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Caring for Your Older Home: Avoiding Restoration Pitfalls

Lack of time, resources and expertise usually lead to poor decision making where older buildings are concerned.
Unfortunately, there is rarely one answer or one way of doing things where older buildings are concerned. Just as the original approach to an architectural element was borne out of necessity and ingenuity, the solution to any given problem or desired outcome calls for the same kind of innovative thinking. This approach requires extra time and energy, leads to homeowner frustration and confusion and is the first snare in the best laid restoration plans. It is easy to fall into the trap of letting impatience and conflicting information influence an abrupt decision that will not serve the building (or your pocket book) in the long run. Enough research and the proper resources are keys to meeting this challenge head on and avoiding a classic pitfall.

Researching the history of your home and its original details will give you a solid foundation on which to plan repairs and improvement. You also need to determine what options you have available to you today in terms of modern methods, materials and experts so that you have accurate and realistic choices. Skipping this necessary investigation to determine what period details would have been, what you have that is original and what are later “improvements” will leave you with an inaccurate picture and end products that look like patchwork instead of cohesive, complimentary designs and improvements. You need to have all the pieces of the puzzle to put it back together again, and you will have to dig around to find the missing pieces.

Resources come in the form of tradespeople and suppliers who will be able to provide the materials and services, as well helping you to understand the financial means necessary to complete the project. Another huge restoration pitfall is getting the wrong information from an inexperienced person and believing you have no other choices. It takes determination and persistence to find preservation professionals to advise and assist, and the appropriate materials you require. Invest in this effort and you will know you have enough information to make an informed decision and that you are spending your financial resources wisely. When you hear words like “never”, “can’t”, “not anymore”, and “no one”, beware! All the resources are out there, just keep digging.

Before jumping in to complete a repair or project, it is important to step back and figure out what really needs to be done, what is causing the current situation, if it impacts other areas of the building or involves further work, and if you are being realistic in launching this project. Always develop a plan of attack ahead of time including the project timeline and priorities, professionals to depend upon, suppliers and the budget. Do not get caught in the trap of biting off more that you can manage, or starting a project without considering the domino effect it may have on other areas. This pitfall will force you to make quick decisions and “good enough” efforts that you will surely regret later.

Once you get started down the restoration and home improvement road, the projects most of us can’t wait to complete are usually the ones that have immediate gratification that we can see. Avoid investing in aesthetic improvements at the expense of the structural integrity of the building and good working order of major systems. Short-term “cures” can lead to more serious problems in the future. Using inferior quality products, hiring inexperienced people, performing cosmetic cover-ups and just plain ignoring problems will create additional work and more expensive solutions. If it sounds too easy, it is, and quickies like painting over wallpaper is never easier in the end.

Nothing is more frustrating for a homeowner or tradesperson than going backwards. It is so important that projects are performed in a sequence that tackles any structural issues first, and does not undermine previous work. Things like finishing floors before the walls are repaired, restoring plaster before roof and chimney repairs are done, or completing landscaping before foundation and drainage improvements will leave you chasing your tail. Be sure structural integrity is the highest priority, and work outside-in, top-down to avoid frustrating and costly mistakes.

To make your research and resource collecting a little easier, and help you avoid the pitfalls described above, plan to attend an antique home trade show. Don’t miss this opportunity to speak directly with a wide variety of tradespeople and suppliers of old house goods and services.

Noelle Lord, along with husband Peter, operates Peter Lord Plaster & Paint, Inc., a restoration firm specializing in the preservation and restoration of historic surfaces and all plaster systems. They complete restoration projects, large and small, throughout the New England areas. 24 Moody Road, Limington, Maine 04049; (207) 793-2957.