The Truth Behind Those Gorgeous Historic Home Renovations


So you watched another home improvement show and saw another perfectly-modern-and-still-perfectly-historic home renovation. It is gorgeous. It is flawless. It has a kitchen you can actually cook in. Oh, be still, beating heart!

Next thing you know, you’re browsing home listings online with the filter set to “hopelessly optimistic.” You’re determined: you’re going to find your own perfect restoration project. People will weep at the sight of your glorious creation. They. Will. Weep.

Or will you?

We had a sneaking suspicion those historic home renovation projects aren’t quite as easy as they look on TV, so we asked the experts what really goes into it all. The short answer: a helluva lot. But that doesn’t mean you can’t pull it off.

The Truth Behind Those Gorgeous Historic Home Renovations

It won’t be quick

Remodeling a newer home is downright hard. But remodeling a historic home? That can feel like a suicide mission.

“More upfront research is required determining what was original and what is important to the building,” says Bryan Henson, president of Allen Construction, historical rehab specialists in Los Angeles.

If you want to be accurate, you’ll need time to take inventory, research the floor plan and photos of the home, and decide what can be salvaged. Typically the design and permitting processes take longer, too, Henson says.

You might even need to reach out to an architectural historian, especially if the home was remodeled in the past. Sorting out what was original to the home can be tricky on your own.

Modern Queen Anne kitchen
Modern Queen Anne kitchen

(Jim Bartsch/Allen Construction)

Respecting the past might mean respecting the red tape

If you buy a historically registered home—or plan to have the home considered for historic landmark status later—you might find yourself frustratingly limited in what you can do.

That’s because historic landmarks have more stringent requirements when it comes to alterations, Hansen says.

Before you start working, make sure you know what you’re in for (and what you can’t do). You’ll save yourself a headache later—and possibly some fines.

You’ll meet the ghosts of homeowners past

“The worst part of restoring a historic home is finding mistakes that people have made before us,” says Shannon Baird, real estate broker for Living Room Realty and principal at S Baird Design in Portland, OR.

It happens all the time: An addition with low ceilings that don’t match the original blueprint. Perhaps original solid wood doors were replaced by cheaper plywood doors, or carpet might have been nailed down over the original hardwood. Expect to spend some time and money undoing what previous homeowners have covered up.

El Toro master bath
El Toro master bath

(Allen Construction)

You’ll find things you wished you hadn’t

If you’re very, very lucky, your historic home restoration won’t have any surprises. But the odds still aren’t in your favor. The Allen Construction team has found every problem in the book—from asbestos to decayed and leaking pipes behind the walls of historic homes.

If you’re remodeling a historic home, you should plan for at least one “clean up and replace” kind of job.

And while older homes were built with more care, many of the materials commonly used then aren’t up to code today.

“For safety, we often find that older features—like stair rails and balusters—need to be rebuilt to meet today’s standards,” says Baird.

Finally, because there will inevitably be unexpected issues, you should leave plenty of room on your timeline—and in your budget.

“On our El Toro project, the master bedroom was above a historic ceiling and not structurally supported, so we had to insert steel in order to support the bedroom and not adversely impact the ceiling below,” says Daniel Mault, project manager for Allen Construction’s El Toro historic landmark project in Ojai, CA.

Southern colonial bedroom
Southern Colonial bedroom


But you get to be Indiana Jones (sort of)

Restoring an old property is a journey, and sometimes you might feel like you’ve discovered buried treasure (minus the booby traps and enormous rolling boulders, hopefully).

“Most historic homes offer a variety of pleasant surprises and discoveries as you go through a remodel,” Henson says. “We will sometimes uncover beautiful brass or ironwork that has been painted over so many times, all of the detail was lost.”

The key is to preserve those treasures correctly.

“If you can keep original details like light fixtures, tile, cabinetry knobs, plumbing fixtures, even tubs, they help maintain the historic feel,” Henson says. “With color schemes and textures, it is important to echo the original as much as possible.”

The company has even gone as far as to hire a forensic paint consultant (yes, that’s really a thing) and use local ironwork shops to recreate or repair items that were damaged.

Southern colonial parlor
Southern Colonial parlor


And the shopping is fun

You’ll likely spend a lot of time looking for hardware, light fixtures and other small touches, but it won’t be a regular old boring trip to Home Depot. You’ll get to dig through architectural salvage shops and spend hours looking at fascinating vintage fixtures online (Mault and Henson have had luck finding parts on eBay).

In fact, you even might find a piece of your actual house for sale.

“In a recent historic remodel, the fireplace ironwork was missing for years. The owner was at a local antique shop and noticed there was one for sale that matched the ironwork in the house,” Mault says. “They realized after looking at old house photos the piece at the antique shop was originally from their house, so they went down and bought it right away.”

And the end will be worth it

Having a house that doesn’t look like anyone else’s is reward enough in itself, but that isn’t even the best part.

For Baird, it’s all about saving something from a wrecking ball and giving it new life.

“Bringing a historic home to modern conditions and ensuring that it can be appreciated by more generations to come is the best part,” she says.


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