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As remodelers of some fantastic and eclectic older homes, we’ve seen surprises turn up that run the gamut: pipes hidden in walls, stairs that aren’t up to code, and crooked floors and ceilings. These are some of the “gotchas”; the hidden conditions that can pop up when remodeling an old house.

As you and your design/build team embark on your home improvement project—be it an addition, a restoration, or a remodel—know before you begin that the following gotchas could be in store.

1) All Systems Go?

Are the essential systems of your home in good working order? What condition are your pipes, wiring, and heating and cooling systems in? Is the roof sound, and is your foundation standing up to the test of time? You don’t always know what you’ll find when you open up a wall, but you should know going into remodeling an old house if your systems are operational. If they’re old or deteriorated, you’ll want to budget for necessary repairs as part of the overall project.

2) Settling Down

Older homes settle over time. Depending on the age of your home, how it was constructed, and how its been maintained, settlement can throw things out of level. When renovating, we like to make things straight, plumb, and true. The problem is, you could end up with a new floor two inches higher than an older floor that it’s supposed to meet. Straightening everything out in an older house can be time consuming and costly, and your design and construction team should know what to look for and how to solve those problems going in.

3) Hidden Conditions Are Everywhere

If your remodeling plans include opening up a wall to create a more open space, cross your fingers. Behind that wall could be pipes, ductwork, or other things you weren’t anticipating. Before knocking down a wall, a good design/build team will cut an inspection hole to expose areas of concern during the design phase. If you find something too expensive to change, you might want to re-think the design. It’s always better to find these things out early in the process. Doing so saves time and money.

4) Get the Lead Out?

If your home was built before 1978, lead paint could be found, typically on trim and moldings. Professional lead paint abatement can be very costly, but you may not have to go to that length. Consult your builder on your options for removing, covering, or living with lead paint. You can find out more about lead in the home at the EPA’s web site.

5) Ghosts From the Past?

When doing a remodel, it’s possible to uncover work done by previous owners and contractors that isn’t up to par. If you discover any poorly done work, be prepared to make things right before continuing on. Sometimes an old plumber might have chopped through floor joists to get his pipes in, leaving a sagging floor to be dealt with a generation later.

6) Know the Code

Building codes change over time, and it’s likely in an older home that some things will not be up to code. If you plan to leave those things untouched you might be safe leaving it as non-conforming, but the minute you want to change it, you will need to bring it up to code. A staircase, for instance, could be out of code and ok to live with, but if you want to change the way the bottom stairs are aligned, be prepared to potentially rip out the whole staircase to bring it up to today’s standards. Many things can be affected by changes in codes, including electrical work, stairs and railings, rafter sizes, and more.

7) Get in the Zone

Like building codes, zoning codes also change over time. You may not be able to put an addition where you envisioned it because zoning code says it is too close to the property line, for example. The recourse is to know the codes and design your project to meet current zoning regulations, or seek a variance from town zoning officials when adding onto an old house.

8) Budget For Contingencies

You are likely to spend more than you think on contingencies and repairs. Prioritize what you’d like to get done in your addition or renovation, and leave 5 to 10 percent of your budget available for hidden surprises that arise. If you’re lucky, and surprises are few, you can spend the money on changes that you want instead of repairs you need.

9) Water World

Is your basement dry? Older homes can have cracks in the foundation that let water seep in. They also tend to lack drainage systems. Assess your basement, and button it up before you finish it. There’s nothing worse than finishing a basement and experiencing a flood once the job is complete!

10) Choose Your Team Wisely

Make sure your design/build team knows the ins and outs of remodeling an old house. Your team should have experienced plumbers, electricians, and a heating and air conditioning specialists on hand. These, and other tradespeople should contribute to your design early in the process, long before the project starts.

Case Study Historic Addition

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