Restoring a historic house: 8 tips and tricks before getting started

by Robert Khederian


Buying a historic house often means acquiring a fixer-upper. And that's not necessarily a bad thing! Details like woodwork, fireplaces, and wide floorboards, are usually left unspoiled by previous renovations in a house than needs work-and then there's the exciting opportunity to bring an old house back to life.

Restoring a historic house is no small undertaking. Not only does special care need to be taken when dealing with old structures and building materials, but old houses are full of surprises, and costs can add up quickly. But if there's one thing we've learned, its that a renovation done right can turn a nightmare into a dream home.

We turned to one of our favorite interior designers and architects, fellow old-house obsessive Steven Gambrel, who has restored and renovated a number of 18th- and 19th-century houses in and around New York-like the 1853-built Captain Overton house in Sag Harbor-to learn a bit about what to expect, and what to look for, when restoring a period house.

1. Be prepared to live in a historic house

"If you're going to buy a historic house because you love the old wavy glass windows and the spirit of the floors," says Gambrel, "You must understand that you're not going to be able to have some of the creature comforts that come with 21st century living."

Do you count on things like radiant floors-or even just something like an evenly heated or cooled room-as a must-have? Then living in an older house, with its irregularities, may not be for you. "I would do anything on earth to maintain the wavy glass in the windows, even if it means having a drafty room," says Gambrel. "I would just put on another sweater. But, if you're not that person, then that's not the right house for you."

2. Watch out for water

Keep an eye out-especially around the ceilings, floors, and windows-for signs of water damage. That could be a warning of serious structural issues. "You need to understand that water damage is very serious and important. It needs to be addressed," says Gambrel. "Water damage has long-term effects like dry rot. Also, bugs love wet environments."

One of the areas of the structure to check for water damage is the sill plate. The sill plate is the bottommost horizontal component of the structure that runs around the entire foundation. All of the vertical structural supports for the house are attached to the sill plate.

"The sill plate often gets the most abuse, water-wise, because it sits closely to the wet ground," says Gambrel. "If the sill plate is rotten, then that's a lot of the reason why the floors are crooked, because that's the whole structure that the house sits on."

3. Bring the (right) people along with you

A contractor can help estimate the amount of work that needs to be done and its cost. But, select the people you consult very carefully.

Don't feel like you need to bring an inspector with you. At least not right away. "[Inspectors] often don't have specific knowledge about preservation," says Gambrel. "They will usually tell you general things like 'the house needs to be updated.' And then you're like 'yes, of course.' You need to get more specific in order to be helpful."

Research and contact people who have experience working with old houses: "You need a local historian or contractor who restores historic houses. They can provide the most assistance and tell you about the restoration process that needs to be done," says Gambrel.

And, above all, anybody you bring must understand your ultimate goal of restoring the property. "A lot of people don't understand the difference between preservation and ripping something out and starting over," says Gambrel "That's not what you want. You need talented people who can help you through the process of restoring an old home."

4. On a budget? Start small

While older houses-regardless of size-will probably all need to have updates and renovations, if you don't have access to the coffers of the Roman Empire (and if you've never renovated a house before), look for a smaller house, which will be more manageable.

"Buy quality materials and renovate less-I will always advocate for that," says Gambrel, whose renovation of the Captain Overton house in Sag Harbor includes double-mahogany glazed windows, custom-designed brass hardware, and salvaged marble mantles. "I would rather live in a perfectly restored tiny 18th-century saltbox than a crashing down mansion with crappy tiles."

5. Be smart about your investment

Even if you don't ever plan to sell, Gambrel says it's smart to consider resale value when budgeting. "The biggest problem with renovation and preservation is that it costs the same amount of money to renovate a house in several different locations, regardless of what the market can support," he says. "You don't want to find yourself spending too much money in a place that won't yield an equal return."

To that end-research about what fully renovated houses sell for in the area and let that inform how you structure your budget. As much as we hate to say it, one easy target for conserving the budget is by picking and choosing which fireplaces to restore.

Often in fixer uppers, fireplaces are not in working order and need to be relined or have their masonry otherwise repaired-a process that Gambrel says can cost upwards of $12,000 per chimney. If you find a place with multiple fireplaces-and chimneys-it might be smart to pick and choose which to repair.

6. Start with the roof, windows, and masonry

It might be tempting to pick out kitchen cabinets and paint swatches right away, but the first stages of the renovation should be practical rather than aesthetic. "It's like managing a crisis-you need to first fix things that are going to stop any future damage from happening," says Gambrel. "Get the house watertight. Fix the roof, windows, and masonry."

Sometimes, the location of the house directly relates to the strength and quality of the building materials. "The serious problem you'll find with some regions is that occasionally, there's sand in the mortar. That negatively affects its integrity," says Gambrel. "Because there's so much sand in the earth here on Long Island, many 18th-century chimneys were made with this weaker mortar, so the masonry will be weaker and in need of more attention."

Fireplaces and chimneys are a good place to check if mortar needs to be repaired, a process called repointing. Simply use your hands to conduct a preliminary test before calling in specialists: "If you don't see any mortar missing [from between the bricks/stone in a house], use your fingers to touch and tap on the mortar to see if it comes apart."

7. Technology is your friend

While Gambrel warns that updating heating, cooling, and electrical systems of a house are easily the most expensive part of any renovation, don't worry that executing the updates will necessitate ripping out all the period details you came to love in the first place.

"Technology has been extremely kind to preservation-you can break down a mechanical system into smaller units, feed the upper floors from the attic and the lower floors from the basement," says Gambrel. "It's called a split system, and it's a really good way to have not as much damage done to the historical fabric of the house."

8. Embrace the non-threatening quirks

Leveling out uneven floors in an old house can be a time-consuming-and costly-process. Why not accommodate them into the design scheme of the house? "In Manhattan, I have a house that was built in 1827. It's crooked! So I left it crooked," says Gambrel. "I designed all the millwork, like the baseboards, accommodate the crooked floors. The baseboard might be 6" high in one location and then 8" in another."

Similarly, if you're figuring out where to add bathrooms and closets, try to view the problem as an opportunity. The restored Captain Overton house has a bedroom with a bed built into a niche that was created when Gambrel added a bathroom to the second floor.

It's all about knowing what to sacrifice to preserve the rest. "I would rather maintain the integrity of 3 compelling rooms and compromise the 4th rather than chop away at all four and be left with four average spaces," says Gambrel. "You have to make it a creative opportunity. That's where the beauty, charm, and quirkiness of a renovation is."

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2017's Hottest Remodeling Trends

A new generation of cutting-edge design inspirations is making 2017 a big year for home renovations. Here's a look at some of this year's most intriguing remodeling trends.



Colored Kitchens

Bright colors are making a major splash in contemporary kitchen design. Colored cabinets, appliances and fixtures are invigorating muted whites and grays, and introducing a softer edge. Colored appliances in particular provide engaging focal points and instant conversation starters.



Design-Focused Entrances

Functional décor is revolutionizing the home entryway. Smart-but-stylish storage solutions like trunk benches and built-in shelving will give your entryway a welcoming first impression while keeping clutter to a minimum. Avoid over decorating. Excess knick-knacks will create a cramped entrance and detract from your home's overall charm.



Garage Overhauls

Garage remodels improve your home's storage and organizational capabilities, while providing an opportunity to increase aesthetic appeal. Custom shelving, tool walls, peg boards and storage drawers are simple additions that will eliminate clutter and increase utility. Flooring updates will prevent unsightly stains and deterioration. New counters, lighting updates and seating areas will transform your garage into a functional-yet-fun part of your home.




Mudrooms are growing in popularity. Designing your mudroom to include storage benches, coat racks, shelving and cubbies will streamline your space, contain messes and minimize household clutter. And, installing easy-to-clean tile floors, wainscoting and laminate countertops will simplify tidying up and prevent expensive damage. Mudrooms are also the perfect location for pet washing stations.



Home Automation Updates

Home automation has proven to be a critical part of any remodel. Wi-Fi-connected security cameras and smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are simple, and affordable, updates that will allow you to monitor and control the safety and security of your home from any smart device. Automated creature comforts like smart phone-controlled coffeemakers, smart TVs and automated food recyclers are also becoming popular. The Internet of Things (IoT) isn't just for security- or entertainment-minded homeowners. Home automation is also a major player in energy efficiency. Wi-Fi-enabled thermostats, automated blinds and smart light bulbs are helpful gadgets that will lower your energy bills.

All You Need to Know About Quartz Countertops

by Glenda Taylor

Beautiful, durable, easy-care quartz is among the most popular countertop materials available-but it is pricey. If you're considering quartz for your kitchen or bathroom, first get the 411 on this trendy topper before you buy. This complete countertop primer will set you up all of the necessary information on selecting and caring for quartz countertops, so you can make a smart decision and enjoy your work surface for years to come.

What Is a Quartz Countertop?

A visit to a kitchen showroom nowadays will show you a dazzling array of quartz countertop designs and patterns that remarkably mimic real marble and other natural stone. But quartz has come a long way! First appearing in Italy in the 1960s, these countertops were developed-by combining ground quartz particles with resins into a slab-as an alternative to stone that wouldn't easily crack or break. While the resins added just enough flexibility to do the trick, early quartz countertops were a dull-looking cream and tan. Cutting-edge improvements in solid-surface technology have elevated quartz from functional to fabulous. With an abundance of finish choices and endless combinations of color and edge styles, you'll likely find something stunning that suits your home.

Not only will you appreciate the look of quartz, you'll find it remarkably easy to maintain-unlike marble and natural stone, which require a special sealant and can be finicky to care for. Quartz contains 90 to 94 percent ground quartz and 6 to 10 percent polymer resins and pigments, combined to produce a granite-hard slab that can duplicate the look of mesmerizing marble swirls or earthy natural stone, without the maintenance. Quartz also resists scratching and cracking to a greater degree than many natural countertops, ranking a "7" in hardness on the Moh's scale (developed in 1822 by Friedrich Moh to rate mineral hardness). Marble, in comparison, ranks only a "3."

A note to homeowners in the market to remodel: When exploring countertop options, make sure not to confuse quartz with quartzite. Quartz is engineered with pigments and resins, while quartzite is actually sandstone that, through natural metamorphosis, was exposed to intense heat, which caused it to solidify. Mined from large stone quarries and cut into solid slabs, quartzite is also available for countertops-but, unlike quartz, it must be sealed before use and again once or twice a year thereafter.


What Are the Pros and Cons of Quartz?

Thanks to its non-porous nature, quartz is mold-, stain-, and mildew-resistant, making it a breeze to keep not merely clean but also germ- and bacteria-free. Quartz also resists heat damage-up to a point. Manufacturers market quartz as able to withstand temperatures up to 400 degrees Fahrenheit (one reason it works well as fireplace surrounds). But "thermal shock" can result from placing a hot pan straight from the oven or stovetop onto a cold quartz countertop, which can lead to cracking or discoloring. And while quartz does resist staining because liquids can't penetrate its surface, it's not 100 percent stain-proof. Messes should be cleaned up quickly to best preserve quartz countertops' original color.

The biggest downside to quartz, however, is cost. While a preformed or laminate countertop will set you back a few hundred dollars, quartz countertops cost between $70 to $100 per sq. ft., installed, comparable to the price of natural stone countertops. For a mid-size kitchen, you can easily spend a few thousand dollars for quartz.

If you're planning a backyard kitchen, steer clear of quartz altogether. It's not suitable for outdoor installation, as the sun's UV rays can break down the resin binders and degrade the countertop, leading to fading and eventual warping.


How Do I Choose the Best Look?

With such a vast selection, making up your mind can be a challenge! So bring home a few quartz samples from a kitchen showroom before settling on a specific color or design. Under your own lighting, and against the backdrop of your cabinets and walls, you'll be better able to choose a pattern and design that complements your kitchen décor. It helps to have a good idea of what you want your finished kitchen to look like before you buy. You can browse through design books at any kitchen center, or get ideas from show homes and home-design magazines and websites. As you plan, keep these points in mind:

Seams: If your counter is longer than 120 inches, or if it involves a complex configuration, quartz may have to be fabricated in more than one section, which means you'll have one or more seams. Seams are typically less visible on dark-toned quartz but can be quite noticeable on light-toned or multicolor countertops, such as those with obvious veining or marbling patterns.

Thickness: Countertop thickness ranges from ½ inch to 1-¼ inch, depending on style, brand, and size. If you're ordering a large countertop or want an elaborate edge design, the fabricator may suggest a thicker slab. If your heart is set on a thin countertop but your kitchen is large, expect to have one or more seams. Thickness also depends on custom features, such as integrated drain boards and elaborate edge profiles.

Design Details: Custom designs in a wide array of colors are available, from neutral grays, off-whites, and subtle tans to bold blues, bright yellows, and striking solid blacks. In addition to shade, you can choose from quartz made from small particles for a smooth appearance, or from larger grains for a flecked look. The surface can be sleek and glossy or feature a flecked, pebbled, embossed, or even suede appearance.

Edge Ideas: Custom edge profiles in complex designs bring distinction to your cook space but add to the final cost. You can opt for a bold square countertop edge, a chiseled raw-edge look, or select a softer, rounded bullnose corner. A reverse waterfall edge resembles the shape of crown molding and adds a touch of traditional elegance, while contemporary edges, including slanted, mitered, or undercut create the illusion of a thinner slab. Ogee (S-shape) is a popular edge design that fits just about any decor.

Bathroom Buys: Selecting a quartz countertop for a bathroom is slightly different from buying one for your kitchen. Bathroom vanities come in standard sizes, so you can purchase pre-made vanity countertops. Many come with pre-molded sinks or pre-cut holes to accommodate drop-in sinks. Bathroom vanity quartz countertops range from $400 to $1,000 depending on length, and installation for them is more DIY-friendly.


What Should I Expect with Installation?

Professional installation is highly recommended for quartz countertops in kitchens, due to the custom nature of cabinet configuration and the weight of the slabs, which often require multiple workers just to lift. To protect your investment, installers should be certified to mount the specific brand of quartz you purchase. Many quartz countertops come with 15-year or even lifetime warranties, but often only when installed by certified professionals. Once you've settled on a countertop style and color, here's what to expect for installation:

Phase One: A representative from the manufacturer will come to your home and measure your cabinets to create a template for the countertop. It takes an average of two weeks for the countertop to be made.

Phase Two: The new countertop installs directly on the base cabinets with adhesive-no underlayment is required. The installers will precisely fit any seams as necessary, filling them with epoxy resin that matches the countertop. It takes from a few hours to a full day to install a typical quartz countertop.

Phase Three: You or your plumber can now proceed with installing under-sink plumbing.


How Do I Keep Quartz Looking Great?

Beyond the actual appearance, the beauty of quartz is that required care for your new countertop is relatively easy, but there are still a few crucial do's and don'ts to mind.

* Do wipe up spills promptly with paper towels or a damp cloth. While quartz is non-porous, liquids like wine and coffee can stain the surface if allowed to dry.

* Don't use abrasive cleaners or scrubbers on your countertop. Scouring powders and steel-pads can scratch and dull the surface.

* Do use an all-purpose spray kitchen cleaner or mild commercial household cleaner for daily cleaning needs.

* Don't use, or spill, acidic or high-alkaline products on your countertop. Quartz tolerates cleaners in the mid-pH range, but products that fall on either end of the pH scale can dull its luster. Avoid spills from drain cleaners, oven cleaners, acetone (fingernail polish remover), paint remover, solvents, bleach, dishwasher rinse agents, and any products that contain trichlorethane or methylene chloride. Take a better safe than sorry approach: If you don't know for sure that a product is appropriate for quartz, don't use it.

* Do use a non-scratch nylon pad or sponge to safely scrub away sticky food residue.

* Don't use a metal knife to remove hardened food items, such as stuck-on candy-making spills. Instead, use a plastic putty knife to gently scrape them away.

* Do use spray glass cleaner after wiping your countertop clean, and buff the surface dry with a clean towel for a streak-free shine. Opt for a mild, oil-based cleaner (like Goo Gone) to remove tough ink or dye stains, and then rinse with plain water.

* Don't use your quartz countertop to chop and dice foods. Use a separate cutting board to prevent knife marks on the countertop.

* Do tackle tough cleaning chores, such as splattered grease, by spraying your countertop with a kitchen degreasing cleaner and leaving it on for 5 to 10 minutes before wiping away with a clean damp cloth.

* Don't set hot pans directly on the countertop to avoid discoloration and cracking. Keep plenty of trivets handy and use them faithfully.

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Complying with the code

A building code is a collection of regulations regarding building construction that is intended to ensure public safety. Not all codes are identical, however, as they vary from one jurisdiction to another. There are state codes, city codes, and town codes, and more than one may apply to your job. Although the contractors you hire will assume the responsibility for meeting code specifications, a rudimentary knowledge of building codes may be useful as you consider your renovation. Among the restrictions that may concern you are these:

Ceiling Height
The standard is for a minimum of 7 feet, 6 inches for habitable areas. Exceptions may be made for kitchenettes, bathrooms, and cellar conversions. Keep this in mind, particularly if you're converting existing space in the attic or basement.

According to most codes, a room is not a room unless it has a win­dow. This applies consistently to bedrooms, living rooms, and dining rooms, although in some places bathrooms and kitchens may be deemed habitable if they have ade­quate mechanical ventilation. In some municipalities, no room that is below grade is classifiable as a habitable space.


The requirements for stairways typically specify a minimum overall width. The treads must not be too shallow (from the nosing at the front to the junc­tion with the riser at the rear); the risers should be of consistent height and not too tall. Angled treads called winders (they're shaped like slices of pie and are often used when a stairway changes direction) may be prohibited except on secondary staircases. The rules on railings specify height, strength, and location. If you are converting existing space in an attic or basement, the code may require that you substantially rebuild original stairs that are inadequate or that you add a second run of stairs.

Fireplaces, Chimneys, and Woodstoves
Most codes specify a clearance of 2 inches between the wood frame and all ele­ments of a masonry mass. New chimneys must be lined, either with clay tile or steel, and be of a specified height with relation to the peak of the roof. Spark protectors may be required at the cap of the chimney; dampers may be specified at the throat. The outer hearth of the fireplace must extend a minimum of 16 inches in front of the firebox; on either side, there must be a clear­ance of at least 6 inches between the firebox and any flammable materials. The fire­box may have to be built with fire brick. Woodstoves must meet similar installation criteria regarding fireproof materials and clearances.

Electrical Codes
The electrical code is a discipline unto itself and, again, it varies considerably from one jurisdiction to another. Some codes require all wires in the walls be sheathed in armored metallic cable; most permit the use of nonmetal sheathed cable. The gauge of the wire must be suited to the load at one end and to the fuse or circuit breaker at the other; thus, a kitchen circuit with several wall recep­tacles (outlets) will be wired with 12 gauge wire and a 20 ampere breaker or fuse.

In new construction, there are requirements regarding the number and location of receptacles, indoors and out; the gauge and type of wire used in different applica­tions; whether electrical boxes can be plastic or galvanized metal; and so on. All receptacles must be grounded (a safety feature that directs any wayward electrical current that results from an electrical malfunction to the ground rather than through you; the third prong on a plug is there for that purpose). Most codes also require ground-fault interrupters on bathroom, kitchen, and exterior receptacles (GFIs are safety devices that function as secondary fuses and will, in the event of a fault in the ground, shut off power to the outlet and prevent electrical shock). The bottom line? Even if local ordinances don't require it, hire a licensed electrician to do the wiring required on your job. In any case, many codes require that you do so.

Plumbing Codes
Given the variety of needs in a modern house, plumbing codes, too, tend to be complex. And variable, as well, since some municipalities prohibit the use of plastic pipe, others permit it. Some allow it to be used for waste lines only, some for supply lines as well. Lead solder is forbidden for joining copper pipes in some places; in others, it's permitted.

Even after you've established what's acceptable in your area, the language of plumbing can be mind-numbing. There's PVC, ABS, and PB plastic pipe; metal pipes may be copper, brass, black iron, cast iron, or galvanized steel. The fittings that join the pieces together range from couplings and caps to tees and street ells to elbows and nipples. There are unions, Ys, P-traps, straps, and clamps. And that's even before you get into fixtures and faucets and their miscellaneous parts. As with electrical work, major plumbing is best left to the licensed professionals. With HVAC plumb­ing, wiring, and ductwork? Again, I'd recommend you consult with the pros.

Fire Codes
Fire codes also tend to be long and complicated, specifying the use of noncombustible materials on the roof, furnace area, and partition walls between an attached garage and the home. Some codes prohibit the use of certain plastic prod­ucts because they give off toxic fumes when burned; others require that rigid insu­lation be covered by a noncombustible surface for the same reason. Then there are fire-stop requirements in wood-framed structures, meaning strips of wood must be placed in wall bays between stories and between joists where they pass over parti­tions to prevent the spread of fire. Smoke alarms are virtually universal today.

The Letter and the Spirt of the Law
Elements of older houses often don't meet current code requirements, having been built before the code was writ­ten or enforced. If that is so in your house, you may want to bring into compliance conditions that are dangerous and out-of-date.

Yet that isn't always necessary or appropriate, as most codes, by necessity, take a one-size-fits-all approach. So, for example, antique fireplaces and stairways often don't meet code. Old wooden exterior doors may also fall short. When it comes to existing work that is not demonstrably dangerous, however, only an overzealous building inspector will demand that changes be made. If the code officer asks for changes that you think are unnecessary or would detract from the historic character of your house, explain why you are reluctant to make the change. Or try to reach a compromise. There may be an appeal process as well. Good old work is worth fight­ing for if there's no issue of safety but merely a desire by the code officer to enforce the building code.

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Fairfax County Basement Egress Change

Fairfax County has relaxed it's requirement for egress windows in finished basements.  Previously, all basement finishes required an egress window to be installed.  Now, the new code waives this requirement for all properties constructed prior to October 1st, 2003.  If you have any questions regarding the change, or would like any further information, please don't hesitate toreach out to me.  The code revision can be seen in detail at the link below.