Old-House Restoration Learning Curve

It’s one thing to love an old house, another to take one on. Restoration can be intimidating; still, the rare sort of homeowner thrives on the work, typically describing their characterful money pit as “a fun project.”
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Restorers are an unusual breed. What motivates these unsung heroes of preservation to take on a decades- or centuries-old house for the first, second, or umpteenth time? I asked that question of more than a dozen folks who’ve been featured for their good work in OHJ.

Some responders are serial restorers who say they get antsy as one project nears completion. Others have renovated properties in different locales, whenever life took them to a new place. One or two have invested in a house with deep roots, and are still hard at work restoring homes that have been in the family for decades.

old house restoration

After learning hard lessons during their first restoration, Bill Ticineto and Jill Chase made sure, in their second project—a shingled cottage in rural Connecticut—to start with upgrading essential mechanical systems and such basics as insulation.

Then we have Alex and Wendy Santantonio, who admit to naively thinking they’d finish their first renovation (of an 1885 row house in Alexandria, Virginia) in three years. It’s been 17 so far. “It’s almost as if our home found us, two suckers that would pour our hearts into its upkeep,” says Alex. “Now I can’t imagine ever owning a house that isn’t at least 100 years old.”

burying electrical lines

Ticineto and Chase have buried new electrical lines to the house. The necessary, often invisible, grunt work may take years, after which rewarding cosmetic projects can start.

Anyone who’s lived through restoration knows that it’s messy, exhausting, expensive, and usually poses at least one seemingly insurmountable problem. Even a simple project like skim-coating a hallway creates so much dust that it percolates into every room, says Bill Ticineto, who’s now working on his second major restoration. “Refinishing floors is a nightmare. All the furniture must be moved out of the room. You might as well stay at a hotel.”

Most of those we spoke to applied their own skills wherever they could, but subcontracted out jobs that require special expertise, such as electrical and plumbing work, structural work including shoring up or rebuilding the foundation, and heavy landscaping. That said, almost all recalled doing more of the dirty work in their earlier years, when youth and lack of money made hands-on restoration a necessity.

Karla Pearlstein, whose passion led to a career as a restoration consultant and designer, stripped all the paint off woodwork in her first home, an 1895 Queen Anne. She also took classes to learn how to repair its stained-glass windows. With an eye to budget, she says, “I also got really good at strategically filling dumpsters,” doing her own demolition.

Others who have found it’s easier to tackle many jobs on their own live in an area with few qualified tradespeople. “There are very few contractors who have the skills to do the work, or who will take the time without charging an arm and a leg,” says Michael Bristol, a restorer in rural Nebraska. “But an even bigger challenge was convincing myself that I could do what needed to be done.”

Bristol has successfully restored the unusual shingle work on the tower of the Queen Anne home that’s been in his family since 1963; he also has grain-painted interior floors himself. He did plenty of research before beginning each task, and also says he’s watched a few how-to videos.

Alex Santantonio, who’s restoring not one but two houses at the moment, says he now appreciates the learning curve that a commitment to restoration requires. “This is evident from our evolution in the plaster restoration process. What started as joint compound with lots of sanding has graduated to a multi-coat lime plaster process that requires no sanding at all.” 

Serial restorers like David and Tom, who live in Ishpeming, a small National Register town in Michigan, stumbled into restoration thanks to cheap rent. “Our first renovation was in a rented apartment in Chicago,” David says. The owners were perfectly nice people who let David and Tom have the apartment for 50 percent below market—provided they fixed anything that went wrong themselves. “We did a few things in that rental, but really went to town in the first house we purchased. At first there were only five electrical outlets in the whole house.”

The couple found an old-school electrician to replace the wiring and add new outlets. “He made almost no holes at all. I’d work behind him, patching plaster,” David says.

Over time, they learned to do all the demolition first, and to be out of town when the dirty part of a major project is unfolding. They’ve also found there’s a not-so-delicate balance between the desire for complete authenticity and the limitations of available cash. David goes by the “85-percent rule.” If he has to replace historic materials, such as the porch posts on his current home, he researches what was originally there. If he can’t find a perfect replica he can afford, he’ll use new or salvaged materials of similar quality and style. In most cases he finds that “an 85-percent match is going to be just fine.”

He and Tom applied that rule to their stellar renovation of a high-style Queen Anne house in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Missing pocket doors were replaced by a custom mill, yet they found much of the millwork they needed as stock at the local builder’s supply.

“We were able to choose our battles.”

Building a reputable and reliable team of skilled craftspeople happens slowly, too. The best way to find professional workers is word of mouth: talk to neighbors and colleagues who’ve had similar work done, our restorers say, then visit the site and evaluate the quality of the work. Other resources include local preservation organizations, good hardware and builder’s-supply stores, and surprisingly, Instagram. “Many skilled professionals use the platform as a way to show off their portfolio, and to highlight their capabilities,” says Santantonio.

Look for projects going on in your neighborhood. “Is the contractor there everyday?” says Ticineto. “Is the job site clean?” Pay attention to signs that the contractor may be cutting corners, such as painting outdoors when it’s wet or too cold for paint to adhere properly.

David and Tom have developed strong working relationships with a few contractors. “My favorite was the floor guy,” says David. Before he made a commitment to the job, “he came and interviewed us.”

If you’ve found one reliable contractor, ask him or her to recommend other tradespeople, Ticineto says. Plumbers who team up with electricians are a real find for projects involving a boiler installation, for example. If a contractor has worked with another on several jobs, that’s a bonus: they’ll know how to sequence a job and prep for each other.

Ticineto also likes to stay with a single contractor rather than bounce around. “I want them to know the house and feel responsible for it.” His go-to electrician “will not work with me if I use other electricians. He says the only way he can be responsible for his work is if he knows all of what’s been done.”

Restorers say satisfaction comes from restoring what, at its essence, is a true antique. Most say restoration has affected them in profound ways. “The most important thing I learned was how to let go,” says Karla Pearlstein, who admits to being a bit of a perfectionist. She came to see her role as educator and facilitator rather than restoration czar. “I provide information, ideas, and options, but then step back and honor the dance that unfolds between a building and its people.”

“There is no one right way to do something, and trying things until something works right, right now, is half the fun,” says Alex Santantonio. 

Trees Close to House

Trees that are too close to the house harbor moisture and should be taken down by skilled professionals. A single tall tree may cost $3,000 or more to remove.

Do the Basics First

When Bill Ticineto and his wife, Jill Chase, moved into their first restoration project, a 1920s Colonial Revival in coastal Connecticut, they saw stains on a first-floor ceiling. Not thinking anything of it, they simply skim-coated the ceiling to a beautiful finish. Soon after, there was a heavy snowstorm followed by a thaw. Water began pouring through the ceiling in the same spot. They had an ice dam (water backing up on the roof during a thaw)—and it was obvious this had been a recurring problem, never properly addressed.

Repairing Drains

Drainage work required heavy equipment and burying drains underneath the porch.

That experience taught them the value of assessing and repairing the mechanics, which every house needs, before getting into cosmetics. When they moved into their current project, an 1894 shingled cottage in Litchfield County, Connecticut, one of their first projects involved adding gutters and a curtain drain, and repointing the foundation to stop water from getting into the basement. Other work included bringing electricity up to code, insulating the house (especially after the first winter brought a whopping heating bill), and removing trees. The couple, who are business partners as well as restoration partners, are now searching for new or refurbished cast-iron radiators as their main source of heat—in a house where many windows are a mere 14" off the floor. When that project is complete—so far, research and estimates alone have taken two years—“we’re really looking forward to re-doing rooms!”

Attic bad wiring

In Connecticut, Ticineto and Chase have had vintage, non-code compliant wiring replaced.

Tips From the Learned

Some woodwork was always meant to be painted.

Some woodwork was always meant to be painted.

  • Live in your house a while before renovating.
  • Do all the demolition at one time, preferably while staying elsewhere, especially if you have children or if anyone has respiratory issues.
  • Try your best not to permanently alter original features. Any removal should always be reversible. Label and store elements.
  • Think twice about stripping woodwork, especially if there’s a lot and it’s utilitarian (like pine window trim). Unless the woodwork is a key architectural element in the room, and made of very beautiful wood, it may be better to leave an old clear finish alone, or (for painted trim) to grain over it or paint it a compatible color.

Kitchen Do-Over

Early in her career, Karla Pearlstein decided to build a new kitchen in her badly remuddled 1865 Italianate house, which had a dated 1960s kitchen plunked in its front parlor. “I wanted a ‘period kitchen’ but still had not completely figured out what that meant,” she says. After studying old photographs, she created a design that emulated an early 1900s kitchen, then brought in designer Matthew Roman to put together the details.

vintage kitchen, woodburning stove

Despite its authenticity—the room boasted a restored 1890s Penn-Olive cast-iron stove with side boiler—the original version of Pearlstein’s kitchen lacked practicality, until she added adjacent butler’s and dry-goods pantries with hidden appliances. 

The resulting kitchen was lovely and looked truly authentic, but it wasn’t particularly practical. “What I had created was a stove room. What I didn’t understand at the time was that a stove room requires pantries in order to be functional.” She went back to the drawing board and added a butler’s pantry and dry-goods pantry, making room
for one by borrowing space from an adjacent bathroom, the other by shrinking the footprint of the stove room. “Once I figured it out, I had an absolutely beautiful, functional, unfitted ‘period’ kitchen.”

butlers pantry

The butler’s pantry has not only an antique copper sink, but also a pullout dishwasher drawer.

She also found room for 21st-century essentials: a concealed dishwasher in the butler’s pantry and freezer drawers in the dry-goods pantry. The fridge is tucked into a niche in the stove room. “The hidden modern appliances are the secret sauce, bridging the time gap.”

The whole kitchen: oldhouseonline.com/kitchens-and-baths-articles/period-perfect-victorian-kitchen

Protecting your work

Once all the hard work is done and each exquisite architectural detail is shipshape, how do you protect the restoration from future residents who may be unschooled or destructive? For Karla Pearlstein, the ultimate “gift for the house” is a preservation easement. 

Renovated living room with fireplace

A magnificent Batchelder Tile fireplace is among the architectural elements protected by a preservation easement at the historic Cherry House in Oregon.

Used by preservation organizations throughout the United States, these legally binding agreements protect a historic property from activities that may harm the property’s integrity, including neglect, demolition, and insensitive alterations. The easement allows the owner of a historic property to retain title and use of the property while ensuring its long-term preservation. Tax credits may even apply. 

Pearlstein placed a preservation easement on one of her homes, a 1932 Storybook Tudor near Astoria, Oregon. The easements cover the original interiors and are held by Restore Oregon (restoreoregon.org/conservation-easements). Each year, the group physically checks on the property to make sure the protected interiors are intact. To find a preservation organization that places and holds historic easements, check with the State Historic Preservation Officer for your state (ncshpo.org). The office should be able to direct you to local preservation organizations that maintain easements.

Preservation easements: oldhouseonline.com/repairs-and-how-to/easements-explained

Finding The Ghosts

When David and his husband, Tom, bought an 1885 Shingle Style house in Ishpeming, Michigan, the house had been in foreclosure for more than a year. Many architectural elements had been damaged or literally ripped from the walls, including bookshelves and paneling in the library, which has a stunning Richardsonian Romanesque fireplace. “It was like the Grinch who stole Christmas, a full strip job,” says David. “Someone even stole the hardware hand wells you use to lift up window sash—just like taking the last can of Who hash.”

These homeowners had a favorite carpenter build new-old paneling and bookcases. Traces of dirt on the plaster—“ghosts” made by air infiltration—indicated where wainscot panels once had been. “We used that measurement to re-create the panels,” David says. “I firmly believe that the house will tell you what is needed, if you look hard enough.”

The Right Hardware

If you browse through architectural salvage shops or online, it looks like there are plenty of choices for authentic replacement hardware ... until you need something specific, like all the pieces for a set of transom hardware, multiples for passage doors, or a cabinet latch or bin pull that matches those still in place. A Google search can help lead you to potential sources, as can spending the wee hours frying your eyeballs on eBay, Etsy, or Ruby Lane. Salvage shops are still abundant, especially in architecturally rich cities. Ask about “new old stock”—actual period hardware never used, sometimes still in its original packaging. “We bought new old stock from a place called 8th Avenue Antique Salvage in Norway, Michigan,” says Michigan homeowner David.

window restoration

Restored window locks in Alex Santantonio’s workshop.

It may take months or even years to collect a set of interior doorknobs or cabinet hardware. The Santantonios are still looking for a few more window-sash lifts for their 1885 row house. Every piece they found has been meticulously stripped of paint, rust, and gunk. Alex’s secret? Wearing safety glasses, he passes each piece over a wire wheel attachment on a bench grinder. The spinning wheel does the hard work.

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