The 7 big challenges of renovating an old house – and how to beat them


Many homeowners prefer older homes to new for a variety of reasons: Often the craftsmanship is better, the wood trim and floors have the rich patina of age, architectural windows and other detailing give the home character, and the structure may just feel more solid and settled.

But when it comes time to restore or renovate, older houses can present new challenges for homeowners who haven’t braced themselves for the costs ahead.

“Everything is more expensive than people think,” says Jake Schloegel, president of Schloegel Design Remodel Inc. in Kansas City, Mo.

“It’s not uncommon for people’s ideas of cost to be about half of what it’s really going to be.”

There is a considerable price difference between a restoration, which attempts to restore part of a home with historical accuracy, and a renovation, which upgrades old with new.

“Working on older homes is more expensive if you’re going to try to maintain the authenticity of the original construction,” says Schloegel. “There is a big difference between restoration and renovation. Restoration is really expensive, matching things exactly. You may have to have molds made, blades made. It can be rather involved.”

In addition, a restoration that alters the exterior of the house will likely require the approval of a historic-home or -landmark commission, a process that can add months to your project.

Whichever project you undertake (we’ll deal primarily with renovations here), it’s a good idea to interview several design-build companies in your area and choose one to work with before moving beyond the dream stage. Low-ball renovations, while tempting, rarely yield satisfactory results, and in a worst-case scenario can actually decrease the value of your home.

“Since we are a design-build company, we like to be involved from the date the idea was conceived through all the construction and complete project management,” Schloegel says. “Not only is the idea and design important, but also a realistic budget. Many projects never get built because the design and the budget don’t run together; they start running at right angles. A reality check can come fairly early in the project when it comes to budget.”

Challenge 1: Water
David Tyson, of David Tyson and Associates Inc. in Charlotte, N.C., knows what he goes up against in most renovation projects.

“Water is the No. 1 enemy, in my opinion,” he says. “Just moisture presence is the worst problem because it starts the mold and mildew effect, then bacteria, and eventually termites. Those are detrimental to a house anywhere, anytime.”

Moisture behind wallboard can often lead a renovator on an expensive side trip to replace rotten or termite-infested studs with new ones in order to proceed with the remodel.

“I tell all of my clients to put 5 to 15 percent aside for contingencies, regardless of the size of the project,” says Tyson. “I don’t have X-ray vision.”

Challenge 2: Foundation cracks
Old homes may have been built better from the ground up, but their foundations often don’t withstand the test of time, says Dennis Gehman of Gehman Custom Builder in Harleysville, Pa.

“In cement block or cinder block, which was used from the mid-1960s on back, the cinder portion is not as structurally sound as the cement block, so you get cracks, and water penetrates,” he says. “In homes 40 or 50 years ago, they typically didn’t use foundation sealer on the outside, and now it wouldn’t seem real prudent to dig up landscaping and sidewalks to do exterior sealing.”

Cracked foundations also are a common source of radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas that has been identified as the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States.

Sealing the inside of the blocks (say in a basement) may rectify the problem, but you’ll want to make sure you divert as much water as possible with drainpipes and grading outside, or the hydrostatic pressure may cause the sealant to peel.

Estimated cost: $600 to $750 to seal a basement floor; $1,200 to seal and vent a basement; $7,000-$10,000 for a new foundation and floor.

Challenge 3: Lead
There are two potentially hazardous sources of lead in an older home: plumbing pipes and interior/exterior paint.

“Even after lead pipes were replaced in the 1940s, the earliest galvanized pipes still contained lead until it was changed over to zinc,” says Gehman. “Lead was also present in much of the solder used to join copper pipes up until the mid-1980s.”

Owners of older homes often prefer to install a filtration system to extract lead from their water systems — a kitchen filtration system might run $500, a whole-house system $2,000 — rather than replace the pipes, unless the pipes are hopelessly clogged or already included in the remodel.

The potential dangers from lead paint lie in the possibilities that a child might ingest it or that it might fall into a vegetable garden and be ingested through the produce. The rule of thumb is to encapsulate it in latex paint — remove exterior siding rather than sandblast it to avoid releasing the lead into surrounding soil.

Estimated cost: $6,000 to $7,000 to replace all pipes, $15,000-$18,000 to remove old siding and install new.

Challenge 4: Electricity
When your old home was built, chances are that grounded electrical outlets were either not required by code or only required in locations where water is present such as kitchens and baths. But times and codes have changed. If you’re not sure if your outlets are grounded, check them — if they’re two-pronged, instead of three-pronged, they are not grounded outlets. But even if they are three-pronged, have your electrician verify that they are indeed grounded.

Completing electrical work in accordance with code today requires that you install ground-fault-interrupter, or GFI, outlets in your kitchen and baths and possibly one outlet in your garage. The GFI cuts off power immediately should an appliance come in contact with water. It’s a small price to pay to avoid tragedy.

It’s likely that you’ll also have to upgrade your electrical box from the original 60/100- or 125-amp capacity to today’s 200-amp standard. A new box is a good investment since older systems weren’t built to run modern appliances such as dishwashers, hair dryers, garbage disposals and air conditioners.

But digging into a remodel doesn’t mean you’re going to have to replace the wiring throughout your entire home.

“Not usually,” says Schloegel. “Under the International Residential Code, the building official has the authority. If it is a significant amount of renovation, they can ask for the whole house to be brought up to current code, but we have done major whole-house renovations that were about 75 percent of the house, and they have not made us bring the whole house up to code.”

On the other hand, it may be a good home-value investment to do so. In homes where behind-the-wall wiring is not practical, a good alternative may be to conceal the new wiring behind baseboards.

Estimated cost: A single GFI outlet can cost as little as $100. Cost to rewire a kitchen so every appliance has its own circuit: $1,000 to $1,700. Cost to rewire an entire house: $9,000 to $12,000.

Challenge 5: Asbestos
Behind your walls, in your basement or in your attic, asbestos may be lurking. If it is, it can stop your project in a New York minute because permits are required to handle and dispose of it.

“Unfortunately, it was used in quite a few products: floor coverings, as insulation around duct work, even home siding,” says Tyson.

Unless the asbestos is “friable,” meaning it can be readily crumbled and released into the air in the form of toxic dust most typically found in duct insulation, it shouldn’t present a problem.

“If we encounter it, we let the homeowner know, and it will have to be removed by a professional abatement company before we can come in,” says Gehman.

Estimated cost: $15,000 to $18,000 for asbestos abatement.

Challenge 6: Windows
Strange as it seems, the old single-pane windows are now typically more expensive and harder to find than the double-pane energy-efficient windows approved for new construction. The originals with new dual-paned energy-savers typically run in the $600 to $800 range.

Challenge 7: Tanks, wells and cesspools
Owners of old homes may not know what surprises await beneath their lawns until renovation projects unearth them. In previous generations, it was common to have an oil tank buried in the backyard to hold heating oil. Even older homes may have had a well, cesspool or septic tank on the property that did the work of modern water and sewer systems.

If you uncover a buried surprise, there are numerous solutions, from removing the tank, if it’s empty, to draining it and filling it with rocks or other solid materials. But if you have a buried oil tank, your contractor may have to obtain a special environmental permit and take soil samples to assess possible contamination before digging up and disposing of the tank, usually at a state-approved facility.

Estimated cost: $1,400 to $1,600 to fill a septic tank; $2,000 to $2,500 to remove it; and $3,000 to remove an oil tank if no leaking occurred.


About Author

Melanie Jarvis is the Editor of My Renovations Magazine and the Community Manager for The Sussex Newspaper, the largest online newspaper in Sussex, UK. She is also the Editor of the social media guide - How to use Facebook for Business. Alongside her editing roles Melanie Jarvis is the Project Manager for extension specialists, Onebuild. Not only does she oversee all of the residential builds, she also places supervisors on extensive commercial works in London.

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