Renovating an Older Home? Read These Tips Before You Start!

Last weeks chat on #KBTribechat on kitchen renovations was amazing! So were so many great ideas, sharing tips, tricks, what to do and what not to do for the DIYer or homeowner, it brought back a flood of memories, and nightmares, of when my husband and I took on an 1926 home – ourselves. Here’s what happened.

I am by far NOT into renovations (anymore) of any type but having lived through renovating an old kitchen and that fact that I survived, now THAT’s something to write about.

My husband and I bought this home in Pittsburgh back in 1991. It was of course in a great location (Mt. Lebanon) had blue ribbon schools and was very affordable. The home was built in 1926. It had tons of charm and character and caught my eye from day one. Unbeknownst to me, we were in for a TON of work.

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It was a small home, not very big around but it had a basement, 1st floor, 2nd floor and an attic so it as big in height but deceiving from this photo.

By the time this photo was taken, we already had ALL the upgrades and renovations complete. What did we do? New roof, pointing, windows, insulation, landscaping, sidewalks – you name it we did it and it took us 15 years to complete. Just as soon as it was up to parr – we sold it and moved to Charlotte, NC. Having been through all this, I wanted to share some tips with you since it’s not everyday ones gets to work on a home from 1926. Insider tips will save you time and money … and a few gray hairs!

It’s been a while since we did this work but this at least I recalled the big stuff you’ll want to keep in mind before you start your project.

Budget: this is no brainer. We all know that adding 20% to what you THINK you’re going to spend, will be wise. Tip: Save.

Flooring: Here’s where you’ll find TONS of surprises. When we renovated the kitchen and lifted the linoleum that was starting to peel, we found that there was about 4 layers of flooring that had never been removed prior to the next installation. It was kind of neat to see how the flooring trends changed over the decades but not so neat trying to remove all those layers!

When we removed the carpeting (see photo) in the upstairs bedrooms, we found this beautiful straight, grain pine. This photo was take right after we lifted the carpet but it was breathtaking after it was cleaned up. You also can’t get this type of wood anymore unless you find a speciality store that reclaims it.

Tip: Be prepared to do extra work when you lift up any flooring. Have removal tools ready and a place to dispose of all that extra material you weren’t counting on. It’s messy and a bit labor intensive.

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Here is a picture of the girls room complete – well, as complete as this room would allow us. Not the scary window treatments. Plaster walls are hideous for installing anything from art to curtain rods. Here we drilled right into the original cherry wood but again – extremely hard to find curtain without going custom.

See the pickled paneling? Do you know why it’s there? Behind the paneling was a horrible mess! The previous homeowner had a much darker paneling there and we didn’t want paneling at all so we starting taking it down. Not a good idea where the chimney shoot is. The plaster fell apart, the lath board was a mess so without going over budget, we put up paneling again but suitable for a little girls room.

Windows: Nothing in an older home is standard. If you can remember this alone, you’ll be ahead of the game. As you can see from the horrible curtains I had there (see next photo), I had a hec of a time finding something to fit and custom was out of the question. Not only was finding soft window treatments a challenge but finding the windows themselves was a nightmare. They ALL had to be replaced. Not one window in this house (I think there was about 22 of them) was a standard size. Here’s where budget comes in. Tip: Don’t even waste your time at the local box stores for windows. Just call in the pros to get you what you need. By the grace of God, one of our friends was in the window business so we saved a ton of money here.

Paint: You may or may not know the weather conditions of Pittsburgh so I’ll tell you. The typical day is overcast and gray. To compensate for the gray days, I painted my living room a very cheery gold – this is Gold Buff by Behr and it looked beautiful in this room. I was in a bit of a pickle with the aqua sofa I bought because there aren’t many colors to match and beige and taupe were out of the question. Great color choice for this room. Tip: Like happy colors if you live in Pittsburgh. Tip2: Painting on plaster walls eats up more paint the usual.

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Door widths: Nothing is standard – even the door widths. This is one of the bedrooms that had a very narrow doorway. Can you also see the odd size window? Custom cut wood blinds were added there. Can you also see the wood floors after they were refinished? The wall color here is Ryegrass by BehrTip: Measure your doorway before you go furniture shopping or shopping for your kitchen appliances. It was a bear getting this solid wood, Thomasville sleigh bed not only though the door but up the VERY NARROW STAIRWAY.

Wiring: Older homes will have tube and knob. I didn’t sleep at night in fear of my house catching on fire until all the wiring was replaced. Tip: Remember tip #1 – budget.

Plumbing:  The house had brass threaded plumbing. We replaced it with the standard copper which in the long run, was more economical and easier to find all the other fittings if we needed them. Tip: Save the brass if you replace it now – worth some $$$$

Plaster Walls: I never thought I’d notice the walls in a home so much until I lived in this house. They are a pain! It was really difficult to hang artwork, they are not even or level and cold to the touch in winter. TIP: When removing plaster walls, you will find lath board behind it. If you live in Pittsburgh, keep in mind that it’s an old house so there’s a really good change black soot will come flying out. Was it coal dust? I don’t know but it was a mess. By the way, all the ceiling were plaster to.  Tip: Invest in a good face mask.

Flooring: From the real hardwood flooring to the stairs – no matter how many nails you buy, you will NOT get those squeaks out.  Tip: You don’t ever need an alarm. Those squeaks will tell you that there is someone who is trying to get in your home … or trying to get out. Tip 2: You’ll have a difficult time trying to find a proper fit for transition strips.

Kitchen Cabinets: Not to be redundant but even the kitchen cabinets can’t be standard. The walls are uneven in height and in most cases, you’ll have a very small galley kitchen. We went with a yellow ash wood that had amazing grain and again, luckily, had a friend in the business. As in any design, store your non important items way up on top (invest in a sturdy ladder) and hire a skilled kitchen designer to help utilize the storage that you’ll need. Tip: Take the kitchen cabinets all the way to the top of the ceiling but leave about 1-2″ of space to disguise unevenness the a molding on top. The customized molding will not be square but it will make your cabinets look perfect. Insider Tip: Don’t renovate your kitchen when your wife is 6 months pregnant and will have nowhere to eat for the next few weeks.

Attic: The surprise room. When we moved in, this room was loaded with – well, attic stuff from the previous owners. We kept it as a storage room for Christmas things and the kids extra toys but eventually turned it into a room for my son. Tip: You can’t be over 4.5′ and invest in a portable a/c and heating unit for these rooms. Tip 2: there is great storage space in the eaves of the attic. Utilize it.

Air conditioning/Heating: More than likely your home should already be set up with the needed duct work for an air conditioning system – this home had forced air so you are 70% on your way. Roadblock: Since this home is taller than it is wider, the cool air will not or minimally get to the top floors. The further way your room is from the furnace, the  less efficient your a/c will be. Tip: Invest in a blower/fan that can be installed into the vents that will boost or push the cooler air up to the top floors.

Insulation: When we started demo on this house – there was no insulation to be found. I don’t know what happened to it – did it disintegrate over the years? Who knows but we had some cellulose insulation blown in and it worked perfectly.

The Bathroom: Keep in mind in 1926, there was no such thing as a home having 3 bathrooms. The main problem with this bathroom, and there was a few, was the tub finish. You can’t see it here but the original finish on this tub was really, really destroyed. Main Tip: DO NOT USE TOUCH UP PAINT FOR THE TUB. DO NOT GET ONE OF THOSE TACKY ACRYLIC INSERTS.  Just reglaze it. It comes out beautiful!!!!

My gosh! I can go on and on and on but this post is already a short novel. I hope some of these tips help and good luck with your renovations!

About Donna Frasca

www.AngelHug234.com www.DecoratingbyDonna.com
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3 Responses to Renovating an Older Home? Read These Tips Before You Start!

  1. kjev says:

    You reminded why I moved from my house built in the 20’s in MA to a house built in the 90’s in NC! LOL

  2. Donna Frasca says:

    But which would you rather have, a home with old character and some DYI projects or a home that’s just like every other new home. I miss the old charm myself but not the projects – it’s nice to have experienced both!

  3. Alice Jones says:

    I am buying a old home next week and now I’m looking for some home renovation options. I loved reading through your blog post and learning about what to do when it comes to renovating an old kitchen. I think I’ll invest in some remodeling contractor so that the insulation and air conditioning in the home is remodeled correctly.

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