With obsolete systems and failing, sometimes unsafe structural components, old homes make for complex projects replete with pitfalls for unwary remodelers. As a restoration contractor, I feel like I’ve seen it all: homeowners who spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on renovations that commence with no planning, who devalue their property by stripping away its character, or who throw away money by forgoing valuable tax credits—in short, people who miss key opportunities in their attempt to restore their old house to its past glory while making it modern and efficient to live in. Here are blunders I’ve seen often in my work, with some advice on how to sidestep them.
Mistake 1: Proceeding without a planOld-home renovations often don’t go according to plan because too often, there is no planning. Homeowners question the need to duplicate existing conditions on paper and see the process as a waste. Why put money into plans, they ask, when what I want is tile and cabinetry? In addition, in older homes, there’s a tendency to jump into crisis management— repairing termite or foundation damage, for example—without pausing to assess future needs fully.
There’s also the persistent (and incorrect) assumption that tradespeople will conduct logical improvements in keeping with the scope of a project, even when that scope has never been spelled out fully. For example, HVAC subs like to put their systems in the path of least resistance—such as in the middle of a potentially finishable attic. If uninformed about future plans for that space, they’re unlikely to reach the “logical” conclusion of locating the air handler out of the way.
It’s simple: Planning and detailing the scope of every renovation in clear, specific terms is key to success.
Mistake 2: Expecting to "Flip"One of the most common mistakes I’ve seen is an investor taking on an old home as a rehab-and-flip project. Glorified by many a TV show during the housing boom, the flip process usually involves minor cosmetic improvements—“carpet and paint” is the common upgrade—to a house that is purchased, rehabbed, and sold in as little as a month. Old homes simply take too long to flip. What’s more, they require far more thought, intuition, and planning than is common in the investor market.
If a home requires all new systems and major foundation work, the process may exceed a year and require a team of professionals to pull off. Also, inexpensive fixes common to flip jobs can inflict irreversible damage on a vintage home. The destructive nature of a vinylsiding job is just one example: Where architectural details are in the way, vinyl installers tend to destroy them.
Successful old-home projects take time; flips do not. The two are rarely compatible.