"The lunatic, the lover and the poet Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet's eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name."
To take on the restoration of an old home, especially one that had been allowed to slide into decay, as our had, is, in many ways, an act of lunacy. You have no way of knowing what you’ll get into, and need to accept the uncertainty of what you’ll be confronted by and the certainty that most of the surprises will be ugly.
You have to love the work, if you’re doing it yourself, alone or (recommended) with capable friends. If you have lots of spare cash (no so common these days), you can hire the work out – but you still have to love the process to get real value for what you spend.
But at the end, you are creating poetry – taking a vision and making it real.
Things to consider before starting:
1. Do you really want to take on the challenge?
If you’re new to the restoration game, explore other homeowners’ experiences. You’re setting out on a journey whose twists and turns you can’t predict or control. You’ll need to be OK as a couple – or an individual – living in an uncertain, surprising world – and many of the surprises won’t be pleasant. That’s part of the journey.
BEST TIP: Spend time on these sites before you start.
Some restoration projects are essentially working with façade details and re-decorating/restoring the appearance of inner rooms. But the house itself is structurally sound.
In some, while the house itself is sound, previous owners have made additions that have significantly changed the essential historic character of the home. You need to decide whether it’s worthwhile doing the demolition and reconstruction needed to restore the home to an appropriate level of historic integrity.
In the toughest challenge, you have some major work to do ensuring the structural soundness of the building itself before even considering the degree of reconstruction you want to undertake. That was the challenge we took on with our latest home.
BEST TIP: Hire a very competent home inspector before you make your offer. References matter a LOT. You can work from sources like Angie’s list. A better bet is to check with friends for contractors they’ve used – or your realtor. Best bet – what we did: get to know competent builders in your area first hand.
3. What’s your goal?
What you want to accomplish determines the time, effort and cost will put in. You can settle for appropriate cosmetics – paint colors, removal of trim details that are out of context, etc., to create the feel of an older home without taking on major reconstruction. You can also go the full, authentic restoration by faithfully reconstructing/reproducing period details throughout the house. In either case, do your research before making your decision.
What we did with our current house: restored the old historic core, and modernized the eat-in kitchen (not part of the historic core), and added a four-season solarium, laundry room, and half bath. That way the historic essence is preserved, but the house has modern amenities that appeal to today’s home buyers. Go to the Slide Show in this website for examples.
BEST TIP: Realize that at some point you’ll want to sell your house. You probably won’t get much of what you spend back when you go to sell the house. Set your goals based on what you want to enjoy about the house rather than looking to make a lot of money. Restoring a house is different from flipping a house.
4. What are your resources?
I’ve been working on old houses all my life, and my wife JoAnn and I were committed to making the house a showpiece. We were able to do a lot of the work ourselves (with appropriate building permits), what we could accomplish by trading time and labor with friends who had the skills we needed, and budgeted what we needed to hire out.
BEST TIP: Practice “Triage.” It’s the medical term created in World War I by doctors and nurses handling the unspeakable number of casualties from that horrific conflict. What do you HAVE to do immediately to make the house safe, comfortable and livable? What do you save for later? What do you decide NOT to undertake? In our case we leveled and strengthened the foundation and main supporting beams and leveled the first floor. We left the second floor alone. The floors are a bit crooked, but we could live with that.
5. What is your restoration objective?
When you go to sell your restored home, you won’t be competing with brand new homes. The buyers who want that kind of modern luxury won’t be interested in your house; you need buyers with a love for historic homes. That means you need to make your reconstruction work authentic. Research the house’s history before you start.
Sources (in addition to the websites listed above):
BEST TIP: Many old homes have undergone additions over the years. If you’re serious about historical reconstruction, decide the point in history you want to restore to. In our case, at some point in the mid-1800s after our home was built around 1750 as a vernacular “I House” farm house, a front porch was added. We love the porch and decided to keep it instead of ripping it off to go back to the original 1750 design.