Restoring a Historic Home: 8 Tips and Tricks Before You Get Started
Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between raiding historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older buildings.
Restoring a historic home is no easy feat. Not only do old structures and building materials need to be treated with extra care, but old houses are full of surprises, and costs can add up quickly. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned, a well-done renovation can turn a nightmare into a dream home.
We turned to one of our favorite interior designers and architects, fellow old-home obsessive Steven Gambrel, who has restored and renovated a number of 18th-and 19th-century homes in and around New York, such as the 1853-built Captain Overton House in Sag Harbor, to learn about what to expect and what to look for when restoring a historic home.
Living in an old house is an obligation. As a must-have, do you count on things like underfloor heating—or even just something like an evenly heated or cooled space? Then living in an older house, with its irregularities, might not be for you.
If you’re going to buy a historic home because you like the old wavy glass windows and the vibe of the floors, “understand that you won’t be able to have some of the comforts that are part of 21st-century life.”
“I would do anything to keep that undulating glass in the windows, even if that means having to have a draughty room,” adds Gambrel. I would just put on a different jersey. But if you’re not that person, then that’s not the right house for you. “
Water damage is the enemy
“Water damage is serious, important, and needs to be addressed,” says Gambrel. Water damage has long-term effects, such as dry rot. Insects also like wet environments. “
Keep an eye out—especially around ceilings, floors, and windows—for signs of water damage. That could be a warning sign of serious structural problems.
Something to pay special attention to is the sill plate. The sill plate is the lower horizontal part of the structure that wraps around the entire foundation. All vertical structural supports for the house are attached to the sill plate.
“The sill plate is most vulnerable to water because it is close to the wet ground,” Gambrel says. If the floors are skewed, it could be because of a warped sill plate because that’s the entire structure the house stands on.
Put together a team to assist you
A contractor and an inspector can help estimate the amount of work needed and its cost. But it can be helpful to research people with experience in historic preservation.
You need a local historian or contractor who restores historic homes. They can provide the most helpful and tell you about the recovery process that needs to be done, “says Gambrel.
And above all, anyone you take with you should understand your ultimate goal of restoring the property. “A lot of people don’t understand the difference between saving and tearing something out and starting over,” Gambrel says. “That’s not what you want. You need talented people who can help you restore an old house.
On a tight budget? Start small
While older homes, no matter their size, are likely to need updates and renovations, if you don’t have unlimited money, look for a smaller home that is more manageable.
Buy quality materials and renovate less—I will always advocate that, “says Gambrel, whose renovation of the Captain Overton home in Sag Harbor includes double mahogany glazing, custom-designed brass hardware, and salvaged marble mantels. If I could, I’d rather live in a perfectly restored colonial saltbox from the 1800s than in a crumbling mansion with bad tiles.
Make wise investment decisions
Even if you never plan to sell, Gambrel says it’s smart to factor in resale value when budgeting. He says that “it generally costs the same amount to renovate a house in different locations, regardless of what the local real estate market can support.” You don’t want to invest too much in a house that doesn’t yield an equal return.
So research what fully renovated homes in the area are selling for and let that determine how you structure your budget. An easy goal to save the budget is to choose which fireplaces to restore.
According to Gambrel, refurbishment fireplaces often require relining or masonry repair, a process that can cost more than $12,000 per chimney. If you find a place with multiple fireplaces (and chimneys), it might be smart to choose which one to fix.
Start with the roof, windows, and masonry.
It may be tempting to immediately sort out kitchen cabinets and paint samples, but the early stages of renovation should be practical rather than aesthetic. “It’s like managing a crisis: you have to fix things first that will prevent future damage,” says Gambrel. Make the house watertight. Repair the roof, windows, and masonry. ” Sometimes,
the house’s location is directly related to the strength and quality of the building materials. The serious problem that you will encounter in some regions is that there is occasionally sand in the mortar. That affects the integrity, “says Gambrel. Because there’s so much sand in the earth here on Long Island, many 18th-century chimneys were made with this weaker mortar, so the masonry will be weaker and will need more attention.
Fireplaces and chimneys are a good place to check if mortar needs repair, called re-grouting. Just use your hands to do a preliminary test before calling in specialists: “If you don’t see any mortar missing [between the bricks/bricks in a house], use your fingers to touch and tap the mortar to see if it falls apart.”
Technology is your ally
While Gambrel cautions that updating a home’s heating, cooling, and electrical systems is easily the most expensive part of a renovation, don’t worry that performing the updates will require removing all the period details that you loved in the first place.
Technology has been extremely kind to conservation — you can split a mechanical system into smaller units, feeding the top floors from the attic and the bottom floors from the basement, Gambrel says. “It’s called a split system, and it’s a really good way of not doing so much damage to the historic fabric of the house.”
Accept your non-threatening quirks
Leveling uneven floors in an old house can be a time-consuming and costly process. Why not fit them into the home’s design scheme? “In Manhattan, I have a house that was built in 1827. It’s crooked! So I left it skewed, “Gamble says.” I designed all the milling and the skirting boards to accommodate the skewed floors. The baseboard can be 6″ high in one location and 8″ high in another. “
Likewise, if you’re figuring out where to add bathrooms and closets, try to see the problem as an opportunity. Gambrel built a second-floor bathroom in Captain Overton’s home. When he did that, he made a nook for a bedroom, and a bed was built into that alcove.
It’s about knowing what to sacrifice to keep the rest. “I’d rather keep the integrity of three captivating rooms and compromise on the fourth rather than chop away all four and be left with four average rooms,” says Gambrel. You have to make it a creative opportunity. That’s where a renovation’s beauty, charm, and quirkiness lie.