Staying motivated

The Old House Web

Editor's note: The Michael D. Coffeen Mansion is one of the historic homesof Homer, Illinois, a small town west of Urbana. Also known locally as "TheHomer Castle," the house sat vacant for two years before it was purchasedby Ray and Christine Cunningham on December 31, 1998. Below is someexcellent advice from the voice of experience.

stained glass
Original features, like this magnificent stained glass panel, helped Ray and Christine Cunningham keep focused on the potential of their old house. 

We have succeeded on a house that others have failed on because of onecentral fact: We are motivated and totally committed. We will spend hours andhours on a project and we do not give up. You have to be motivated and totallycommitted to any restoration.

There is a specific type of person that will succeed in house restoration. Ifyou enjoy long golfing weekends, this sort of thing is not for you. If you wakeup and are thinking about what you desire to tackle first at 6 AM, well you havefound your calling.

old house
This photo was taken shortly before the house's elaborate siding and shingles were covered in stucco. The photo below shows the house in 1990. Fortunately, original moulding and woodwork were left intact inside.

1990 house

Savor the small victories

I have seen so many house restorations fail because the motivation is lost byone person or the other. I know a woman who renovates night and day while herhusband fishes. I have seen couples with high hopes turn into nightmares andbitter divorces. The work is hard and the rewards are sometimes few. I amimpressed after rewiring a fixture or putting in a ceiling light that we nowhave light in that area.

Christine Cunningham

Ray Cunningham

Don't be afraid to roll up your sleeves and learn new skills. Above, Christine strips and refinishes a clawfoot tub. Ray tackles the floor. Below,  one of the feet from the tub, newly restored.

claw foot

Don't be afraid to learn new skills

I often think of it all as a very large art project with a large variety ofskills put to the test. If I have to learn a new skill then I calculate how longthat will take and get to work on it by reading all I can find on it first, thenfind a practitioner of the trade and learn. Do not be afraid to learn new skills- I love to watch trades people do their work. Concrete, drywall,electricians, carpenters, no matter what the skill, I watch and learn from them.Also, don't be afraid of spending money. I have wasted money in these projectsbut what I have learned from the experience is more valuable. I have a largeleft over stock of plumbing supplies from mistakes but I can use the parts forother projects. Just be sure you don't waste money on contractors! One badcontractor will bleed you faster than anything.

Know your limits

Know what you can do and what you cannot do. We have a contractor do thethings we cannot or do not choose to do. Our structural carpentry is done by acontractor. While we can do drywall, we tend to shy away from it because thecontractor can do it faster, better and we can do the rest. You can learn theskills. I know some who just pay someone to do it all. That is alright but ifyou are stuck once or twice with a bad contractor the experience or renovatingand restoring will lose its appeal real fast.


Carefully plan your projects - If you have a difficult problem, seekadvice.

I always spend time thinking about a project and discussing it with friends.My mother made an offhanded remark about a pantry "Make it a bathroom," shesaid. I laughed but the more I thought about it, she was right. I investigatedthe feasibility of plumbing a toilet in the room and found it would be easy. Wenow have a small water closet in the old pantry and it is quite handy.


Listen toadvice. I scan the discussion boards and read what others are saying about theirprojects.

Other parts of this story:  ~~ Buying a mansion ~~ Restoring the turret ~~

All photos are courtesy of Ray and Christine Cunningham. For more detailson this project, visit the Cunningham'sWeb site.  Visit the OldHouse Web's bulletin boards.

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