Restoring an Old Home With New Money

Some issues to consider before pulling out the paintbrush and time machine.<br>

U.S. News & World Report

Restoring an Old Home With New Money

(Getty Images)

If you're buying an old home, a really old one, you may be planning on restoring it to its historic glory, or at least maintaining it. If you are, good for you. There's something undeniably sad about taking a wrecking ball to the past.

But unfortunately, if you're renovating a home from the 18th, 19th or 20th centuries, you will have to pay for those improvements with 21st-century dollars. If protecting history is in your future, you'll want to be prepared for some of the many renovations you may soon be wrestling with.

Plumbing. Your pipes, if they've never been replaced, might be made of galvanized steel, which tends to corrode from the inside. These pipes also rust, which can lead to leaks. There's plenty to love about old homes, but not much to recommend about keeping around 100-year-old pipes.

Kathy Epping, a real estate agent with Restaino & Associates Realtors in Madison, Wisconsin, grew up in a house that was built in 1929, and she owns a home that was built in 1892 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. So between her experience living in and occasionally selling old homes, she knows a thing or two about restoring historic houses.

Water issues, she warns, often bubble up, to the horror of the unsuspecting homeowner. The average cost to hire a plumber by the hour ranges from $45 to $150, according to The cost will only get steeper when combined with the cost to replace most or all the pipes in a historic home.

Windows. Andrea LePain, a marketing executive for a company in Watertown, Massachusetts, says that she and her husband owned a house built in 1780. They loved it, but the home had the original windows. "So it was extremely drafty," LePain says.

Of course, some home renovation experts will point out that it isn't the windows themselves that cause drafts; it's the space around the windows that allows heat to escape. Either way, if your windows are old, you may decide that you need or want to replace the entire window or at least the frames.

According to, the average cost to replace five to 10 windows is $4,917.

Plaster walls. Many homes built before the 1950s have walls made of plaster, which is great material. It's fire resistant, durable and reduces noise. But it isn't indestructible. It can crack and buckle and eventually start to crumble. And you guessed it, most new homes no longer have plaster walls. Why? Because it's cheaper to go with something else. When World War II veterans came home and were looking for a place to live, the housing industry looked for a decent and ultimately cheaper alternative – drywall.

"Plastering is a dying art and fewer tradesmen are available to make good repairs," Epping says. The same dilemma can occur if you're trying to repair old woodwork, she adds.

LePain agrees. "I made the mistake once of trying to remove wallpaper and ripping out pieces of plaster, which I had to then fill in, sand down and repaint," she says. "It turned out to be such a huge project that I decided to just paint over the wallpaper in other rooms."

Special permits and specialists. Marc Renson owns a coffeehouse and lives in Schenectady, New York, where he has a registered historic home built in 1909.

Because it's a registered historic home, Renson is required to make sure his house stays looking like it did in 1909.

That means there's no winging it and very little leeway in the improvements he makes on his home.

"I can't change anything or do work on the exterior before getting approval from the historic district. When I want to paint the house, it's a monthlong process just to have the historic district meet and read my application," Renson says.

Once he is granted permission to alter his house, only historic-approved contractors can be used, Renson says; because these contractors are specialized and charge a premium, his costs go up.

It was in 2011 when Renson really experienced how difficult it can be to live in a historic home and keep it that way. An oak tree fell onto Renson's house, courtesy Hurricane Irene.

"The branches broke completely through the roof in four spots," Renson says. "We had tree limbs in the house. Two in the master walk-in closet and then two branches went through the front third bedroom. The large front porch was destroyed right down to the cement foundation."

Renson was fortunate that his insurance covered the $78,000 in repairs, except for the $1,000 deductible, but his insurance company couldn't speed up the process. All repairs still had to be OK'd by his historic district. Not that this is a bad thing or that Renson is complaining. It's simply that owning a historic home means being a little more committed to your house's history than the average homeowner.

"It took nine months to piece the house back together," Renson says. "A normal house would have taken maybe two months."

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