As a commissioner for the City of Tacoma's Landmarks Preservation Commission and a former board member of Historic Tacoma, I've had a lot of experience with historic properties. I've also been buying, renovating and selling historic homes myself for more than twenty years (45 houses and counting). Not surprisingly, clients often seek my advice when they're thinking about buying an older house. With the busy spring home buying season upon us, I thought it might be a good time to share some thoughts about what to consider when buying a historic home. Below, I describe some of the “big ticket” replacement and repair costs that you may incur during the restoration of an older home. It's important to note that there are loan programs and tax credits available to help defray some of these costs if you are buying a historic home in Tacoma.
2. Old houses aren’t usually insulated. Builders didn't really begin insulating homes until the late teens and early twenties, and even then they generally just added cellulose (paper pulp) to the exterior walls and attics at very low insulating levels. If you’ve ever demolished the ceiling in an older home, you'll know what I’m talking about. You’re probably still discovering bits of the pulverized paper in your hair, ears and clothes. If you’re doing a major remodel to a home, it makes sense to strip off the old interior plaster down to the studs so that the wiring and plumbing can be updated and insulation can be added. If you’re not doing a major renovation, my advice would be to simply add insulation to the attic and underneath the first floor to increase the insulation value as much as possible. Learn more about insulation at energy.gov.
3. Are the mechanical systems up to date? When buying an old house, people often encounter things like knob and tube wiring, galvanized and lead pipes, oil burning furnaces the size of a Winnebago and broken sewer lines. Older systems aren't necessarily a problem, but a thorough pre-purchase home inspection can identify failing systems in need of immediate attention. Be sure to factor the cost of plumbing, electrical and heating system upgrades into the purchase price of a home before you make an offer, and make sure you can afford to repair or replace these systems as it becomes necessary during your ownership.
4. Original windows and doors are great. Leave them alone! Nothing frustrates me more than buyers who immediately think they have to replace all of the original doors and windows in a house. It is significantly more cost effective to repair original windows and doors and install storm windows. They’ll be just as energy efficient and will last exponentially longer than their cheap vinyl counterparts. For more details regarding wood windows versus vinyl, check out my blog post regarding that subject here.
5. How many layers are on the roof? Many older homes in Tacoma originally had wood shingle roofs with no underlayment to support a modern roof. Over time, home owners have simply shingled over the original roof. If a roof has three layers or more, it's no longer a candidate for re-shingling. The roof will have to be completely torn off, and an underlayment of plywood or particle board will need to be installed before the new roofing material can be added. Tear offs are three times as expensive as simple re-shingling so it's helpful to know how many layers a roof has before writing an offer to purchase an older home.
I was was recently interviewed by Fox 13 News regarding a proposal going in front of the Tacoma City Council that recommends the city start "flipping" derelict properties. Given my experience flipping houses I feel that an $800K grant is not enough money for the city to impact the many derelict properties in Tacoma. I believe the money could be better utilized to provide incentives to private individuals to take on the projects instead. I will be working with City of Tacoma officials to further explore more realistic and concrete ideas on how to best utilize the grant money for maximum impact for the residents of Tacoma. Click the photo below to see the full story below. -Jeff
As a member of the Tacoma Landmarks Preservation Commission, former board member of Historic Tacoma and a long time restorer of historic homes, Jeff is frequently asked by friends and real estate clients about restoring their houses. In Tacoma, and across the country for that matter, many home owners believe vinyl windows are an inexpensive solution to replacing deteriorating, wood windows. But, we now have evidence that the replacement of wood windows is a costly mistake.
Jeff thinks most will agree that original wood windows are important architectural features in any historic structure. They are the "eyes" of the building. They convey a sense of craftsmanship and detail that cannot be achieved with substitute materials. In Jeff's experience with renovating and selling historic homes, he finds that buyers are willing to pay a premium for an older home with well maintained operational original wood windows than those with cheap vinyl replacement windows. Jeff cites the fact that the majority of his restoration projects involve removing vinyl siding and inappropriately sized vinyl replacement windows.
Jeff believes that windows are replaced by homeowners if they begin having operational problems: they stick or rattle, latches break, glass is broken, sash cords break and the windows have to be held open with a stick, let in outside air, or need to be painted. However, these problems are the simplest, most cost-effective to fix. More often than not, wood windows can be easily repaired to operate correctly and last another hundred years.
Vinyl Windows Wood Windows
Here are just a few of the problems associated with vinyl windows, and why they're not "maintenance-free."
With the aforementioned problems associated with vinyl windows, it's clear that vinyl replacement windows aren’t a cost effective long term solution. According to Mark Huppert, technical director of the Preservation Green Lab, “a number of existing window retrofit strategies come very close to delivering the energy benefits of high-performance replacement windows – at a fraction of the cost, from weather stripping and sealing, to installing exterior storm windows or interior cellular shades, almost every retrofit option offers a better return on investment than outright replacement.” Jeff's rule of thumb is the 50% rule. If a window sash is less than 50% deteriorated, it probably is cost effective to repair. If more than 50% deteriorated, replace it with a new wood sash window that matches the existing window.
If you’d like further information and access to the complete study by conducted by Preservation Green Lab visit http://www.preservationnation.org/information-center/sustainable-communities/green-lab/saving-windows-saving-money
4715 N. 33rd Street, Tacoma
This charming 1948 brick-faced bungalow was an abandoned property that Jeff purchased from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Misguided renovations had left the property sub-optimized. One of two downstairs bedrooms had been converted to a bathroom, the original bath was converted to a laundry, and there was no bathroom on the second floor. Jeff restored the first floor to its original configuration, repaired hardwood floors that had been damaged by former tile installation, and added a bathroom and two closets to the second floor by adding a dormer. The plumbing, electrical and insulation was all replaced, and the existing kitchen was updated.
Finished in just six weeks and sold in only four days, this charming North Tacoma bungalow now has a new lease on life!
How does one describe Jeff's next project… dirty, weird, sad, has potential, could be cute? Let us know what you think (click the photo for details).