Reviving Bricks — You just inherited a dilapidated, crumbling-down grand mansion in the countryside. Assuming money is no issue, what do you do with it?

Author’s Note: It’s obvious to me that most of the responders to this prompt have never tried to renovate and/or restore an old house in the real world. I have. And I would never, ever, under any circumstances want to do it again. No matter how much money I have, I’d rather build something brand new. Old houses are seductive and hide their lethal intent. An old house can kill you. I know.

It helps to start off independently wealthy because odds are you will be poor when you are done.

Start by hiring a dependable contractor. Since the term “dependable contractor” is an oxymoron, you should also get a copy of the movie “The Money Pit.” It may help you survive the days ahead.

Old House in Hadley

Make sure the electrical system and plumbing are completely replaced. Old houses always need infrastructure upgrades — plumbing and wiring are always bad. Also, install new heating and cooling systems. Put in central air while the place is under construction.

You’ll need a new roof, gutters, leaders. Don’t forget to have the chimneys repointed. Make sure the dampers work, too. Some, if not all, of the windows will need to be replaced. Since money is no object, replace them all with double-hung thermals.

Restore interior moldings and woodwork. Many old homes have beautifully carved woodwork that’s been painted. When restored, it’s magnificent and often made of rare wood such as elm and chestnut. Rip out linoleum to discover the oak floors beneath. Refinish the hardwood.

Replace falling down porches and porticoes. Install new doors and lintels. Get an engineer to check the drainage. Do what you need to do to prevent flooding, especially if you live on a downhill slope. Your insurance won’t cover water damage from rising waters unless you live in a designated flood plain. I know it doesn’t make sense, but that’s the law, so put in a sump, a pump, drains. Whatever you need to keep your feet dry.

Pave the driveway and walks. Widen them if you live in an area where snowfall is heavy. Make sure your garage is big enough for the cars you own and will own in the future. And while you are at it, buy a garden tractor. You will need it.

If you have a well, replace the pump. Get a full inspection to make sure your water system is healthy. Ditto if you have a septic system. Water and septic are non-negotiable issues. And expensive.

Make sure you obtain all licences and inspections required by local law. You want to live in your house after spending all this time and money, right?

As for the exterior, it depends on the house. Some houses need siding, others paint, masonry repair … and many need a combination of all of these. If you bought an old Victorian — and you are not yet bankrupt — there are specialists who can restore the gingerbread moldings to their original glory.


Gardens will no doubt need to be replanted and cleared out, patios rebuilt, gazebos restored. I would also want ramps and chair lifts installed. Make your bathrooms senior-friendly. Everyone gets old, even you.

Finally, the kitchen. Have some fun. Get a restaurant-quality range and double oven, a full upright freezer, refrigerator, dishwasher. Install as much cabinetry as a clever kitchen designer can arrange. Remember: No matter how much counter space you include, you will have no more than 14 inches of unoccupied space when you are done adding all the stuff that lives in the kitchen.

Make storage a priority everywhere. Build bookcases, closets and other storage areas everywhere. You cannot have too many closets. Nature abhors a vacuum, so they will all be full immediately.

Ah the splendors of an old house. It will eat you alive, leave you a gibbering wreck on the floor … but you will love that house. With a bit of luck, it will have some friendly ghosts who will love you in return.

Categories: Architecture, Home

Tags: , , , , , , ,

23 replies

  1. I just had to laugh along with this, because it is oh-so-true. Both my houses have been old, old houses and because I’m not wealthy, we work on it as we go. Money pits!


  2. I happened upon your site and chose this post to read based on the title. I loved it. Mainly due to the fact that I agreed with the entire post. My husband and I renovated a house a couple of years ago (that we still live in) and it was torture living in it while renovating… not to mention the horrors we found – LOL. Anyway, as I browsed through, I enjoyed your writing and found your blog interesting (like over 5000 others!) so you have yet another follower. Well done!


  3. “Nature abhors a vacuum, so they will all be full immediately” – how I identify with that! I nodded my head throughout this post. We renovated a first house, then as soon as we finished PF got himself a new job in the South and we started renovating all over again… My stomach still flips over when I see my old home. Our new house is slowly but surely becoming a home. One room after another…


    • I know people who made good money on renovated houses … but they lived in the midst of a building site for most of their lives. I can’t stand that. My parents were always renovating the house in which i grew up and as an adult, the idea of living that way again appalls me.


  4. The way my old house won is it almost killed me with mold. We had no idea when we started our first ‘glorious and carefree’ remodeling project that we were stirring up such a toxic brew. Had to walk out (feebly) and leave everything. I love the idea of an old house, but love the idea of living, better. Excellent post, good advice…even if reading it sent a few shudders of memory down my spine!


    • Anyone who has ever been defeated by an old house can’t help but relate. Mold is a real killer and if it grabs hold, there’s nothing you can do. You lose, house wins. Mainly, I think no one wins. Never again is my motto!


  5. Very practical advice Marilyn. Our old house has sprung a few nasty surprises on us but I would still rather live in a house with character. Heart over head I’m afraid.


    • That just how I felt for the first 50 years of my life. After that, I realized that with old houses, it never ends. You are never done. Money runs out. Time for lower maintenance. Besides … who says newer houses lack character? I know it’s common wisdom, but it’s not true. It doesn’t have to be falling apart to have character 🙂 If I live in it, it WILL have character.


  6. Very practical. I’m still thinking about what I’d do with mine.


    • I got tired of battling old plumbing, wiring, ancient heating systems, leaky roofs, rotting windows. It’s always something with old house. As soon as you finish fixing one thing, another needs work. I ran out of money and worse, I ran out of interest. I wanted to live in my house, not rebuild it.


      • I hear ya. We had a turn of the century house back in WA when I was married to my first husband. Two things in my favor… we were renting, and the first husband was pretty handy with his hands. ^_^


  7. Hi Marilyn,
    We have renovated almost every house we’ve lived in. As for contractors, well the first question they ask is how much money do you have. They wouldn’t bother with a itemized quote because they were just going to keep going until they used up all the money and more. We usually did the renovations ourselves. We have 3 certified electricians in the family so that was never an issue. I love getting into design and making the changes needed to make our living quarters work better.
    The first house in the picture is a tear down. It looks structurally unsound, but it would be a fun project. I bet it had a stone fire place. I would definitely keep that.


    • It helps to have some of the people you need in the family. It also helps to be young enough to see the end of the project!! I don’t live in either of those houses. No one lives in the first one and someone with money lives in the second 🙂 Not us.


      • The first house is a tear down. Thank heavens no one lives there. The second house is too big. It’s more of a head ache to have something that big at this stage of our lives.


        • Those big old Victorian houses are awesome. Gorgeous. The ultimate money pits. Assuming you have a fortune for renovation, then the heating and cooling costs will flatten you. They are — for good reason — symbols of a bygone era when so many people had nothing and the rest had too much. But they are so spacious, so elegant …

          And if you succeed at restoring one and now you are done, unless you turn it into condos, who needs that much space? You can’t keep it clean, or at least me and a small army of helpers couldn’t do it. But they sure are pretty. So seductive.


          • They are pretty to look at and would be fun to restore and decorate, but to live there would be a head ache for sure. The land taxes would kill you here.


  8. I believe there speaks the voice of experience


    • Oh, yes. I would never ever want to live through another “old house 1, Marilyn 0” contest. They always win in the end. There are more things to go wrong in an old house than I can even think of. I’d build something new, up to date, on ONE FLOOR WITHOUT STAIRS … and lots of closets. Economical heat and cooling. Easy maintenance. Everything that an old house doesn’t offer. I’ll go visit old charming mansions. I’ll take the tour. Just don’t make me actually LIVE in one!



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