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Restore, Preserve, & Protect Your Older Home: First Steps

Mon, 04/29/2013 - 11:13

My niece calls it 'Aunt Deb's barn house',  but this gambrel shaped gabled roof 100-year-old 2-story limestone and brick house had me the moment I stepped over the threshold and saw hundreds of rainbows dancing across the walls, a result of the afternoon sun streaming through the beveled piano window. This was my first house and I had waited years for her.

Vintage and historic houses have many charms, 10-foot ceilings, carved wooden stairwells, floral wallpaper everywhere, pink bathroom fixtures, single pane windows, and odd shaped rooms with very little storage. These charms wear thin as the need to protect, preserve, and restore your old house begins to emerge. Then you notice the sagging wallpaper. When you pull it off, you find as many as 10-12 layers of paper and paint; plaster that cracks when you try to hang a picture; windows that let in hot and cold air; and electrical and plumbing systems that have not been updated.

Owning an old house can be intimidating particularly if you are not a DIY-er and if you need to plan on a budget. Vintage homes can be returned to their former glory on a budget. There is no rule that you must complete the entire restoration or preservation activity in one job. Nor do you have to settle for replacing cherished wooden details with plastic or Styrofoam or wooden lookalike parts.

Planning is the key to managing the needs of your home. Make and prioritize a list of the ways in which you live in your house and yard. Most vintage homeowners develop their plans in stages as restoration and preservation is an ongoing long-term commitment.

The first step is to find a contractor who specializes in restoration and preservation of old houses. Restoration contractors can help owners to identify priorities and can suggest design elements that are consistent with your home's history. Sometimes all it takes is a picture of your house from its early days showing a porch that no longer exists and your contractor can work with you to incorporate one or more of the original porch elements into your entryway. Skilled restoration contractors can duplicate ornamental woodwork and ironwork that was once a part of your home.

For example, I know my front room was an open brick porch at one time, but I will not be restoring it to its former state. Instead, I am planning a restoration that incorporates the addition of a bay window consistent with the era in which this house was built. In addition, working with my contractor, Anderson xxx, naturally, we will preserve as many of the original components of the old open porch as possible, while making the room livable, even in our cold Minnesota winters.

Finding an experienced restoration contractor begins with asking other vintage homeowners, checking your local newspaper ads, and contacting your local historic preservation society. A good contractor will explore several options with you and will be respectful of your desire to work in stages. All projects can be divided into smaller projects. Do not let a contractor tell you it cannot be. Some contractors will for a consulting fee, help you gat started even if you want to do it yourself. When you find the right contractor, be prepared to form a long term and lifelong relationship.

Finally, one of the most effective ways to invest in your house is sweat equity. I was excited to find a contractor who will let you help with the work. For example, most contractors don't like to tear out and clean up. Ask for tasks you can complete during your evenings and weekends. During my kitchen remodel, I tore out tile, tock out all kinds of kitchen stuff, ran errands, removed years of paint and painted. But I was also there for the surprises. Who knew under 3 layers of linoleum was 100 year old maple flooring?

Ok, you have your lists and a contractor. Where do you start? Make a list of exterior and interior projects. Start with the exterior needs first including windows, doors, and wood and brick exteriors.

Windows are one of the places in old houses that you lose the most energy. Many options will allow you to upgrade your windows without losing the character of your original single pane windows. Consider replacing your outside storm windows or screens by installing thermal pane low E combination windows, an energy efficient version of storm windows.

Replacing basement windows is a must do project that can be accomplished on a low budget, also. Ask your contractor about the many options for basement windows including glass block, vinyl encasement, stationery glass, and thermal glass.

Old houses have many unique wooden details in the outside trim. Ask your contractor about options for painting your trim a color other than the typical white with which we are all familiar. Historically, trim was painted in combinations of several primary colors such as red oak, barn reds, yellows, and greens. And be brave, go bold; consider purples, lavenders and turquoise.

Brick houses need a lot of TLC. Brick is prone to erosion as the mortar breaks down. Did you know your house's brick exterior should be sealed? It leaves your brick with sheen and protects it from the harsh midwest winters and summer heat. Good news! Products to fix and seal coat your brick exterior will not break your budget When prepping your brick for seal coating, do not forget to tuck point, a task that involves taking out broken pieces of mortar and replacing with new mortar. Tuck-pointing is a tedious task and one that you can easily help with. For seal coating, your brick will need to be pressure washed with acid and bleach, typically a task for a professional.

As a vintage homeowner the more you know about your house, the more successful your restoration and preservation activities will be.

by Debra Gohagan with Bruce Anderson (Reprinted from Fall 2011 Home Magazine/Free Press Mankato, Mn.)

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