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Old House Myths

Three Old House myths that really scare the wooden siding right out of people or really scare people right into the vinyl siding.
Antique houses are not for everyone.

It’s true, there are those turned-off by the warmth, charm, and character that an early colonial dwelling offers; those unimpressed by the majestic symmetry of a federal-period structure; and those altogether passive in the presence of a Victorian’s spiraling staircase or ornate stained glass windows. Yes, some out there actually prefer newer construction to that of yesteryear— and that’s okay.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with a genuine desire to live in a newer home (anyway, there aren’t enough old ones for all of us). However, oftentimes the desire to live in anything but an antique home is born out of fear. And, oftentimes this fear is born out of myths and misinformation passed on from one to many — and from many to many more.

These stories are great in number and varied in elaborateness. They range from structural fears to heating worries and from electrical anxieties to concerns about historic restrictions. For most of us old house advocates, it is troubling to hear these concerns circulated and repeated — and then re-circulated all over again. While there are some which are legitimate and unique to older homes1, many have achieved the importance of legend.
Of these many myths, there are three that really scare the wooden siding right out of people. (Or, rather, those that really scare people right into the vinyl siding.)

#1: Older homes are impossible/very expensive to keep warm in the winter.

Admittedly, older homes can be somewhat drafty. While this tends to be the case, though, there are steps that can be taken to quell the entry of cold, wintry outside air that will not necessarily break the bank.

Many homeowners immediately look within the walls for their solution. In many cases, though, blown-in insulation has already been added to the exterior walls. However, whether or not insulation exists within the walls, the greatest and most cost effective results will likely come from the treatment of windows. Studies continue to show have shown that older, loose windows are a far greater culprit in heat loss than are inadequately, or un-insulated, walls.

So, what to do with these older windows? Well, replacing them is one solution, but hardly a cost-effective one. Instead, interior or exterior storm windows might be your best bet. Prices will vary, depending on style and window sizes, but overall you’ll spend much less than you would on full window replacement while enjoying similar benefits if a comparable level of air-tightness can be achieved. The main idea is to create the double-pane effect.

Another target for lessening heat loss in the winter is your chimney. Flues in chimneys are designed to create a draft through which warmer air can escape. It should be no wonder, then, that large, multi-flue chimneys, when not being used to draft the very hot air made by a fire, will allow much of the warm heated air from your house a point of exit. This, of course, can be nullified by the use of some sort of damper system.

If your home has five or six fireplaces off one center chimney, installing five or six dampers can get costly. You can make your own damper system within each flue using plywood or sheet metal. However, there are single dampers that can be installed atop the chimney to cover all flues. The emphasis need not be on gadgetry, but rather, on whatever simple way you can interrupt the warm-air-sucking draft.

Once your windows and chimney flues are taken care of, the last of the three major heat losers you can tackle cost-effectively is the attic. As heat will always rise, keeping an un-insulated roof or attic in the northeast United States is probably a mistake. For hundreds (not thousands) of dollars, most unfinished roofs/attics can be very well insulated. Whether its rolled fiberglass insulation along the underside of the roof, some type of blown or rolled insulation on the attic floor, or a combination of the two, any added insulating in your attic area will be money wisely spent.

#2: Homes with leaning or crooked floors are dangerous or unstable.

Not only is this often false, it’s logic demands some scrutiny. Assuming that we’re talking only about houses that are still standing (I see no reason to bring up all of the many houses no longer with us; a great many of which were forcibly torn down to build a newer house or a highway or a coffee shop), the very fact that they are still standing should be significant. Consider that a well-built antique home that has settled probably did so in its first 50 to 100 years. This would mean that a 1760 colonial structure hasn’t moved much at all in nearly 150 years.

Now, are there dangerous or unstable antique homes out there? Sure there are. The percentage of them, though, in relation to all antique homes, may not be that much greater than the percentage of dangerous or unstable newer homes. Your best bet, of course, is to consult with a home inspector or a structural engineer with expertise in antique structures. You should not, however, feel it necessary to immediately rule out a home for no other reason than the presence of leaning or crooked floors.

#3: Antique or historic homes have many restrictions attached to them.

Sadly, this one is usually not true. If it were, perhaps towns and cities across New England wouldn’t lose an old house or two every year on average. Still, it helps to understand the ways that a community’s historic resources are protected or spotlighted.

Local historic districts: well defined

It is true that there are antique homes, which have very detailed and stringent restrictions tied to them. Most of these, however, are located within local historic districts. Not all towns or cities have such districts, but those that do usually do a good job of delineating which houses are part of the district and which are not.

National Registry of Historic Places: not to fear

Assuming that the antique house you’re interested in is not in an historic district, you may check to see whether it is registered federally with the National Registry of Historic Places. Should it be registered, in most cases this doesn’t amount to much— as far as restrictions to the owner go. There may be some sort of informal request or, if there is a low-interest restoration loan involved, a restriction or two associated with that. Otherwise, you are pretty much free to do as you will.

Deed restriction: unlikely, yet important

This is one rare type of restriction you may encounter which is written into the property’s deed. The most common of these is a non-demolition clause, which usually simply states that the house can never be demolished or otherwise taken down. The simplest way to uncover any deed restrictions is through the deed search, often done by an attorney before a closing. This research into past deeds and potential deed restrictions, however, can usually be done by anyone at any time by visiting the Registry of Deeds.

As for the thousands and thousands of other antique homes across the northeastern United States (those that are not part of an historic district, not registered with the National Registry of Historic Places, and not subject to deed restriction), there is nothing telling you formally what you can and cannot do, outside of local building codes. Of course, we antique home lovers will continue to hope (and occasionally nudge) that all antique homeowners will make the right decisions. And, of course, that means something slightly different to each of us.

For me, it means decisions that are comfortable for a family, yet not permanently and overtly contradictory to the house’s style or character. I believe that crazy colors and funky furnishings are fine, as they come and go easily. If having flexibility and freedom to make those types of choices means that more families will seek out and occupy and care for our region’s historic gems, then I say bring out the purple paint and shag rug carpeting! I’d much rather see an early colonial painted bright pink and cared for by its pink-loving owner than to see it go into disrepair and eventually torn down; there’s too much of the latter already.

I hope, then, that you’ll consider these points when making your home buying decision. If I’ve helped just one family who would otherwise have not considered the purchase of an antique home, then, happy house hunting.

footnote 1: for the record, there are also many concerns unique to newer homes