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Thursday, January 22, 2015

This old house is not a Little Rascals episode…

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 web site and an article that I did several years ago that is posted there about historic homes – see - 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
money to avoid being thrown out of her house. The Gang would jump to the rescue by raising money. One of the characters, usually Spankey,  would say something like – “You get a stage and I’ll get a band together and we’ll put on a show.” Off they would scurry, rounding up the gang and putting together a show, for which they charged an admission from other children in the neighborhood. Sure enough there would be a stage of sorts, usually in a big barn, and a ragtag band. There would be several acts and Alfalfa would end up closing the show by singing a song to a great round of applause. They would take the money raised to the desperate aunt and she would get to stay I the house, usually much to the chagrin of the mean old banker who was try to repossess her house.

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
renovation. Nicole uses a lot of professionals in her projects, although you see mainly her tearing things out, nailing up new molding or putting up bathroom tile and painting. What the casual viewer may not appreciate is the level of skills that she has developed over time to be able to do those things and the number of tools that she needs to have at hand in order to do them. Many DIYers don’t really have either of those things going for them – skill or tools.

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
new cabinets and tops, plus appliances for the kitchen remodel can turn quickly into all new wiring and plumbing, when you demo out the old kitchen and discover what is behind what was there. It’s not unusual that the entire house may have to be rewired and re-plumbed to bring it up to current building codes; and you will have to bring it up to current codes, assuming that you pull permits for the remodeling work. Do even consider doing a major remodel without pulling permits.

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
turn up some lead pipes in the system. If you’re lucky they are only on the waste side of things and could be left in place. Any lead pipes on the supply side will need to be replaced. As long as you are dealing with the plumbing you might also want to have the waste line to the sewer scoped out with a TV camera (lots of local plumbing companies can do that). You may be appalled at what you find there. In many old houses there really isn’t even a real pipe that goes out to the sewer Many historic homers were connected to eh sewers using clay pipes and some just used a form of rolled up tar paper shaped to look and act like a pipe. When those “pipes” fails (and it will eventually fail) you will be responsible for the replacement all the way to the sewer from your house (think backhoes and lots of cost).

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 $$$.
slow down the cold air). If you are going to just waste the heat that your new heating system produces you’ve got to insulate to hold it in and put in new, thermal windows as well. We’re talking big bucks to put in all new windows (even

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. 

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