Realities of Old House Renovation

By: Steve Manes , Contributing Writer
In: Old House Construction, Home Improvement Tips

Hello, OHW fans! This is my first article for Old House Web’s blog so I thought I would give a little background about myself and my love/not-so-love affair with old homes.  I used “homes” instead of “houses” because much of my renovation experience isn’t with houses but with old NYC factory spaces that I converted for residential use.

It was only ten years ago that I purchased my first and only house.  Even though I brought years of woodworking, cabinetmaking, electrical and plumbing experience to the party and I had converted raw factory spaces as old as 150 years and as large as 6000 square feet into spacious homes, working on an actual house was something new to me.  For one thing, I never had to deal with stuff like roofs and basements and stairs and yards before.  For another, I had very little experience actually renovating anything.  You don’t renovate 80 tons of box-making machinery and his-and-hers water closets.  Loft rehabs are gut-and-build jobs.  They’re essentially new construction.

So in some sense, buying this house was like starting over at square one — with significant feelings of personal inadequacy and concerns that I’d bitten off more than I could chew.  Even though the house was a wreck, I wanted to salvage as much as I could.  It was built in 1906 (or 1901 depending on the source).  She was an old lady that needed some respect after decades of neglect.

One bonus was that the house was, as far as I was concerned, in “move in condition”.  Admittedly, I set that bar considerably lower than the accepted standard — certainly lower than most of my friends who still laugh about my telling them that on inspection day.  But it had hot water, heat and electricity which is more than I can say for my last loft during my first 14 months there.

Living on the construction site gave me time to draft, test and reject a half dozen different strategies for its renovation.  While the place was in sorry shape, there was character buried under all the cheap latex paint, crumbling plaster, creaky stairs and amateur repairs. Unfortunately, also buried with the character was scary wiring, rusted out plumbing and a termite feast.  It was going to be a surgical renovation for certain.

The first advice I give to anyone considering the purchase of an old home requiring lots of TLC is to live in it for a while to get a feel for what the house is and what minimally needs to be done to make it more livable.  Don’t even try to develop a five-year plan, if only because you’re almost certain to be way, way off.

Rather, that’s my first piece of advice after I’ve made sure they understand that renovating an old house is nothing like they make it out to be on TV.  At the end of the shooting day, Norm Abram goes back to the Hilton for a hot meal and a shower.  You could be eating take-out and bathing in the sink.