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The Modern Guide to The Thing Before Preppy

Monday, August 3, 2020

Reader Question for the Community: When and how to renovate/improve an aging home?

Reader Question for the Community:  :
I wanted to pose a question for the SWNE community regarding home renovations and/or improvements. 

As the owner of an aging home, I am learning to embrace our homes original characteristics and have put off making any recent updates unless absolutely necessary. I have always appreciated the unique, soulful, simplistic aesthetic of an older New England home. 

I would welcome the community’s thoughts and experiences on home renovations and I thank you for this wonderful space to visit each day.


  1. To me, absolutely necessary means roofing, trim, siding, structural/paving, HVAC, leaks, and for us, the propensity of bees and wasps to build nests in and around the structure. We re-roofed, painted/repaired trim, and are paving the driving this summer, all of which was overdue. This summer, the paper wasps finally decided a nearby tree would be better than adjacent to the chimney.

    otherwise, i think people should do what makes them comfortable in their own home. Done tastefully, built in shelving can add a lot to a room without disrupting its character....but that's by no means essential.

  2. In Texas very old homes are exceedingly rare. Our house was built in 1980 and is old by Austin standards! Our renovations have included some larger things like a kitchen overhaul but have left the bones of the house intact. Little things like nickel plated bathroom fixtures and lever type doorknobs have been nice. In the kitchen we used soapstone for the counters and love how utilitarian it is, as is a farmhouse sink. Oh, we also replaced the original builder grade windows. The new ones help with energy costs and with muffling outside noise. I like the suggestion on built in shelving. We have a den that is roughly 12' x 12'. I am thinking someday to replace the low bookcases on which the television stands with built-ins with cupboards below and shelves above. No rush. My approach to any changes that were not immediately necessary has always been to let my thoughts percolate, usually for a couple of years. Don't overlook the possibility of outdoor improvements, like decks or patios!

    1. Infrastructure trumps all & slow wins the race on old homes. Maintenance is an understatement. Bought a 1940 Georgian teardown in 1992 & redid it. River Oaks Deed Restrictions & location were the driving forces. I don't recommend it, however as an engineer I have an intimate knowledge & my esposa aka "The War Deparment" is the best General Contractor Supt I know. Enuff said.

    2. I used to live in Houston. I love RO, but I feel your pain!

  3. We have a 90 year old Dutch Colonial that we have lived in for 24 years. We limped along doing the bare minimum until three years ago we realized this was a good place to live forever. We worked with a kitchen designer plus a contractor who were sympathetic to old homes and well experienced in all the little problems that they have. After living in an apartment for 15 months while every single thing was updated we are now back home. We did add a new master bath and master closet upstairs in the back. From the street the house looks exactly the same. Inside it is all new plumbing (PEX), new wiring, on demand water heater, two HVAC systems (much better balanced), all new windows with the ones facing south and west having SmartSun glass, etc. New roof. We finally got around to it, shouldn't have waited so long.

  4. This is a great question. Growing up, we were told that the future would resemble a George Jetson-like situation with glass domes, metallic skyscrapers and cloud penthouses. Although certain cities in Asia resemble this futuristic image, I appreciate that towns in New England have enforced strict building codes on construction and renovation.

    I personally don't want any deviation from the popular architectural styles of my area: English Tudor, Colonial, Victorian and Neo-Gothic Church buildings.

    I still cringe at the Brutalism of Boston City Hall and how awkward the John Hancock appears over the Trinity Church in Copley Square.

    Old homes usually have good bones. Update the roof, electrical systems, heating furnace, foundation beams, plumbing, etc. when necessary.

    Good luck.

  5. Any of the "systems" in the house should be updated as necessary, i.e., electrical, plumbing, HVAC, gas systems, windows/doors for energy efficiency. When we upgraded our home, I, as the woman, always lost out on what I wanted, as my wants were more aesthetic and his were more functional and practical. As much as I hate to admit it, he was right, and I do appreciate our energy efficient windows and doors, and our heating and cooling systems run seamlessly. Our roof never leaks, and it's a safe house to live in. Our run-of-the mill counters and cabinets are still there and probably will remain until more money presents itself. But for some odd reason, I find comfort in the squeaks and scratches, which remain the soul of the house. Good luck and have patience. The house will tell you what's most urgent.

  6. We went the opposite of improvements. Would never think of replacing the leaded windows.
    My family has owned this house for 157 years. Very little has changed unless it was needed. Plumbing and electrical was added and appliances were changed when they were worn out. Needed to replace a wall when the roof leaked when I was a child.
    It is clean and old and beautiful.

  7. My house in Maine, a cottage-like ranch, was built in 1950 and I bought it eleven years ago. The first owner lived in it for over forty years and changed a few things in the 1960s. The second owner made some minor updates.

    I love my house because it's outdated. There are newer windows in the bedroom and kitchen but all others are original. My kitchen is 100% 1960s except for the wall oven I replaced and the refrigerator. There is a 1950s sconce in the hallway and other ceiling fixtures are 60s. Our furnace is a Thermo Pride, one of the best. We had a new double-walled Granby oil tank put in (it’s a pretty white color, too, not the standard industrial black), new efficient water heater, the roof was replaced about five years before I bought the house so will need replacing in a few years. We had an electrician update the fuse box and some of the outlets. We only have 100 amp service but it suits our needs. We don’t use a microwave, the kitchen doesn’t have a dishwasher but I enjoy doing dishes by hand. We recently had some plumbing updated but it was hard to find someone familiar with and willing to work on the plumbing of an older home.

    My advice is never update something cosmetic-related that’s in good condition because you think you have to keep up with the times. We recently had a tax reval in my town and my love for vintage paid off nicely. My “old style” house means lower property taxes!

  8. Our house is a mid-1950s ranch, so not "salty water New England," but it's comfortable and suits our needs. Our basic principle on repairs and upkeep has always been: First, do no harm.

    Beyond that, maintain the physical integrity of the structure: roof, walls, basement, all-weather access (driveway, any walkways). We modernized the plumbing because it was necessary: cracks in the original Crane fixtures.

    The kitchen was renovated — renewed, really — and our directive to the contractor was to make it look exactly as was when new in 1956.

    This wasn't always possible — Thermidor doesn't make 1950s cooktops anymore, ditto ovensm so we went with GE. But where substitutions had to be made, we found acceptible items that keep the same spirit.

    You're always trying to hit a balance between modern conveniences — strangely, nobody, but nobody, today will use an pit outhouse — and something that embodies the spirit of the original.

  9. Interesting that two comments mentioning that a house has bones.

    I think the most critical item of maintenance is the roof. Water can do more damage to a building short of a fire. So much for indoor plumbing. I once visited one home that the owner boasted of being the first house in town with indoor plumbing. In any event, I also think that newer houses need as much maintenance as an older house, except that the siding will probably never need painting.

    A lot turns on what the original characteristics of the house might be. Houses built in the 1920s, as my wife's aunt's house was, have tiny kitchens without even space for a table, even though the counters and built-ins are as modern as tomorrow. But the heating system has given them more trouble than anything. I believe they had difficulty finding someone to work on the old furnace they have. So that's an area most people would do something with, without changing the character of the house. But some people might like radiators.

    One major project they did, however, was to build an addition to the house, which blends in very nicely with the rest of the house. But dealing with contractors and designers can be a little difficult, because they have their own ideas and always push the latest trends.

  10. One really hates to change things that have worked so well, for so long.

  11. The oldest part of my house is 300 years old this year; the newer, 286 years. I honor that which exists and thrive to maintain/repair without altering the unique beauty. I start every day recognizing my good fortune to live where I live.

  12. Our “youngest” house was built in the 1890’s; as some of the above posts indicate, roofing, foundation and “systems” are important to stay current on... As one starts digging in an old house, one has to be prepared to “open a can of worms”...

  13. We live in an early 1900s Craftsman and we love it and so do the neighbors but my advice is “do what you gotta do” and that goes beyond maintenance. If you’ve gotta have a professional type kitchen then do it. A comfy cozy reading/tv it. The exterior, well, you can almost get seasick looking through some of our windows but we love the look of our house, we love our neighbors and we love the neighborhood so we consider those things when thinking about work on the exterior. We’ve learned that all tradesmen are not on the level with Tom Silva and sometimes living in the promise land means contractors will promise you anything but.... Good Luck on your plans and with the work.

  14. I agree with most of what has been said above. Our home in Maine is over 200 years old. we bought it after it had been abandoned for 10+ years, and neglected for far longer. Most people who looked at it wanted to tear it down for the ocean front lot, my husband and I loved the "bones" of the home, and chose to restore it, maintaining and repairing the historic elements of it. They just don't build them like they used to - tread cautiously with updates, newer truly isn't always better.

  15. He who loves an old house
    Never loves in vain
    How can an old house
    Used to sun and rain,
    To lilac and to larkspur
    And an elm above,
    Ever fail to answer
    The heart that gives it love?
    -Isabel Fiske Conant

  16. I adore "old and outdated" homes, but do think the necessities need to be replaced or upgraded when appropriate: electric, roof, plumbing, HVAC, etc. I love walking into an old home that looks exactly the way it did when it was built, sans some decorating touches. --Holly in PA

  17. We’ve done numerous repairs, lots of maintenance, and a couple of additions over the years. My primary recommendation is finding a contractor who is good and in whom you can place trust. Contracting is an easy business to enter. Many claim construction skills; fewer have the requisite knowledge, skills, and abilities. You want someone who is qualified and does a good job. Once you find “your person,” stick with him or her. They get to know your house and what it needs and can anticipate problems where small fixes now prevent large cost later.

    Avoid cutting corners. A competent contractor will tell you how to “do it right.” Follow that advice. Much of the work I’ve had done over the years has been fixing and replacing incompetent work and corner cutting.

    Do the things that need to be done first. Structure, water penetration, roofing, rot, leaky windows, poor ventilation, electrical, heating, etc. Usually, these don’t change the appearance of the house and you may feel like you spent a lot of money and have little to show for it. It’s certainly a pleasure to update the kitchen and add a room or two, but if you are putting pots and pans out during rainstorms, the luster of that new kitchen fades pretty quickly.

    Take bids on larger projects. You will likely be surprised at the range of prices. As an example: I had our lengthy driveway paved. Bids ranged from $8,500 to $17,000. I didn’t just take the lowest bid (see comments on competence above). I ended up spending about $12,000 and felt like I got a very good job at a fair price.

    Enjoy the process. Making repairs and renovations can be fun and enjoyable. There can be unwanted surprises—especially in old houses, but this is where your competent contractor comes in. They will anticipate and look for likely surprises before advising you on how to proceed.


  18. As needed and with attention to detail .

  19. Our house only dates back to 1957 and we moved in two years ago. In that time, the first priority was to paint our living room and bedroom, particularly updating the "old tobacco cream" trim to a nice bright white. Next project was to remove all the carpet and as we had the original oak floors, we decided to get them sanded and they are beautiful. Previous owners had converted the one-car garage into a den. As it is on the other side of the kitchen, we have made it our dining room and office. We added a fresh coat of pain, but as we do not have the original floors, we removed the very old carpet, and we are taking our time to choose new wood flooring. In the meantime, we had our ducts and windows cleaned when we first moved in. We updated our furnace and thermostat, and our fridge and dishwasher. There is still a lot to do, but I do not want the house to become our prison of a gigantic home project to-do list. Most things are more aesthetic than functional, and as this is our "forever" home, we can take our time. I wouldn't mind updating the kitchen and getting additional counter space. However, I am hesitant because the cupboard doors are solid oak.

    1. There's another word, the "forever" home. My wife and I are both retired (I retired at 71) but while we were still working, there was an unspoken assumption that we would move. But we've lived in this house over 30 years and I guess we've decided that this is it "for the duration," in spite of the high taxes here. Our daughter and son-in-law just bought a house, too. They're about two hours away, which is just about right. But we love the neighborhood and there just doesn't seem to be any pressure to move away and besides, my wife has relatives here, too. So, with all that in mind, I guess this is our forever home and continue to think of new projects, upgrades and improvements, even with the stress of a major project like a bathroom renovation. Next year, it'll probably be a new roof.

  20. The core structure of our house was built in 1692, and is it ever solid -- talk about "built to last" -- amazing! Later, in 1721, it was upgraded & enlarged to reflect the increased social standing of its owners, but all the original floors and wall panelling are intact.

    Fortunately, all the previous owners of this house had great respect for its historic significance, preserved its original features, and took very good care of it. I am so hugely indebted to them all, and every single day, I can't believe I actually live here!

    It was "updated" around 1830, when a second wife married the widower who lived here. Later, in the 1870s-80s, it became a gentleman's farmstead and then a summer retreat for a well-off family, who added a third floor of servants' quarters. Is this a hell of a lot to maintain now, without help? OMG, yes!! But still worth it, for sure.

    We've replaced the roof, completely reconstructed the fireplaces & central chimney up to code, added more insulation, and updated the electrical, bathrooms and laundry room.

    But the 1950s kitchen is intact and perfectly functional (new stove, microwave, fridge, and dishwasher, though.) Still has its vintage grey formica counters with metal edging, and plenty of painted pine cabinets. We stripped off the worn lineoleum on the floor to reveal the old hard maple flooring, which is probably Victorian or Edwardian.

    My relatives cannot even come close to understanding why I love this place so much, and why I'm so devoted to it. They've written me off as hopelessly eccentric.

    1. Your house sounds so lovely! Your description reminds me of the Acton, MA house featured on This Old House in the mid 90s. We have the ToH streaming service and watch the old episodes all the time. Is it a coincidence that many readers of this blog also seem to value the 'old'? Houses, earlier-model cars, vintage/well made clothes? Glad to have this blog and community where we always seem to gain inspiration, affirmation, and knowledge. - VB

  21. We live in a 100 year old colonial revival home. At first, I was dead set on maintaining the original details. However, economics and common sense took over. For example, the bid to repaint the exterior was $25,000 and the painter said he would be back in five years to touch it up and expect a repaint within 15 years. We had the house sided with a high quality cement board clapboard and insulated it for the same cost of the paint job and never regretted it.

    As mentioned, water is the enemy of old houses. All our bathrooms as well was the kitchen had to be gutted due to extensive water damage over the years.

    The installation of central air made a world of difference in comfort. (I live in Central PA). We are finally replacing the old furnace with a far more energy efficient model.

    We keep the interior true to the period with gentle modernization in the kitchen.

    We ripped out alll the carpeting and refinished or replaced the hardwood floors.

    We embrace our historic (for Our area) home but have made core changes to improve our quality of life.

  22. Our 1917 beach cottage had the original clapboard siding covered by vinyl siding for too many years, so we did the same as Heather, and replaced with Hardie plank. It's the best home improvement decision we've ever made.

    1. Oh Patsy, it’s a comfort that someone understands! The wood was just too much to deal with.

  23. We live in an 1840s house. Drafty. Creaky. Thankfully not leaky. Always a project to be tackled, but wouldn't have it any other way.

  24. Grew up in a Federal style colonial built by a great aunt and in the family 4 generations. Unfortunately had to sell it. New owners tore out the wainscoting, caufferd ceilings, eye windows and dentil mouldings and vinyl sided the lot of it. Then they made the interiors (which had very spacious rooms) open concept. I guess you can never look back although I'm waiting for them to roll up the Wayfair truck and call it a day.

  25. Many interesting comments here. All houses age, you know, and I suspect that some more recent houses might age faster than older homes.

    I grew up in a small town that had a surprisingly large variety of houses. Brick predominated in the better parts of town. There was even an Italian-style large house of stone and off-white brick. It's still there, glorious as ever but I never learned who lived there. There were even two "mid-century modern" houses, too, one of which I visited several times. But they were both small, and the one had a small kitchen. They both had flat roofs, too.

    Presumably, people will eventually live in the sort of house they like, be it a center hall colonial, a bungalow or a Philip Johnson glass house (which is in Connecticut)--with a flat roof. They will all present their own challenges as far as maintenance goes and the same difficult decisions over updating. And to think, some people live on boats.

  26. We live in an 1890s house, and it's time for a new roof. The house has been changed over time, so it's no time capsule.

    The part of me that likes longevity and value is considering standing seam metal.

    The part of me that values aesthetics and tradition is inclined to stick with asphalt shingles. Cedar shingles would look great, but I don't want the maintenance.

    What are everyone's thoughts on putting a metal roof on an older home?


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