February 3, 2015

In our house hunt, we are looking for something with 4+ bedrooms and acreage. That means we have seen lots of two things. One, houses outside of the city’s limits. And two, (what this post is about) old homes. Very old homes. Like, the-Civil-War-was-just-wrapping-up old.

As a result, one of my favorite conversation topics with anyone who would listen lately is: “What do you think of the thought of buying an old house?”


Everyone’s responses can mostly be summed up by either of my two most trusted design consults and friends – Elysia and Adam. Let me illustrate. We saw a beautiful, beautiful brick home on zillow with lots of square footage and 10 foot ceilings. I know, total swoon. My goodness, those details. The catch, of course, was the house had a 19th century birthday. I showed the listing to both friends to get some thoughts.

Elysia expressed reservations. “Insulation is almost always a problem for anything before 1950. The cost of what you would have to put in a home is sometimes more than the cost to build one that has character, especially since you are looking for large bedrooms (typically uncommon in older homes). To give you an idea, I spent 15k on windows bought during a sale that were not top of the line. A roof for a 2,000 square foot home is easily another 15-18 grand. The big question: how long before this needs to be replaced, upgraded, or repaired? I would say ‘no’ for anything older than 1960. I do not know when central air was standard, but that is also a huge cost. And I would have a contractor and inspector with me on any of those old homes.” (Yes, we text like this.)

House Hunting

In comparison, Adam’s response to my link of the listing: “I LOVE THAT. I’m almost tearing up.”

He and I are alike in that we love houses with rooms and are not feeling open concept. I love the purpose of a room. To deal with an old home, he says pay for a professional cleaning. And any draft or creakiness can be fixed for a price.

This post is ending and I am not sure I have a verdict. This will probably be an ongoing debate in our home. And really, each house is case by case because two homes both built in 1890 could be completely different present day depending on what they have gone through. Many people I know who bought old homes and are the types who enjoy working on and renovating them have loved the experience and their finished product.

At the same time, I think my fear of getting caught in a money pit will make it unlikely we will ever go forward with something that old. I have landed that my ideal is 60s to 70s. It is probably going to be dated (in the good way that I like updating), but is new enough that I may skip some insulation, electric, and plumbing problems.

We are the ones choosing and I am still so curious to see what we end up with! Someone in the comments told me the market picks up after the Super Bowl and I would love for that to prove true.

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Leave a Comment


  • Michaela Harris

    My husband and I are currently house hunting as well and I know how stressful all these little questions can be! ha. As for the old house question, we did look at several old homes: some ultimately seemed like too much work while some had been carefully updated and made efficient. My aunt and uncle bought an old tudor home and thought it was their dream home but were constantly sinking money into it: heating it, basement flooding — little things that are minimal compared to what some old home homeowners face but it eventually was enough to drive them to move. If I was looking for my forever home, I think I might be more sold on the idea of an old house because I would be investing in it for the sake of our family, not just resale value. And I think that might make it worth it. I LoVE old house charm and style. That being said, it would be SO important to get multiple inspections just to be sure!

  • Carla

    I live on this street and I can tell you that the neighborhood is amazing! You should definitely buy it.

    • Rachel Schultz

      Crazy! Haha. Thanks Carla.

  • Also, I LOVE that porch!

  • This may not sound helpful at first, but I think it depends on the actual house. Our home was built in 1900 (it originally had an outhouse!), but it had the same owners for 60 years before we bought it and they did a great job of maintaining and caring for the house. All the structural stuff was sound, the wiring was in good condition, and most of the questionable things had been updated.

    We love our old house, but we have had to do some updating here and there (yes, the insulation is next on our list). But we would definitely buy an old home again, provided it had been well cared for and we weren’t confronted with a house that needed a LOT of hugely expensive work.

    So, that’s my vote. “It depends.” :)

  • I’ve got to agree with these other commenters – don’t be afraid of old homes! We purchased a home built in 1949/1950 and while there are some things that we do have to think about (there’s some wiring that’s definitely original to the home), construction back then was really smart. For example, our home is the warmest/coolest house I’ve ever lived in and it has to do with the fact that the wood siding was attached almost at a 45 degree angle, so wind couldn’t hit it and get through like it would if it were horizontal. Don’t let your head take over too much or you’ll never pull the trigger!

  • Shannon

    My profession is historic preservation and my husband and I have owned three historic homes including two right now that we are rehabbing. So my answer is YES! I would definitely buy an older home. They REALLY don’t make them like they used to. In large part because the quality materials just aren’t available at an affordable price these days like they once were. Not to mention the change from craftsmanship to mass production.

    My first comment would be to educate yourself on energy efficiency–there are lots of misconceptions when it comes to old stuff, a major one being that windows should be replaced and buildings should be artificially sided. This is perpetuated by the replacement industry that spends millions in advertising trying to convince people that new is better when the facts don’t support their claim. Google “stack effect” to learn more. A 100-year-old repaired window made from old-growth wood is going to be of higher quality than new replacement windows and will last a lot longer. Combined with a good storm and weather-stripping, the energy savings is on par with new windows. Most of your energy isn’t being lost through your walls anyway, it’s occurring at the top and bottom–the basement/crawl space and attic. You’re much better off investing in a high-efficiency furnace and sealing air leaks/insulating at the top and bottom then spending thousands to replace windows. Some resources I’d point you toward:

    And even if you’re not equipped to undertake the work on your own, there are craftspeople out there who know how to correctly deal with historic structures. Contact your local preservation organization or State Historic Preservation Office to see if they have lists of contractors. Many also offer helpful workshops–that’s how I learned window and plaster repair. It’s not as daunting as it sounds.

    It’s a professional annoyance to me when people buy old homes and begin “updating” them in ways that destroy their character (e.g. replacement windows). People who want want a vinyl-ful house should buy newer and leave the old-growth wood (windows, floors, trim, siding, etc.) for those who know how to rehab correctly.

    • Rachel Schultz

      Shannon, THANK YOU for all that helpful information. You definitely have my wheels turning on some things I did not know about before. I get what you mean about frustration when people try to make something (a house, or even a piece of furniture) something that it is not. Work with what it was originally and the results will be better, in my opinion. Example: when people slap white paint over beautiful natural wood furniture!

      • Sarah

        So late to this party! Shannon, I Love you!!! His advice is so dead on.

        Is barely post-Civil War so old? My parents’ farm home had a wooden shake roof, under the porch cellar, and 10 foot ceilings, the privy having been converted to storage before I was born. We never needed AC. Ever. No leaky roof until my mom was convinced that we needed “updates”.

        The location is pretty important. You can’t improve your neighbors. And learn about Waterlox. It is the antithesis of polyurethane and could be gotten in rural grocers’ tool aisle until the ’60s so many old houses have Waterlox-ed floors.

        You can always buy a brand new house and still get shoddy craftsmanship. And leaky windows.

    • Emily

      Exactly! – to what Shannon said.People who tear out (paint over) original trim & hardwood floors to replace with trendy white and tile – it makes me want to shake my fists at the injustice (and stupidity, really.)
      I grew up in an old home (1826!)and now own one from 1900ish. To reiterate: the windows are amazing! Never, ever, ever, ever replace original windows with the cheap, ‘but we have a 25-year warranty’ windows that are on the market these days. Think about it – how long have the original windows existed?Usually all you need to do is strip & refinish. Putting a few batts of insulation in the roof or under the main floor is relatively inexpensive and an easy (sometimes dirty) diy that reaps great results on your home heating/cooling bill.
      HOWever, do get a home inspector to check for things like old school nob&tube wiring (fire danger) – one or two outlets with it can be updated easily. If it all has to be replaced you’ll have to consider if the cost is worth it (or it could perhaps be a bargaining chip!)
      Most old homes, though, have been renovated to keep up with the times – at least in terms of expensive plumbing, wiring, and heating/cooling. If they haven’t, you had better be getting the place for a price that takes the cost of those renovations into consideration.
      Bottom line though: an old home is made of quality materials. You’ll need to do regular maintenance, but won’t need to do nearly as much in terms of replacement as you would in a post-1950s era home.You wouldn’t regret it!

  • Carol

    I think I would be more concerned with the stuff you can’t see like the electrical and plumbing…..those can really be deadly in an older home and not real apparent until you open up those walls.

    • Rachel Schultz

      I agree. That is a concern for us.

  • Hi Rachel-

    I’m Jenna and I’m new here. I originally found your blog while searching recipes for my family’s meal plan. This post caught my eye too!

    We live in a home built in 1920, and we absolutely love it. Granted, the previous owners completely redid all of the problem areas that come with an old home, so we really lucked out.

    It’s right in a proper downtown area, and the woodwork is to die for.

    Anyway, just thought I would introduce myself. Looking forward to reading more :)

    • Rachel Schultz

      Thanks Jenna! Maybe I will find something that nice!

  • I’m a pretty new reader of your blog, but I’ve enjoyed reading all your posts, and found the ones about house hunting especially interesting since my husband and I just bought our first home a little over a year ago. We bought a modest (~2000 sq ft) brick Victorian, from 1868. It’s pretty much our dream house! We really haven’t worried much about the age, because we know the house has been taken care of well, and updated throughout the years. About 2/3 of the windows have already been replaced, and insulation isn’t an issue since the walls are all 12-18″ solid masonry. I think old houses were often designed better than new ones – for example, air flow from the windows had to be better for summer cooling prior to air conditioning. If it’s a well built house from the 1800s, it could be a much better buy than a standard house from the 1970s. The most important thing is to find a home inspector who you trust who will be able to give you an accurate idea of what shape the house is in, and how well you can expect it to hold up. Whatever kind of house you end up choosing, I’m looking forward to seeing it and how you turn it into a home!

    • Rachel Schultz

      Thank you Kara! I love writing about home stuff and will do a lot more of it once we find our new home. You are making me reconsider old ones!

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