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Before you renovate a historic home, read this

Ask the Expert Home Improvement
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Identifying the character-defining features of a house should be the starting point for planning any rehabilitation. In this Chicago bungalow, those would include the spectacular art glass windows, original floor and trim, and the period light fixture. Dave Clough Photography

Thousands of Americans are restoring historic homes today, and some of them probably shouldn’t be.

If you go into a rehab project with expectations shaped by home renovation television shows where magical transformations happen quickly, easily, and on budgets that defy logic, you are likely in for a shock — possibly a literal one while rewiring the house yourself to save money.

Realistic expectations are key to a successful project, starting with an honest assessment of what kind of house suits your lifestyle, how much of the work you can do yourself, and how much of it you can afford to have done by others. Then you need to find a historic house that suits how you live in terms of size, location, and style.

Houses of different periods and styles can have dramatically different room layouts and character. The better matched the historic house is to your needs and desires, the less money you will need to spend altering it — potentially destroying historic features.

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Mid-century modern is now historic, so I included houses of the 1950s and 60s in my book. “Weston House” (pictured) is one of the 13 featured homes. The 1957 ranch-style house contains characteristic elements and materials of the period, like this bar in the rec room on the lower level. —Dave Clough Photography

Rehabbing a house built in a prior century to accommodate life today will nearly always require making changes. Before rushing into alterations, you should understand what its significant, or character-defining, features are and prioritize the preservation of those. This requires doing research about the style of your house and features of that style or hiring an architectural historian to do it.

Prioritizing the preservation of the important historic features of the house is often the most economical approach to renovation. The less historic material you rip out, the less you have to replace with modern. Repairing historic features is almost always less expensive than replacing them — unless new materials of lower quality are used. Once you identify the significant features, you can plan alterations around them. Many historic houses have the more significant rooms toward the front and rooms with less detail toward the back and on the upper stories. Confining major changes to the secondary spaces will retain more of the historic character of the house.

Sustainability and energy efficiency are important considerations when buying any house, and improving the efficiency of a historic house is often a priority. This sometimes mistakenly leads to a belief that the house needs to be gutted and made as tight as a new house. It doesn’t and shouldn’t be. On the sustainability scale, a historic house is already far ahead of most new construction, with locally sourced materials milled with waterpower or transported on ships by wind and built with hand tools and human power. This “embodied energy’’ of a historic house benefits the environment — as long as it isn’t sent to a landfill. There are ways to improve the efficiency of an old house without gutting it, and these less dramatic improvements, combined with the inherent sustainability of the building, compare favorably with the real environmental and economic costs of constructing and operating a new house.

If contemporary interiors appeal to you but you like the exterior appearance of historic houses, please don’t gut an intact house. Thousands of historic houses have lost their most significant interior features to past renovations and are good candidates for new, modern interiors. It is also possible to take a contemporary approach in secondary spaces or previously unfinished spaces like attics, sheds, or attached barns while retaining or restoring the most significant historic rooms. In such houses, using contemporary furnishings and fabrics in the historic rooms can avoid a split-personality effect.

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This sleek contemporary apartment was created in the originally unfinished attic of a Victorian-era house. Hardwood flooring, white marble countertops, and traditional molding profiles on the door and window trim provide a sense of relationship to the historic house. Rental units, long-term or short-term, can help cover the cost of restoring a house. This unit is a very popular short-term rental in Portland, Maine. —Dave Clough Photography

Speaking of past alterations … many historic houses have had bad things done to them, often hiding behind walls and floors. In houses built before the advent of indoor plumbing and central heating, it not uncommon to find that the installation of these systems resulted in important structural beams being cut through for pipes or ducts without alternative structural support being provided. The introduction of electrical systems was usually accommodated with less dramatic damage, as small wires are relatively easy to snake through walls and ceilings, but mistakes do occur — as I found out while looking for the source of a gas leak. I touched a live gas line under a newly opened floor and felt the tingle of electricity run up my arm. A past renovator had grounded the electrical system to the gas line, not the water line. Don’t do this.

The two most important things to do if you are considering the restoration of a historic house are to educate yourself about what you are getting into and find professionals with experience in the restoration field to do the work you won’t do.

Then find other homeowners who have done it before you and become friends with them to learn from their mistakes.

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Scott T. Hanson is the author of several books and a historic-building preservation professional in Maine. His new book, “Restoring Your Historic House: The Comprehensive Guide for Homeowners,” (Tilbury House Publishers) hit stores in December. Copies are also available from the author at YourHistoricHouse.com.

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