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First do no Harm

Advice for the New Old House Owner

By Allen Hazard with contributions from Bonnie Poppe

Many new homeowners who have never owned an old house before ask the same questions that my wife and I did after moving into our bungalow several years ago. Now what? How do I do this and how do I do that? Sometimes it can seem overwhelming when you first move into a house over fifty years old. What we have learned since that time I wanted to share.

The first thing you should do is nothing. This is the most important point I have to make: leave it alone. Follow the sage advice that the medical field uses when treating patients, "First do no harm." You have probably heard this before and it is also a SOHO mantra that you should live in your house for at least one year before you do anything. Get to know the house. You will be amazed by how much will be revealed to you through everyday living and how many times you will change your mind. So, go ahead, write down some notes about your initial plans and put them at the back of your calendar. My guess is that you will do most projects in a substantially different way than what you initially planned.

One of the ideas that I gladly eliminated involved painting the battered columns of my California Craftsman three different colors. Thank goodness, I didn't do it. Instead of beginning such an ill-conceived undertaking, I decided to repair the rope pulleys in our double hung windows, one of the "safe" repairs that can be done early on. Similarly, roof, foundation, and sewer repair are ideal candidates for first year work. What is to be avoided is the temptation to make aesthetic decisions to change original fabric that has been in place since the very early days of the house's life.

There are many excellent resources in print and online, which can serve as reference materials for comparing your home to others of a similar kind. SOHO also is an excellent resource, from the website to workshops, lectures at conferences, to the wonderful selection of books about old house upkeep at the SOHO Museum Shop and of course, the sage advice of, what I call, the "three wise men of SOHO," Executive Director Bruce Coons and Board Members Erik Hanson and David Swarens. The depth of knowledge each has about older houses always amazes me. For example, Erik has a great website IrvingGill.com, which includes his amusing Erik's Bungalow Manifesto, including my favorite quote: "A house without a porch is like a woman without a nose." Erik also lists historic information on vintage linoleum and bathroom tile, and provides examples of how bungalow garages should look. (One of my pet peeves is people replacing original or later day wooden carriage style garage doors with mass market, cheap and ugly aluminum garage doors, please don't!)

Here are suggestions of contemplation and research for that first year: Respect the craftsmanship of your home. Don't remove any original detail, these details are what make up the home's character and have stood the test of time. If you are unsure as to what is original, talk to friends and neighbors who are knowledgeable and who may have similar homes; do a little research and look at as many books and articles about your style of house as you can; if necessary, contact SOHO if you are unsure.

Don't paint unpainted woodwork. Most pre-WWII homes, and some mid-century homes as well, originally had finished, unpainted woodwork. Leave it alone for at least a year, and preferably forever. If you find the woodwork is too dark for your tastes, it makes more sense to move into a style of home that embraces painted woodwork than to reduce the value and damage the historic fabric by painting the woodwork.

Don't alter the exterior of the home. Many older homes were stuccoed over the original wood siding, or re-stuccoed using the wrong finish. Until you are sure whether your house had stucco leave it alone. Many Victorian and Craftsman houses were sided with asbestos siding in the 1940's and 1950's, which can be easily removed at a reasonable cost, and in fact can be done legally by the homeowner (contact the San Diego Department of Environmental Services for their guidelines.) The original wood siding underneath is almost always intact, as the way these companies were able to convince homeowners to invest in their product was that it could go up in a day or two directly over the underlying siding material! In summary, do not make changes to the exterior without being certain what the correct steps are.

If you have some knowledge of the type of home you have, and do decide to change your exterior paint scheme, consider researching and using historic paint colors. There are books on the subject, and at least two paint companies (Benjamin Moore and Sherwin Williams) that have historic color charts geared to homes from different periods. While color is important, the correct placement of the color is imperative. Using the right colors on the wrong areas will not provide the classic look you are hoping for. Again, there is so much information on restoring homes that just a little research can go a long way.

Don't consider replacing your wood windows with vinyl. There are excellent reference materials available detailing the reasons why repairing and rehabbing your wood windows is superior to replacing them. Replacing wood windows with vinyl will result in your home losing its eligibility for historic designation, as well as looking completely out of place due to the dimensions and profiles of vinyl window frames.

You can't always believe what home remodeling salespeople tell you. When choosing someone to work on your home, from architect to designer to repairman, be wary if they say it can't be done. There are carpenters, handypersons, plumbers, electricians, etc., who will respect your house and your needs and know how to work on it; check the SOHO online Resource Directory.

If your house or some of its rooms are too small for your needs, consider moving to a larger house instead of altering your house and thereby the entire neighborhood. The house was proportioned to the lot size when it was built. Your home was designed as a whole and when you begin making significant changes, you may find the house will lose the charm, which was why you chose it in the first place. If after careful consideration you do decide to remodel or build an addition, consider what is the most sensitive addition.

My wife along with neighbors in Mission Hills submitted the first residents completed historic district to the City of San Diego. Richard Jacobs spearheaded researching guidelines used by cities across the state and nation. The guidelines that we produced provide examples on how you should maintain the appearance of an older home within the Mission Hills historic district but are relevant to most anywhere. You can review these guidelines and the Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation guidelines (which are the national guidelines that professionals refer to for restoration of old buildings) on the Preservation links area of the SOHO website.

These district guidelines and other historic district materials can assist you with examples of what is generally acceptable--specifically with consideration to the proportions, set backs and fenestration of neighboring structures. And then, there is just plain old courtesy to your neighbors. It is the right thing to do when designing an addition to consider their views, sunlight, and privacy as well as your own. You can also contract with a historic architect or design consultant to prepare plans and consult with you on design decisions.


Allen Hazard is a frequent contributor to Reflections. He and his wife, Janet live in a historically designated bungalow in Mission Hills. They are founding members of Mission Hills Heritage, www.missionhillsheritage.org.


Editors note: SOHO has been developing an in-depth document to help homeowners with their historic home, due for website release in mid 2007.

2006 - Volume 37, Issue 4

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