I got a call the other day from an agent with some questions about looking for and buying historic homes. We had a nice long conversation about her buyers’ desires to buy and fix up a historic home. Apparently they watch and lot of HGTV and the Rehab Addict show starring Nicole Curtis and think that they’d like to do something similar. I will admit that I like Nicole’s show and watch it often, along with the Property Brothers show and a couple of the other “reality” shows on HGTV. I referred the agent to my MilfordTeam.com web site and an article that I did several years ago that is posted there about historic homes – see http://www.themilfordteam.com/historichomes.html - which might help them get started on understand the challenges better.
When I hear questions or stories like this I always remember episodes of the old Hal Roach show – The Little Rascals (also known as Our Gang) in which someone’s aunt would desperately need
For many couples, especially young, idealistic couples, buying and fixing up an old house can seem to be similar – they say, “You get a ladder and I’ll get some paint and we’ll fix up this house.” Nothing could be further from the reality that they will discover as they tackle the project. There was a movie titled “The Money Pit” that comes closer to the truth; although that does not have to be the case either. The key is letting go of the images of yourself jumping into the project as if you are Nicole Curtis and getting real about the costs and the skills required to tackle an old house
I usually spend time with buyers who say that they want to tackle something like an old house renovation trying to get them to understand the many things that will require professional (most times licensed) help and/or specialized tools and skills. Sometimes I get push back like – “Well, my dad (substitute “best friend” here if you like) is a plumber (or electrician or carpenter) so he can help us with that. Sure they’ll help some, for some period of time, in areas that they have the skills and tools for; but projects like a complete old house remodel will touch on every aspect of the building trades and most people don’t have that many friends or family willing to work that long for nothing. So, first, take stock of your own skills and the skills of those that you might be actually able to call upon for help and look at the tools that you have already. You’d be surprised how much of the cost of a renovation goes into buying or renting the necessary tools.
Second, get real on a budget. I can’t tell you how many half-finished old home remodeling projects I’ve seen show up on the foreclosed list. It costs a lot of money to redo one of these old homes; even more if you are committed to keeping everything looking original. What you may initially see as just
Oh, and while you’re at it; did I mention that most of these old house are full of asbestos, which was commonly used as insulation on the steam or hot water pipes leading to the radiators, plus much of the old tile used on floors back then was asbestos-based. If you watch Property Brothers on HGTV, too, you’ll know that discovering asbestos is not a good thing and very expensive to deal with. In Michigan we have only one dump site left that will even accept asbestos waste and the disposal fee is high. While we’re dealing with environmental issues, a quick check of the plumbing will normally
The electrical systems in most old house is inadequate (quite often even less than 100 Amp service with old screw-in fuses instead of breakers) and it is dangerous. Most old houses don’t have ground wires to the receptacles, so plugs are un-grounded. People didn’t have all of the appliances and electronics that most people have these days, so even the wire from the power pole to your house may be inadequate for the demands currently being put upon it. Start from the pole and rewire in – think big money and a lot of work to try to run ground wires to every receptacle in the house. And don’t forget that current electrical codes require GFCI-protected circuits in the kitchen, baths, garage and all exterior plugs. Cha-Ching$$$
As for heating and cooling; most historic homes had some form of steam heat when built and many were converted to hot water later. There may be one or two pipes running to each radiator, but there usually are no ducts anywhere. Fortunately (as Nicole Curtis does in her rehabs sometimes) there are ways to put in forced air systems to heat and cool, either by carefully hiding regular ducts in closets and cabinets or by using modern micro-tube ducts and two systems – one in the basement to take care of the first floor and one in the attic to handle the second floor. If you have enough money, anything is possible.
And, if you do get a new heating system in place, what are you going to do to hold that heat in? Most old houses were not built with anywhere near adequate insulation in either the walls or the attic and most have single pane glass in the windows (many have old storm windows that do little more thanbigger bucks if you chose to put in historically correct looking insulated windows). The insulation in the attic will usually need to be doubled or tripled to get to current code standards and the walls may have no insulation at all. That means cutting openings (outside or inside) and blowing in insulation and then repairing the cuts or holes that you created. Thinks additional $$$.
If all of these details and warnings about things that you may have to deal with is scaring you – good; you should be scared. Maybe, out of that fear (or at least concern), may come more rational decisions about the whole project to fix up an old house. “You get the ladder and I’ll get the paint”, doesn’t cut it (but I suppose it could be amusing to watch as a reality TV special). Just don’t expect Nicole Curtis to stop by to help out. You are more likely to get a visit by the mean old banker wanting his money.
Having said all of this; why am I still smiling that I own a historic home? For one, I’ve got a few of the bigger projects done already; and, in the final analysis, it’s because the right historic house, given the right amount of investment, with the right tools or tradesmen involved, can turn out to be a great place to live. The character of the architecture, the great old woodwork and the sense of history can’t be found in a modern home. I often tell would-be historic home buyers that it’s a home and a hobby all in one. If you are willing to continually work at it and put up with a few things as you go along it can be very rewarding, but it’s not an Our Gang play.