Renovating an old house – truths, myths and stereotypes

by krzys

The renovation of an old house evokes extreme emotions. Many enthusiasts on the Internet carefully renovate old homes, bringing them back to their former glory and shine, but also many discouraging opinions. To name my favourites:

“It is better to demolish and build a new one”,


“it’s not worth renovating an old house; it’s a bottomless pit.”

That is why it is time to deal with the truths, myths and stereotypes that concern the renovation of an old house.

Based on my experience with the renovation of an 82-year-old house, and previously living in an 80-year-old tenement house.

“Old house = moneybox”

Everything depends on the condition of the house. How old is it? Has it ever been renovated (and I don’t mean repainting the walls or other “cosmetics”)? What about renovations, have any? Does the house have any original elements that you want to renovate? Will you “just” want to renovate it, or is it a reconstruction? Are you able to do at least some of the work yourself, or do you have the flexibility to do it? Or will you have to commission all the work to the teams?

Buying an old house always involves some renovation, and a general overhaul of an old house is expensive. Especially when it also involves replacing installations, windows, upgrading the roof or facade. When we want to renovate original elements, or to restore untypical elements, when we want to preserve the climate of the house, we have to look for finishing materials not in the nearest building market, but in the shops where they are downloaded on special order.

Moreover, the finishing material itself is more expensive, because you have to add the cost of demolition (removing tiles, dismantling old fittings, buildings, etc.), and even if we do it ourselves, it is at least the cost of renting specialist equipment or rubble containers. That is why a reliable assessment of the condition of the building is crucial and indispensable (according to the first point of the Checklist – 7 things you have to check before you buy an old house). The more accurately we do this, the better we plan the scope of work to be carried out and the more accurately we estimate the cost estimate. And the more aware of our decision, the less we will feel that our old house is a moneybox. However, it seems to me that every house is a bit like đŸ˜‰.

“Something’s going to keep breaking.

This issue is also inextricably linked to the assessment of the technical condition of the building and the installation. If afterwards, we decide, however, to postpone some stage of renovation, or to replace a device, with temporary solutions, in the knowledge of the irregularities and faults detected, for financial or time reasons, we may have this effect. A non-functioning cooker, a hydrophone, cold radiators, a leaking roof, leaking windows – and a dream can quickly turn into anguish.

Therefore, while I am perfectly aware that sometimes it is impossible to do everything at once (and the list of things to do sometimes seems to have no end), I also do not recommend certain stages of renovation or replacement to postpone. If at the time of inspection you knew that the cooker is outdated and already barely working, and yet you delay its replacement for the third season and still call in a professional who resuscitates it but not for long? It seems that the roof has to be repaired, but it hasn’t been repaired yet, and in fact, it’s hardly surprising that it’s still leaking…

It is essential that, when deciding to renovate an old house, we should measure our strength against our intentions and know the extent of the necessary work and cost estimate, not just assume a minimum plan and that the rest will be “done one day”. A functioning and outdated bathroom can wait a while for a renovation. Still, the cooker or the roof is unlikely to be renovated—similarly, replacement of obsolete installations or leaking windows. In an inhabited house it is more difficult to carry out general renovations. In particular, the replacement of installations should be a priority (the question of a snow-covered water installation or an outdated electrical installation without grounding, all “on one-stop”). Similarly, levelling walls or floors.

It is also worth consulting with experts, asking, looking for and advising. Sometimes…let go. I gave up renovating old windows on the ground floor with a heartbreak, but three renovation experts couldn’t be wrong if they agreed that it wasn’t worth it and that they don’t guarantee how much these renovated windows will serve us. And the cost of the renovation was similar to the cost of replacing windows with new, wooden windows with incomparable thermal insulation parameters.

Eternal renovation

If we are aware of the scale of the renovation and the cost of the work, we decide to renovate the old house, knowing at the same time that we do not have sufficient funds. We have to wait, postpone certain stages. Or when we decide to do an economical renovation. When we are looking for contractors on our own, and we do not have one team for everything, and the work has to proceed in the right order. The more teams, the more difficult it is to schedule. We have to wait. Similarly, when the renovation is helped by family or friends, and they do it only in their free time.

When we underestimate costs and have no buffer, we have to wait.

When we want to keep the original elements, to renovate them, not every company will take on unusual orders. You have to wait. You also have to wait for a good construction company.

When we want to use materials that match the style of the house, most often these are “custom-made” elements, for which you have to wait a long time—longer than standard 8-12 weeks. The record-breaker here was probably our tile, for which we waited not only for a production campaign in the factory but later also for transport from that factory (and it produces those less popular designs rather, so it took a while before it was collected). We waited. We waited for a long time.

When a stage of renovation requires a building permit, you have to wait. If the house is in the Register of Historical Monuments, not only for the decision itself but also for the opinion or consent of the conservator. And that lasts.

Sometimes the scale of the renovation is overwhelming (as it often resembles a construction site) and there are material fatigue and decision making powerlessness. And without making a decision, it is difficult to finish the renovation. Sometimes, especially when you have renovated a house to the point where you can live, there is a risk that some makeshift things will stay for a long time. And the end of the renovation is not visible. Therefore, it is important that what we have influence over and what depends on us should not be unnecessarily delayed or dragged out. It is enough to just wait for this because of the materials, crews and formalities.

You can’t do everything you want to do – you have to make compromises’.

This is due to the limitations of the building itself, its functional layout, structure, but also to the possible technological solutions.

If you dream of large open spaces, a huge day zone, it may not be feasible for many old houses. There may also be no option to layout a wardrobe, a pantry or an additional bathroom. Sometimes it is not possible to change the original purpose of the rooms and replace them. But many old houses are so well and functionally arranged that there is no need for it. The location in relation to the sides of the world is also well-thought-out.

Also, the technology of the building, the materials used may require some concessions. Heat pump, recuperation, central hoover, intelligent house – these are not the solutions you will be able to use in an old house. But you probably won’t have to (except maybe a hoover đŸ˜‰). Many old houses have very good ventilation, they “self-ventilate” as it were, and you can’t deny them energy efficiency either – they are pleasantly cool in summer and keep warm in winter. The technological solutions applied many times are not inferior to the innovative ones.

In a situation where our old house has already undergone some modernisation, and even if the application of the solution is not our choice, it may turn out that it will remain for some time and will have to be accepted. It isn’t easy to think about replacing the windows or doors mentioned above, or getting rid of the cabinets or the new floor. There will undoubtedly be more urgent expenditure.

If we would like to rebuild or extend a house, after consulting the designer and architect, it may turn out that the load-bearing capacity of the ceiling or the structural layout will prevent the planned changes. A zoning plan or conservator may also be a barrier in this area.

Therefore, the fewer changes we want to make, the better. The more we are satisfied with the existing functional layout and the body of the building, the less need to make compromises.

“Better to demolish and build again

Such a view may mean that the scope of the renovation and its costs were underestimated and/or the owner exceeded the scale of the project. When someone sets a minimum plan – “you will paint yourself here, put on the roof, replace the cooker next season, and the floors and electricity will be replaced in 10 years with a major renovation”, he may be surprised …

The old house is a surprise. Often, doing one thing entails two more. Therefore, again – the more reliable the assessment of the technical condition of the building and the installation, the greater the awareness when making decisions. Especially when the house needs to be completely renovated, and that means long months of work and even a dozen or so crews. These are dozens of decisions to make and endless expenses. These are weeks of waiting to see some progress at last. Because in an old house, you first have to throw away/ demolish/collect the house in order to make it “bare walls” and ready “for new ones”. That is why it is so crucial to assess the condition of the building reliably and to measure the strength of the intentions.

It also happens that the old house is simply in such a bad technical condition, neglected for years, that its renovation is unprofitable, or that it is simply too late for renovation. Although I have read about renovations on such a scale that only the external walls remained (because only the walls were suitable for Something else), and the rest was created entirely from scratch. The question is, is this still within the limits of a renovation? But if you want, you can.

Sometimes the old house does not have any particular architectural or technological value, it does not have any elements worth preserving, giving it a climate, and its only asset is a plot of land in an attractive area. And such properties are often bought to demolish the old house and put a new one there.

‘The old will never make a new one’.

That is true. But why? In my opinion, it is a mistake of assumptions from the outset. If someone wants a new house, they better buy a plot of land and build it. Renovation of an old house makes sense if you like the character of such homes. When you appreciate the original elements, and you want to keep them and renovate them. Even when you upgrade what you need to upgrade, you want to preserve the soul of the old house at the same time.

I remember a house that I passed on my way back from work. An old, unplastered, lovely red brick house. With beautiful two-winged, wooden carved doors. It stood empty. I visualised myself how beautiful it could be made. I saw it a little bit French style with this brick cleaned and renovated grey woodwork. Someone bought it. I was happy that someone would give him a second life. My first concern was the grubbing up of the garden, practically to zero. There were, fortunately, two large trees left. The house was no better off. Styrofoam was laid on a nice brick, then the plaster. The windows were replaced. They were replaced with walnut-coloured plastic windows. The facade was painted orange. I stopped going there because I could not look at it. I know that one doesn’t discuss tastes, but I don’t understand and do not understand such “making a new one”.


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