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What to Know Before Restoring Your Old Historic Home

Written by Carol J Alexander

Published on June 26, 2023


What to Know Before Restoring Your Old Historic Home

Don’t get gobsmacked as soon as you sign on the dotted line. Begin your old home restoration with the knowledge of what could be easier on your budget – and your heart.

To provide you with the most accurate and up-to-date information, we consult a number of sources when producing each article, including licensed contractors and industry experts.

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Emily Kazmac closed on her historic home purchase almost 100 years to the day that the house was built. Her 1922 Federal-style brick home in Trenton, New Jersey, sat empty and exposed to the elements for five years before she bought it in a foreclosure sale. But her dreamy, starry-eyed vision quickly changed. “I just wasn’t prepared,” she said, for the level of work the house needed. “It’s been nine months, and it’s still not livable.”

“We had to go room by room, utility by utility, floor by floor. It was like an exploratory surgery.” As it turned out, absolutely everything you couldn’t see at first glance in this home’s 4,600 square feet – electric, plumbing, HVAC – needed replacing. Not to mention the obvious: water in the basement, mold, crumbling slate roof tiles and interior plaster, and a falling-down chimney.  Emily and her husband, Greg Usberti, were in for a long, wild ride.

For some people, restoring an older home is like freefalling from the top of a roller coaster. But when someone sits beside you, the ride is less scary and more fun. Imagine someone who’s done it before sitting in the car whispering in your ear, “Ok, here we go. Your belly’s going to flop. But it’s okay. You can do this.” Then, when you’re surprised by what lurks behind the plaster and lathe, they say, “Oh, that happened in my house, too. You need to call Donnie.” And amazingly, everything seems right in the world.

Many homeowners have walked the historic restoration journey. And here, a few have shared what that looks like so you can know what to expect of the road ahead.

Find a historic restoration specialist near you

What you need to restore an old home

Before you start following a Realtor around the neighborhood, swooning over all the options, you need to have a few things in your restoration toolkit to see you through.

  • A can-do mindset – Believing in yourself and your abilities is the first step to success when it comes to home remodeling, particularly when the home is a century old.
  • A friend to phone – When you walk through an old house, you’ll see things that you wonder about. Having a restoration specialist, or at least a general contractor on speed dial will make your decision-making process much easier.
  • Time – A building that’s stood for 50-100 years deserves a loving process that takes time. If you don’t have it, buy a new house that needs little work.
  • The right temperament – You may be steeled to find mold in the basement or plaster falling from the ceiling, but if your heart isn’t in the right place, restoring an old home is not for you. More on this below.

Do you have the right temperament?

Not everyone is cut out for owning, restoring, and maintaining an old home. If you like everything neat and tidy, gravitate to the latest and greatest, or are a rolling stone with no interest in putting down roots, restoring a house should not be on your bucket list.

But, if you get googly eyes over gingerbread trim, catch your breath at the sight of a grand staircase, or spend weekends pouring over Old House Journal, you may be the right person for the job.

“In my experience, homeowners fall into two categories: kings and stewards,” says Jeffrey Rudell, a sitting member of Ocean Grove, New Jersey’s Historic Preservation Commission, and a historic homeowner. He explains that kings prioritize convenience, prefer open floor plans so as to “better survey their realm,” and want the freedom to do what they want. But stewards, he says, “prioritize historic materials, traditional craftsmanship, and appreciate old things and old ways.” Knowing which temperament you have, is invaluable before beginning any project.

What is the difference between an old home and a historic home?

According to Bill Wine, a local preservationist, and historian in Shenandoah County, Virginia, nothing.

“If a building has survived the ravages of time and neglect, it’s a sentinel to the past,” he says. “Whether it’s an outhouse, a corn crib, a wagon shed, or a home, if it’s still there, it’s a physical link to our past. It doesn’t need a plaque or to be on a register to be called historic.”

Other experts like to delineate a bit. Robert Kulp, owner of Blue Ridge Residential, Inc. and co-owner of Black Dog Salvage in Roanoke, Virginia, likes to ask if something historic has happened in the house or if it was built using techniques or materials no longer in practice. For example, he’s currently working on a 1949 panelized house. He says this no-longer-used method makes it a historic home.

What to know if your home is designated historic

In areas like Williamsburg, Virginia; Charleston, South Carolina; or Ocean Grove, New Jersey, the local Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) governs what can and cannot be done to homes in their cities. The reasons for this are multi-faceted – from preserving history and communities to promoting tourism.

“Every home in Ocean Grove is designated historic,” says Rudell. “I wish I could consult with homebuyers before they buy,” he says. But real estate agents are not legally required to disclose when a home is under HPC regulations, so he frequently misses that opportunity. Consequently, he suggests that homebuyers always ask their realtor if a preservation commission has jurisdiction over the home. 

If there is, the restoration process gets more complicated – but not impossible. Rudell can attest to that. He and his partner completed a whole-house gut remodel in 2016. He says that in Ocean Grove, the HPC process includes three steps that pass through the local zoning board, the HPC review, and the code and construction committee.

“Most people want to treat their property as their own,” says Rudell, “and not have an HPC tell them what to do. Or an HOA, for that matter.” But he further explains that “our job is to look for historically appropriate ways for them to do what they want.” Contrary to what some may think, the commission doesn’t want to be the bad guy. 

It’s important to note that historic preservation commissions are not unlike homeowners’ associations (HOA) and their covenants – except for motive. HPCs want to preserve and promote appreciation for history. HOAs wish to keep up appearances. So if you value the historical relevance and long to be the steward of a historic property, you may find the oversight of the HPC no more demanding than that of an HOA.

What is the difference between renovation, preservation, and restoration?

When discussing “fixing” an older or historic home, people use terms interchangeably without realizing what they’re saying. Actually, there is a difference between renovating, restoring, and preserving. Wine explains the meanings of each term.

What does renovation mean?

According to Wine, renovating an old home means making it livable without regard to the historical significance of materials. An example would be to replace plaster walls with drywall or cover the old clapboard siding with vinyl.

What does preservation mean?

To preserve a home, “keep as much as you can of the original fabric and structure intact,” says Wine. So, for example, you don’t rip out the whole piece if the wood trim has a bad corner. Instead, you use wood filler to preserve what is there.

What does restoration mean?

“Restoration is a little more aggressive,” says Wine. The material is too deteriorated to preserve, so you replace it with something in keeping with the period. He says you often see this done with the plaster interior and exterior siding. 

What about a combination?

Frequently, a homeowner wants to keep the original vibe of the home, with its architectural elements intact, but also include modern amenities. You especially see this in kitchens and bathrooms. Rudell included a walk-in, multiple-head shower in one of his bathrooms. But, the entire home flows. Wine calls this a “historic rehabilitation.” Kulp uses the term “sympathetic.”

“You don’t want to try and fool people by exactly replicating everything,” Kulp says. “Particularly with an addition.” But you do want it to be sympathetic to the era in which the original house was built.

What you need to know about restoring a historic house

Once you’ve determined the presence of a historic preservation commission and potentially jumped through its hoops, there are a few more things to know about restoring a house. For some home buyers, there will be a few surprises.

The cost of everything

The price tag for just about everything on a historic restoration will be higher than your typical remodeling job. The biggest sticker shock for Rudell was the cost of permits. Because a building permit is generally charged according to the scope and cost of the job, theirs were a whopping $9,000.

Another jolt was the cost of their front door hardware. The knobs, faceplates, hinges, Cremone bolts, and doorstops are historic cast brass from Bullet Lock & Safe Company. They paid $3,600.

Do you know those adorable push-button light switches found in early homes? According to Kazmac, they cost around $70 each instead of $2 to $20 for a modern light switch. That's a considerable expense when you have 20-plus rooms, some with multiple switches.”

Then, there’s labor and services. “There are a lot of problems with electrical and plumbing in old homes,” says Kulp – and he’s not kidding. Kazmac paid around $86,000 to replace all the plumbing lines in her house. That included the service of sewer and fresh water from the street, replumbing the entire house, and replacing all the boiler lines that provide water to the steam radiators. This was not something she could see on a walk-through. They discovered the need for code compliance during their “exploratory surgery.”

Usberti, her husband, was slayed by the cost of dumpsters. Currently on their 11th dumpster for hauling away waste, they pay about $1,200 each time.

Finding qualified craftspeople

The labor shortage in the construction industry is no joke. Contractor lead times are stretched to 18 months in some areas of the country, and if you want a specialist, like a historic preservation expert, that could be even longer. “It was next to impossible to find skilled craftsmen,” said Abigail Darby, author of “Merryhearth Manor and Me,” a novel about her experience restoring an 1840 Greek Revival home in Winchester, Virginia. Although fortunately for her, most of the original architectural elements were still intact when she bought her home.

Rudell wasn’t so fortunate. After some serious shopping around, he finally hired a boat builder, someone used to creating everything from wood, to make the newel post and spindles for his 1890s staircase balustrade.

But replicating materials isn’t the only challenge. Finding someone who knows historical techniques is another. For example, Rudell imported traditional Victorian tiles from England for the mosaic floor of his Ocean Grove home’s foyer. However, he found that local tile setters couldn’t handle the project because the material came in 3,000 individual pieces, not already assembled on a mesh backing, as you find at big box stores in the U.S. “It took three tilers to find someone who could do the job,” he says. Apparently, they’d take one look at the stack of materials, throw up their hands, and say, “I can’t do that.”

This widespread assumption that old methods are too difficult concerns Wine. He says the first approach many contractors take for damaged plaster is to tear everything out and drywall. “But,” he says, “if you can spread peanut butter on bread, you can plaster.” Since he’s of an age where he only works on his own properties anymore, he’s offered to train people in historical applications. “But, I can’t find anyone willing to learn,” he says.

How to find a contractor to work on a historic home

Finding a contractor who specializes in historical restorations is important, says Kulp. “You want someone who respects what you respect and feels the same way you do about the property.” He also warns that if you hire someone who isn’t experienced in the field, you’ll get unrealistic pricing that’ll cost you more money in the long run.

“The value of the contractor and their knowledge and experience is vital to the project's success,” says Rudell. He and his partner worked with an award-winning historic preservation architect and a preservation builder to complete their project.

To find someone, he suggests homeowners look for a contractor who’s worked in the area, especially if an HPC is involved. “They know the ropes,” he says because they’ve worked with the commission previously. He also says to ask for the contact information of their last three clients. Then, call those homeowners and ask them if they would work with the contractor again.

“If they say he did great work but I’d never work with him again, that’s a red flag,” says Rudell. And it’s probably a personality problem. Having a contractor oversee your restoration is like a marriage. “It’s a relationship,” he says. “And if he doesn’t want to solve problems with you, he’s the wrong person for the job.”

Darby agrees. “It’s really a close working relationship,” she says. She suggests that when interviewing a contractor, ask how they would approach the project. “If it doesn’t align with your vision, they’re the wrong person.”

Darby couldn’t afford a preservation contractor, so she found a general contractor who was “amenable to learn from my research.” First, she studied everything she could find regarding preservation techniques, relying heavily on the historical preservation briefs found on the National Parks Service website. Then, she would share what she learned with the contractor, who was happy to comply. “It was very much like the blind leading the blind,” she says.

What should you renovate first?

Across the board, experts agree on the things that matter when judging the viability of any home. And the same parameters apply to historic homes. The basics include structural integrity, the condition of the foundation, and whether there’s any water damage. So those three things should be the first on your to-do list.

Darby’s basement was full of water when she bought her home in 2009. That water wicked up through the brick walls (two and three courses thick) to the fourth floor, condensing and raining down. It took her a solid year to make the home livable.

Next, you want to bring the house up to code and ensure it’s safe. The plumbing and electrical problems Kulp described? Those are code issues. Kazmac’s plumbing had waste pipes over top of fresh water, a code violation. Her home also had knob and tube wiring and the presence of radon, a radioactive gas known to cause cancer that you cannot see or smell. All of these issues needed to be resolved before they could proceed with the fun part.

Where to find historically accurate design elements

You’ve heard from those in the trenches that finding artisans with the knowledge and skill to work on a historic property is challenging. But, says Kulp, “if you’re working with an experienced general contractor, he should have a team of subcontractors he’s used to working with.” And, if your GC doesn’t have a Rolodex of historic craftspersons, he said word of mouth is the best way to find someone. “Watch and see what’s happening in the neighborhood,” he says. Ask the neighbors who they used to replace their slate roof, lay the foyer tile, and so on.

To find design elements like hardware, windows, or millwork, Kulp suggests looking at your local salvage yard. These niche stores specialize in the unique, the custom, and the historic. Examples include Kulp’s Black Dog Salvage, the Architectural Antiques Exchange in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Eco Relics in Jacksonville, Florida, and Architectural Antiques in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He also suggests a local Habitat for Humanity Restore.

Otherwise, reproduction pieces can be found online. Kazmac says her husband is “fantastic at finding vintage gems on eBay.” Or, like Rudell and the boat builder, you can turn to local tradespersons to create them.

The benefits of restoring a historic home

No one likes a Debbie Downer. Particularly when realizing their dream of renovating an old house. So, let’s look at the plus side for a minute.

  • You get amazing architecture – Let’s face it, they don’t build homes like they used to. So whether you’re looking at a folk Victorian farmhouse or a mid-century modern home, the beauty is in the details. “We love historically appropriate ornamentation, researching historic building materials and techniques, and searching for period-appropriate hardware and fixtures; it was fun for us,” says Rudell.
  • Mature landscaping – Someone else has put in the sweat equity of growing shrubbery, flowers, and planting trees. There’s no waiting for the maple to mature enough for your kids’ treehouse when you buy an old home.
  • Established neighborhood – When a neighborhood has a history, its reputation is based on its homeowners – and your restoration positively impacts that. “Our project contributed to the overall desirableness of the district and helped increase property values in the neighborhood,” says Rudell.
  • The satisfaction that comes from preserving history – When you buy a historic home, you become the steward of something larger than yourself. And when you rescue it from neglect or abuse, you save it for future generations to enjoy. 
  • Have quality real estate to leave children – Kazmac and Usberti want to leave a legacy to their future children and see their home as a part of that. The materials and construction techniques found in old construction are better than new. So hopefully, when you leave a historic home to the next generation, you’ll hear the footsteps of your great-grandchildren run those stairs you lovingly refinished. 

Ways to save money

To save money, Darby suggests doing the work in stages. First, she made her home livable. Then, funds permitting, she completed two subsequent stages. “The pretty stage and the finished stage,” she says. This process helped her to pay as she went.

You can also apply for grants. That’s what Kazmac did. While most grants are offered only to nonprofits and governmental organizations, a few exist for private property owners. Fortunately, Kazmac’s neighbor sits on the community’s Historical Society board and shared grant information with her. The National Park Service offers grants funded by the Historic Preservation Fund. Many states have grants funded for their residents, too.

Tax incentives for restoring a historic home

State and federal historic rehabilitation tax credits do exist for private property owners. However, they each come with their own set of guidelines and requirements. So be sure to know those requirements before beginning your restoration projects so you can claim the full extent of the credits. Also, some local governments offer lower property taxes for historical properties. See the following websites for more information:

Other considerations

Undo the bad – When restoring houses, you sometimes run into things that make you wonder what the previous owner was thinking – and you have to fix it. Kazmac discovered that her kitchen sink didn’t drain into the main sewer line. The drain pipe simply went through the floor to the basement, almost to a sink there. “There was a 3-foot freefall of wastewater into a sink in the basement,” says Usberti. “From that sink, it drained to the sewer.” 

Financing – Make sure the lender knows what you want to do when mortgage shopping. Financial institutions have different loan products for restoration projects.

Insurance – When securing homeowner’s insurance for your historic home, inform the selling agent of the extent of work you’re putting into the renovation. For instance, if you’re tearing out laminate flooring that the “flipper” installed before you bought it and replacing it with historically accurate yellow pine flooring, you want enough coverage to pay for the historically accurate flooring you install. 

Blood, sweat, tears – is it worth it?

Even the most conscientious stewards become weary of the seemingly unending construction and constant flow of money and wonder if it’s worth it. Those who’ve gone before say that it is. Rudell and his partner invested almost as much into the restoration as they paid for the house. But once it was done, the home practically tripled in value. “Restoring our home was definitely worth it,” says Rudell.

Though she and her husband are in the thick of it, Kazmac agrees. “Nothing worth having comes easy,” she says. “If you can focus on the finish line, you’ll find a lot of love” for your home and the process.

Find find a local general contractor skilled in restoring a historic home

Written by

Carol J Alexander Content Specialist and Subject Matter Expert

Carol J Alexander is a home remodeling industry expert for Fixr.com. For more than 15 years as a journalist and content marketer, her in-depth research, interviewing skills, and technical insight have ensured she provides the most accurate and current information on a given topic. Before joining the Fixr team, her personal clients included leaders in the building materials market like Behr Paint Company, CertainTeed, and Chicago Faucet, and national publications like This Old House and Real Homes.