5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Buying (and Restoring) an Old House
Here's what they don't cover on those popular home reno shows.
Like many couples shopping for their first home, my husband and I had a wishlist drawn up on notebook paper, which we tucked into the console between us during every drive to showings. We'd emerge from the car to greet our realtor in the driveway of various Hudson Valley properties, starry-eyed behind our masks, armed and ready with the modest 139-part checklist of things we wanted from our dream home.
As you can probably guess, we learned pretty quickly that there's no perfect property out there-not in our realistic price range, not in our desired area, and definitely not in a crazy-competitive pandemic real estate market. Quicker than you can say "dream on," our well-intentioned wishlist was downgraded from must-haves like marble countertops and finished basements to let's-try-our-bests like intact window panes and plumbing from this half-century. However, when confronted with the reality of, well, reality, there was one real estate pipe dream I wasn't willing to give up on: buying an old house.
For as long as I can remember, I've felt the most inspired by old homes. My reasons were a mix of loving the quaint colonial style of historic homes where I was raised in the Northeast, and a slightly earnest belief in the phrase, "They just don't make them like this anymore." With age and experience also grew a greater appreciation for the idea of caring for an old property and all that it entails. You'll hear 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 that it will have a life far beyond me and my family-has always been something that tugged at my sentimental heart.
In the end, we didn't get all (or even many) of the things on our wishlist, but we did get one big one: an 1826 blue colonial, with creaky floors, crooked walls, mature landscaping, and enough projects to keep our hands busy for the next decade. We've since spent our time pouring love into our house, learning from our mistakes, and keeping another ever-growing wishlist: this time, of the plans we have 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 of me recognizes that this learn-as-you-go adventure comes hand-in-hand with the old home stewardship I've long desired. 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 one of those big hurdles you must overcome before you can sign on the dotted line. Though they often have both buyers and sellers holding their breath no matter 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, you should also schedule as many specialized ones as possible.
We opted for an inspector that had a lot of experience restoring old homes in the area, and his knowledge was invaluable. We knew he was used to looking for potential in the way we were with this property, and trusted his opinion on whether a problem was a deal breaker or just a nuisance. Still, in retrospect, we wish we brought in a specialist for a full septic inspection when not one, but two, were found on the property. A brief once-over was included in our general inspection, 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 having one becomes even more of a necessity when you purchase 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 and we ended up with a five-figure bill and a torn-up lawn. Though we were disappointed, we felt really lucky to have set aside an emergency slush fund before moving in that covered the expenses. Lesson learned: you will never regret having a little extra cash stashed aside in case disaster strikes.
Advocate for Your Home
Early on, one of the first projects on our to-do list was restoring our old staircase. Many of the treads were cracked, the balusters were broken, and the whole thing was so rickety that there was no chance it would see out the year intact. However, the piece also boasted some amazing original parts (including a gorgeous newel and handrail) that I wanted to save at all costs. Several meetings with different contractors all led to one recommendation: replace it all. 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 took the time to learn how to do the stairs ourselves, replacing what was necessary but keeping everything that we could. The result is a historic refinishing that we're really proud of-and a lesson learned that sometimes you've got 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 totally as planned, including your budget. We've found a good rule of thumb to be "cost and a half" for nearly every project we've tried to tackle thus far. So what does this mean? Well, in my experience, if you have an old home you can expect to pay over what's "typical" for most work, including floor refinishing, electrical upgrades, plumbing, and more. The reason? Old homes tend to be a bit Frankenstein-esque-there's (likely) decades worth of projects that have been done to them, and there's just no saying what you're going to encounter when you start opening up walls or removing floors. We've had to over-order on backsplash tiles to compensate for a curved window frame, pay extra for floor refinishing thanks to old exposed top nails, and call in an electrician to remove six (yes, six) light switches that just went...nowhere? Our latest project is finding 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 our uneven floors and walls. Anticipating a bigger number ahead of time will save you time and heartache in the long run, trust me.
Embrace the Journey
While all my advice thus far feels like it's chock-full of cautionary tales (and surprise payments), the truth is there is almost nothing we love more than giving back to this house, which has already brought our family so much happiness. I'm a firm believer that if you're going to purchase an old home, you have to find beauty and joy in the journey. The 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 up money between projects gets frustrating, we look back on photos from when we started making the home our own and it all feels worth it. With no real "finish line" in sight, the journey isn't just half the fun-it's the whole point.