Historic Home Renovations Guide: Everything You Need to Know

Ginny Bartolone
Written by Ginny Bartolone
Updated September 1, 2021
Array of victorian cottages with white picket fences
Gary D'Ercole/The Image Bank via Getty Images

Renovating a historic home takes an extra ounce of personalized care—as well as some help from seasoned professionals

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Hand-carved crown molding, floor-to-ceiling window panes, and wraparound porches—owning a historic home checks off a bucket-list item for history buffs and avid DIYers alike.

Making renovations on these classic houses can range from a small challenge to an undertaking reminiscent of The Money Pit. But don't fret—with the right team of trained professionals on your side, we'll map out a strategy to fortify your historic adobe without sacrificing what makes it so unique.

What Is a Historic Home?

If we want to get technical, a historic home counts as any structure preserved by the National Registry of Historic Places. Criteria include architecture that showcases a specific time period, homes that housed historic figures, or events that occurred inside your walls that made an impact on your area's past.

But if your home has yet to be nominated or simply didn't quite make the registry, it doesn't mean you don't live in a historic home that needs the same special care. Historic homes simply preserve an architectural moment in time, whether that be early colonial America or the Frank Lloyd Wright era of the 20th century.

In every case, you'll have to decide if you plan to restore or renovate your home. Restoring refers to returning the home to its original glory, stained glass and all. Renovating refers to bringing the home into the 21st century—but in this case, without threatening its beauty or breaking any preservation laws.

Working With Your Local Historic Commission

If your local historical commission deems your home as historic—or if you live in a historic district with specific regulations—always begin by working with this team one on one. Yes, there will be more hurdles to leap over—occasionally including committee hearings—but this group often holds crucial information to guide your renovations.

Historical committees can help you determine if street-facing alterations will threaten the validity of its original features. They can also determine if structure repairs, such as adding drywall, will shorten the home's lifespan. In other words, it's helpful to have these experts on your side during the process.

Top Challenges of Renovating a Historic Home

A set table at the dining room of a historic home
Tony Anderson/DigitalVision via Getty Images

At first glance, there's nothing more enviable than laying claim to the historic beauty on the block. But it does take an attentive homeowner to ensure decades-old homes meet today's safety and environmental standards. Here are the top challenges to keep in mind so you can get ahead of them.

Planning Your Budget

Always budget for unexpected costs far beyond the signing price of a historic building. The cost to restore or renovate a classic home traditionally runs higher than a modern structure. Contributing costs include:

  • Hiring licensed experts with historic home experience

  • Higher insurance costs

  • Repairs to plumbing, electrics, and structural elements

  • Specialty permits

  • Unique renovations take more time, resulting in higher fees

Plumbing

Even if past owners updated faucets and basic pipework in your home, major plumbing elements like your water main line might still be from the early 20th century. The older the plumbing in your home, the more likely you'll find issues with tree roots, cracked pipes, and old plumbing materials like clay.

Drywall and Plaster

Homes built before the 1950s may include wood lath and plaster or calcimine walls. Homeowners often consider replacing these with traditional drywall, but it's vital to ensure that the change doesn't threaten the house’s stability. If you do make the switch, be sure to have a specialist on hand with experience working with plaster structures.

Insulation

Schedule a home energy audit to check out the current insulation set up in your home. Some historic homes came with thick enough walls for basic protection against extreme temperatures. But you're unlikely to find up-to-date insulation materials unless the past owners added them.

Electrical

The cost to fully rewire a home ranges from $6,000 to $25,000, depending on its size, age, and the current system. Knob-and-tube wiring, for example, was the standard choice in the early days of home electricity itself. While the systems can hold up over time, they often break down over 100 years and may have been poorly altered by past electricians.

Home Facade

You'll most likely trigger a full committee meeting if you plan to alter the front of your historic home. Changing the paint color, siding, porch, or even the windows can sacrifice time-specific features. 

It's worth noting here that adding an addition to your historic home may prove trickier than usual as well. Most historic committees require the addition on the back of the home. If you can see it from the street, it must match the style of the rest of the house.

Water Damage

Not all historic homes come equipped to handle over 100 years of water pressure. Shifting foundations, leaking pipes, and increased flooding can all lead to water damage issues. Expect to pay between $3.75 to $7 per square foot to repair water damage or related problems like mold and mildew.

Flooring

Letting go of original wood flooring can be a tough decision. When rot, mold, or—dare we say it—pests come into play, it's time to look into flooring replacements. 

Speak with a flooring specialist who has experience in homes from your era. You may be able to replace individual floorboards causing major slants or issues without gutting the whole room.

Italianate, Victorian, or Colonial historic homes offer a look into the past and the work of architects you're unlikely to see again. Most importantly, always work with licensed, certified, and insured contractors that not only guide the project but also treat your vintage home with personalized care.

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