Whether you’re rehabbing an old Victorian or making do with a mid-century bargain, there are a few rules for updating your older home to follow. Whether your goal is to flip or simply enjoy the benefits of modern life in that old house, you’ll want to approach it carefully.
There are a number of considerations when updating an older home. You may have to meet guidelines from the local historical society. You’ll probably have to meet current codes for plumbing and electrical. It’s a careful juggling act between what you want, what you’re required to do, and what you can afford.
It doesn’t matter if your older home is your dream period piece of real estate, or just a great bargain. Regulatory requirements and your budget will probably drive most of your renovation. So, after ruling out any local codes and planning your budget, make sure you consider the following rules.
1. The Key Word is “Update”
The secret to updating an older home is to update rather than replace. Don’t replace anything intrinsically built into the home, if possible. You may need to replace appliances or bath fixtures, but don’t replace architectural features. They can be repaired, In most cases.
Don’t replace vintage windows.
It may take a little longer, but it’s the first rule of renovating an old home. Not only is it cheaper, but it’s also the best way to preserve the home’s charm and value. Drafty doors and windows should be repaired and refinished. You can weather-strip them for better energy efficiency. Add storm windows to the exterior rather than replacing the original wooden sash windows.
Remember to adjust to scale.
Remember that proportion is important when updating your older home. When you need to replace kitchen appliances, remember that you may not have the clearance for bigger, modern models. Period homes were not just built for larger family sizes, plus servants. In many cases, architectural features were built to scale. Kitchen cabinetry may be scaled to fit a smaller refrigerator. Bathtubs may have been sized for shorter (or less demanding) humans.
2. Update Utilities First
Although the charm of an older home is many people’s dream house, they want the feel, not the lifestyle. That means that basic utility services need to be modernized when updating your older home.
Update electrical services.
Electrical panels and distribution will likely be your first priority. While not making a dent in the cosmetics, outdated electrical work is a deal killer.
Update HVAC systems for comfort.
Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are next on the list. While most modern Americans can manage with outdated stoves and ancient toilets, nobody wants to freeze in the winter. Or boil in the summer. The National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP)’s website highly recommends small-duct central air systems for historic homes.They’ve partnered with Unico for over 15 years to design central air and heating systems that fit in small spaces. Even better, the site boasts these HVAC systems take only a couple hours to install.
Check for dangerous old plumbing pipes.
Plumbing is next on the list when updating your older home. Vintage fixtures are fine. They’re even part of the décor, for most. But supply and waste lines will need to be checked. This particularly applies to homes built with lead water pipes in the early 20th century. There is no “safe” level of lead, so you need to replace these immediately.
Here’s a video that explains how to test for lead in your drinking water.
You also need to check for water waste leaks in the plumbing. because they can cause structural damage. In the wrong place, it can wash away foundations and rot wooden supports. Here’s an easy way to see if you have water leaks: Check your water meter, then (without using any water) check back in two hours. If the water meter reading’s changed, you have a leak.
Allow for digital age amenities.
Before moving in, you’ll also need cable and Internet services, so don’t forget to allow for these. But, of course, you’ll want to minimize the visual impact of your wiring and hookups as much as possible. You also want to make it easy to do updates and repairs without having to tear apart your walls.
The Cabling Installation and Maintenance website says one way to do this is by sharing pathways. This way, your telecom can piggyback off the existing routing and access for the HVAC, plumbing, and electrical systems. Other tricks include: Using existing chimneys and flues and adding false ceilings for cables and wiring. You can also hide unsightly wire under door thresholds and behind baseboards and moldings.
3. Preserve What You Can
Old wood features are priceless.
Did you pull up some old linoleum and find real hardwood floors? Resist. Resist the temptation to pull them up and replace them. Unless they’re worn down so far that nails are sticking up and causing a hazard, leave them in place. It’s not only cheaper, but a better investment to renovate your hardwood floors when updating an older home. These floors often cannot be replaced with modern flooring. Have them sanded and refinished, instead. Or do it yourself.
Preserve the wood trim if possible. Although modern homes feature sleek white trim on baseboards and door frames, don’t cover them in glossy white paint when updating your older home. Yes, it is a quick way to brighten up an old home. A couple of coats and you’re done. However, if you are lucky enough that a previous owner hasn’t tried this already, count your blessings.
Sometimes older is better.
Professionals can repair and restore old horsehair plaster walls. These old walls are thicker than modern sheetrock, reducing energy use and noise pollution from the outdoors. Even if you decide to go ahead with drywall, try to leave the plaster in place to increase R-factor (insulating efficiency).
The beauty of tile is timeless.
If we can still enjoy the tile mosaics of Pompeii 2,000 years later, despite time and volcanoes, the ceramic tile in your old home is likely a good candidate for preservation. Particularly in historic homes, decorative and flooring tile is priceless when it comes to resale value. Unfortunately, ceramic tiles are also porous and absorb dirt. But give them a good scrubbing before you decide whether to replace them.
Use a gentle soap, testing in an unseen corner. Avoid abrasive cleansers. Elbow grease works best, along with plenty of patience. Regular household bleach can remove grout stains. If the home is in such disrepair that the underlayment needs to be replaced, you can even remove and preserve the tile for re-installation.
4. Use Authentic Materials
Don’t use modern materials on finishes when updating your older home. Laminate flooring and Corian counters might look great, but they’ll knock back the value of your old house. Use materials available during the years of construction.
For countertops, use butcher block or marble. If you must replace sinks, bathtubs, and lavs, stick with porcelain. Stay away from fiberglass and acrylic. You can often get porcelain tubs and sinks refinished for a fraction of the cost of buying new.
Replace cabinetry with real solid wood. Don’t give into the temptation to pick up some out-of-the-box MDF board cabinet units. They’re cheap and easy to install. Refinish the existing cabinets instead. It takes time and labor, but it’s a better investment when it comes to resale value.
Even if you plan to stay in your home for many decades, modern cabinet materials just can’t take the climate fluctuations of an older home. And if cabinets are missing, or you plan to install more, go with solid wood.
5. Don’t Change The Floor Plan
If you’ve spent any time watching home makeover televisions shows, you’ve surely heard the term “open floor plan.” Like other historic home aficionados, you may even have turned it into a drinking game. Don’t open your floor plan when updating your older home.
Historic home fans don’t want “open concept.”
Fans of old homes love them for their compartmentalized spaces. They like formal dining rooms and separate parlors. The idea of a butler’s pantry—a separate room just storing china and silver service—gives them an electric thrill. Unless you’re renovating an old ranch or prairie home, tearing down walls will clash the built-in functions of the rooms. Furthermore, knocking down load-bearing walls can cause structural problems. Old ranch houses and prairie homes are meant to be open. Those old Victorians, Colonials, and even Craftsman homes are not.
Builders of bygone eras built these homes to last for generations. They constructed them with care and craftsmanship. They were intended to be repaired, not replaced. Keep that in mind during your renovations.
Updating your older home may be a joy or a nightmare. It can be the project you’ve always dreamed of taking on. It can be the 3 a.m. panic that wakes you in a cold sweat. However you respond on any given day of the process, remember one thing. It’s a project worth doing. Our modern society has reached the peak of its disposable culture. You are taking an important step toward preserving our history.