Thinking about buying an older home? Currently live in an older home? About five million homes in use today were built before 1915, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development in a 2009 study. Many of these are beautiful Italianate, Victorian and Queen Anne style homes located mostly in the eastern seaboard states, but are also found in Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis.

These homes – and less ornate styles – display the genius of their architects, cleverness of their builders and artistic skills of their tradesmen. One hundred years ago, these homes set the gold standard for style and functionality, and displayed their owner’s optimism about the future of America. The quality of hand workmanship and strength of raw materials in older houses often surpasses today’s machine tool accuracy and high tech production processes. And the use of plastered ceilings, 1:1.618 design ratios and winding staircases between floors makes these houses inspiring and impressive compared to the millions of box-like production homes built after 1945.

second century homes vintage homeWhy should you consider buying an older home that may need some work to make it comfortable to fit 21st century standards? There are lots of reasons, but the one I like the most is that an older house is unique: just like people, it has developed character, history, and scars during its existence. In every old house you can run your fingers over the wood railings, windows and mantels and feel the smoothness and roughness created by men using hand tools. Each old house has an incredible story to tell about its owner, its builders and its former occupants. And usually with some updates and cleanup, it has at least another hundred years of service.

Surprisingly, older houses also tend to be energy efficient by default due to thick walls, high ceilings and wood windows. They may need a modern furnace for very cold days, or assisted cooling for very hot days, but most of the time older houses provide comfortable interior temperatures to their occupants. Updating older homes with modern systems is usually not that difficult as they already contain vertical plumbing chases, large joist bays and deep wall cavities. These characteristics enable state of the art HVAC, plumbing and electrical systems to be placed out of sight, and not conflict with the original architecture.

second century homes porchThere are downsides to owning an older house. Maintenance costs tend to be higher due to non-standard parts, hard to find materials and specialized skills. Inside the house there may be lots of stairs to climb between floors. And hazardous materials (lead paint, asbestos tiles and mold spores) usually need to be removed or mitigated before occupancy.  My policy is to repair and build properties to last for another hundred years of service to their owners and residents – in many cases following the approaches taken by the original builders.


About the author

Lawrence Oliva is a licensed contractor and the owner of Second Century Homes, LLC, located in Baltimore, Maryland, with over 25 years of experience in the home improvement industry. Second Century Homes specializes in the preservation, restoration and renovation of homes over 100 years old. He is a master cabinet maker, expert tile setter and certified project manager. He respects the tradesmen of 100 years ago who did beautiful work without power tools, lasers and computers.

Top image credit: Second Century Homes