I’ve been a homeowner for approximately 17 years and that entire time I’ve lived in old houses. Now to put that into perspective I do live in the United States so my old home is just over 100 years old. It isn’t built of stone, but it does seem relatively bulletproof.
My first old home was a duplex. I had two floors of old home to figure out. There I learned how to remove carpet and wallpaper and to patch walls. I remember fondly an episode of the show “Friends” where they had a mystery light switch in their apartment. Throughout the episode they try to figure out what it controls. Old houses seriously have those switches! In my case I learned that the mystery switch in my kitchen controlled the lights in the basement. The windows were drafty and they rattled when someone with a loud stereo drove by. I learned how to reglaze windows and then to use plastic on the inside if necessary to stay warm in winter. I also learned that the workers at the local hardware store reglazed windows much quicker and better than I did for a nominal fee. I also rewired a few outlets that weren’t working with the help of a home improvement BOOK (Remember those? It’s what you used before YouTube). I learned other things too, but mostly I learned to ask questions. Lots of questions. As I became more savvy I learned to ask them ahead of time so people could offer their opinions before I started the work. I have since sold the duplex and I’d like to believe that while it still needed work, that I left it in much better shape that it was when I purchased it.
Let us move on to the current old house. When I bought it I liked the feel. It had lots of potential. I know, right? In the time I’ve been there I’ve (with help of course, but because I’m writing this I get to claim the glory): added two decks, a new kitchen, LED light fixtures so bright you could do surgery on our dining room table. I’ve repaired the leaded glass windows and buffet cabinets, my husband made sure that they close correctly, we have added new outdoor lighting, and we now have air conditioning, every room has been painted (several have been painted more than once), we currently working on a basement remodel. Whew!
Some of these projects took longer than others. And here is what I learned from the process…
Fix it right the first time. It’s an old house. It was built by craftsmen. As tempting as it is to do something the fast and easy way, please don’t. I learned this from my husband. He will laugh as he reads this because I always want to do things the fast and easy way.
You won’t be able to match anything. That hand crafted woodwork didn’t come off the shelf from a big box store. It was designed by one man for your house. Be good to it. If you remove it, then do so carefully. If you think that you won’t need it, please save it. You can thank me later. The new trim stains will never match exactly either. In a related note should you ever need to shellac something do so outside.
The doors will not be square. Nothing will be square. This will bother you at first, then you learn to live with it, and then you will get around to fixing it (or not). It’s fixable and time consuming. When you go to install a new door or window you will notice this as well. Don’t worry you’ve got wide width trim to cover all your mistakes.
Boilers do provide heat, but they aren’t the same as furnaces. You can’t step into the house and think “it’s cold” and then bump it up a few degrees. It will take your house between 2-4 hours to reach the temperature that you set. If you turn up the heat for your guests your second or third floor bedroom will turn into Florida in summertime. You have been warned. Also you need to add water and bleed air from the system periodically. It’s not hard and your reward is you have a toasty place to warm your hat and mittens.
To that end, you probably don’t have insulation. In a remodel you may find old newspaper in the walls or you may find nothing. Even if it was blown in years ago it probably has a current value of R nothing. If you ever open up a wall add some insulation. We have a few inches of spray foam in one of our rooms and it is noticeably warmer than the others.
A note on running electrical: it can be maddening. It took my husband many hours and several ridiculously long drill bits attached to one another to run cable to his office. There were offset fire stops in the wall preventing a straight shot and gobs of clunky insulation.
You will probably have plaster walls instead of sheetrock. Plaster is forgiving to cracks because it was designed to flex and bend and cracks are repairable! I’ve used both painters caulk (for small cracks) and joint compound (for the big ones) and had luck with each. When you go to hang something in plaster it’s a whole different story. With drywall you want to hit a stud if you’re hanging something heavy and it’s the same thing for plaster, but with plaster if you’re hanging a picture I’d encourage you to use a drywall screw or something similar rather than a picture nail. It grabs the plaster better and in my experience the picture nails just fall out (in the middle of the night while you are sleeping and it’s terrifying).
After all this it’s important to point out that all houses need maintenance and have problems, but maybe this will help you know a bit about what you’re getting in to. If you’re starting with this all bets are off!