Try to Save That Old House
Q: "What should we consider when trying to decide if restoration of an old house is realistic?"
Four years ago my husband and I purchased the property next door. We had no plans at the time to restore the old stone house on the property, but now I feel it's a shame to tear it down or let it waste away. Our best guess is that the place was built in the 1700s. What should we consider when trying to decide if restoration is realistic?
—Pamela, Quarryville, PA
Tom Silva replies: I hate seeing old houses torn down and hauled off. Most any house, no matter how rotten or rundown, can be restored, given enough time and money. So when you say "realistic," what you're really asking is whether it's worth the trouble. To figure this out, I start by looking at what the trouble is: What's wrong
with the house, and what it will cost to fix it.
Usually, all the worst things that go wrong with houses—particularly ones that haven't been maintained for a while—are caused by water. That includes rot, mildew, and a lot of foundation problems. Because this is a stone house, water has probably been eating away the mortar, so the walls may need to be repointed. And I can see from the photo that every windowsill is in really tough shape; the window frames are probably shot, too. You're looking at new windows—probably custom-built—all around. The ridge looks reasonably straight, so maybe you don't have too many structural problems. But how's the roofing, the plumbing, the wiring, the heating system, and the insulation, if there is any? You get the idea.
After you total all the repairs, you'll come up with a number that represents the minimum required to make the house livable. It'll probably be big. Then ask a realtor to figure out what the house might sell for if you fixed it up. Now you have two numbers to compare. If you could fix up the house and sell it or rent it and make a profit, great. But if the house costs a lot more to restore than it will ever return, your decision gets tricky. Obviously, some people decide to restore just because the house inspires them. But perhaps the structure has some other value. Is it architecturally significant? Is there a historic connection to the community?
If that's the case, contact local and state historical societies to see if there are any grants that might help out with the costs. Or donate the house "as is," or have it dismantled and moved away by someone who can afford to give it a new life. There are many different ways to find people who are up for this kind of a challenge, including through Save This Old House, on the last page of this magazine. In the meantime, do what you can to keep water from causing any more deterioration.