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Ten Tips for New Owners of Older Homes

We just bought an old farm house. It’s in pretty good shape, but we know it’s important to keep up with things. Any tips on how to get started?

Tip #1. Safety first: Have your heating and electrical systems thoroughly checked by qualified and competent specialists. Install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Buy a 10 to 20 pound ABC fire extinguisher for each floor of your home. Stop by the local fire department on your way back from the hardware store for a training session in how to actually put out a fire. Practice your fire escape plan monthly with the entire family — feels silly, but saves lives.

Tip #2. Get to know your building: My clients say this strategy has lead them most directly to successful projects. Live in your “new” old home for 1 to 2 years before implementing a major project. Bring in specialists to investigate problems and find root causes. Hint: moisture and movement cause all building problems, track them to their source.

Tip #3. Keep up with maintenance: Do a round of spot paint maintenance before the whole place looks shabby and needs a full paint job, at least once every two to three years. Fix those rickety back steps before you break your neck.

Tip #4. Keep track of conditions: After every summer storm check to see if blown down branches have punched a hole in the roof. In mid-winter look daily for dampness in attics and ceiling plaster caused by ice dams. Get yourself into every space at least once a month. Does the water drain from the hillside every spring and run through your crawl-space? It’s nasty down there, but you should know what it’s like BEFORE the floor rots out.

Tip #5. Test and develop: When refinishing a floor, try out the entire procedure and all the products on a 1 square foot area in a back corner or closet to assure they work and the results are what you want. Try out a new tradesperson or contractor on a small job before hiring them to do the big project.

Tip #6. Do-It-Yourself: Know your limitations. Do it yourself only if you have the knowledge, skill and ability to follow through, or if you have the time, persistence and patience to learn to do it right, and if you have the fortitude to rip it out and start over when you get it wrong. When you don’t know how, get help from those who do before you start.

Tip #7. Keep a journal: Record everything, write it down, take photos, shoot video. Who repaired the front doorway? Where were the moldings from the back porch stored? What were the materials and procedures used to fix the hall plaster? When was the last time the chimney sweep came? Why did we think it was so important to fix up this old wreck? (“Oh yes, on our first visit, it was the sunlight filtering through orange autumn leaves that flooded the side bedroom — it seemed like the warmest room in the house.”)

Tip #8. Educate your children: Research the history of your home and community with your children and teach them about the people who lived there. Give them their own tools (real, but small sized, not toys) that match their abilities and have them help you out on appropriate projects and maintenance tasks. They will gain practical skills and attitudes they will use the rest of their lives, even if they don’t live in an old house.

Tip #9. Educate yourself: Sure, you have to read the books and articles, but you have to “read” the building and understand it too. That stain on the second floor bathroom ceiling says “ugly,” but it means “the vent stack flashing leaks at the roof and you’d better fix it before the rafter starts rotting.”

Tip #10. Enjoy your historic home: List the features you like most and invite your best friends over to enjoy them now — don’t wait until the place is “done.” Comfort has much more to do with people than with buildings.

John Leeke is a preservation consultant who helps homeowners, contractors and architects understand and maintain their historic buildings. You can contact him at 26 Higgins St., Portland, Maine, 04103; or by E-mail: johnleeke@HistoricHomeWorks.com; or log onto his website at: www.HistoricHomeWorks.com

© John Leeke