Old House Dollars and Sense: What You Should Budget
For many of us who love old houses, we can’t live in anything else. We crave the character, the history, the patina on the surfaces…the whole lifestyle. But we don’t always love all the challenges, the fixing, and the inevitable issues created by trying to live a 21st century life in an 18th century house. The cost can be daunting, too. I’ve spent twenty two years living in a house from c1750. Looking back, I thought I’d try to offer some advice to potential buyers of old houses around the budget considerations you shouldn’t ignore. If you’re like me, you’ll ignore them anyway, but maybe you’ll enjoy reading about them.
Working From Notes
When we bought our old house, we used two different home inspectors, one being an old house “expert”, to make sure we weren’t getting just one opinion and so we wouldn’t miss as many issues. This was our first house but not the first one we put through an inspection. We needed advice badly but already knew enough to be dangerous. As our inspectors poked and prodded each house, I wrote down all of the things they said in a book. I am very glad I did this as there were many important nuggets of information dispensed by the inspectors in the process that you may think you’ll remember – but you won’t. Things like how often to change the water in your steam boiler. You aren’t even sure you’re going to buy the house yet – why would you worry about those details? Because you won’t hear it from anyone else again. Once you move in, you’re on your own to figure that stuff out. So write it all down.
The great part of having it written down is that you can then start to put budget numbers against some of repair items or updates you’ve marked on your list. You’ll likely want to see if you can get as many accommodations for those issues from the seller as you can. But you may not get everything covered and, if you buy the house, those remaining items will be on your dime. I’ve been working off the same project list for twenty years now. After not looking at my list for a dozen years, I unearthed it recently and was amazed by how much of it we’ve accomplished over time. Lists are really powerful.
The Big Ticket Items
To be clear, every house needs regular maintenance. Major systems will always need to be replaced – either on your terms or their terms. What I didn’t fully realize was that these cycles are fairly predictable…and that budgeting for them is a smart plan. So here are some very basic guidelines. Your mileage may vary and you may disagree, but at least it may get you thinking.
I think the two most important things are roofs and foundations. If you house is solid on it’s base and protected from weather above, congratulations! It is probably quite stable. But will it stay that way? If you have rotted sills or foundation issues, you’ll probably want to get a seller to cover those things – they are not often cheap fixes. If there are any water problems – tackle those immediately. It may just be replacing a downspout. Or you may need a new roof. A small roof with cheap shingles here in New England starts at about $8,000. If you want to replace a slate roof, you’re probably starting around $30,000 and it goes way up from there. Even getting replacement slates can be a challenge. They are heavy and the shipping cost alone is not small. Whether you ship a few or a full roof, it’s likely about $250 just for the freight. Getting quotes from roofers was an interesting exercise – estimates varied so much that you wondered if it was driven more by how busy a particular roofer was than the actual labor and materials involved in the job. Sometimes it felt like it was more a function of how much they actually wanted to take on my job. Buyer beware.
Major systems are next – heating, cooling, cooking, washing, septic. In rough numbers, some of these are big. A new boiler can easily be $8,000 or more and is rated to last about eight years. A water heater can be about $400 and last four or five years. Air conditioning systems can be upwards of $10,000 for central systems and need replacement every ten years or so. Your washer and dryer may last eight to ten years and often cost over $1,500, per pair or sometimes for each one. A replacement septic system can be $25,000 or more and should be good for twenty years or more. Doing the math from these rough numbers to get an annual budget – it’s roughly $3,500 per year right there, before taxes. If you can’t put aside that much for annual upkeep, you’re probably falling behind and any house might be a challenge.
Restoring the Porch
Maintenance Is Cheaper Than Repair
Paint is important both for protection from weather and aesthetics. Like it or not, it’s cheaper to paint than it is to replace wood. A full-house paint job can easily start at $8,000 and can go up to $20,000 or more. Paint usually looks good for about 4 years in most climates and may hang on for another two or three. Old lead paint was amazingly resilient. New paint isn’t that tough. Just the paint itself has gotten quite expensive in the last twenty years – a five gallon bucket runs me around $270 these days and will paint about one side of my house. That’s about $1,000 just for paint every four years if I do it myself. One important note about paint is that it’s always wise to try washing it. I’ve been amazed by how much better a painted surface looks after giving a surface a good wash and I often don’t need to repaint as often.
Comfort Cannot Be Underestimated
Insulation is a great thing to consider in an old house and likely something the seller won’t cover. I’ve found it to be a difficult, dirty, hot, unpleasant job to install insulation – so I’m glad I only have to do it once. The costs vary considerably based on many factors, but you’ll probably spend at least $1,000 no matter what for any part of the job, so it’s good to have a strong plan for what you want done and where and some idea of how the installer will get into the location that needs insulation. Even if that installer is you. I can’t even tell you how many times I wish spray foam were invented in the 1700’s so I wouldn’t have to try to retrofit it.
We haven’t even gotten to interior paint, furniture, and decor! When we first moved into our house, we got lots of donations of old things from family. That helped us fill up rooms and make the place more usable. Random old stuff can look pretty good in an old house! What it often wasn’t was stylish or period-correct or what we dreamed about. We’ve slowly invested in adding furniture and fixtures we love. But trying to do things over time puts your style in a constant state of transition. It never feels “done.” If you can buy the house, afford all the repairs and updates, and still have budget for furniture and decorating – phenomenal! You can hopefully avoid that “creeping design” problem that we’ve fought for twenty years. But you still have to decide how faithful to your home’s time-period you’re going to be. Do you want to live in a museum? Do you plan to raise kids in this house? Will you be hosting big family holidays entertaining often? Those three questions seem to have driven many of our design and budget decisions. You’ll have to figure out if you can make these decisions once or whether you need to upgrade and change over time as we’ve had to do. Your budget may be front-loaded or stretched out.
Dreams Are Priceless
If you’re like us, we had some “visions” for things that would make our house realize its potential – some ambitious projects beyond the normal care and feeding. These were the ones that really cost us some money, looking back. We converted an old 1800’s horse barn into a garage for cars. We gutted and renovated the third floor of our house and added a bathroom where there was none. The utility from these changes fulfilled what we first saw in our mind when we contemplated buying the house, so we’re glad we finally got to make those dreams come to life. But we had no idea what it would cost us to get there when we bought the house. We still don’t really like to think about it. It’s likely always cheaper to buy someone else’s dream than it is to realize your own. But you only live once and dreams are about all you can take with you, as I see it.
Sterling could not avoid being an old house owner. Born in Salt Lake City to a pair of ambitious home renovators and architects, he grew up visiting his grandparents’ 1886 Queen Anne Victorian in industrial New Britain, CT and family colonial houses in historic Litchfield and Madison, CT. He currently lives in an evolving 1750’s Federal Colonial in Cumberland, RI with his wife and two children. He still cuts his own grass, tends an herb garden, hand-glazes his own windows, does the family cooking, and loves vintage cars.