Top 10 Things You Should Know Before Renovating an Old House


    If you’ve ever renovated an old house, chances are there are some things you wish you’d done differently. Here are the top 10 things to know before you start — all from hard-won experience.

    10. Do everything at once up front.
    It will seem more expensive, but we promise you will save money and mental trauma in the long run. You only want to open and close the walls once. Plastering, painting and floor refinishing should all be done before you move in.

    “It is always more economical to get the whole project done at once,” Ronald Hugh Baker, Principal, Baker Design + Build, told Brownstoner. “However, the work can be divided into phases if necessary.”

    9. Secure the outside envelope first.
    If the roof, siding, or pointing is old and worn — even if nothing appears to be leaking — replace them. Your new plaster and wallpaper will be ruined if the roof or facade leaks.

    It’s possible to have a hidden leak between the exterior and interior walls. Wherever it is, if a leak creates mold, you will have to stop the leak and demo the interior wall where the leak was to clean out the mold, then redo it — all very messy and expensive.

    “First you must fix the outside, because if it is leaking, and the water is going inside, it will mess up your work inside,” said Delwar Miea, owner of Naba Construction Inc., which specializes in brownstone renovation and waterproofing.

    Renovating an Old Home: Tips & Tricks

    A serene parlor in a Fort Greene house updated by Elizabeth Roberts of Ensemble Architects. Photo by Dustin Aksland

    8. Upgrade the mechanicals.
    Unless your mechanicals are relatively new, replace them. What good is the new $15,000 bathroom (or $40,000 bathroom) if you have to demolish it because the plumbing springs a leak?

    Note: You may not need to replace vertical vent lines or the main stack — consult with your licensed plumber.

    7. Don’t gut.
    Often inexperienced renovators see decrepit finishes or old mechanicals and think a full gut is in order. Fortunately, it’s a myth.

    If you treasure the historic character and don’t want the inside of your 19th century brownstone to look like a new condo, save as much original material as possible. Brownstoner recommends skim coating rather than replacing original plaster walls and, of course, keeping moldings, doors, mantels and other period details.

    Mechanicals can easily be updated without removing details. Instead of removing all the walls, you selectively take out sections where the mechanicals go, then re-plaster.

    Even creaky old stairs can be rebuilt. A coat of paint is all that is necessary to camouflage new treads, and the original banister and newel post can be saved and refinished.

    A partial gut of some rooms may be in order to update bathrooms, kitchens, or move walls. Water damage and structural repairs are two reasons a gut or partial gut may be recommended.

    Renovating an Old Home: Tips & Tricks

    Window replacement in Ocean Hill. Photo by Cate Corcoran

    6. Hide the washing machine.
    A washing machine should be tucked away in a pantry, basement or hall closet. In a rental apartment with a small side kitchen, it can look OK as part of a run of cabinets and appliances. But in a larger kitchen, it will stand out and look less than lovely.

    5. Don’t use quarter round molding.
    Quarter round molding is often the default standard among contractors and floor installers. (If you’re wondering what it is, it’s exactly what it sounds like: One quarter of a round dowel.) It looks cheap and dated. Be sure to specify an alternative, such as a flat molding.

    4. Do not DIY.
    It’s tempting to think you will save money by doing some of the renovation work yourself. But unless you have past construction experience and are not working full time, it’s unrealistic. Even painting, which is easy, may be too time consuming if the property is large or you need to move in quickly.

    Brownstone Interior Decorating In Park Slope

    A Park Slope kitchen designed by Kathryn Scott keeps original woodwork. Photo by Ellen McDermott

    3. Strip at the beginning.
    No matter how carefully you try to protect adjacent surfaces, stripping paint off wood trim and mantels is inherently messy. It also removes polyurethane, the finish typically used on wood floors.

    If you’re planning to strip, it’s easiest to do it before you plaster, paint, or refinish the floors. Incidentally, if the house is covered in layers of old linoleum, you’ll save yourself a lot of prep work if you do the stripping before the linoleum removal.

    2. Cover anything you want to preserve.
    Wood floors, mantels, woodwork, appliances — if you are planning to keep any of these, cover and protect them before work starts. You’d be surprised what workers will bang into and accidentally mistreat.

    Some workers (hopefully not the ones you’ve hired) will do unexpected things, such as use a five-gallon paint bucket as a pogo stick or jump on a stove to reach a crack to plaster.

    Renovating an Old Home: Tips & Tricks

    This Park Slope bathroom designed by Tamara Eaton has new tile and fixtures but original moldings and stained glass. Photo by Jeffrey Kilmer

    1. Order specialty plumbing items.
    Got an old claw foot tub, farmhouse sink, or antique sink you want to use but the plumbing is falling apart? A handyman or even a licensed plumber won’t be able to do much with it unless you order specialty parts.

    These are readily available online and from select plumbing supply stores. A special waste is available for a claw foot tub, and you can order special nickel plated pipes for the water supply to the tub.

    Likewise, these same outlets carry reproduction taps (heavy duty, made in the U.S.) that will upgrade your sink to museum quality — not those cheap imports that cost $8 and leak quickly. Trust us, they’re worth it.

    [Top right photo: Dustin Aksland]

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