For many years, the idea of rescuing an old house was synonymous with living a fairy tale. Yes, I’m a hopeless romantic…
And then I actually got to rescue an old beauty – and live out the fairy tale. The experience was 80% Cinderella at the ball and 20% staying ahead of the Big Bad Wolf.
For the past ten weeks, I’ve been sharing with you our Old House Renovation Story. We began with the rebuilding of the front porch, toured every room, and ended up back outside in the gardens. If you missed anything, the chapters are all listed HERE. (Scroll to the bottom and start with “In the beginning…”.) Throughout the process, I learned a lot about myself – and Life. In no particular order, I’d like to share some of those lessons with you… in this final chapter of the Old House Renovation Story.
Lessons From An Old House Renovation
Dream big It began with a conversation common to new empty nesters. Renaissance Man asked me what I still wanted to do in my life. I told him I wanted to restore an old house. Before I knew it, he’d had a conversation with a banker-friend and set us on the path to making my dream come true. I have no idea how he managed to find the perfect piece of Dove chocolate to give me…
Don’t assume I tend to say our house wasn’t habitable when we bought it. Certainly it had been neglected for far too long, and its condition was appalling. (Remember the exploded cans of food in the Dish Pantry?) But the truth is, up until a year before, when the husband died, an elderly couple DID live in the house. I even knew them, though not well enough to know the challenges inside their home. In fact, few people knew how they lived, and it was only after the wife was moved to a nursing home that the truth of their difficult existence come out. If only we’d known…
Perfection isn’t necessary I’m a perfectionist by nature, but my old house confirmed for me that perfection is sometimes the wrong response. If the squeaky, swinging door between the Kitchen and Dining Room, the slight burn mark left in front of the (coal burning) fireplace by an escape log, and the tiny cracks in a few century-old glass windows had all been removed, they’d have taken much of our home’s charm along with them. Instead, while we worked hard to bring the ol’ gal into the 21st Century, we made sure her roots stayed firmly planted in the last one. There’s something very freeing about that…
Embrace trade-offs Unless there are unlimited funds and no deadlines – What would that look like? – old house renovations are full of trade-offs, so finding the “sweet spot” between the renovation budget and the project timeline is critical. You don’t always have the luxury of waiting for a sale when the plumber is ready to install fixtures. Planning ahead and knowing what has to happen next saves both time and money.
Click HERE to see the Master Suite renovation.
Respect the past Keeping the integrity of an old house has long been on my list of non-negotiables, so I didn’t really have to learn this lesson… but I did have to prove I could pass the test! As I’ve told you before, I’m not a purist when it comes to renovation, but our home’s history and its place in the community were ever-present in our minds. When I made the decision, for example, to remove the plate rail from the Dining Room, it was only because there was a more-appropriate-for-modern-times way to use it. Other things, functional or not, got to stay…
There will be “unknowns” Count on it.
Pay attention Whether it’s the way something looks or the way it functions, noticing details is an extremely important part of an old house renovation. The nicest thing you can do is keep as many original details as possible… and complement them when “new” is necessary. In 1907, our home was given beautiful 5-panel, solid wood doors. In 2007, we did our best to respect that century-old choice.
Go with your gut Sometimes the obviously “right” option simply isn’t there. You’re faced with multiple choices, any of which should be fine. So how do you choose? In my experience, even though I may not know why, there’s always one option that tends to rise slightly above the others… so I “go with my gut” and don’t look back! You don’t really want a picture of this one, do you?
Share From the moment of purchase, Renaissance Man and I viewed our old house as a gift, and we knew we’d be eager to share it with others once the renovation was done. As it turned out, we didn’t have to wait that long… Friends and strangers alike stopped by to watch our progress. They asked questions; some told stories of our home’s early days. After nine months of virtually endless work, we moved into our “new” home in late April 2006 – and continued renovations upstairs. A few months later, we threw open the doors and hosted a Holiday Open House… in celebration of our home’s 100th Christmas season. The “hopeless romantic” in me loved the timing!
Be patient – with yourself and others Our first mistake was hiring painters by the hour. In our defense… When we bought our old house, the availability of painters was extremely limited. But really? We paid them by the hour? What were we thinking? Thank goodness – midway through the project – we found a true painting professional.
This guy got paid by the hour. 🙂
Take a break After awhile – especially if the renovation involves a lot of DIY – the long hours, decision making, dust-covered surfaces, noisy power tools, budget-juggling, and fast food begin to take their toll. STOP. Walk away for a few days. Trust me… it will all be there when you return, but you’ll feel much better about Life (and you’ll like your spouse again)!
Be careful! Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there The day Renaissance Man chose to disconnect an old floor heater, he made sure to turn off the power at the main switch. So when he cut the wire – and was met with a scary-loud POP! – we were both “shocked”… and extremely thankful his wire cutters had insulated handles. It turns out, unknown to us, the heater was connected to a separate electrical box hidden under the Kitchen floor. … And you thought I was going to tell you a ghost story? Sorry… Not today.
Be creative Part of respecting an old home’s history is finding new ways to use old elements. By the time we bought our house, the original screen door between the Kitchen and the back porch had been relegated to a storage building (thankfully!) and the back porch enclosed. When I found the beautiful Victorian screen door, I knew I had to use it “somewhere”, and so we kept it. Finally the day came to clean it up – leaving the beautiful, original worn paint and porcelain knob – and install it as the “new” door to a Renaissance Man-added broom closet in the Mudroom addition.
Admit your limitations For the nine months prior to moving into our old house, Renaissance Man spent his days as a college administrator – and evenings and weekends adding his DIY prowess to our project. I spent my days – and evenings – picking up supplies, removing wallpaper, choosing paint colors, designing rooms, coordinating hired help… all while helping Daughter the Younger (who was away at college) plan her out-of-state wedding. It still makes me smile that her fiance’ – my Favorite Fatigue Wearer – asked from Iraq, “Why did your parents buy a trash house?” Obviously, renovating an old house wasn’t on his “Someday I want to…” list.
While it seems perhaps we didn’t know our limitations, we actually did. We hired one full-time handyman (for a year!) as well as electricians, painters, and tile setters as needed. I can’t imagine tackling our renovation without them!
Be neighborly One of my pet peeves is an old house renovation that fails to take into account the homes around it. While I love, for example, the Painted Lady Victorians of California, to paint our old house in such bright colors would never have been appropriate. Instead, we left behind the stark white trim, rusty-red pressed tin, and green porch floor of the house “as found” – and opted for a warm gold (that matches the brick’s grout) complemented by charcoal-black. And when we added the garage, we could have poured a long concrete driveway… but that would have detracted from the time period and softness of the house in a neighborhood where some homes don’t even have driveways. Instead, we chose to add an antique brick border to separate the drive from the rose bed – and spread gravel. The look remains soft and natural… and much more appropriate for a house built in 1907.
This is where I’ll lose some of you… and others of you will nod in agreement.
Listen to the house Old houses give off vibes – and our old house gives off some very good vibes! I love it when someone tells me how “warm and welcoming” our home feels to them. I feel it, too. In the past 107 years…
- At least one birth – and one Heaven-bound death – took place within her walls.
- Children learned to crawl and take their first steps on her beautiful heart pine floors. They learned to climb stairs – and count; 14 steps up, 4 steps across, 6 steps up. They played on her big, wrap-around porch… and smelled old pink roses in her yard.
- Books and papers were read and written here. Education was valued.
- Pets brought her owners pleasure – and comfort.
- Stories were told, laughter rang joyfully, and music hung in the air.
- Friends were welcomed, parties held, and gracious hospitality practiced.
- Meals were cooked – and shared beyond her front door.
- Tears were cried, prayers raised, and faith tested.
- Snow fell, thunder rumbled, and lacy dogwoods brought faithful reminders that “to everything there is a season.”
- The days and years and decades passed as one . two . three families watched through her beautiful, wavy-glass windows.
- God was present. Is present.
It’s been a pleasure to be the third owners of the home I will always call the Witt-Turner House…
What lessons has your house (old or new!) taught you?