The truth about owning an old house

Published January 26, 2012 by housecrazy

I want an old house with character.”

That was me… before. Before actually owning an old house.

As mom always said, “be careful what you wish for.”

Yes, I love old houses. But actually owning one, and taking care of one, is a pain-in-the-a**!

My 1870’s Gothic Revival in Canon City is not my first old house.

In 2004 we bought a 1904 worker’s bungalow that was cute but in need of some love:

photo credit: Sarah Felix Burns

Here’s the back view:

photo credit: Sarah Felix Burns

And here’s me… all thrilled and optimistic on closing day:

photo credit: Lupe Felix

I was so naive back then (and skinny).

We were greeted with decrepit plumbing, duct-tape covered knob & tube wiring, mouse poop in the drawers and a kitchen floor that actually bounced liked a trampoline when you walked across it.

But at 916 square feet and priced less than $100,000, we were able to put some money and elbow grease into the place and make it a charming little house.

The worst thing that ever happened in that house was the old clay-pipe sewer line backing up and flooding the basement. I don’t have to describe what a disgusting, putrid mess it was to clean up.

But we persevered and we overcame. Then we just ended up selling the place. Made a little profit on it too. (In fact, that is the only house we ever made a profit on!)

After that, we bought a spacious 1958 rancher, which is not exactly old, but not entirely up to new construction standards either.

Here it was on the day we had it inspected back in 2006:

photo credit: Russ Abram

A new garage door, front door, back patio, exterior paint, updated electrical panel, front & back lawn, landscaping, in-ground sprinkler system and a few thousand dollars worth of stuff on the inside (including a new furnace and central AC installed)… and we got it to this when we sold in 2010:

photo credit: Sarah Felix Burns

photo credit: Sarah Felix Burns

photo credit: Sarah Felix Burns

We had some adventures in that house too. Cracked and heaving concrete. Rotted-out plumbing. Rotten patio roof. Old appliances that needed replacing. Cat living in the crawl space. Neglected yard. Mice.

The biggest issue, however, was being re-zoned by FEMA (a year and a half after we purchased the place) to be in an imminent danger flood zone.

Ridiculous!!! The house was a half mile from the river and had never flooded before in its life. It had never even been considered to be in a flood zone until 2007. We had some epic torrential rainstorms during our time there, but the basement NEVER flooded, not even one iota. What’s worse, the way that FEMA redrew the flood maps, only about one-fifth of our property was actually IN the flood zone – the south west corner of our DRIVEWAY. However, we were forced by our mortgage company to purchase really expensive flood insurance every year. The house that we adored, but could no longer afford (thanks to FEMA rezoning), was placed up for sale.

So we moved on once again.

We purchased our current house: the 1870’s beauty who needed, well, a gazillion dollars worth of tender-loving care. Not to mention four months of deep cleaning.

Here she was when we acquired her in 2010 (yes, she’s a girl):

photo credit: Joann Grenard

Now I know that owning an old house is a privilege, but it is also a responsibility. An expensive responsibility.

Unless your old house has been gutted deep down to the studs and completely remodeled (then I would argue that it’s not really an old house anymore), you are going to be doing some serious sweating, check-writing, and general WTF?!?!-ing.

With my old house, the question was not – what’s hidden in the walls?

No, it was more like – what died in that wall???

Seriously, a couple of days after we had insulation sprayed into the wood-frame part of the house, a pungent odor started emanating from the west kitchen wall. That led us to believe that some small critter or family of critters had perished in there – probably due to suffocation by insulation.

Anyway, it was only one of the many follies we’ve had since tackling this beautiful but dilapidated money pit.

Here is a list of some of the things I learned from owning an old house:

– they never used to insulate, unless you count horse-hair stuffed into lathe boards

– removing old wallpaper was unheard of, they just painted or papered over it!

– old plaster just disintegrates into dust (airborne dust)

– old houses are NOT kid friendly (ie. lead-based paint, asbestos flooring, steeeeep stairs….)

– weather-stripping is a more recent invention

– modern furniture does not fit through antique doorways

– I miss having a dishwasher

– getting knob & tube wiring updated (to modern safety standards) is EXPENSIVE

– painting walls & trim takes 3 times as long as it does in a newer house because of all the holes/nicks/gouges you have to patch

– layers and layers of linoleum/glue/oil/ and even cloth rugs over original wide plank floors

– given the right conditions, plants can grow IN your old house’s walls

– everything costs more than you think it will and takes way longer than expected

– no doors are standard size

– black soot from old wood stoves lasts forever

– people just shaved off bottoms of doors to fit the house as the house and/or floors shifted

– they burned and/or buried garbage in the back yard

– God knows what they buried in the cellar

– dust, dirt & debris are now part of my daily cleaning routine

– caulking is my best friend

At the risk of sounding like a whining droop, or scaring anyone off from ever buying an old house, I have to admit that I am still crazy about old houses.

My pulse rate still goes up when I see one. I still fantasize about winning the lottery so I can rescue old houses and restore them. I still even think it is a good investment because you are investing in history.

Most of all, I view old-house ownership as the ultimate kind of recycling. Taking something that was built by hands now long dead, and renewing and repairing it to live another hundred years and house another dozen families, is the ultimate reward for me.

Well, that’s how I feel on a good day.

On a bad day, it’s more like…. cursing-out people who have lived here before and envying the lucky s.o.b.’s who were smart enough to buy new construction homes.


3 comments on “The truth about owning an old house

  • My sentiments exactly! I love/hate our old 1880 Italianate Victorian… or rather I love the house that I envision it had been, but I hate the crappy stuff people have done to it over the years.

  • The thing I’ve learned as a home owner is EVERY HOUSE has issues that are going to be expensive. We’ve owned a 20 year old house that needed so much work it nearly bankrupted us. Nothing about it was hidden – we were very honest about how much MORE work was needed (50 000 or so) – but it DID bankrupt the woman who bought it from us and by the time she sold it it was in such bad shape the new owners razed the house (we were ALL totally hooked on the lot, private road, old growth forest, a historical steam train went by daily at the edge of our property and beyond that more forest and then the cleanest river and the best little inlet for swimming…) We bought a well maintained 40 year old bungalow at the highest point in town. While we were there we had HUGE issues with water seeping up through the foundation as the water table rosewe had to repair, and our neighbours across the road AND behind us on the next street over had the sewer pipes burst and back up into their homes. At least with our century old farmhouse we were VERY clear on the work and YEARS of work ahead of us. Even as we’re a year and a half in with holes in the ceiling in the kitchen so I can track a leak in the bathroom upstairs and 100 a week oil bills because we need to insulate the basement I still LOVE this house and thank my lucky stars we were able to buy it.

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