven floors in an old house takes a lot of time and money so why not accommodate them into the design scheme?

Similarly, if you’re figuring out where to add bathrooms and closets try to view the problem as an opportunity. For any restoration, it’s about knowing what to sacrifice to preserve the rest. 


Ready to get started? Take a look at some historic homes in Boston.