Roughly 71% of homeowners in the United States have some home improvement projects planned for this year. From kitchen remodels installing hot tubs, there are countless ways to make a home more enjoyable and valuable.
However, home improvements can also be complicated, especially when it comes to renovating historic homes. Old home repair is an art form all on its own, sometimes requiring specialized skills, especially for houses much more than 50 years old.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t old home repairs you can make yourself, however. In fact, depending on your amount of home improvement experience, there’s probably a lot you can do yourself. Whether you just bought an antique home or you’re finally ready to spruce up one you’ve lived in for years, use this guide to get your old home looking good as new in no time.
Assemble the Right Team
When you’re approaching a house to upgrade or repair, a contractor and an inspector are your best friends. Even if you don’t plan on hiring a contracting team to do most of the work for you, having their expertise can be very hopeful in informing your decisions.
But when it comes to old home repair, especially for historic homes, you may need more than your standard local contracting team. Old home repair isn’t just about fixing up a dilapidated building: it’s a matter of preserving a historical artifact. For that reason, it’s a good idea to find specialists with experience in historic preservation.
Anyone who joins your team must understand that you’re trying to preserve your old home, not just modernize it. Many repair professionals won’t appreciate the difference between restoring an old home and ripping things out indiscriminately. Whether you need basic roofing repairs or an entire new electrical system, make sure the contractors you hire can fix up your house without needlessly destroying historic elements.
Later on, you could even hire a local historian to help you decorate the house in a way that reflects the styles of its time period in your area. But before you do that, you’ll need to inspect the home’s structure and upgrade its components.
Take the “House Sandwich” Approach
When you’re approaching old home repairs for the first time, there’s a logical order to do things in. Your first impulse might be to collect paint swatches and start looking for design inspiration, but these aesthetic details are things you’ll want to save for last. Your first projects need to be focused on ensuring the structural integrity and longevity of your home.
This is what it means to take the “house sandwich” approach to renovating: first you check the roof and make sure it isn’t leaking or damaged; next you inspect the foundation and make sure it’s stable and in good repair. The roof protects the rest of your home from the elements, while the foundation or basement holds the whole thing up.
Old houses tend to hide secrets inside them, and those secrets aren’t always exciting or pleasant. If you don’t have a residential roofing contractor inspect your home first thing, you could be postponing critical repairs without realizing it. And without checking the foundation or basement, you could be setting yourself up for trouble later if it turns out to be less stable than expected.
With roofing and foundation repair service out of the way, you’ll be free to focus on more exciting aspects of old home repair — all without worrying about the structural integrity or safety of your home.
Next, Inspect the Electrical System
After you’ve made sure the house is structurally sound and safe from storms, our next area of interest is the electrical system. Old electrical wiring can last a very long time without any safety hazards, but checking for electrical problems is still one of the first steps in any home renovation project.
Unless you’re an experienced electrician, you should hire electrical repair services to inspect your home for you. Besides checking for service panel problems, improperly wired switches, and other common issues, there are two electrical problems in particular that old homes are known for.
First of all, some old breaker boxes aren’t safe for modern use. For example, breaker boxes made by Federal Pacific Electric are known to overheat and cause fires, because they don’t always shut off when overloaded. Just in case, your home’s breaker box should be one of the first things you check. Look up the brand and type of box you have and make sure it’s considered safe.
Second, very old houses may have an electrical system known as knob-and-tube wiring, which can cause fires as it deteriorates. Knob-and-tube wiring uses knobs to hold the wires in place and tubes to guide them throughout the house. Its problem is that the rubber insulation it uses becomes brittle and cracked over time, leading to exposed wires. It also isn’t designed for use in insulated walls.
Inspect and Repair the Plumbing
After ensuring your electrical system is up to modern standards, plumbing inspection is the next logical step in old home repair. Plumbing is slightly more DIY-friendly than electrical work, but you should still call on a local plumbing service if you aren’t sure you know what you’re doing.
If the plumbing is part of the original construction, it may be made of galvanized steel, copper, or even cast iron. These types of plumbing have a useful lifespan of around 80 to 100 years, which may be close to the age of your house. Even if these pipes aren’t leaking right now, they probably will be soon, so you should have them replaced with an up-to-date system.
Even if the plumbing isn’t nearing the end of its lifespan, it can still be experiencing corrosion buildup on the inside. Corrosion can result in lower water pressure, and it can even turn the water orange from rust.
If the home has an old water heater or softener system, it’s probably best to replace them. Standard water heaters and softeners usually last less than 15 years, so unless they were recently replaced by the last homeowner, you should try to replace them now. On the other hand, if your system is relatively new but needs attention, water heater repairs could be a better investment.
Finally, you’ll want to find out what kind of sewer system your home has. If it’s connected to a city sewer then all you need is to ensure the pipes leading to the public line are clear. However, if it’s farther away from a city or town it might have its own septic system underground, which will need maintenance of its own.
Inspect for Wood Rot and Water Damage
As you’ve probably picked up on, there’s a logical order for these old home repair steps to be taken in. Each tip we’ve addressed targets a critical part of a home’s structure and safety, and prepares the way for what comes next. Repairing the roof prevents any future water damage, and inspecting the basement ensures the structure is ready for future repairs. Then addressing the electrical and plumbing systems guards against fire hazards and other opportunities for water leaks.
If you’ve done everything listed here so far, then you already have a home that’s structurally sound and safe for living in. The repairs you’ve made already will guard against future damage and decay. Now it’s time to inspect for problems that may have developed before you started fixing up the house.
One of the first things to look out for is wood rot. Wood is used a lot in older houses, both inside and on the exterior. Rotting wood can be caused by leaks in the roof and plumbing, and sometimes by prolonged moisture buildup with insufficient ventilation.
While there’s always potential for wood rot and water damage to occur indoors, it’s especially likely to occur on outside walls. Exterior wood rot can result from damaged gutters, or from downspouts that don’t direct the water away from the house. If your gutters need replacing, then gutter installation services should be one of the next things on your agenda.
Even if the gutters are in good condition, prolonged exposure to the elements can still cause wood to rot. Siding, window frames, and handrails are significant problem areas where wood rot can develop. These components should be replaced or repaired to prevent further decay.
Check Out Windows and Insulation
If your old house still has its original windows, consider yourself lucky. While old windows aren’t as energy-efficient as modern ones, they’re much more durable and last far longer. In fact, historic windows made with old-growth wood can last centuries, which is a far cry from modern windows, which have plastic frames that break down quickly. And with the right upgrades, even single-pane windows can be made to meet modern energy codes, or even exceed them.
Because of this, replacing old windows is usually seen as a bad idea, unless they’re simply in terrible condition. Not only are old windows long-lasting and durable, but they also contribute to the historic value of an old house.
Along with inspecting and upgrading your windows, you’ll want to inspect your home’s insulation. Unlike the airtight homes built today, old and historic houses tend to be drafty, leading to especially uncomfortable winters. If the home was built before the 1960s, it’s probably very poorly insulated.
Insulating an old house comes with a few pitfalls, however. Rather than simply hiring someone to blow insulation into the walls and attic, you should take a methodical approach to sealing up and insulating your old house. This is best done with the help of a contractor with experience in old home repair.
Depending on your home’s condition and unique features, you may have a few different options for adding insulation. These can include sealing the attic, caulking gaps next to windows and pipes, or applying a vapor barrier to exterior walls. Simply filling walls with new insulation can lead to problems such as mold buildup, so creative solutions are often required.
Once you’ve improved your home’s insulation, you might want to install a new HVAC system, or repair the one you already have. Some old homes have built-in radiators that can be renovated and used, and others can’t have central air systems installed without destroying historic elements. Like insulating an old house, setting up climate control systems can require some ingenuity.
Inspect and Repair Masonry
Fixing the masonry on an old house is another essential step to getting the place watertight. Some old houses were built with weak mortar in the masonry, which means they will require extra attention and maintenance.
If your home has a chimney, then the fireplace is a good spot to check if the mortar needs to be repaired. You may notice places where mortar is missing from between the bricks. If you don’t see any missing mortar, you can touch or tap on the mortar with your fingers and see if it comes apart.
It’s important to note that only mortar that’s already deteriorated should be removed. You don’t want to grind out and remove mortar that’s still in solid condition.
You should also avoid using sealers to fill gaps in the mortar. Sealers trap moisture, which can cause problems during freeze and thaw cycles. Only mortar of the same or compatible type should be used to fill in gaps where the old mortar used to be.
Even after finishing repairs like these, masonry requires maintenance over time. Make it a point to find out what ongoing maintenance cycle is right for your home, as well as what type of mortar your home was built with. Most buildings require tuckpointing maintenance every 50 or 60 years.
Make Additional Upgrades as Needed
At this point you’ve taken care of the most critical aspects of old home repair. Your house is now structurally sound, well-insulated, and watertight. You’re getting closer to the fun part of actually decorating and furnishing your historic house. But first, you’ll want to make any surface-level repairs and upgrades.
Depending on the prior owner, an old house is likely to need several small repairs before it’s quite ready to move into. Garage door repair, light fixture replacement, and trim molding repair are just a few areas of interest.
This is also around the time that you’ll want to think about improving the exterior appearance of your home. If the yard is overgrown, a tree trimming service can drastically enhance the home’s look just by getting the foliage under control.
Driveway paving can also contribute to the home’s appearance, as well as making it easier to drive up to the house and into the garage.
In the end, there are as many strategies for old home repair as there are historic homes. Each one is different and presents unique challenges. The important thing is to remain flexible in your approach, and to let your old home’s unique beauty express itself freely.