When I first purchased my 80+ year old home I had countless, uncontrollable, urges to renovate every square foot of the house; I wanted a period kitchen with white, maple, cabinets, a claw tooth soaking tube with 1inch hexagon tile, and new cedar clapboards for the outside of the house with luxurious copper gutters. When I explained everything I wanted to do to my master-renovator father, he almost strangled me. His advice was to take a deep breath and figure out what I could live with and which items in the house needed immediate attention and would return the most benefit to our family. I took his advice to heart and I learned to live with the many flaws of an older home.
What we did decide to work on has, indeed, provided the most comfort and benefits to our family: we put in new kitchen cabinets along with new, modern, appliances, a new, super efficient, furnace and central air condenser, re-finished all of the white oak hardwood flooring, painted each room, insulated, planted grass, installed a paver walkway, re-graded the property to avoid water getting into our basement, and installed a new garage door.
Photo: my mom and dad – the inspiration for much of the content on Scordo.com!
There’s plenty of work to still do and I suspect we’ll never get done with all of the items on our master punch list, however it’s been both a gratifying and eye opening experience working on a older home! In turn, I wanted to share a few quick tips with folks who are overwhelmed with all of the constant work older homes require, including the best renovation tip of all: don’t look for problems, renovate smartly!
The Kitchen Comes First
The first room we tackled after purchasing our home was the kitchen. You should consider renovating your kitchen if you lack cabinet space (or have poorly functioning doors and drawers), have 15+ year old appliances, lack adequate lighting, receptacles, and electrical current. Most wood kitchen cabinet doors can be repainted, but it does require a considerable amount of time (you’ll want to apply several coats of high quality, kitchen-use, paint). Your kitchen floor is also important given the wear and tear it will go through, so you should evaluate the condition of tiles, hardwood, or linoleum in your kitchen. A major kitchen renovation can be costly, especially if you choose to use high-end materials and appliances. Go for good quality cabinets with all wood construction and a tough exterior finish, reliable appliances, and solid flooring (porcelain tile is the best choice in my view).
Cooling / Heating / Insulation
Our old steam furnace had been in use for 25+ years and we sensed that the unit would go at any time. So, as if on cue, when we fired up the unit on the first cool October day one of the main pipes leading into the unit failed (and when we inspected the unit itself there was corrosion everywhere). We had the same experience with our Central AC condenser (which looked like it was in good shape during our inspection, but we couldn’t test because of the ambient air temperature). Good, efficient, heating/cooling systems are vital to a comfortable home, so don’t skimp on furnaces and cooling units. In terms of insulation, everyone should conduct an energy audit and see where you can insulate and save money
. High quality windows are expensive and the ROI, at least to me, is uncertain
(unless of course energy prices soar well beyond what most homeowners are paying currently).
Our bathrooms are circa 1975, but they’re all functional and have no leaking pipes (I know, it’s a miracle), so we haven’t done any major work. However, if you’re bathroom leaks, has cracking tiles and mold, and poor ventilation and lighting, you may want to consider a full renovation. It’s almost always a good idea to get down to the studs when renovating a bathroom so you can properly fix old pipes, run new electrical wire, put in new blueboard for tiles, etc.
Re-finishing Hardwood Floors / Painting
These two tips are no-brainers and should be done before moving into your new home. Choose a good quality polyutherine finish (as opposed to water based alternatives which do not protect your floor as well) and sand down to bare wood. We hired a professional to refinish our floors and I think it was well worth the money. Painting, on the other hand, is an easy DIY given you prepare your surfaces well and give yourself plenty of time to complete the task
. It took us 3 weeks (with a two man crew) to paint the interior of our home (including all the trim).
Your first urge when you move into your new home may be to rip up all of the ugly ivy and cut down every bush and small tree
, but I’m advising you wait! In the grand scheme of things, the landscape can wait until you’ve completed all the necessary interior items on your checklist. In our case, we had a grading issue and needed to level certain portions of the property within the first year of ownership, but we waited about a year before we trimmed bushes, put in a lawn, etc.
Roof / Siding / Gutters / Soffits & Facia
You can usually tell if your typical asphalt roof is need of a repair / replacement if the shingles crack easily or if you bend a particular shingle and it does not bend back. Asphalt shingles also show their wear, so make sure to inspect your roof often (especially if it’s older than 15 years; most asphalt roofs last anywhere between 15 – 25 years). If you have a natural surface exterior (like cedar) then you’ll need to paint or stain the surface every 8-10 years depending on climate conditions or inspect the cedar for insect/water damage if left natural. There are some nice man-made materials that look like natural clapboard or cedar shakes and they do not require as much maintenance. Protecting a home can be done remotely through the use of
ADT security systems
and an iPhone. Your gutters are critical to keeping water away from your house, so get them cleaned twice a year (if you can’t do it yourself) and watch for areas in your gutter system that do not function correctly (like an avalanche of water coming off your roof during a rain storm!).