The Biggest Problems You'll Run Into When Renovating An Old House

The Biggest Problems You'll Run into When Renovating an Old House

Older homes have character, often boasting features like architectural windows and solid plaster walls that you don't find in many newer buildings. When it's time to renovate, though, older houses present costly challenges that aren't so charming. Here are the biggest and most common renovation issues you should prepare for. My husband and I bought our 1920's Colonial about a decade ago. Each home improvement we've made to this old house has made us scared of doing another: What hidden issue will we find this time? And how much will it cost us? Although some of the problems that come up during renovations apply to newer homes too, older homes have special issues. "Things were made differently back then," you'll hear, and that's not always a good thing. If you're aware of the potential problems, though, you'll be able to set a more realistic budget and timeline for your remodelling project.

Outdated Plumbing and Electrical

Electrical wiring and plumbing problems are common in older homes. Before the 1960s, galvanised pipes were used both within the house and for sewer lines as well. The problem with galvanised pipes is they easily get clogged or corrode over time. During a renovation that involves plumbing, you'll probably want to replace the pipes with PVC or copper. says the cost to replace your sewer pipes can range from a few thousand dollars to over $10,000.

Old electrical wiring can be a safety hazard and will need to be brought up to code. When remodelling my bathroom, I learned that I needed to hire an electrician to upgrade the electrical panel. Homes in the 1920s didn't have hair dryers, and even something as small as that can draw more power than old household electrical systems can handle. Old wiring is also just an inconvenience: If you've ever lost power when running the microwave and the coffeemaker at the same time, you know what I mean. Only replacing a fuse box will cost around $700 to $800, but if you're rewiring the house you can expect to pay over $5000. Depending on your needs and the appliances you own, you may need to upgrade modern wiring to support new appliances, computers, entertainment systems and other projects. Isn't owning a home fun?

Unsafe Materials Like Lead and Asbestos

If your house was built several decades ago, there's a good chance there is lead in the paint and asbestos in the flooring, ductwork, popcorn ceilings, roofing and HVAC system. Left undisturbed, these aren't harmful, but if the project calls for scraping or cutting these materials, the powder or dust can be very hazardous. You can test for lead paint on your own, but for everything else you'll need a professional to detect and abate these materials if you suspect they're in your construction.

When I had an abatement company remove the asbestos covering the pipes in my basement, I paid $1000. Pro Asbestos Removals says asbestos removal ranges from location to location, as well as which areas of the home have asbestos. Removal from the roof of a single storey, average-sized home will cost around $3000 to $5000. It is also likely to cost you a few thousand dollars to remove toxic lead. Worth every penny for the peace of mind and your family's safety.

Materials Used to Build Your Home Are No Longer Available

Older homes were constructed to different building standards and codes than today, and often with completely different materials. Bathtubs were smaller, doors narrower and rooms were smaller too. If want to maintain your home's old character, it can be tricky finding materials that will match the rest of your house for your renovation. You might need solid wood panelled doors or thin oak flooring -- both of which are completely different from today's standards and common materials used in homebuilding today. Shopping at architectural salvage stores or other reuse centres can help, as can finding remodelling pros that specialise in older homes. However, be ready to pay more if you really want to get your hands on matching, original materials that are more restoration than renovation.

Outdated Layouts, Like Long Corridors and Tiny Rooms

Watch an episode of HGTV's House Hunters, and you'll quickly learn that the features and floorplans that today's homebuyers are searching for differ significantly what you'll find in many older homes. Master bedroom with walk-in closet and attached bath? Open floorplan layout between the kitchen, dining and living room? Not in older homes. Back in the day, homeowners had live-in staffs who cleaned and cooked for them, and Victorian-style homes had a room for every. Single. Purpose. Common building plans in earlier decades also involved tenement housing, so large buildings were cut into small apartments. Possibly, no one then thought anyone would ever want to live in an "open layout".

Some of my bedrooms don't even have closets (so to realtors, they're not technically bedrooms) and due to the way the home was built, there's no room to add standard closets. With outdated layouts, finding room to expand a space or rearrange the layout can be tricky. If you want to modernise your home (for example, for that open space layout), you'll need to consult an architect or an engineer, as well as a builder to figure out the true cost. Tearing down walls can be both expensive and dangerous if it's a load-bearing wall, and if you're thinking about opening up a floor so you can see from the living room through the kitchen, odds are you'll have structural issues to deal with.

Bad Renovation Work Done Over and Over Again

The older a home is and the more times it's been sold or changed hands, the more likely any changes to the home won't have been in keeping with the original design of the house. Sometimes, as in my case, a previous owner's "improvements" were made with total disregard to the rest of the structure. For example, water pipes for an attic bathroom addition ran exposed through other rooms, rather than through walls or other hidden spaces, the way they should be. Sometimes you won't discover those kinds of issues until you start a remodelling project. It's especially important to have a capable home contractor or handyman you can trust to undo whatever old mistakes you find.

All said, if your home has been updated and well-maintained over the years, you probably won't run into all of these problems. But with older homes, especially those old, charming homes that have been standing for decades, you may not know. It's best to err on the side of caution and budget much more money and time for your home renovation than you think you need to. The old rule of thumb is to set aside a 15 per cent to 20 per cent contingency for unexpected problems and changes, but if you suspect your home might have one of the issues above, you might want to add even more of a buffer.


    Protip: If you are renovating an existing structure, keep your spirit-level in the toolbox. Everything you expect to be square is not, everything you expect to be level is not. Start with the existing structure and build from there, use a level to get a feeling for what it should be, but use your eye to finish so it looks right.

    Water issues..... You will have water problems. Anywhere there is water it will give you grief at some stage. Most folks never maintain gutters, plumbing (as mentioned) and a myriad of bodgy landscaping adventures that now directs water directly into the house. Expect it then fix it. Pro tip first time it rains be home and watch.....

      yeah damp problems. Hate them...
      Just the musty smell...

      Asbestos eaves....either do them all at once, or leave them alone....

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