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