By Melissa Kossler Dutton
Dwain Livengood can save money on his home renovation project by doing the work himself. But he also knows that do-it-yourself projects in historic homes like his 100-year-old farmhouse require extra planning and research, and that mistakes can be costly.
“Self-awareness is pretty huge,” says Livengood, who grew up in the house in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and is the third generation of his family to own it. “Saving money isn’t worth it if in the end it looks like an amateur did it.”
He is planning the first major renovations to the property, including a new kitchen, hardwood floor restorations and window repair.
DIY “fails” in historic homes can do more than look bad; they can seriously damage a home’s structure and character, says Jody Robinson, historic preservation officer for the city of Bellevue, Kentucky. DIY has a place in historic home renovation, she says, but it needs to be well-researched.
If your home or neighborhood has a historical designation, there probably are restrictions on what you can do, particularly to exteriors. Consult with local authorities before initiating projects or hiring contractors.
“The difference with a historic home is the materials used and how they were constructed,” Robinson says.
Slate roofs, wood gutters, weight-and-pulley windows, plaster walls and old building materials require special attention, experts say. Luckily, there are numerous places where owners of historic homes can find information about which projects they should and shouldn’t attempt on their own.
Cities, preservations societies, restoration enthusiasts, and even businesses that specialize in historic renovation offer workshops and classes. Window repair, plastering, basic fireplace fixes and tiling are among the most popular subjects.
Understanding your home’s construction and appreciating historic renovation methods are the first step, says Benjamin Curran, department head for historic preservation at Savannah Technical College in Georgia. Through its Historic Homeowners Academy, the school teaches classes geared to the do-it-yourselfer.
When homeowners try to apply modern solutions to old homes “a remodel can easily turn into a re-muddle,” Curran says. For example, using the wrong mortar can damage old bricks.
He recommends taking a class and consulting with a professional or historical preservationist.
“From there, it’s a question of what is achievable. What is the breadth of your skill set? Where might you stretch yourself and learn more?” Curran says.
Jim Wigton, president of the Monrovia (California) Historic Preservation Group, says it was formed nearly 40 years ago by residents who were restoring homes and wanted to share knowledge.
“At the beginning of the organization, we invited craftspeople in to share how to do things,” says Wigton, adding that group also offers a home tour and works on city-wide preservation projects.
Livengood, who has experience restoring antique carriage and tractors, plans on repairing the 40 wood windows in his foursquare house this spring. Using tips from a professional restoration company, he will replace the rope that holds the cast-iron weights that allow the windows to move up and down, and will paint the windows’ interiors. He’s hired a professional to tackle the exterior. He anticipates the work he does will reduce the repair costs by $200 per window.
Windows are a good DIY project because the work is more time-consuming than difficult, says Danielle Keperling, who with her parents and husband owns Historic Restorations in Lancaster. Her company is open to teaching the how-tos in order to reduce project costs, she says.
To maintain a home’s historical character, repairing old windows — rather than installing new ones — makes a big difference, says Keperling.
“Windows show the age of the house,” she says.
Whenever Doug Heavilin hires a professional to work on his 1902 Queen Anne Victorian in Franklin, Indiana, he shadows the person, soaking up as much information as he can.
“I’ve learned 90 percent of what I know about plumbing by sitting there and watching a plumber,” says Heavilin, who is restoring the 4,700-square-foot house with his wife, Amy. They’ve finished five of the home’s 22 rooms.
During their restoration journey, they’ve learned to install tile, hang wallpaper and drywall, repair plaster, and match stain and paint. He once engineered a solution to create rounded replacement pieces for their home’s turret.
The Heavilins read books and magazines, watch videos, take classes and swap tips with other homeowners before starting a project.
But they also know things might not go as planned, and say it’s important to be flexible. “You never know what you’re going to find,” says Amy Heavilin, recalling the time they discovered that their dining room chandelier was wired to a pipe with a coat hanger.
“We’re at the point where I’m pretty comfortable with whatever we find,” Doug Heavilin adds. “I’m not always happy, but I’m comfortable.”