Fixing Your Fixer-Upper: What to Expect When Renovating a Historic Home

May 30, 2017



One important point to keep in mind when searching the housing market for diamonds-in-the-rough: Someone Has To Fix The Fixer-Upper. And guess what? As the new homeowner, that job is now yours.
You’ve saved thousands on the sticker price because of the home’s current condition but that doesn’t mean your a weekend of dusting away from Instagram fame and Pinterest royalty. Depending on how involved your renovations will be, you may be living out of one room in the house for some time, or not at all.

There is great amount of work ahead of you and it’s worth keeping this all in mind before committing yourself to anything. Every home is different, especially when you’re dealing with properties that were likely built before your grandfather was old enough to walk uphill to school. The points listed below are a rough sketch of what to expect once you’ve decided it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work.

***Always consult reliable, third party home inspectors before purchasing and be realistic about your capabilities. Every renovation can be dangerous without the required knowledge and experience, so keep in mind that you may need to hire professional tradespeople to complete aspects of the project you can’t handle yourself.



You’ll find that electricity was a marvel of it’s time when your house was built. In fact, electricity was so well received in it’s infancy that you’ll find it in use even to this day. And thanks to the years of research and development put into electric current and safety requirements, we are now able to look back on this time as a dangerous, flammable period in history.
If you find outdated wiring in your home, you will require a professional electrician to bring your home “up to code”. While replacing old wiring seems straightforward, and even though everyone should know how to change a plug outlet or light switch, mistakes made while playing around with your electrical panel will end in a trip to the emergency room.


Leveling Everything

No doubt, your house will have sunk in multiple areas and nothing will be square. The house has been shrugging for decades and you’ll have to straighten it’s posture. The wall studs will be twisted and out of line with one another. Replace or repair these as needed, making sure not to remove supports for load bearing walls without properly installing temporary supports. Removing the supports from these areas is no different from kicking out a person’s legs. They will fall and (should you survive), you will have regrets.

Provided the floors are not drooping from poor support underneath, floors can be leveled quickly by working out from a good reference point in the room. Any variations across the floor will be brought up (or down) to this level like a series of wedge shaped studs secured to your floor, to secure your subfloor. If the drop is minimal, try using something a little more straight forward like self-leveling cement.
You will need an even, level surface to lay your flooring and to stop coins from rolling underneath a piece of heavy furniture, never to return.


Plaster vs Drywall

This will most likely be one of the hardest decisions you have to make in your renovations. The fear in updating an old home is that it will lose it’s charm. But plaster is ugly, and cold, and going to crack. The quicker you realize that what you actually love is wallpaper, the quicker you can start tearing that old plaster out. Replacing antique wallpapers can become costly but just one accent wall can change an entire room, and trim costs down.
(And on the upside, the rough lumber and lath you pull out will be perfect for crafting some rustic furniture and decor)

There is no reason you can’t keep the plaster, repairing any problem areas, but before really committing, you need to know if the outside walls are in need of better insulation. It’s going to be a bit of an effort to insulate the wall cavities without exposing them. You can strap insulating foam boards on the outer perimeter of the house before re-siding, but this will completely cover any brickwork or masonry you’d otherwise prefer to keep.


Insulation and Vapor Barrier

How you insulate against the cold and seal your vapor barrier is very important in reducing drafts and water damage. You will need to create a continuous seal along your outside walls to stop cool air from condensing against the back side of your drywall when it meets the warm air inside (and vice-versa for the summer). Seal any seams in the vapor barrier, leaving a good overlap. Make sure you have tight seals on your edges, terminating inside the rough openings of any window. I’ve found best results with acoustical caulking but it’s incredibly messy and quite a bit more expensive than poly sheathing tape.



Don’t worry, this is all as fun as it sounds but afterward you will have a unique home that you fully understand from the ground up. When you decide to undertake further renovations in the future you will know exactly what to avoid and what to expect.
Because of the hard work you’ve put into rebuilding the home, your floors will not creak, your chances of electrical fire will be greatly reduced, and when you set your thermostat to 72 degrees, it will stay at 72 degrees. You know, the important things in life.

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