When I first bought my old 1855 home, I wanted to retain as much of the original character and materials as possible. I read up on remodeling articles by the National Register of Historical Places. I looked for grants or other ways to fund the job. But it was all to no avail. For one, my home, while old, is not terribly historic. It’s a middle-income home in a middle-income town amongst low- to middle-income families. Two, it would have been prohibitively expensive to remodel my home according to the NRHP. They follow stringent regulations, too stringent for this place (not unless the 1920s knob and tube electric and 1960s linoleum flooring would be worth salvaging. NOT). Anyway, I gave up on my dream of owning a pure, historically accurate home and focused my attentions on making the blasted place livable.
Through the years, I’d done extensive reading on good remodeling projects, and poor ones. If you have a clunky old house like mine, you may appreciate a few tips I’ve gathered over the years. Here are the nest remodeling projects you can do to improve the value of your home (in my humble opinion).
Replace the Electrical System
This is the most important advice I can give. I know! I know! It’s a hard job especially if you have plaster walls. But I am haunted by one story I read in my local newspaper, years ago. A young man had purchased a beautiful, grand old painted lady in a nearby city. He gutted the rooms, insulated, restored, lovingly painted the gingerbread molding, etc. A month later, the house burned to the ground, a total loss. The reason? The guy hadn’t replaced the electrical. It was the old 1920′s electrical, and the homeowner did not realize what a fire hazard it was. Oh, my heart cried for the guy, it did.
This disaster was behind the dining room switch plate. Yikes.
Electrical is not easy to replace… well, the actual wiring is not hard at all. I did all mine (although a wonderful young man from my church helped me with the kitchen and baseboard heaters). The hardest part of electrical — I think– is getting the wiring throughout the house. You have to hack, drill, gut, slam, tack…. it’s tedious, it’s arduous… I hated that part. But I sleep better now, knowing that all my electric is updated to 2011 standards.
Replace the Old Heating System
When we bought our house, that was the first thing we had to do (and replace the old 1940′s fuse box electrical with a circuit breaker system!). The old 1970′s furnace was horribly inefficient (only 80%) and was killing the old chimney. For an old home, I STRONGLY recommend that you vent your gas furnace directly outside (direct vent) and not through an old chimney. Old chimneys were not built to accommodate the intense by-products of combustible gas furnaces (water vapor and carbon monoxide). The heated, moist air going up the chimney combined with the cold, dry air outside will cause your chimney to deteriorate very rapidly. Get a direct vent system and pipe the exhaust and moisture outside.
Replace the Windows, BUT….
…retain the style of the home.
Maybe you’ve seen them– the old homes that have been SO OBVIOUSLY remodeled. The beautiful 62-inch Victorian panes have been replaced with clunky aluminum panes half the size. It looks like the house has a patched eye or something. Terrible.
Old houses have an elegance to them. Builders constructed them on basic mathematical, architectural principles. My old Greek Revival is done in sets of 3′s, 4′s and 7′s.
The house obviously needs new windows....
Can you see the symmetry of the windows with the spaces between the windows? To meddle with the symmetry will ruin the aesthetic appeal of the home. Someone once suggested I remove the two bottom windows and insert a big picture window in their place. Oh my gosh, that would be awful! If I had a Brady Bunch 1970′s home, that might do, but in 1855 they did not have super-large picture windows. It would ruin the appearance. Even the existing windows look out of place. Those windows were installed in 1910, about 65 years AFTER the house was built. The original windows, which had smaller panes, were a much better fit for the Greek Revival style. Two of the 1855 windows are actually still installed in the back of the house! If I can afford it, I’m going to get those 9/6 windows (9 panes on the top sash, 6 panes on the bottom sash) when I replace my windows.
An original 1855 window behind a 1990 storm window addition.
One note: don’t worry about altering the window style for room additions or the kitchen. I added a huge 5-foot window to my kitchen (in the back) but decorated the room to match the rest of the house. You can fudge a little, but keep the front of the house compatible with the overall architectural style.
Insulate the Walls
Like the electrical system, this job is not easy. But old homes are rarely insulated. Kiss your energy bills goodbye, folks. Old homes BREATHE outdoor air. It’s how they were built– to ventilate. Centuries before power companies, this was not a problem. But it’s a costly problem now. Besides saving some money, insulation helps you maintain a much more comfortable environment. Only half of my house is insulated (the downstairs). Even doing only half the house has made a world of difference. I don’t need heaters in the 350-square foot kitchen, because it’s so well insulated.
I gutted the walls to add fiberglass insulation. You may or may not be able to do that. But at least have the insulation blown in. ANYTHING is better than just having cold space in the wall cavities.
OK, well, I can’t PROVE that adding gardens to the lot will improve your home’s value, in dollar signs. But it will sure improve everything else.
When I was househunting, I was totally smitten with properties that had nice gardens. I was even willing to compromise on small closets or no garage if there were perennial gardens. Gardens add a lot of value to the property– maybe not in dollars, but it tells everyone that you cherish your land and take care of it.
Anyway, I hope my travails and experiences have helped you in some small way. There’s an awful lot to do when you have an old home. These projects will give you great comfort and make your home instantly safer and more valuable.