5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Buying (and Restoring) an Old House

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Here’s what they don’t tell you on those popular home reno shows.

Like many couples shopping for their first home, my husband and I jotted a wish list on notepaper, which we tucked into the console between us during every drive to showings. We’d emerge starry-eyed from the car to greet our realtor in the driveway of various Hudson Valley properties, armed and ready with the modest 139-item checklist of things we wanted from our dream home.

As you probably guessed, we quickly learned that there’s no perfect property out there—not in our price range, not in our desired area, and definitely not in a crazy-competitive, pandemic-era real estate market. Quicker than you can say “dream on,” we downgraded items on our well-intentioned wish list from must-have (like marble countertops and finished basements) to let’s-try-our-best (like intact window panes and plumbing from this half-century). But when confronted with the reality of, well…reality, there was one real estate pipe dream I refused to give up on: buying an old house.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been inspired by old homes. My reasons were a mix of loving the quaint colonial style of historic homes in the Northeast (where I was raised) with an earnest belief in the phrase, “They just don’t make them like this anymore.” With age and experience, I also found greater appreciation for the idea of caring for an old property and all that it entails. Many old-home dwellers identify themselves as stewards of a property—not owners—because to them, they’re just caring for the house until the next generation comes along. The idea of calling a property that’s been around for centuries “home”—knowing it will have a life far beyond me and my family—has always tugged at my sentimental heart.

In the end, we didn’t get all (or even many) items on our wish list, but we did get the most important one, along with several that weren’t on our list at all. Our 1826 blue colonial came with creaky floors, crooked walls, mature landscaping, and enough projects to keep us busy for the next decade. We’ve since spent our spare time pouring love into this house, learning from our mistakes, and keeping another ever-growing wish list: this one of tasks required to return our corner colonial to its rightful splendor. Part of me wishes I knew about so many things before we bought, but the other part recognizes that this learn-as-you-go adventure comes hand-in-hand with old-home stewardship. Still, I’m not one to keep anything to myself, so if you’re on the hunt for a storied property of your own, here are five things I wish I knew before calling an old house our home.

Spring for Niche Inspections

A home inspection is a big hurdle to overcome before signing on the dotted line. While inspections often have buyers and sellers holding their breath, regardless of the home’s age, they’re especially important if you’re sinking your savings into an older property. It’s no surprise that with age comes issues, and this is your chance to find out everything you can about your potential home before you inherit all its problems. A general inspection is a great place to start but, if you can, also schedule as many specialized ones as possible.

We opted for a local inspector with substantial experience restoring old homes, and his knowledge was invaluable. He looked at our property’s potential in the same way we did, and we trusted his opinion as to whether a problem was a deal breaker or just a nuisance. In retrospect, we wish we had hired a specialist for a full septic inspection when we found not one, but two, on the property. Our general inspection gave them a brief once-over, but a more in-depth one could have saved us a lot of trouble. Which brings me to…

Always Have an Emergency Fund

A financial nest egg is always a good idea—let’s just put that out there—but it’s even more important when purchasing an old home. We found this out the hard way when the older of our two septic systems failed just months after moving in. What was meant to be a quick repair unearthed (literally) a bevy of problems, resulting in a five-figure bill and a torn-up lawn. Though disappointed, we luckily had set aside an emergency slush fund before moving in, and it covered those expenses. Lesson learned: You will never regret having a little extra cash set aside in case disaster strikes.

Advocate for Your Home

Early on, one of the first projects on our to-do list was restoring an old staircase. Many of its treads were cracked, its balusters were broken, and the whole thing was so rickety there was no chance it would see out the year intact. However, the piece boasted some amazing original parts (including a gorgeous newel and handrail) that I wanted to save at all costs. Several meetings with different contractors led to one recommendation: replace it all; which was not what my vision, or my bank account, wanted to hear. Knowing deep down that a full overhaul wasn’t right for our house, we learned how to restore the stairs ourselves, replacing when necessary but keeping everything else. The result was a historic refinishing that we’re really proud of—and a lesson learned: Sometimes you have to stick up for your home’s best interests.

Budget 150% for Every Project

When it comes to renovating an old home, expect nothing to go as planned, including your budget. Based on nearly every project we’ve tackled so far, a good rule of thumb is to budget “cost and a half”. So what does this mean? Expect to pay more than “typical” for most work in an old home, especially for jobs like floor refinishing, electrical upgrades, and plumbing. The reason? Old homes tend to be a bit Frankenstein-esque—there’s likely decades worth of renovations in them, and there’s just no telling what you’ll find when you open up walls or remove floors.

In our case: We had to over-order backsplash tiles to compensate for a curved window frame, pay extra for floor refinishing thanks to old exposed top nails, and hire an electrician to remove six (yes, six!) light switches that just went…nowhere. For our latest project, we’re looking for a carpenter that can craft us a built-in for the living room, and already we’re getting above-average quotes due to—you guessed it—the difficulty of working with uneven floors and walls. Overestimating costs ahead of time will save you time and heartache in the long run, trust me.

Embrace the Journey

Despite my advice—chock-full of cautionary tales and surprise payments—truth is, there is almost nothing we love more than giving back to this house, which has brought our family so much happiness. I firmly believe that, if you’re going to purchase an old home, you have to find beauty and joy in the journey. Work on an old home is never done, and it will always ask more of your time, energy, and finances. When the to-do list gets long, or saving money between projects gets frustrating, reminiscing with photos of when we started remind us: It’s all worth it. With no finish line in sight, the journey isn’t just half the fun—it’s the whole point.

With our team at A Better Home Inspection, we’ve been your neighborhood home inspection company since 1988. Our staff has helped many California homeowners maintain their houses – Please call us at 760-805-1966 and schedule today!

Article written by: By Alyssa Longobucco

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