For anyone who has ever bought a house more than one hundred years old I applaud you for your courage and feel empathy for what you will endure. Indeed, the very mention of the idea of purchasing an old house should be enough to make most homebuyers quiver with fear.
Only those of us who have endured the hardships can truly understand that unless the house has already been updated there will be seemingly no end to the investment of not only our funds but also our lives and sanity. For some the experience is more intense than others: it can make or break a marriage, drive you to near bankruptcy, embarrass, cause anxiety or extreme fits of laughter when you finally accept your lot in life for your own stupidity.
I personally have reached the extreme; I have taken to drinking hard lemonade starting no later than ten in the morning on bad days. I lie to myself and maintain we bought it for the land.
That’s a good one if you have a nice view and indeed we do but in reality we had no idea it would cost this much or take this long to fix. You go into it thinking “OK, a few thousand for a new heating unit, a few thousand for new siding, a few thousand for new windows.” Did I mention the new foundation on a house with no framing in the walls? Really! Neither does it have a working bathroom sink!
When the pipes freeze I have learned to melt snow on the wood stove to fill the tank to flush. That wood stove is our only heat and with no insulation in the walls if the fire goes out at any time after the end of summer you’d better have a parka handy. The house can get down to thirty-five degrees inside and then it takes about three days to get it warm again. The squirrels have better sense than to come in this house during the winter. During other times of the year they make free run of the place.
You may think I’m exaggerating but think again. The house we bought was built in 1853 and had space beneath the stairs to hide from the Indians. When we finally opened it up we found newspapers on stark white paper that were as clear as the day they were printed dating back to the early nineteen hundreds. When the contractor went to dig out under the house to prep it for a foundation he found all the floor joist broken and had to repair them before attempting to lift the house which began to buckle when he started to jack it up. That lead to opening up the walls and finding there was nothing to open up.
Houses back at that time (especially old farm houses that were built on a budget) were often built using true one inch boards first set horizontally with another set placed vertically. The windows were set straight into the walls without framing. Such was the case for us. We had the two layers of board, a layer of plasterboard and a layer of siding. The contractor had to rebuild our house from the inside out before he could set it back on pier posts where it remains because the foundation money got eaten up rebuilding the walls, floors and wiring.
I say all this with a certain sense of humor but when its cold and the pipes freeze and you can’t shower before going to work its not funny. When you’re embarrassed to have friends over because no matter how much you try to clean everything still looks old and dinghy you begin to separate yourself a little because you don’t feel comfortable reciprocating invitations or having the family to your house for holidays.
These things wear on people no matter how sure they are that they can handle it for a few years. Although you can’t prevent all the common feelings and frustrations that go along with buying an old house and restoring it there are several things that can be done to help you and your spouse get through it.
Before you buy:
Remember before you buy an old house there are certain things you should do to make sure you’re not in over your head. These steps will help you be prepared for what you will face both in time and cost.
1. Have the house inspected: You are probably buying the house as is and so the buyer is not paying for a homeowner’s inspection because he is not providing any guarantees. You should order and pay for the inspection. Make it clear to the inspector what you want and why. Have him list for you everything that needs to be repaired just as he would in a normal inspection. Home inspectors will even crawl under the house if it is accessible.
2. Have a contractor look at the inspection report and give you an estimate: A remodeler (not a handyman) can give you an approximate cost (at today’s prices) for each project and let you know in what order you can undertake repairs to keep from having to redo any work.
3. Get a loan if possible: Providing the repairs aren’t extensive you may want to include the repairs as part of the purchase and raise the price of the house to cover them. If not check into a line of credit or second mortgage. I liked the LOC because I could use it as needed and when paid off it can be used to do new additions or further remodeling without having to get another loan. A word of caution here, don’t use anymore loan proceeds than needed-you still have to pay it back and if you decide to sell loans decrease your cash out.
After you buy:
1. Make a task list and check it twice: This is a big one as far as I’m concerned. Everything that you want done to the house should be listed in some sort of organizer so you keep on track and can see what’s been done so far. One of the hardest things to deal with is feeling as if you’re going nowhere. This will help you see what has truly been accomplished.
2. Get help from friends and family: There are some things that you only want a contractor to do (my walls for instance) but other things like putting down flooring, or carpeting if someone knows how, can be done by the average homeowner and friends. If you have the tools friends and family can really help keep the cost down. Cook a bar-b-cue lunch and get mom to help feed the crowd. My advice though would be don’t put out the beer to early if your friends are big drinkers-who knows what you’ll get.
3. Make a pleasant spot: You need to have someplace where you can find peace from all the mess. We sectioned off an area that had some trees and my husband put in a lawn. It will get messed up again when more work is done but it is worth it. During the summer we have at least a small area to bar-b-cue and sit. It is a feel good place.
4. Stop making excuses for the house: Go ahead and invite people over. Instead of apologizing for the way the house is give a report of what’s been done and what you are going to do next. Don’t go to far into the list so that you feel you have to meet up to an expectation before having them over again, just give them little bites and if you get more done let them be in awe of how far you’ve come.
5. Get away from it all: No matter how organized, well budgeted, or how much moral support we get, living an uprooted life is stressful and we need time to relax. Don’t think every vacation or long weekend needs to be devoted to getting done. It will still be there tomorrow but your sanity may not. I know mine isn’t.
In the end an old house has charm and warmth that is often hard to find in modern day construction. There is character, perhaps from knowing that it has a history, perhaps from all the little touches others added but making it your own and reflective of your personality as well can not only be challenging but rewarding. In the end you add to the history and story the walls would tell if they could.