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First-time Buyers – Should I buy a historic home (Part 2)

Question – We’ve been looking for our first home and my fiancé loves the idea of living in a historic home. What do I need to know about that?

Answer  (Part 2 of 2 posts) – We covered some of the bigger, scarier and costlier issues in part one, so, now let’s focus on things that you might want to be concerned about or need to do that weren’t on that list, some are things that you might not get to until after you’ve bought the historic home.


Many historic homes were built in an era when property taxes on your home were determined by how many bedrooms the house had. Sounds innocuous, right? Well hold on. The way that some home builders got around that and lowered their property taxes was to build rooms on the second floor without closets. If it didn’t have a closet it wasn’t considered to be a bedroom. People were trying to game the system, even back then. What they ended up doing was gaming you. They got around this issue by using huge wardrobes in those rooms. Those were mostly large wooden things that could hold all the clothes that were needed back in those days. They could never have imagined someone owning some many clothes that they needed a walk-in closet. So here you are with your Imelda Marcos shoe collection and no closet. Building a closet not only makes the room smaller, but there is a cost involved, albeit less than many of the other issues that we’ve discussed. Many buyers sacrifice a bedroom to make it a huge walk-in closet. That’s not the smartest thing to do, but it works.

Most people also think that the old “wavy glass” in the windows is great, but those old, leaky wavy glass windows will cost you a fortune in heating and cooling bills, so that is something that needs to be looked at for replacement. You can get authentic looking modern insulated windows, but those are costly, too. If the windows aren’t critical to maintaining the architectural look of the place consider replacing them. Most old homes had storm windows put on at some point. It is possible to replace the windows from the inside without disturbing the storm windows. That way the house will still look much the same as  it has for quite some time, albeit not original as built.

That brings up another point. You may have all sorts of plans or things that you’d like to do to the old house when you buy it, but you should check to see what you’ll be allowed to do. Some cities, towns and villages have historic districts in place and may have historic preservation ordinances in place as well. Those ordinances, put in place by well-meaning people to try to preserve the historic authenticity of structures within historic districts, can be very limiting in what they allow. Those historic preservation ordinances may dictate such things as what exterior colors can be used and whether any additions or alterations (including windows) may be made that can be seen from the street. They might even prevent you from tearing down an old useless garage that was originally built as a carriage house and building a new garage. Find out, before you buy, what restrictions you might be under. You will find it very hard, if not impossible to fight about it later. Fortunately, most of these restrictive ordinances focus upon the exterior and what the house looks like from the street. They usually don’t dictate what you can update in the interior.

The floors are another area that might need attention. The historic homes in my area were generally all built with good oak floors at least on the entry level. Many continued that on the upper level(s), but many did not, choosing to put broad board flooring (usually pine or sometimes maple)  in where they would not normally be seen by visitors. Over the years many owners have done bad things to the floors in these old houses. In my area someone started a trend of putting linoleum over the hardwood and many houses had that done to them. Unfortunately they just glued them directly to the hardwood floors. What a mess it is to take that off! Most historic houses fell victim to the wall-to-wall carpet trends in the mid-Twentieth Century. That causes another problem that caused harm, since doors had to be trimmed on the bottom to accommodate the carpet and padding height, many very nice solid oak doors were butchered by homeowners trying to create clearance, so they would open. Now, if you go back to the original wood floors it looks like you’ve got “high-water “ doors. If you can, before you buy, see if you can look under whatever carpeting is in place to see what kind of flooring is under there and what kind of shape it is in. You can pretty much count on having to refinish any hardwood floors that you find. In worst-case scenarios you’ll have to replace it. Cha-Ching, there goes the cash register again!

You can usually do what remodeling you desire inside the house; but, I will caution you not to take the interior too modern – that destroys the whole reason for buying one of these places in the first place – the woodwork and quirky nooks and crannies that give it character. I’ve seen cases where owners gutted out a wonderful historic house and ended up with a modern white elephant on their hands when it came time to sell. You can’t make a modern house out of one of these old beauties, but you can destroy its value while trying . It’s OK to update the kitchen and baths, but do it tastefully and with an eye to the finishes and fixtures that will fit into a historic house. Dark mahogany and cherry cabinets work much better that modern Ikea blond finishes in the kitchen and baths.  Granite countertops are OK, but add a wide country sink in hammered bronze or porcelain to keep the historic touch. You get the idea.

The whole issue of bathrooms may be your biggest challenge. If you can find a way to add a bath or even a half bath on the first floor, that’s great. They just didn’t build them that way back in the day. In those days, homes were built with a single bathroom and it was always on the second floor. Finding the space and a way to run plumbing to create a first floor bathroom, even a half-bath, is a major challenge. Many historic homes may have tubs in the bath that look cute but are really impractical to use. The old pedestal or claw-foot tubs are great soaker tubs, but lousy for showers and that’s what most people want these day – a quick shower. The shower curtain ring around the top of the tub is quaint looking but a pain to use. I got rid of mine and put in a modern Jacuzzi tub and shower. Mea culpa history buffs, but I can get a quick shower now. It’s not cheap to remodel bathrooms, but it will be worth it. I was fortunate that one of the additions to the house over time expanded the kitchen and added a first floor bathroom and a family room. Fortunately that was all tastefully done in my old house.

The kitchen is another area that is expensive to remodel, but one that is often in need of attention. Victorian era kitchens were small by today’s standards. Many of them did have lots of built-in cabinets – usually floor to ceiling on at least one wall, but there was usually no separate pantry. Really nice, upscale homes may have had a butler’s pantry between the kitchen and dining room. Most historic home kitchens were not really designed to eat in either, unless it was one of the smaller homes. You’ll have to think long and hard about tearing out and replacing the built-in cabinetry that you may find. Perhaps putting on new doors and hardware would be better and preserve the ambiance of the original kitchen. Finding places in the kitchen to put modern conveniences like dishwashers and even modern refrigerators is another interesting challenge in these old houses.

All historic homes were originally built with plaster walls and ceilings. Drywall as we know it was not invented until WWII and didn’t start showing up in houses until the 1950’s. Drywall was invented to speed up the building of barracks for soldiers being trained to fight the war. Many old houses have had drywall installed right over the plaster and many ceilings had acoustic tiles glued in place right over the plaster. People did that because they got tired of repairing the plaster. Some just put that funny looking popcorn paint on the ceilings to cover cracks. If they did it right (who’s to say what is “right” and what is a sacrilege) any floor or door and window moldings would have been removed and then put back over the dry wall. Many did not do that and now you have homes with moldings that are half buried in the drywall. I’ve got one room where that happened in my old house – what a shame. The grander old homes may have had relatively elaborate plaster work crown moldings (which were always done in plaster back in the day) or decorative medallions surrounding the ceiling light or chandelier drops. Preserve those if you can. Those are irreplaceable works of art and craftsmanship.

Another area to test and see what you are getting is the woodwork. As I mentioned elsewhere earlier, almost all of these grand old historic homes had elaborate woodwork, mostly quarter-sawn oak in my area. You would find that as shoe molding (usually 10-12 inches high) perhaps chair molding in the dining room and certainly window and door molding. Many had rooms with coffered ceilings in hardwood and many had rooms with extensive and expensive wainscoting in hardwoods. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, someone who had no appreciation for what they had may have painted over that great old woodwork. It’s tedious work, but worth it to strip that paint and expose the great old oak woodwork again. Then again, some houses never had anything more than painted softwood moldings. Try to determine that before you buy, since painted hardwood molding can be stripped and returned to their glory, but common painted softwood moldings will never be anything but just that. Many of these old houses had built-ins either as originally built or added later. These can include closets with built in drawers or maybe a built-in china hutch in the corner of a dining room. Don’t tear them out! Those are part of the charm (and value), too.

You may find historic homes with features that just can’t be found in homes any more. I’ve shown historic homes in Detroit and the Grosse Pointes that have huge third floor ballrooms and many had elaborate dens and libraries. Interestingly enough, most of those big elaborate homes still had only a single car garage, because no one could imagine the need for more than one automobile. Some still have carriage houses, left over from the old horse and buggy days. We even have a few of those in my little village. The more impressive old mansions had servants quarters in them, too; and elaborate signaling systems to alert the servants to the owners needs. Save anything that you find like that. It’s an important piece of the history of the house and of the era that they were built in.

I know that I’ve given you a lot to think about and consider in these two posts, but it is important that you be able to get beyond the romantic notion of owning a Victorian home and have a clear understanding about the potential challenges of owning an old house. If you are lucky, you might find a great old historic home that someone before you has made the necessary investments in to make it livable in the present. Hopefully they did that well and without destroying the character that attracted you in the first place. Historic homes can be wonderful places to live. My wife and I certainly wouldn’t give up ours. But, as I said at the outset; owning one of these great old homes is like having a home and hobby all in one; there’s always something that you could be working on updating or improving.