6 Considerations Before You Restore Your Home

Investigating Your Home's Inner Self

Neighborhood Houses in Turn of the 20th Century American Suburbia
Neighborhood Houses in Turn of the 20th Century American Suburbia. Photo by J.Castro / Moment Mobile / Getty Images (cropped)

Ever wonder what your home used to look like before modern improvements? Was there always a wall there? How could my Victorian home have such a modern kitchen? What is that exterior siding covering—where the windows used to be?

The larger and older your home is, the more opportunities the previous owners had for making substantial changes. Most homeowners like to leave their mark on property in the name of comfort and upgrade improvements.

For whatever reasons, the next owner might have different priorities. Remodeling is part of the American Dream for many people and the opportunities for "remuddling" increase as the age and square footage of the house increase.

Many people want to restore a home to its original beauty, but how do you do that? Learning about the earliest design of your home can take many months. If you have no blueprints, you'll need time to do some serious detective work. These handy tips will help you discover the origins of your old house, inside and outside.

Tips to Discovering Your Real Home:

  1. Begin with age. We think we are buying our own home—personal property—but we're really buying into a neighborhood of history. How Old Is Your House? With a deed, the answer may be straightforward. Beginning with this information gives context to your house.
  2. Your house is probably not unique. All architecture, including the common home, tells the story of time and place. Building and design are lessons in the history of populations. Put your house in context with how your country was populated. Where do people live in the US? Consider this basic question—why was your house built in the first place? What was the need for shelter in this time at this place? What architectural style dominated at the time?
  1. Learn about the history of your community. Ask your local historian. Ask a Reference Librarian where to look in your local public library. Does your town or city have a historic district with a historic commission? Anyone interested in houses, including real estate agents, often know a great deal about local builders and housing styles. Visit your neighbors and different neighborhoods. Their homes may mirror yours. Make maps of where houses were built in relation to local businesses, including farms. Was your house part of a farm whose land was split up? What major industries were nearby that may have affected rapid population growth?
  1. Find Floor Plans for Your Old House. Remember that your old house may never have had blueprints. In the early 1900s and before, builders rarely drew up detailed specifications. The entire process of building was handed down from generation to generation. In the US, architecture didn't become a profession until the 19th century and building codes and regulation were rare until the 20th century. Still, research before restoration could ultimately save a lot of time.
  2. Look under the rug: Remember the concept of hiding something under the rug or sweeping under the carpet? It's good to remember that much of your home's history is right there in front of you with very little effort—if you know where to look. Unless remodeling was done by a master craftsman, evidence is left behind. Pull up some baseboard or molding to see the finished (or unfinished) flooring edges or wall heights. Measure the thickness of walls, and try to determine if walls were built upon each other. Go into the basement and look at the under-flooring to see if it's been patched when a new central heating system was installed. Where is the plumbing—is it all in one area, in an addition? Many complex older homes started off as simple structures and were added to over the years. The architecture of a house can evolve over time.
  1. Define your project. What are your project goals? Knowing what you want in the end will help you find a path to get there. Note that many of the words we use to describe the actions we take on a structure begin with the prefix re- which means "again."  So, here we go again.
    • Remodeling: This often-used word describes a process of making changes to a house with little regard to the history of the home and its environs. The "model" chosen is at the whim of the current homeowner. Before you remodel your home, check out this Checklist for Your Remodeling Dreams.
    • Renovation: Novus means "new," so when we renovate we want to make our home like new. This term is generally used to fix a home in disrepair.
    • Rehabilitation: Often abbreviated as "rehab," rehabilitation is to restore or fix-up a property while keeping its architectural value. According to the US Secretary of the Interior, you can do this "through repair, alterations, and additions while preserving those portions or features which convey its historical, cultural, or architectural values."
    • Restoration: Coming from the Latin word restauratio, restoration brings the architecture back to a certain time period. The US Secretary of the Interior's working definition includes words like "accurately depicting the form, features, and character of a property as it appeared at a particular period of time." Methods include "the removal of features from other periods in its history and reconstruction of missing features from the restoration period." Does this mean you rip out the kitchen sink and build a new outhouse? No. Even the US government says it's okay to keep "code-required work."

    Sources: Preservation Terminology, Secretary of the Interior's Standards and Guidelines As Amended and Annotated [accessed October 15, 2016]