Old Homes: What’s Worth Restoring?
From plaster to HVAC, here's advice from our experts on how to decide what's worth restoring in your old or historic house.
There aren’t many hard and fast rules for which parts of an old house are worth restoring and which are better to replace. Often, it’s more about balancing the house’s character against how much you’re willing to spend to keep that historic flair intact.
“You can analyze what is cool about an old home, and usually it comes down to a certain level of craftsmanship you don’t get in today’s homes,” says Neil Stevenson, a Charleston, S.C.-based architect and consultant for the celebrity home renovation series Rucker’s Reno.
“It’s usually a combination of the windows, floors, ceilings and sometimes there’s super-cool molding, plus little touches like patina or door hardware. That’s what we like to keep.”
The level of craftsmanship required to repair and replace those elements will be costly, so you’ll need to pick and choose your projects carefully. Are you fixing it up to live in it, or aiming for a good return on investment?
“Figure out how much you can sell the house for once it’s fixed up, and work backwards into a budget,” says Stevenson. “Unfortunately, your budget usually won’t be enough to restore everything you want.”
Also, keep in mind some things just aren’t worth the effort.
“There has been poor workmanship and poor materials as long as there has been construction,” says architectural historian Kristopher King of Carriage Properties in Charleston, a Rucker’s Reno consultant.
“Instead of saying that just because it’s old it’s worth saving, it’s more accurate to say that because it’s old, you need to slow down and assess what it is you’re about to do and make sure that it’s not detrimental.”
When deciding what’s worth restoring and what’s not in an old or historic home, here are some of the main elements to consider.
Check if the plaster is flat and in its original plane, then sound it out with your hand to determine if it’s still adhering to the lath behind. Centuries of gravity often means you’ll find most severe plaster failure in ceilings.
“Unless the majority of a wall or ceiling has failed, I would argue that re-plastering the damaged areas is the best course of action,” says King. “Plaster offers better soundproofing, fire proofing, and weatherproofing than [drywall].”
Plaster cornice work can be trickier to repair, and almost always requires a skilled craftsperson. But it’s also worth it, King says, because “it’s usually the most visually stunning aspect of a historic room.”
If you can patch and repair a wood floor, Stevenson and King say it’s usually worth keeping. “Historic wood floors are a defining visual characteristic of historic houses,” King says. “They are usually the first thing the people notice and respond to.”
The most common floor damage comes from moisture or wear. That means selective replacement and repair is a good option, unless the floor has been sanded too many times or the tongues pop. In those cases you’ll probably have to replace them, unless you get lucky and can just flip over the boards to reuse them.
Elaborate window and door moldings are hallmarks of many old homes. If possible, leave them in place and work around them when replacing doors and windows. If they must be removed, they’ll likely come apart in sections that can be reassembled.
Windows and Doors
Historic windows and doors are worth keeping and renovating whenever possible. They’re typically more solid and durable than their modern replacements. Plus, King says they were designed to be taken apart, repaired and put back together.
“While historic windows get a bad rap, it is largely because window manufacturers have been marketing it that way for decades,” he says. “Also, most contractors no longer understand how to work on them. But historic windows perform very well. Typically it would take decades of energy savings to recoup the cost of ripping out historic windows.”
Replacing the electric system comes down to safety and functionality, which depends on the age and capacity of the system. To figure out if it’s OK, look for an updated service panel, grounded outlets and modern Romex wire.
“If you see the older Edison fuses, cloth-wrapped wire or ungrounded outlets, it’s likely an entire system overhaul is needed,” King says. That might also require new, higher-amp service lines from the pole and other update to comply with today’s building codes.
Like electricity, plumbing replacement depends on safety and whether it needs to comply with modern building codes. “While older copper pipes hold up very well, modern polybutylene pipes done in the 1980s should be replaced if found,” says King.
Older cast-iron waste lines can also corrode over time and lose capacity. And, of course, look out anything with lead and replace those. In uninhabited houses in cold climates, you can also run into surprises in the walls, like burst pipes from freezing.
Many old houses lack modern insulation, making heating and cooling bills alarmingly high. But incorrectly installing insulation, especially in warm and damp climates, may cause ongoing condensation problems.
“The best way to protect an old house is a vapor barrier on the outside of the insulation, wrapping the whole place,” says Stevenson. “But you’d have to take off all of the siding to do that, which usually is not an option because once you tear off the old boards they start falling apart.”
There is no easy solution to this. Try to make the house as airtight as possible, and don’t run the air conditioner on too cold a setting.
Most old houses are unlikely to have an HVAC system. Installing one can be tricky and expensive because sometimes the wall cavities are too narrow for standard ducts. It’s also vital to install them properly to avoid problems with condensation.
“Historic houses were not designed with HVAC in mind,” says King. “It is critically important to understand what you’re doing. There is no more surefire way to mess up an old house than to condition it improperly, especially in humid climates.”
If an old house has an HVAC system, inspect the ductwork to make sure it is well-insulated. That will ensure the system isn’t introducing excessive moisture into the building envelope. Also, check to see if the ducting layout is sufficient for each room. And avoid oversized units, which can cause the system to short cycle and not remove latent moisture from the air.