Old house bought: check. Now what?
March 26, 2009 7:52 PM   Subscribe

So I seem to have bought a house. For $8000. Now what?

Background: remember how you keep reading that the real estate market in, like, Detroit and Indiana have collapsed? And how foreclosures can be really inexpensive? Well, I kind of made this impulse decision, and ... closed yesterday, and ... I have a hell of a lot of house now. The first link is background on the story, including aerial photography; the second link is the Flickr set from the pictures my sister took after closing.

I'll actually be getting there in mid-May. Yes. I now own a house that I have never seen.

My questions for Renovation Filter fall into two categories.

First and foremost: although I'm not a builder by trade, nor do I play one on TV, I do have some experience; my father built our house while I was growing up, and I helped, and I've owned property since then. But this is a far, far bigger project than I've ever tackled.

Where should I start learning? Does anyone have pointers as to prioritization? Note: the roof is three years old, so that, at least, should not be a major problem. I have decided to fix the walls and ceiling with actual plaster, both because it feels right for a house built in 1890, and because it's more mold-resistant (allergies in the family), and just plain solider. I want this house to last another 120 years, at least.

Does anyone have advice about renovating all that woodwork? How about repairing the hole in the parlor floor? (The photo is not so great, but trust me, you'll see what I mean.)

Any advice on procurement of inexpensive building materials?

My second and even more open-ended question is this: what suggestions, besides the obvious (insulation) do you have for post-hoc greening of this structure? Solar heat? Greenhouse?

I'm not in a hurry. I have about two months to achieve minimum livability for my family (early/mid-May to July 2; they'll be traveling), and with that much space, basic livability can apply to just a subset of the house -- essentially, any demolition and any mold removal should be done in that period.

But after that, I expect the full renovation to be a multi-year project.
posted by Michael Roberts to Home & Garden (88 answers total) 109 users marked this as a favorite
Have you had it inspected?
posted by barnone at 8:02 PM on March 26, 2009

I would suggest a road trip to the wonderful Earthways Center, a renovated 100+ year-old house in St. Louis, MO. That particular house has been totally redone using sustainable, green materials - they have a heat pump, a green roof, rainwater barrels and a wind turbine! As you walk through the house there's a plethora of literature available on the different products and strategies they used.

I would also walk through your house with a contractor who is familiar with renovating older homes. Prioritize what needs to be done - obviously, cosmetic stuff should come last and structural, plumbing, electrical stuff, etc. should come first.

For the woodwork, there are citrus-based strippers now that are environmentally friendly as well as better for your health. First you need to get the baseboards off, though. Take a pry bar and gently insert it behind the baseboard to pry it forward a fraction of an inch. Start at one end and work your way down its length. Then, push it back to it's flat against the wall. Hopefully you will have pulled the nail heads forward as well, and now that the baseboard is pushed back, you can use the claw end of a hammer or a pair of pliers to take the nails out one by one. I find this to be the least damaging to the walls. I've only refinished baseboards, so that's all the adivce I've got for you there.
posted by Ostara at 8:06 PM on March 26, 2009

Minimum local residency requirements, basically the cheapest way to get it up to code.
posted by sammyo at 8:07 PM on March 26, 2009

First of all, if you find a good source for the tiles in the bathroom, please let me know. I have the exact same kind on my front porch. (1895, lovely swastika design)

I know you want to dive in, but honestly, you shouldn't even think about asking anything detailed like "How to repair the hole in the parlor floor" yet.

Have you had a home with plaster walls? My family does, and holy man, was it expensive to have repaired. Yes, it's worth it.

What's minimum livability to you? What's your renovation budget? As to what barnone said, have you had it inspected? Structural problems can cause all sorts of other symptoms, which you end up repairing, only to have something else pop up.

Woodworking/stripping/refinishing - this will take a long time. It's also worth it. I know guys here who completely re-did all the woodwork in their 1890's era home - and you know the kind of intricate modling I'm talking about, bullseyes and all. The entire renovation took them two years, while they lived in essentially a "suite" upstairs.

"I would also walk through your house with a contractor who is familiar with renovating older homes. Prioritize what needs to be done - obviously, cosmetic stuff should come last and structural, plumbing, electrical stuff, etc. should come first."

This deserves repeating.
posted by HopperFan at 8:14 PM on March 26, 2009

Damn, molding. I was a little bit giddy looking at the pictures of your new place.
posted by HopperFan at 8:15 PM on March 26, 2009

My God man, that is incredible! Mazel tov!! The cabinetry alone is worth more than $8,000.

With the storage space that you have available you should seriously consider buying all your materials at once. I work in building supplies and at least where I am volume purchases always get better than off-the-rack rates. When you begin making enquiries make sure that you are actually talking to a sales-person rather than just a clerk, you want someone in the company who is familiar with and has the power to negotiate bids. Be personable, be patient, and be willing to listen. I can tell you from first-hand experience the customers who make my life easier always end up with the best rate.
posted by Bango Skank at 8:16 PM on March 26, 2009

Please photoblog the reno and how-tos, if you have the time- it'll be fascinating!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 8:20 PM on March 26, 2009

Definitely get it inspected first thing, if you haven't. There may be shit you need to know -- unsafe wiring, serious plumbing problems, foundation trouble. That's point one.

Point two is that things like refinishing floors you'll probably want to do all at once for convenience's sake, but beyond that, for DIY stuff I'd say you take that house one. Room. At. A. Time.

Personally, I'd start with the downstairs and work my way up. Highest priorities would be the main living room, the kitchen, dining room and guest bathroom. Get those rooms, the rooms people will come by and hang out in, done first. Then the rest of the ground floor. Next the staircase, then your bedroom and private bath, then the rest of the upstairs.

But definitely do it one room at a time, because here's the thing -- you're going to get burned out after you work on it for a while. You're going to reach a stopping point and say "fuck it, I hate paint/sandpaper/whatever, I'm breaking for a while." If every room in your house is half-assed at that point, you'll get used to it. But if you have three Dynamite Awesome Rooms and the rest suck, you'll get motivated more quickly to get back on the horse. Also, changing up jobs makes it less monotonous than doing all the sanding then all the staining then all the paper stripping then all the painting, etc.

First priority is anything serious that turns up in the inspection. After that, for me, floors come next, unless you'll have a lot of empty rooms that you can shuffle furniture between. After that, it's room to room doing cosmetic work. Don't know how to do stuff? The internet and your local library will have a wealth of information. And if there's a Lowe's in your area, those people can be really helpful.

One other thing you'll want to check into is the electrical system -- a house that old may have a wiring system that is at best not conducive to running two major appliances at the same time and at worst a fire hazard. It could cost you ten grand to rewire the house and put in a modern breaker box, but hey, you got the house for eight, so it's still a steal. I'd also recommend installing a programmable thermostat for the HVAC system -- I have an old drafty house with high energy bills, and I shudder to think what they'd be like if we didn't let the house get uncomfortable when we're not here.
posted by middleclasstool at 8:23 PM on March 26, 2009 [12 favorites]

For inexpensive building materials... do you have a local Habitat for Humanity retail store? The one in my old town was a treasure trove for that sort of thing.

When I renovated my mom's house, the Home Depot branded fix-it book they have for sale at their store became my bible. Lots of great, clear instructions and good photos, along with reasonable time estimates for projects that will help you figure out what can actually be tackled in the time you have.
posted by Gianna at 8:27 PM on March 26, 2009

That buffet is very awesome.

Hey, a carriage house!

To your question: nthing the contractor and inspector--if the innards are in the same shape as what's visible, I'm guessing that you'll need to do a lot of electrical work, at the very least. A friend of mine who has been renovating a house from roughly the same period has told me all sorts of horror stories about what evil wiring lurks behind the walls...

It's worth your while to hire a cleaning service, because that's an awful lot of dirt in there. I'm presuming you want to take off the wallpaper and rip out all the carpets (even in a blurry photo, the carpet in the library looks pretty scary). Find a wood flooring specialist who can tell you what the floors are--oak, pine, etc. It's difficult to tell from the picture, but that parlor floor may need to be ripped out entirely.

When you get to the cosmetic stuff, I'd suggest contacting a salvage store like Historic Houseparts. As HopperFan notes, it will be difficult to match the tiles--I wasn't even able to match tiles for a 1950s bathroom...

As a Victorianist, I'm jealous.
posted by thomas j wise at 8:28 PM on March 26, 2009

The roof is the first thing. And it sounds like that is good.

Next protect the framing. Termites? Any studs or joists exposed to the elements? Any studs or joists that should be replaced?

After the house has a protective shell (a roof and walls), then you have to rough out the guts. The stuff that is inside the walls. Electrical, plumbing, and HVAC. These three specialty trades are areas where you might get a pro - at least for the big stuff.

For example, you ned to have the electrical service checked. And I would not recommend trying to replace or repaired the main electrical panel yourself - you could really hurt yourself.

But most people can change out all the plugs and switches themselves, and that alone will do alot for the electric in the house. (though you should change switches and plugs during the trim out.)

After the stuff inide the wall is done. then seal the walls - plaster or sheet rock. Repair or replace any wood molding. Fix the doors.

Then it is walls and floors. paint, tile, carpet.

then the trim out on the mechanicals - plumbing (toilets, sinks, spickets). electric (switches, plugs, light fixtures). HVAC (vents)

then appliances, landscape, the final punch list stuff.

As to green ideas. if you have the money, you can do lots.

a few things within a budget: one is a tankless water heater (also called instant-hots).

solar water heater is even better. that is probably the best solar application that is reasonably (sort of) priced.

another is a cistern on the roof, which collects ran water. a pipe from the cistern to toilets (one or more). in the bathroom, then have a switch (valve) for selecting water flow to re-fill the toilet. you can choose city water or rain water from your roof. you might be able to use nothing but rain water to flush a toilet - saving gallons of fresh water.

in electric, go for LED lights as much as possible. huge energy savings there. the fixture might be more expansive, and you might have to get it at an electrical supply shop (as opposed to lowes) but there are some good LED fixtures. Like for flood lights in the yard - LED instead of Halogen is big green difference.
posted by Flood at 8:29 PM on March 26, 2009 [7 favorites]

I should add two things, as an owner of an old home and a child of parents who owned old homes:

1) Your house has a lot of things wrong with it, trust me. Many of these things you'll discover up front, a lot of them you'll discover as you fix things, and you'll keep discovering them long after the renovation is done. Don't lose heart, this is the cost of that old home charm, and you'll grow a sense of humor about it.

2) That house is awesome. I don't envy you the work you have ahead of you, but I do envy you the house you'll have when it's done.
posted by middleclasstool at 8:29 PM on March 26, 2009

In re budget: um, what budget? I know how that sounds -- but until we saw this house we weren't even planning on leaving Puerto Rico for another year at least, so there is no budget per se. That said, if business continues good, I'll have some money to direct towards materials. I hope to do as much of the work myself as possible. I don't mind hiring a contractor as a consultant, but I'm going to have to be very sure of said contractor. It's a small town (although I didn't think so growing up -- Richmond was where we "went to town") and I have some connections to the community, so hopefully I can find the right guy.

No. It hasn't been inspected. I know the former owner, though. (That is to say: I have exchanged email with him and my sister knows him by reputation.) It's at code; it was a Quaker community between 2003 and December, 2008 when they lost the ability to make the payments, and inhabited during that time. The plumbing can be expected to have suffered this winter, so after some serious cleaning, plumbing will be my first priority. I expect to learn a lot.

Oh, besides the four-bedroom main house, did I mention the one-bedroom apartment above the 20x40 carriage house in back? Yeah, well, I didn't know about it until yesterday, so ... I have two houses for the price of about one-tenth of one.
posted by Michael Roberts at 8:31 PM on March 26, 2009

I'm not in a hurry. I have about two months to achieve minimum livability for my family (...)

Seriously, yes, you are. Act like you are, anyway. You're going to find things wrong you didn't know existed, encounter delays with permits, supplies & contractors, and make mistakes & end up backtracking. Allow extra time for all this -- projects like these generally swell to absorb exactly twice the time allotted, even if you allot twice the time it should take. That's not meant as snark -- that's from someone experienced with a few large commercial projects of this sort. (I owned a small business that moved thrice. The third one was every bit as bewildering as the first, despite knowing all this)

Good luck! I think you really scored on the house-- it's a beaut. I'd love to see some week-by-week follow-up on this, too. You'll really have something to be proud of when you're done.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:34 PM on March 26, 2009 [7 favorites]

I am green with envy, in a really happy for you kind of way.

My only renovation suggestion is this: paint last. I mean, by all means, throw one or two coats of cheap white paint up on the walls as you complete rooms for habitation, but in terms of anything decorative, do it when abso-freaking-loutely everything else is done done done.

We did not do this. Our lovely plaster has nicks and gouges from various pieces of furniture being moved and machinery being bounced off the walls. Our lovely paint has scrapes, chips and divots from plaster settling and again, things being moved and bumped.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:40 PM on March 26, 2009

Please, don't be fooled by the fact that you know (of) the previous owner, and that it is "up to code". Building departments can only inspect and pass the things they know about. If renovations were done and never permitted/inspected, or if original wiring was never replaced, then sure its up to code but it can still be a nightmare. Foundation and electrical would be my personal worries, I would definitely get someone out to inspect the house and make sure you know up front where your biggest time-sinks and projects are.

Anyway the house looks absolutely awesome, congrats on your purchase! The details in there are fantastic. Good luck with the project :)
posted by Joh at 8:48 PM on March 26, 2009

I did a total renovation of an 1895 3 story victorian house. Awesome house. Awesome renovation. Took forever. Start with an experienced housing renovator for ideas. I cannot imagine you having sufficient living space completed in 2 months. I would guess it would take that long to even know how to attack all the problems. I would seriously find a very experienced renovation contractor for ideas and cost estimates. Then do all the work yourself that you can do. That house is one super house if you can get all the work done. After inspection.. I'd guess you have to start with the obvious, like kitchen, bathrooms, electricity, heating system. All the basics. Good luck.
posted by JayRwv at 8:49 PM on March 26, 2009

projects like these generally swell to absorb exactly twice the time allotted

I've worked with Doug Hofstadter, you know. But yes, point taken: although the "not in a hurry" part is really for everything after the initial two-month livability phase, I'm going to do my best to hit the ground running. (One reason I'm invoking the brain trust here.)

Blogging: oh, so yes. If I can't get karma out of this, I'm losing at least half the fun.

Electrical work: no worries on that; I do my own wiring, but I hire an electrician for the panel and for inspections. From what I see of the electrical, it seems mostly retrofitted. So we'll see what we see, when I get there. I'm hoping that can be a lower priority.

Prioritization by room: actually, bedrooms for the family will come first, the upstairs bathroom, and good heating upstairs. We're coming from the tropics; we'll need a small, but cozy retreat. The next priority is the kitchen. The entire downstairs will come after, not before.

Definition of livability: well, that's a tough one. No mold is #1. Three bedrooms -- two in a pinch -- and a working kitchen, however ugly. No actual fire hazards (as stated, there shouldn't be any; this isn't your average foreclosure, fortunately). Working plumbing in one bathroom. And clean. And that's about it, really. So I think I can achieve that in a month. The actual situation on the ground? Well -- we'll see.

Termites: we'll find out, won't we? But I don't think so. The kitchen floor might be a problem there.

Stripping out walls: not if I can help it. I'll be patching with plaster, but I don't want to redo any walls that don't need it. I'll have enough to do without that.

Those hexagonal bathroom tiles upstairs: I hate those. If you want to buy them, maybe next year, let's talk. I want regular modern square Italian tile, heated. This is penciled in for 2011 or so.

Cleaning service: my son has allergies, and my wife is Hungarian. There is no cleaning service on this planet I trust to do the cleaning job I have learned to do. That will be my first week, but I can do it.

Habitat for Humanity store: I actually looked this up already. The Muncie store is about 45 minutes away (my dad's farm is halfway between Richmond and Muncie). That's closer than Dayton, but not by a lot. But they're both close enough to be useful. Assuming I buy stuff before gas goes back up.

Earthways and Historic Houseparts: now that's what I'm talking about! Thanks!

General awesomeness: yeah, I know. I think this might be the first unequivocally good move I've made in my life.
posted by Michael Roberts at 8:54 PM on March 26, 2009

If it were me, and you could live there without going insane, I would either do the bare minimum to get the house tolerable, fix up the carriage house apartment, and then move there and abandon the main house completely to the renovation, or skip the fix up of the carriage house apartment and move in there anyway. Having an on-site alternative house to live in is a godsend and will let you make huge progress in the main house.
posted by maxwelton at 9:09 PM on March 26, 2009 [5 favorites]

Oh my gosh, I want those tiles! [drooling]

You know, if you ever need any weekend project help, I only live about three hours away. If you feed me pizza and Mountain Dew, I'm a cleaning demon. Like Thomas J. Wise, I'm a sucker for old houses, particularly Victorian ones. I went to college in Richmond, so I wouldn't mind seeing some of my old haunts, too.

And...please don't rip off an entire pattern of wallpaper without trying to preserve a bit/take high resolution photos, first - my friend reproduces antique wallpapers, and this always kills him. I can't tell if any of your wallpaper is particularly old, myself, I just don't know enough about that area.

And...we have an architectural salvage place here in Columbus that you should check out.

Your new place is lovely, by the way, I look forward to reading about your adventures in it.
posted by HopperFan at 9:12 PM on March 26, 2009

We are still renovating the house we bought in 1995 so be prepared for a journey!

After we scraped off two layers of textured ceiling (basically sheetrock mud glopped on, not the asbestos stuff) we had a big section of ceiling sag in the living room. We used plaster washers to hold up the ceiling.

We did not re-plaster, we simply did a skimcoat of sheetrock mud on the ceilings and walls (the walls had previously held 8 layers of wallpaper.) In our daughter's bedroom, and the hallway, we simply put 1/4" sheet rock up over the plaster ceilings. It was less work than fixing the plaster, and the molding in those rooms was not as fancy as in the living and dining rooms.

There's nothing wrong with sheetrock. I think most people don't realize that our walls aren't pure plaster. (We did not use texture! except in a closet which was sand textured as an experiment.)

Back issues of Old House Journal should be helpful in dealing with some of the more esoteric issues you're bound to come across.

And congratulations, old houses are fun!
posted by vespabelle at 9:22 PM on March 26, 2009

If you have a relative with allergies, you will probably have to do a lot of work to make it comfortable for them. I lived in a not very well kept up 1905 home (way better kept up than that one, since people lived in it continuously) and the impossibly dirty wood floors (no amount of mopping would ever get them clean, I swear), musty old wallpaper, and just generally draftiness of the place made it pretty miserable to be an allergy sufferer in. Honestly, I know in the house I lived in that to make it better allergy-wise it would have been necessary to replace all of the wood floors, take out all the wallpaper, replaster (or sheetrock) the walls, etc.

Get it inspected. I would also be concerned about whether the foundation is level. Cracked windows and walls can be a bad sign. And, termites, definitely would be concerned about that.

It's a pretty house, but I definitely agree with those who say they don't envy the work you have to do.
posted by fructose at 9:28 PM on March 26, 2009

Nice house. Having been through something similar I could say an infinite amount of things, but I will stick with just a few for now.

The woodwork. Much of it is very nice, but don't make the mistake of assuming that all old woodwork is great just because it's old. I would suspect that some of it was originally painted (the wood spindles on the stairs come to mind) and it will be a huge waste of your time trying to strip them to return them to an 'original glory' that might not have been. Focus on the wood that has intricate detailing or is obviously stained.

Plumbing. Learn how if you don't know already. In a house that old you will probably need to have both copper skills and reasonable facility with pipe wrenches to work with steel pipe. Put valves everywhere.

Safety. The knee wall between the rises of the stairs isn't really safe and certainly not up to code - it needs to be much higher.

The hole in the floor. That looks like a toilet flange. Someone apparently had a toilet in your parlor. Since it's stuffed with rags to avoid sewer gas I suspect it is still connected to the sewer line. I'd be a bit nervous that the joists are carved up to put the plumbing in.

The chimney in the attic. It looks like there is a little water damage, so I'd want to make sure that the flashing around the chimney is good and the chimney itself above the roofline doesn't need rebuilding.

The odd floor in the yellow room - if that's tile it might have been a wood or coal stove stove. The niche might be decorative or it might have something to do with that.

The pattern of missing tiles in the bathroom is odd - it's in a straight line, possibly telegraphing a specific fault in the framing below. Take a close look when you start working on that.

Anyway, it looks really really nice. I've seen refinished cabinets like that at antique stores in richmond going for nearly the price of your house.
posted by true at 9:39 PM on March 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well, HopperFan, what are you doing in May? I sure wouldn't mind help, and I have a lot of room. And camping beds. And budget for pizza and Mountain Dew. And let's talk about those tiles. The bathroom floor is a low priority, so I still need them for a while, but after that, hey. Columbus, eh? Ohio or Indiana?

Allergies: yes. My son. Draftiness is not a problem; it will actually help him. But mold is definitely my #1 priority here. Pace HopperFan's friend (I will, actually, take high-res pictures of every layer of wallpaper I can identify) I won't be leaving any wallpaper in place, or carpet. And we will play the allergies by ear. Trust me, we know from allergies and we don't play around with them.

Living in the carriage house: there may be plumbing and mold issues there which trump even those in the main house, so this option will have to await local examination. But yeah -- having a whole spare house sounds like it will come in handy!

As to envying the work I have to do: I am so looking forward to this. You have no idea.

Old House Journal. Excellent.
posted by Michael Roberts at 9:46 PM on March 26, 2009

And just in case we run screaming once we actually comprehend the magnitude of this task, the original listing realtor has a list of 14 people who specifically asked to be called first if minds were changed.
posted by Michael Roberts at 9:49 PM on March 26, 2009

That looks like a lot of fun.

Personally, my first thought would be to check for lead paint (you said you had a kid, right?) -- don't trust that the Quakers dealt with this -- and get the water checked in case the pipes have lead sections. Even if you get a house inspection, pay the $4 for one of those electrical outlet checkers and check every outlet yourself. Basic safety is really easy to overlook, but I think it comes before pretty much everything else.

Secondly, start thinking of your house as a collection of interconnected systems, rather than room-by-room or in terms of cosmetics. Making the heat function involves some combination of electricity, gas/oil/wood/whatever, functioning passive and active ventilation systems, etc -- it's not just "the furnace." That means learning which doors need to be open, which can be shut, and so on -- actively inhabiting the house, not passively. The same goes for everything else -- plumbing, electrical, foundation, etc.

Thirdly, but probably the absolute first thing you will want to do, is buy a used pickup truck. If you are doing more than the occasional weekend DIY project, you need a full-sized pickup or van, perhaps with a trailer, too.

Fourth, go into whichever building supply store you might be shopping at, and talk to someone (probably at the contractor counter, or possibly the manager), saying that you are beginning a major house renovation and ask for a discount. Buying in quantity should be good for 10-15% off, plus some courtesies.

Fifth, and related, is to find out who in your area still does small-volume millwork. Inevitably, you will want to match some trim pieces, and knowing who does good work at a reasonable cost will make your life easier.

Lastly, I would strongly suggest beginning with a policy of always buying the tool you need to do a task well. Don't go out and overbuy a bunch of fancy-pants tools -- but never jury rig a tool for a task it isn't suited, either. Learn fast to make a binary decision: for tools you will use frequently and for important work, you buy the good stuff; for tools you will use once or twice a year, you buy from Harbor Freight or Northern Tool or similar. You don't need every tool in the shop -- but the tools you will need, you will really need.
posted by Forktine at 9:53 PM on March 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Lead paint: fortunately, my youngest is 10 now, so no longer eating paint. But I'm still going to test. Lead plumbing I hadn't thought of. In general, my goal is to replace most of the paint eventually anyway.

Volume discounts: I doubt I'm going to have the money to buy in volume all at once, unfortunately. I'll still ask around, though. That sounds like good advice.

Millwork: that would be the Amish. They're currently cutting some of my dad's honey locusts to make siding for his addition. I may hire them to do a lot of this, actually.
posted by Michael Roberts at 10:04 PM on March 26, 2009

true, you're right, that does look like a toilet flange. And the wallpaper isn't the right color to be the parlor, so ... I don't actually know where that is. Another question to be deferred until May, I suppose.
posted by Michael Roberts at 10:27 PM on March 26, 2009

Oh man, that's a beautiful house! I've day dreamed about getting a house like this and renovating it. Please do blog about it as you renovate. From my experiences renovating my current 1920s house:

Fixing plaster on ceilings sucks and it seems like problems cracking reoccur. Don't be afraid to sheetrock & skim coat your ceilings.

Invest in a couple of really good respirators for anyone who is working on sanding or getting down underneath floor boards or creepy crawly spaces. Those little dust masks are mostly useless for this kind of work. Also, you will need a good quality shop vacuum that can take a lot of abuse.

Selectively hire people to help you do stuff. It goes faster and is totally worth it for stuff you aren't experienced doing. We just paid a guy to do the tile work in our bathroom. It took him 3 days and it's beautiful. It would have taken us much longer and a lot of swearing and wouldn't have looked as professional.

Heating an old house is a brutal. A lot of old houses have no insulation. One of the best investments we made was getting insulation blown into our attic. It made a huge, immediate difference and lowered our energy bills.

We stripped all the woodwork in our master bedroom in hopes of refinishing it, only to find the woodwork didn't hold a stain well at all. The woodwork in old houses, especially the wood on 2nd floor rooms, sometimes tended to be lower quality and was meant to be painted. The woodwork on 1st floors tends to be nicer for showing off purposes.

Make sure everyone in your family has had a tetanus shot.

Have fun and keep your sense of humor!
posted by pluckysparrow at 10:27 PM on March 26, 2009

Don't just think of your kid eating paint chips on the floor. Not to be an alarmist, but think of the lead dust settling on all sorts of surfaces. You can mitigate it somewhat by sealing it up again, but definitely contact Indiana's Health and Human Services or Housing departments to see if they have any abatement grants, brochures or similar about getting rid of lead.

You can certainly do some wood refinishing and the like, but get all of your floor joists nice and square before you do so, or you'll be repainting/spackling/trimming/shimming your doors and cabinetry again and again as the house shifts.

And don't let my doom and gloom get you down, either; add me to the jealous crowd.
posted by Madamina at 10:30 PM on March 26, 2009

These folks recently finished renovating a house built in 1890 and their site has a ton of information on doing the renovations themselves.
posted by corey flood at 10:44 PM on March 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Respirators: check. Good idea.

Lead testing: check. I'm going to see what that will entail. Might as well clean it out now if I can. I'll check with the state.

And wow, the link to ourvictorianhouse.com is a fantastic find, corey!
posted by Michael Roberts at 11:07 PM on March 26, 2009

If you haven't done it yet, do a title search, a.k.a the nasty surprise search. It will tell you if you have any easements to deal with or if your house is going to cost you a lot more than $8000 due to back taxes or dozens or dozens of other parade rainers. Do this sooner rather than later!
posted by Alison at 11:37 PM on March 26, 2009

Definitely respirators. I'd look into one of those portable HEPA air purifiers (like this) that you could set up in your interim living/sleeping space - it'll help your allergic son AND other family members, both from the old house and the dust the reno kicks up.

Learn how to do an effective quarantine - plastic sheeting, well-taped, sometimes with a double layer. That will go a long way to help keep part of the house habitable while you're working. Some of your priorities will come after seeing the inspection report, which is why I asked that first. Just because there were folks living there doesn't mean it's up to code and/or healthy, or that you won't need to do somethings before others (plumbing before floors, for example). Get them to check foundation, rot, insects, lead paint, lead plumbing, wiring/electrical, attic safety, around the chimney, gutters, joists, everything.

Another few renos with blogs. Here are 99 home reno blogs - with brief descriptions.

Most of these are quite far along but if you go through their archives you'll get some great tips and product recommendations.
- This old crack house
- get to fixin'
- Door Sixteen
- 1900 farm house
- the devil queen
- this decrepit victorian

Then there is Houseblogs.net which is a community of folks blogging their renos!
posted by barnone at 11:49 PM on March 26, 2009

Title search: already done -- no liens or back taxes. As to easements, I will ask about that, good idea -- but it's a double lot, so at least there should be lots of room on all sides.

HEPA air purifier: good idea. Very good.

Quarantining: I learned that in our last house, when we engaged in mold remediation in the bathroom. I'm not going to worry about that until July.

Excellent, excellent links!
posted by Michael Roberts at 12:02 AM on March 27, 2009

Hey, incredible house and an incredible story - just one question - how do I subscribe to your blog - there doesn't appear to be an RSS feed...
posted by Happy Dave at 1:50 AM on March 27, 2009

Volume discounts: I doubt I'm going to have the money to buy in volume all at once, unfortunately. I'll still ask around, though. That sounds like good advice.

To clarify: you aren't asking for a volume discount because you are buying a bunch of stuff all at once (though inevitably you will, at least a few times, as things come up). You are asking for the discount because the project, taken as a whole, will be large volume, compared to what an average homeowner might buy in a year. You want to be able to walk in and get your discount on almost everything you buy, or at least on every order over $X.

My experience is that this is standard practice at building supply places, where telling them you are doing a large project gets you a discount (less than retail, more than a huge-volume contractor would pay), but as with all things in life YMMV.

Have fun!
posted by Forktine at 4:37 AM on March 27, 2009

Oh how cool!

Regarding the lead paint, the biggest risk is if there is lead paint on the windows-- opening and closing them can generate dust. You'll also want to think about exterior lead contamination if you're considering a veggie garden.

There might be a local historical society where they have old photos--it's not outside the realm of possibility you could find interior photos of the house to check on the status of the woodwork.

Regardless, if I were you I'd definitely defer woodwork stripping/repainting if possible, since it sounds like there's a lot to do that more immediately impacts livability.

posted by miss tea at 4:51 AM on March 27, 2009

My 'new' house is 1852 (and could probably fit inside yours with room left over for those Vietnamese villages) and looking at the floors in your pictures, you may be in pretty good shape, foundation-wise. One thing to check, though, is what sort of support is going on in your basement - if you have temporary lally columns (jacks that look like they are part old timey-machine gun as opposed to cement-filled steel tubes) keeping your floors level, you'll want them replaced. Old houses shift and settle and you'll feel a lot more comfortable knowing that your columns are cemented in place properly.

Definitely get an inspection done. Also get an electrician in - it looks like you'll have to rewire the house, modern electrical or not, as I'm not seeing a whole lot of outlets. While you may be able to put down some wiring yourself, as the previous owner of my house did*, getting a professional to do it will give you piece of mind and increase the value of your home.

Setting up in the carriage house first sounds like a good idea. Focus there for livability before expanding into the base house.

* - One day, the previous owner seemed to have an epiphany regarding three way switches and decided that he had to wire EVERY LIGHT on a three way switch. Our basement looks like a wire monster exploded.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:35 AM on March 27, 2009

If you decide to do your own copper water pipe, go propress. Learning to sweat pipes *well* takes a lot of time; jackass me with a friend can re-do the basement-ceiling water pipe (tear out and replace) in four hours with propress. THe fittings are mondo expensive, but ti's still better than sweating.
posted by notsnot at 5:39 AM on March 27, 2009

two things:

mold is ubiquitous, what makes mold a problem in houses is moisture. there are basically three vectors for moisture build up in this house: wet basement, leaking pipes, leaking roof.

if the pipes froze during the winter, as horrible as this may seem, it might actually be easier (and possibly cheaper) to just replace all of it rather than repair it piecemeal it depends a lot on how things are laid out and what you are willing to rip out.

i'm going to guess that you have a fairly wet basement. you should really think about what you can do to reduce the moisture level down there.

seriously, everything is going to take at least twice as long as you think. think about everything you think you need to do in those two months, now think about what will happen if you are only able to complete half of it.

(also, did you know that the animal hair in old plaster is a major source of allergens?)
posted by geos at 5:45 AM on March 27, 2009

Don't forget to file for your homestead tax exemption, if you haven't done it already. That can save you a bundle in property tax. See here: http://www.in.gov/dlgf/2344.htm
posted by leapfrog at 6:03 AM on March 27, 2009

Regarding the lead paint, the biggest risk is if there is lead paint on the windows-- opening and closing them can generate dust. You'll also want to think about exterior lead contamination if you're considering a veggie garden.

actually, i think the real biggest risk is improperly done remediation. especially if your kids are old enough to be not licking the floors clean for you.

you should assume that everything painted has lead-paint at some level. don't assume that contractors will be concerned about this: don't let a contractor sand anything (or yourself) painted. and yes, the windows are a likely source of paint chips and dust.

i would definitely invest in a shop vac with a HEPA filter.

and while we are on this topic, since you mention this house has steam heat: watch out for asbestos insulation on the pipes and furnace. since you have no money, what you should do is:

a) don't disturb it
b) wrap it in commerical (high mil) saran wrap, if you think you can do this safely i.e. it's not visibly crumbling and you think you won't disturb it by wrapping it, make sure you are wearing a real respirator when you are doing this.

(NOTE: I am giving advice here which is probably illegal and likely involves some asbestos exposure, think hard about this. hopefully you don't have any asbestos...)
posted by geos at 6:03 AM on March 27, 2009

Wet basement: I hope not. I think not, knowing Richmond -- but again: we'll see.

Animal hair in plaster: I didn't know it, although one of the old-house sites linked here mentions human hair purchased from barbers! Fortunately animal dander is not an issue for us; mold and dust mites are our bugaboos.

Veggie garden: yes, that's one of my longer-term goals, so lead testing of the soil is going to be something I'll have to do.

Historical society: excellent idea. I'll also be checking the microfiche of the Palladium-Item at the library -- long-term.

Homestead tax exemption: you ain't kidding. The current tax base is $154 per half due to homestead. (!)

Steam heat: it doesn't, that was hyperbole. Or at least, I don't think so -- actually, I don't know. I'll watch out for asbestos, though, with sinking heart.

Shop vac with HEPA filter: I have one, actually, from our last adventure in mold remediation. But I'm probably going to need a new and bigger one.
posted by Michael Roberts at 6:32 AM on March 27, 2009

Dude! If you decide to check out Earthways, send me a MeFi mail and we'll do a meetup.

Also, what Geos said about moisture and.....

The big source of moisture in a solid building is you. You breathe, take a shower, cook meals, require the toilet from time to time (which is a big open bowl of water) and so on. Remember when you insulate and weatherize that making the house air tight equals about five gallons of water dumped on the floor per day per person.

I learned this from one of Taurton's books (the people who publish fine homebuilding). They have pretty much become my first go to for any project where I don't quite know exactly what I'm doing.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:32 AM on March 27, 2009

From living in houses of that era for the last decade, I'd suggest replacing the windows first thing, if they're new. On the stained glass maybe back it with a standard window.
You will lose more heat through 100 year old window than most people generate in a winter. Sure, you'll plastic and all that in the dead of winter, but it is NO match for actually having modern windows. Plus, you're not fighting with those 100 year old ropes that love to decay and and snap on all the old ones. Ugh.
Best bet is, if you can't do it all at once, pick the most wind exposed side first. Here, that would be the river facing side. Not sure about your geography, though.

Also, I'd have the roof looked at. Yeah, they say its new, but there's a lot of sagging and unevenness in the roof line of that first pic on your blog. Makes me think they reshingled it when it really needs a complete or partial rip off and rebuild with new framing. Could just be the pic, though.

Congrats on the house, it's lovely. I have a real soft spot for Italianates of that era. They're usually a better investment than their wood sisters, too, since the brick holds up SO much better. As long as you keep the ivy at bay...
posted by Kellydamnit at 6:43 AM on March 27, 2009

Another owner of an old house here, just popping in to give my 2 cents.

1. Definitely patch competent plaster, but I'd recommend replacing the stuff you have to tear out with drywall. Paperless drywall is available at your local big box, which takes care of the mold issue (no paper, no mold). Plastering a ceiling is a big messy job.

2. You likely have little to no insulation and lots of air leaks that will kill your energy efficiency. There's not much you can do about it since it's a solid masonry house (I'm assuming). Insulate the attic and accept that it won't get much better than that.
posted by electroboy at 6:53 AM on March 27, 2009

Asbestos testing: You can send samples to the nice folks at Western Analytical Laboratory. They'll call you within 24 hours and let you know which of your samples contained asbestos. (And the results are confidential -- they don't report you to the authorities demanding everyone don hazmat suits.)

A little off-topic, but remember that if you want to get something growing right away, you can always do a little container gardening.

Two months is a tiny, tiny amount of time. We did the heavy work on our rowhouse in South Philly with help from contractors and working our asses off every night, and it took four months. And we weren't "finished" after that, but then again, we'll never be "finished."

I know you know this, but wow, is a good inspector worth their weight in gold. (Also, don't put too much faith in your roof yet...replaced doesn't mean replaced correctly. Yeah, I speak from experience.)
posted by desuetude at 7:00 AM on March 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Coming in a little late here, but....

For finding replacement bits and pieces -- period tile, molding, bathtub fixtures, whatever -- see if there's an architectural salvage place around. Local would of course be easier, but there are national options. These guys make very cool doohickeys out of salvage to sell to urbanites, but they also just sell the salvaged stuff out of a warehouse in Scranton I went recently. It's HUGE and completely insane. Just acres of old doors and windows and iron fence and claw foot tubs and clock faces from old factories and and and. The people there seem to know what they're doing, and if you e-mail them pictures of what you need, they'll probably be able to help.

Good luck!
posted by kestrel251 at 7:30 AM on March 27, 2009 [4 favorites]

Moisture: in a house this old, I don't think airtightness is ever going to be an issue. This is one step up from camping.

Windows: there is no way I can afford new windows, even though I know you're right.

Attic insulation: this is on the checklist.

Believing in the roof: this is a simplifying assumption I'm making. I'm told it doesn't leak, but I'm sure we're going to have issues -- but I am hoping they're lower-priority issues. I worry about the picture of the front, too, but (1) that's the porch, so lower-priority and (2) my sister, who has actually seen it, says it's not actually that saggy. I'm hoping it's an artifact of Mr. Google's photography.

Asbestos testing: thanks for the link! I don't know if it will be necessary, but if it is, I'll definitely use it.

Good inspector: if I can find one, yes. But I'm going to wait until I'm there; I will definitely be co-inspecting. If anyone in the area has suggestions for competent renovation professionals, I'd appreciate that!
posted by Michael Roberts at 7:34 AM on March 27, 2009

Oh, and blog feed: yeah, yeah, I know. I whittled it myself from Perl and a block of soap. RSS isn't brain surgery, but it just hasn't been a priority.
posted by Michael Roberts at 7:39 AM on March 27, 2009

Also, you may have to update the wiring before insulating. Old style knob and tube wiring cannot be covered by insulation.
posted by electroboy at 8:03 AM on March 27, 2009

I'll throw in a couple of ideas--if you pull off the woodwork, pull the nails out the backside--use a big pair of slip joint pliers. If you try to come out the front, they will chip out a huge hole. You may be able to just scrub them well with Murphy's oil soap and leave them on the wall, at least for now.

All the paint that went in before about 1980 has lead in it. If you can paint over it, that should seal it.

I'm seconding the replace the windows asap comment.

If you are really stuck with how to get in more insulation, and have some bad plaster, I have lined a room before with 3/4 inch styrofoam, then drywalled over that. You have to reset the electrical boxes and fill in woodwork around doors and windows, but boy does it ever make a room stay warm and cozy.

Watch the sales ads for the big box stores like a hawk. When they ahve what you need on sale, buy it, even if you weren't quite ready for it. You can save a lot that way, if you can store the materials.

if you have to pull up some plaster on a ceiling, check into plaster washers--they are made specifically to fix sagging plaster.
posted by midwestguy at 8:43 AM on March 27, 2009

Here’s something I did recently and very much wish I’d done two years ago when I first bought my house: set up a home renovations project binder. Get a basic school binder. Divide your house into rooms or sections (i.e., living room, kitchen, upper and lower hallways, upstairs bathroom, garden, exterior of the house, carriage house apartment), and for each area add lined sheets of paper and a hole-punched envelope to the binder. You can also use tab dividers if you want. I used plastic page sheaths for envelopes because I had some on hand, but there’s probably something better available at Staples, or you could make envelopes by stapling sheets of paper together. On the lined paper you can write your lists of what needs doing and jot down measurements, supplies needed, contact info for workers, estimates of costs, research notes about appliances, diagrams of the landscaping etc. In the envelopes you keep paint chips, fabric samples, receipts, warranties, etc.

Then take the binder with you when you hit the hardware store or shop for furnishings (I’ve got mine with me almost constantly). It really is so helpful for helping you feel organized and not overwhelmed. You never have to waste time searching for that paint chip or that number for the electrician your neighbour recommended. If you’re out shopping for something for one area of the house, and you happen to see an amazing sale on something you think will be perfect for another room you haven’t gotten to, you already have the measurements and paint samples in the binder, so you can tell whether it’s a good match or not, and take advantage of the sale. And, in future, even after you’re basically done the renos, keep the binder. If you ever want to get more paint for touchups, you still have the paint chips.
posted by orange swan at 9:07 AM on March 27, 2009 [9 favorites]

Windows - there is usually no need to replace them. Old windows were made to be repairable. Check out Meany's _Working Windows_, a tiny book that will tell you all you need about repairing a double-hung window.

The notion that you need new windows to stop air filtration, and that they pay for themselves in energy saving, is a myth. Adding a decent storm window is the best thing you can do. When that seal between panes in new windows fails within 5 years -- and it WILL fail -- the only thing you can do is replace the whole window again. What a waste of time and money.

Insulate the attic, add a storm window, and repair the existing window. MUCH cheaper and better than replacing the windows.
posted by infodiva at 9:16 AM on March 27, 2009 [3 favorites]

I don't know what the vents are like or what kind of heat you'll have, but they will have years of dust and spores in the ducts and should be cleaned out. You'll definitely want to install a HEPA filter for that system as well. Reno kicks up a lot of dust and even if you vacuum it all up it will still be in places you can't imagine. If you can run the air system on just fan it will filter air in the whole house. But without good filters you will just be running the bad air everywhere. Since you have time before you even get there, read up on everything you can think of and have a loose plan and timeline. Good Luck!
posted by CoralAmber at 9:23 AM on March 27, 2009

Oh, and you don't have to do all the windows at once. If you want to upgrade a couple in the most important part of the house that's perfectly ok.
posted by CoralAmber at 9:27 AM on March 27, 2009

Windows: I greatly prefer the idea of keeping and repairing the existing windows, and using storm windows. I may make an exception in the sunroom, just because those windows have metal frames, which I have always considered idiotic. But that's a low-priority task. For the first winter, livability means attic insulation and lots of Visqueen, probably also closing off large portions of the house. Perhaps flooding the floor in the yellow room for hockey.

Ductwork and HEPA filtration: Excellent suggestions, and I'm ahead of you on this one. I don't actually know what we've got there yet, but I'm hoping the ducts are large and easily cleaned. I doubt I'll call a service for that, though. We've taken the service route twice; once, I think our ducts were competently cleaned. But yes -- I'll be looking into serious HEPA filtration systems.

I do have an ozone generator for killing anything presently in the ducts. They'll smell of chlorine for the rest of eternity, but they won't be allergenic any more. It's better to clean anything out first, as far as possible. (I've been using the ozone generator as a doorstop here in Puerto Rico. No ductwork here, and not much organic building material even.)
posted by Michael Roberts at 9:37 AM on March 27, 2009

Meany's _Working Windows_: wow! This looks perfect!

Does anybody have other specific book recommendations?
posted by Michael Roberts at 9:45 AM on March 27, 2009

Oh, and project organization: to be perfectly honest, I'd really like to set the whole thing up as a workflow system. But definitely, having it all on paper or online will have to be a priority. I hope to make this the best damn documentation of a renovation project ever seen on this planet.

Metafilter: the house.
posted by Michael Roberts at 9:51 AM on March 27, 2009

Styrofoam: maybe. Depending on how bad some of the external walls really are, I could see just stripping the wall entirely (the northeast wall of the dining room and the north wall of the yellow room spring to mind), insulating, and refinishing the wall. But I really do want to keep overall wall replacement to a minimum.

Styrofoam is a good idea, and I had already been thinking about it -- glad to hear somebody's tried it.

Somebody up there asked whether the walls are solid masonry. I don't know. I'm guessing they've got internal framing, but this is another thing that will require my being there.
posted by Michael Roberts at 9:55 AM on March 27, 2009

Another linky for you - Rejuvenation.com. They are all about reproduction lighting and accessories. The actual lights are pretty expensive, but they are a great source for all the little accessories like switchplates, which are hard to find at regular stores. This is for way down the line of your remodel, but thought it might be useful.
posted by Joh at 10:13 AM on March 27, 2009

Another source for switchplates and switches, etc -- Classic Accents. http://www.classicaccents.net/

Rejuvenation (and a few other places) actually buys its switches from Classic Accents and resells them at a higher price. Buy directly from CA and save some money.

I do love Rejuvenation though!
posted by infodiva at 10:27 AM on March 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Have you looked into the tax credit?
posted by Night_owl at 11:26 AM on March 27, 2009

Here's the site I mentioned : Columbus Architectural Salvage, in Ohio.

Please get in touch with me in May, and good luck!
posted by HopperFan at 11:37 AM on March 27, 2009

Tax credit: I haven't found anything since the stimulus actually got passed, so I had assumed it was one of the things that got cut. If not, it'll be worth $800, and that would be a welcome contribution to the renovation fund.

HopperFan: definitely!
posted by Michael Roberts at 11:52 AM on March 27, 2009

Does anybody have other specific book recommendations?

Insulate and Weatherize and Windows and Doors.
posted by electroboy at 11:53 AM on March 27, 2009

And have I mentioned that your house is freaking amazing, and I am terribly jealous??!! Good for you, to rescue her!
posted by infodiva at 12:10 PM on March 27, 2009

Indiana lead abatement: no funding, sadly (not surprising; Indiana has so little money that Mitch Daniels is actually accepting stimulus money from Mr. Obama). But they do have lots of helpful information.

Infodiva: thanks! I'm feeling a little overwhelmed today; I keep looking around, surprised that I'm still in Puerto Rico instead of in that house. I can never decide whether I hate that feeling or like it; it's like when you've traveled just a little too much in a given timespan and forget which country you're actually in when waking up in the morning. So any encouragement is welcome.

Various new pictures kept arriving yesterday until late in the night, as my mail queue kept discovering yet more humongous mails from my sister. So the Flickr set has continued to grow, if you've been following it but haven't noticed that. The blue bedroom, for instance, arrived at 1 in the morning. It has its own little bathroom. And the little bathroom under the front stairs arrived towards evening as well. I think I will remove it entirely -- does a family of four really need five bathrooms on one property? I think not. I'd rather use that little window as a solar heating interface.
posted by Michael Roberts at 12:18 PM on March 27, 2009

HA! On the off chance you don't want your micro-tub, it isn't cracked, and it fits our tiny bathroom dimensions, I'll happily buy your micro-tub from you :)
posted by DarlingBri at 12:58 PM on March 27, 2009

Oh right, identify a good lumberyard that specializes in millwork. That may be the only way to get moldings and flooring to match the existing. A lot of places will charge a setup fee to do custom profiles, but if you do it in quantity (and you will, for flooring) it's not that big of a deal.

You might want to consider replacing floorboards with plywood though (or plywood over floorboards). It makes for a much better subfloor and floorboards are impossible to seal against air leakage.
posted by electroboy at 2:52 PM on March 27, 2009

You can't have my microtub, or my doorknobs.
posted by Michael Roberts at 3:52 PM on March 27, 2009

I came in to second Old House Journal. The website is also a great resource and place to learn. They have a directory of architectural salvage places.

Further down the road you can get that lovely brass hardware polished (a professional metal worker will be able to buff out the fine lines) and you will be blown away by the detail. I'd also suggest holding off on getting rid of the pedastal sink. It may grow on you as you start to get more into all this. Or you can trade it at a architectural salvage place for one that suits your taste better.

Congrats! And welcome to the wonderful insanity that is an old house.
posted by dog food sugar at 8:19 PM on March 27, 2009

I honestly don't see the attraction of the pedestal sink. I have a theory. See, my wife is Hungarian. We go back and forth to Europe, or used to, before some various financial difficulties which we won't go into here. And the thing is, this solid architecture which is represented by this house, and the pedestal sink, and those bus station tiles, is safely old and nostalgic here, but basically says Communist 80's to me. Hungary has only very recently had an influx of cheap real estate credit permitting it to upgrade its facilities. Before that, the economy had been flat for a very long time indeed, and so most buildings were pretty old. And Europeans build to last, anyway.

The upshot is that the pedestal sink and little hexagonal tiles may say "nice old Victorian house" to you, and apparently my sister, but I'm not kidding when I say that all they remind me of is the hospital where my wife's uncle died of liver failure at the age of 32 after death by alcohol. No, correct that -- it also reminds me of a really old YMCA.

I adore the exterior of this house. I love the windows and the hardwood floors. I like the buffet OK, although it's quite dark. I like the leaded glass a lot. The banister is great. The hexagonal window embayments are lovely. The use of light is fantastic -- it's a gloomy day in these pictures and none of the lights are on, but you wouldn't know it, mostly.

But when I compare the notion of using that bathroom as is, with those tiles, with nice 18" white square tiles like I have here in Puerto Rico, well, there's just no contest. I want the clean whiteness and bright light. It might not be period. Neither will my WiFi, or the solar heating I eventually aim to try.

But it'll be a good year before I do much with this bathroom, I suspect. So you can all breathe a sigh of relief -- for now. And maybe start sharpening your knives in preparation for fighting it out over the sink and tile.

There's an Old House Journal compendium on Amazon which I'm considering buying. I take it that the consensus would support that decision?
posted by Michael Roberts at 9:48 PM on March 27, 2009

I am confused. I thought these ridiculous bargains were for houses that were in far worse shape with additional title problems. I am just unable to believe that you have clear title to this property. There must be fine print. Of course I've been wrong before, but this is just not within the realm of something I'm able to get my reality to accept.
posted by peter_meta_kbd at 7:59 AM on March 28, 2009

Does anybody have other specific book recommendations?

The Victorian Design Book by Lee Valley Tools.
posted by mlis at 10:40 AM on March 28, 2009

The title company says I have clear title, and the title insurance covers the situation that there might be some hidden liens of some sort -- but there aren't.

Seriously, the economy is in very bad shape.
posted by Michael Roberts at 2:41 PM on March 28, 2009

You might find this link helpful when you do get around to looking at the windows. Short answer is you shouldn't replace the windows.
posted by miss tea at 4:43 AM on March 29, 2009

That's not exactly what the linked study says. It's closer to "you're not going to save much money by fixing windows, so do whatever you like the best".

Keep in mind that replacing with updated windows (not necessarily vinyl, there's various options including fiberglass, wood clad, etc) means you can get rid of ugly ass triple track storm windows.
posted by electroboy at 4:40 PM on March 30, 2009

I just want to add my voice to the chorus of amazement. What a beautiful, beautiful house. I'm in Canada, and cannot imagine such a house going for less than 100 times what you have paid. Insane. Maybe our market hasn't caught up yet.
posted by olya at 12:00 PM on March 31, 2009

Not a restoration suggestion necessarily, but this did cross my mind - is it possible for you to rent an apartment to live in while you fix up your house? This would certainly relieve some of the "gotta get this done now in a hurry" pressure. I mean, you already own the home, so it's not like you'll have to make mortgage payments on top of apartment rent.
posted by Afroblanco at 7:30 PM on April 21, 2009

Note to all -- according to the big ol' Puerto Rico Wire wall calendar, I'm at T-24. Twenty-four days before I see my house.

Afroblanco -- my mother's upstairs room is mine for as long as I need it, on the other side of town. Well, except that my mother and her husband are not terribly compatible with my Jack Russell terrier, so there's still some time pressure. But it does mean that I have a few days to clean and get minimum plumbing working. When the Big Box O' Stuff arrives (the moving truck), about a week or so after I get to Indiana, I should be ready to move in. My needs are pretty minimal. The carriage house is probably where I'm going to sleep during the initial phase.
posted by Michael Roberts at 8:18 PM on April 22, 2009

THIS is the bible of old house restoration.

Use the forums at Breaktime, Old House Web and Houseblogs frequently. (Disclosure, my husband owns Houseblogs and, yes, we need to update it. Between our real jobs and kid and house, we've been swamped).

The houseblogs that were linked up there are terrific recommendations. You'll find most housebloggers to be extremely kind and generous with experiences and advice. We've made friends with a group of them in our city (as well as other cities!) and we help each other out with advice.

I learned the nuts and bolts of certain tasks by volunteering for Habitat for Humanity and Rebuilding Together. Think of it as a free workshop while doing good where you get guidance from people who know what they are doing. Then you can work on your own place.

First things first when you start. Stabilize, stabilize, stabilize. Foundation, exterior envelope of the house (make sure there is no water getting in ANYWHERE), roof. Once these are in good shape, you can begin to work on infrastructure. Unfortunately, aesthetics are last. We've lived in parts of house while working on other parts. It can be stressful. Apply humor liberally.
posted by jeanmari at 4:17 PM on April 27, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and if you have questions about retrofitting old houses for solar, talk to Humphrey House.

Here's my soapbox rant about restoring versus replacing windows.
posted by jeanmari at 5:13 PM on April 27, 2009

Ooooh, Bible ordered! I'm going to have quite the stack of books at my Mom's when I get there.

Also, I love your window rant. I'm feeling better and better about my philosophy of keeping those wooden windows. We put vinyl windows in our first house, back in the 90's -- replacing those horrible 1960's aluminum frames. It was expensive, but the old ones, I swear, had a negative R value, so it was pretty much worth it. But there were problems with them. One, after being tilted out for cleaning, never closed quite right again, and the springs all had problems within a few years. So ... a mixed blessing.

I'll be insinuating myself into the houseblogging community once I am on the scene with my house to blog. Ha. Until then, it just makes me crazy wondering what I actually have.

T minus twenty. The van went to San Juan for shipping today.
posted by Michael Roberts at 9:28 PM on April 27, 2009

T plus a couple of days. The blog is now available for your reading enjoyment.

The house is ... big. And old. And really not very good-smelling (homeless people + cats + carpets = a need for a dumpster, stat!) The dumpster arrived today, and I've got two carpets out already, and it's starting to smell better.

I'll be posting pics on the blog (one is already there, just as a starter). I have lots and lots of pics. I think I may wax lyrical about my new museum of wiring technology history next. Yes, there is tube-and-knob wiring (or whatever that's called -- with separate wires, wrapped on actual glass insulators?) and it is in active use. Some of it still has insulation.

I'll ... well, I should be posting these things to the blog instead. Let's just say: (1) I have plenty of work in the foreseeable future, (2) that damn sink in the upstairs bathroom is still hideous, even in focus, and (3) if possible, I love the dining room even more, having now seen it.
posted by Michael Roberts at 7:06 PM on May 19, 2009

I'd N'th working on the house systems before you start looking at specific rooms. Electric (including updating service if necessary to accommodate the variety of modern appliances we now have and removing ALL knob & tube/1960's aluminum wiring, they are EVIL), plumbing, HVAC, insulation, etc. It sounds and looks like these are definitely the priority--even though they're not as apparent as say, chintzy 80s wallpaper. It's also so much easier to deal with these projects when you can make a mess. (Read: take some of the walls down to the studs.) Since you got the place for a song, you might also consider seriously upgrading some of your systems--installing things like a tankless water heater, for example. You'd come out that much further ahead in terms of dollars and comfort.

I'd also consider scaling back what you consider livable, at least for the first 6 months or so. Make one or two rooms cozy (draft-free and decently warm in the winter) and camp out in them. You'd be surprised how long you can live with a hot plate. :-) This will help keep your energy bills down until you can assess and repair. Big old houses are a lot of work (we love them anyway) and projects inevitably cost 3 times as much and take 4 times as long as you think to complete. Contractors will tell you lies, lies, LIES I say. If you DIY, which is the route we took, make sure to do it the right way, even if it takes you forever and costs you blood sweat and tears... If you screw up and you know it, go back and fix it. You *will* discover many, many surprises from former tenants and contractors. (Ask me about spiral nails, wiring through chimney liners, yogurt cup plumbing, etc.) You don't want to be one of them for someone else down the line!

You should definitely invest in a couple of very comprehensive old house bibles--George Nash did a series of them that will help you immeasurably. Also, take a lot of cookies down to your local hardware store and lumber yards on your first visit. Repeat as needed.

As an old house owner, the best renovation product you buy is the Silent Paint Remover. You can remove mastic, goo, lead paint, varnish, etc. and not worry about vapors. We used it on lots of lead paint and LOVED it. (I am a lazy person who hates prep and clean up.) FYI we covered over our old flooring in the kitchen but I have *heard* of people using it to strip asbestos mastic (the nature of the heat/radiation keeps the mastic taffy-like so a mimimum of fibers escape). IF you went down the DIY asbestos route, which I am not recommending, make absolutely sure you read up on proper procedures and keep everything wet, wet, WET. My husband deals with folks who have mesothilioma on a daily basis and those strict codes are there for a reason. It is a miserable, certain death and it only takes one fiber.

Last but not least, live with the non-broken fixtures & flooring as long as possible before you replace. Get a feel for the house before you pull out the wonder bar. I HATED aspects of our house when we bought that I cherish now. (For instance, our 1960s giant hootie-rung kitchen sink.) There is a lot of truth to the old adage, "They don't make things like they used to." Once these items (hex tiles) are removed from a place, they are a P.I.A. to reinstall down the road. Someone like me might want to. And if in the end, you must remove, do sell them to old-house aficionados online. There's only so much of the quality stuff to go around.

Alright, shutting up now! If you want, you can memail me for answers or commiseration. :-) I adore old houses.
posted by muirne81 at 12:18 PM on July 10, 2009

From living in houses of that era for the last decade, I'd suggest replacing the windows first thing, if they're new. On the stained glass maybe back it with a standard window.
You will lose more heat through 100 year old window than most people generate in a winter. Sure, you'll plastic and all that in the dead of winter, but it is NO match for actually having modern windows. Plus, you're not fighting with those 100 year old ropes that love to decay and and snap on all the old ones. Ugh.

Installing well-fitted modern storms, whether they be metal or wood, will provide an equivalent e-rating and prevent condensation, provided the old windows are repaired & reglazed. It's easy work, it just takes a while. Plus the historical look of the house is preserved. I've not seen any modern window that looks right in older houses, particularly Italianates/Victorians, unless it's priced in the stratosphere.

Assuming that you want to keep the historical look, of course. Not everyone does. Whatever floats your boat. Though in my myopic mind, taking on a big old house to make it modern seems like a lot more work than buying new. :-) The former probably comes cheaper, though!
posted by muirne81 at 12:45 PM on July 10, 2009

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