Old House Newbies: Renovation Assessment & Preparedness

By: JoVon Sotak , Contributing Writer
In: Old Houses, Old House Musings

This is the second article in what’s turning out to be a series for Old House Newbies. Once I started poking around for information on how to best plan old house renovations, I needed to keep poking. Many articles and people on the OHW forums (and the Arthur Raycraft house’s owner I interviewed) recommended a state’s historic preservation office as a resource. So I Googled them. On first poke, I came across a six-page list of consultants published by the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office.  These consultants include:

  • Architectural historians
  • Historic architects
  • Landscape architects
  • Rehabilitation specialists
  • Structural engineers
  • Photography/documentation specialists
  • Museum consultants
  • Masonry consultants
  • Master Plans/Planning/Preservationists

These old house professionals aren’t just in Nevada, so there may be a specialist near you who can help you with determining how to proceed with your own old house (or point you toward someone near you who can, since they tend to run in the same circles).

I figured I may as well make a call to the one person listed under Master Plans (because that’s what I feel like I need), and chatted for a long time with Michelle Schmitter, a resource strategist and architectural historian who has spent the last 20 years working on old houses. Though she never has had a homeowner contact her for her services (she typically works with museums and nonprofits and such), she was happy to share her thoughts and her personal approach to the old houses she’s restored in several different states over the years.

“My favorite thing to do in the world is to look at houses,” Michelle told me. The very first thing she does when considering restoring an old home is to take what she calls a visual assessment to determine if she truly wants to take on the project:

  • How much original material is left? Molding?  Doors? Hardware?
  • Has the space skewed?
  • Are there additions to the home?
  • Are the original light fixtures intact?
  • Does the home have plaster walls?

Her bottom line? “Basically, the building has to talk to me.  Is it charming?  Is there something about it that every morning I’d think, ‘This is so awesome.’”  Michelle’s rule of thumb is that if a house has around 70 percent “original fabric” and the requisite charm, she’ll consider it, even if it’s a total mess. What won’t she consider?  Wall-to-wall carpet without original flooring underneath or old houses that have had insulation blown into the walls for energy efficiency. Old houses with plaster walls need to breathe, explained Michelle. When you seal up an old house, you can introduce new problems down the road, like mold. With mold, the plaster can crack and the seals start to fail.

Michelle also gave me a few things to consider when assessing yourself (not the house!) for an old house renovation (which is different from preservation, she pointed out, which just prevents things in an old home from going to pot):

  • Do you have the support of friends and family?
  • What work are you willing to do yourself?
  • What money are you willing to spend for work that you can’t do yourself?
  • What are you capable of handling? Mentally, emotionally, and financially.

Stay tuned for more posts for  Old House Newbies, including Michelle’s advice on scoping projects and finding resources. Read the next article in the series: Old House Newbies: Renovation Scope Creep


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  1. 6 Responses  to “Old House Newbies: Renovation Assessment & Preparedness”

  2. Aug 29, 2011
    Janet--I totally agree. And I think the idea of ongoing assessment as a project develops is just as important as the initial assessment.
  3. Janice
    Aug 29, 2011
    I believe a self-assessment is vital. Being honest with you is an important key to a successful renovation. So much focus can sometimes be put on the financial aspect that unexpected issues can be overwhelming.
  4. Aug 29, 2011
    @Johnny--I know! I thought that, too, especially because there are OHW articles on this very issue. I will probably contact a historic architect or two and ask about this. When I talked to Michelle, she indicated that the bit of heat that homes lost through walls was minimal and not worth the downside. I'm guessing that other measures such as glazing windows and sealing up windows and doors would help with energy efficiency, as would insulating the attic--and those improvements wouldn't cause the same issues. Not sure. We'll definitely need an OH expert to jump in until I can drum up someone to talk to about this.
  5. Jonny
    Aug 29, 2011
    Any ideas on how to improve the energy efficiency of an old house with plaster walls, if adding insulation(the obvious home improvement) is going to cause mold? This is unsettling, because lots of old home enthusiasts insulate their homes and install new windows, making the interior air-tight
  6. kam
    Aug 29, 2011
    sweet article brah
  7. Jeremy
    Aug 29, 2011
    Old houses are an art! You just have to walk through the house and really assess it to see if you get the right feeling for it. These are great questions to ask yourself during walk-throughs.