This Old House: How to Keep a Handle on It

Written by katherine spiers
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Underneath the Charm, Updates Beckon

This Old House: How to Keep a Handle on It
Craftsman-style houses from the early 1900s exude charm of another era. (Siri Stafford/Lifesize/Getty Images)

Hiring a contractor is not a one-stop answer to all your problems ... with any project, you must be educated before bringing any contractor in to assist you.

— Chip Wade, contractor and HGTV star

Some home buyers want new or nearly new construction because of the relative ease of owning a newer house. With newer models, everything from the plumbing to the roof is probably up to code and fully operable, and if the home is bought before construction is finished, the new owner might even be able to custom-order some of the finishes and appliances so that it is precisely what she wants. But even though this route probably involves fewer headaches, a good number of people still want the charm, history and details of an older home, even if the trade-off is the investment of more work and time.

A real estate adage says that homeowners spend at least £13,000 their first year on improvements and special touches for any home. That money goes even quicker when the house is older and needs a lot of immediate attention. When buying an older home, deciding how to prioritise that £13,000 can be difficult.

Rob Kallick, a real estate agent in Los Angeles who also runs the popular real estate and design blog, advises putting money aside for the basics -- problem areas that crop up with some frequency in older houses. "If you purchase a home than needs major renovation, then you are going to need to hold off on extras and put that money toward the basics, like roof repairs, plumbing, or electrical work," he said.

Chip Wade, who owns the design and construction firm WadeBuilt LLC and appears in his role as a contractor on HGTV's "Curb Appeal" and "Designed to Sell," takes a slightly different tack, one that might pay off in the long run.

"You should start with energy efficiency. I recommend you get an energy audit done to see exactly what needs to be replaced," Wade said.

This step can be completed when making an offer on the house, just as a standard inspection is done. "This is where a solid home inspection and energy audit done prior to the sale can give you confidence with your offer, knowing with more certainty what you will need to spend to be up and running," Wade added.

Though the state of an older home can depend largely on the work put into it by previous owners, "in general, the older a home, the more work it's going to need," Kallick said. "An older home could have issues with electrical, plumbing, roof, termites, environmental dangers, structural issues, et cetera."

Plus, homes from different eras sometimes come with their own period-specific sets of issues.

While home building took a huge leap in sophistication and technology about 100 years ago, some elements used in the early 1900s are outdated, even dangerous, now. "At the turn of the century, building practices were moving to more wood-framed structures, and wood mills were quickly churning out lumber for construction. Unfortunately, the lumber was often not dried first," Wade said. "The result of this 'green' wood is warping over time as it dries, causing structures to twist and turn."

Older electrical systems, sometimes made with aluminium wire, are not equipped to handle the pressure of modern homes and "our power hungry appliances," he added.

Other things to check in older construction are the plumbing materials (steel was popular for a time, but it rusts relatively easily), uninsulated glass ("updating these could be the biggest save in energy you can do," Wade said), and materials like lead paint and asbestos that are now known to be unsafe.

Since most people can't undertake remodelling a house by themselves, hiring a contractor is usually a necessity. You'll want to make sure the contractor you hire has experience with the style of home you own; after all, you bought it to live among those historical flourishes. Both Wade and Kallick unequivocally recommend hiring a contractor whose portfolio contains previous experience with the same type of home you own. You'll also want to make sure every element, from materials to measurements, is agreed upon in writing before the project begins.

Still, don't rely entirely on the contractor and his team. Educate yourself as much as possible about what you're getting into. Explained Wade, "Whenever you hire a contractor, he should have a portfolio of projects that directly mimic the project you would hire him to do. But as with any project, you must be educated before bringing any contractor in to assist you. Use the Internet and code books to familiarise yourself before getting it "explained" to you by someone who wants your business. Hiring a contractor is not a one-stop answer to all your problems."

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