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How to renovate a historic home—and live to tell the tale

Don’t be afraid

Stony Ford in the winter.
Courtesy of Susan Brinson.

Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between rounding up historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.

Whether it sat vacant for decades or hasn’t seen an update in generations, a historic house usually requires a renovation.

And while renovations offer the opportunity to customize a home, they can also be daunting, overwhelming projects that can scare potential buyers away.

So, if you’re looking for an older house but are also apprehensive about starting a revamp, what to do? How do you know when to take that leap of faith and buy? And are there ways to work through renovation anxieties to realize your dream home?

First off, if you irrationally fall in love with a particular home, know that you are not alone.

“I stalked my house for three years online before I even went to see it,” says photographer Susan Brinson of the website House of Brinson, who bought Stony Ford, a Greek revival house in upstate New York, a few years ago with her husband William.

“When my husband and I walked through the doors of the house for the first time, we looked at each other and just knew it was the house for us. It felt like home. It was completely emotional.”

Meanwhile, a few miles north, in Kingston, New York, a similar residential epiphany was happening.

“I fell in love with Kingston after visiting for an idyllic weekend one winter,” says Daniel Kanter of the website Manhattan Nest. “I looked up houses in the area, and the first one I saw was the house I ended up buying. I was so curious that I immediately went and peered through the windows. It just looked so beautiful and preserved inside.”

The one caveat to both of these houses? They needed a lot of work. In Brinson’s case, that work included reinforcing a wooden beam in the foundation, which she described as a sobering—if not alarming and expensive—discovery to make. If confronted with such a fundamental flaw, Brinson advises to communicate with the seller about it.

The library of Daniel Kanter’s house, before and after renovation.
Courtesy of Daniel Kanter.

“Buying a home is a business deal,” says Brinson. “If it’s priced one way, and you get an inspector in and you find out there’s this huge cost, then try to present some paperwork to the sellers that explains the work that needs to be done to support your negotiations. Take them through your process and the things that you’re concerned about.”

In Kanter’s case, his main anxieties were about staying on budget while also getting used to a town he didn’t know much about. He worked through those concerns by initially setting strict financial boundaries and having an ultimate escape plan.

The second floor of Clove Brook Farm while Spitzmiller was getting new insulation.
Courtesy of Christopher Spitzmiller.

“I decided to be very firm in my offer—I would not go up at all,” he recalls about the negotiation process. “I wanted to be certain that if I ended up not liking Kingston and wanted to sell, I would still come out profitable.”

But while rational planning can help minimize potential issues, no renovation will go perfectly smoothly.

“There were moments during my renovation that were harrowing,” recalls ceramicist Christopher Spitzmiller, who restored Clove Brook Farm, a Greek Revival house, in upstate New York. “When re-insulating the whole house, I could literally see from one side of the house to the other. When that happened, I freaked out. I thought ‘what have I done?’”

But even in those moments of renovation despair, don’t feel like you have to wait to enjoy your house. Spitzmiller entertained in his house throughout the restoration, “I am always so interested in seeing the process of renovation. It’s the most fun part of it all!”

Kanter, who documents his renovation on his blog, is no stranger to the idea of process—and also wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty immediately and start living in his house even when it would have seemed like a better idea not to.

“When we first got to the house, everything leaked. Nothing worked. There was no electricity on the second floor! And no working toilet in the whole house. Everything was a disaster. We just had to dive in—there was no option.”

Brinson, who is going on her fourth year of living at Stony Ford, has formed a three-phase approach to her renovation: “We first address the things that will make the house fall down. Like the beam in the basement! You have to do that first,” she says. “Then secondly, we look at comforts, and think about things that impact our lifestyle. Then finally comes the aesthetic. That’s always the last thing. We’re ping-ponging between lifestyle improvements and aesthetics right now.”

And the one thing you can never do? Lose faith that it will all work out okay.

“I called a friend of mine, and she said to me: ‘Renovating a home is like having a child,’” remembers Spitzmiller. “‘When it’s all done and the bills are all paid for and the headaches are over, you won’t remember any of that and all you’ll do is enjoy what you have.’ And I have to say, I think about that all the time—because it’s so true.”