Owner’s Guide for Rehabbing Older Homes

Courtesy photo

An older home, like many clustered in central SA’s historic neighborhoods, can bring mixed emotions. The heart starts pumping. The thrill begins as you look around and imagine what that room would be like if you moved that wall, stripped the wallpaper from the ceiling, painted it that great color you saw last summer. You feel it: the exhilaration of finding that unique house with “good bones,” that one-of-a-kind character and detail that distinguishes it from other houses. It has charm and the potential to be your real life dream home, one in which you see yourself living for a long, long time. It has wood floors, high ceilings, big windows and a front porch for swinging or rocking in your old age. In your mind it’s a “fixer-upper” and just needs a little paint.

In a house down the block, the heart starts pumping, for other reasons. The chill begins as you look around at your fixer-upper and ask yourself, “What on earth have I done?” You can’t imagine what happened to get that hole in the wall, wonder what is dripping from the ceiling and sigh at all the peeling paint. You feel it: the anxiety over the amount of work ahead of you. Where you thought you saw the charm, your vision now fades. You are skeptical. Those “character-defining” features that everyone talks about—the ones that caught your eye to begin with—fall off in your hand when you touch them. It has wood floors that need to be refinished; high ceilings that you cannot reach; big windows that need to be repaired; and that porch where the swing should go has a rotted floor that you have no idea how to anchor. You realize your life will have no central heat and air conditioning, no dishwasher and one bathroom. In whichever camp you see yourself, the key to success is planning. Where do you begin? As tempting as it may be, that fresh coat of paint is not the most important thing to be done.

First, make sure there is nothing life threatening that needs to be addressed, such as electrical or structural problems. Then think bottom, top, middle.

Bottom: Start with an evaluation of the foundation and make any repairs there before you move up in the building. Many older homes are on with a post and beam foundation where the posts have rotted out over the past 100 years. They can be replaced. Repairing the foundation is probably going to cause the house to shift (back where it should be located) and then cracks might appear in the wall finishes. There could be enough movement to cause new leaks at the roof, chimneys or flashing, and even in the plumbing. It needs time here to settle down.

Top: With the foundation in good condition, the roof is the next area of concern. Check the roof structure and deck material to make sure it is sound enough to walk on. Repair any leaks that you knew about, and check for new ones caused by the foundation repairs. You want a house that is watertight.

Can’t afford that new copper roof you dreamed of? Remember, any roof is better than a leaking roof. As part of the roof, don’t forget the gutters. If the house has them, make sure they drain away from the foundation or you will be calling the foundation man again.

Middle: Now that you’ve fixed the high priority issues, you can think about the fun stuff on both the inside and outside of your house.

You can expand the area where the new kitchen will go but don’t remove walls without consulting an architect, structural engineer or a good framer who knows how to transfer the loads for your new room.

Can’t afford all of the changes for the house right away? Plan for any future additions before getting too far into your project. Yes, you can have that second bathroom, or bigger kitchen, or even a master suite. The mistake you do not want to make is to “undo” something in the future because you didn’t think it through initially. Have a master plan, which outlines both your ultimate design, and any necessary phases to fit your budget. Be willing and ready to get help. There are many qualified professionals, architects and contractors who know what to do and can make the best use of your money. Don’t forget that the Office of Historic Preservation at the City may have a review process to help you make good preservation decisions.

All the energy, frustration and hard work are well worth the final result: a great house with unique features that reflect you. Repair that porch and those windows. Paint the walls and trim. Refinish those floors you fell in love with and even install that swing. Now enjoy that new old house!

Sue Ann Pemberton, FAIA, President of the San Antonio Conservation Society, is also president of Mainstreet Architects Inc. and a Senior Lecturer in the College of Architecture at the University of Texas—San Antonio.

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