You find your dream home on Zillow, book a tour, and drive up to the most incredible historic home. You walk in, admiring the beautiful trim work and imagining all the fabulous dinner parties that have occurred there over the centuries. You’re sure you’ll add to those memories — and the house’s story.
But, before you end up starry-eyed over the charm of a 19th-century farmhouse, a darling colonial cottage, or a Victorian-era row home, you want to make sure it’s been well maintained over the course of its long life. While almost any problem is fixable, and an inspection will catch many major issues that could be hiding beneath the surface, there are signs of a well-maintained home that will be visible to the untrained eye.
You have 10 minutes… what should you look for?
So, let’s say you’re on the clock. You’ve walked in with your real estate agent and you know have approximately 10 minutes to assess the property and decide whether it’s worth pursuing seriously. Before you sink time and money into an offer and hiring an inspector, these are the seven things you should look for in a historic home before you fall in love at first open house.
First, appreciate the details you notice right away.
It can be a fun project to restore an old home to its original character by researching its provenance and tracking down historically accurate elements, but, in an ideal world, the original character is still there. Note whether the molding around the doors and windows is still in place. For some, the more ornate the trimwork, the better.
Look up — are there details like crown molding or ceiling medallions? Does the home have transom windows? Look down — how are the baseboards? These finer details may not seem like a big deal since they aren’t critical to the structure of the home, but not only do they add to a house’s visual appeal and historic integrity, they can also indicate whether previous owners have taken the time to go beyond routine maintenance and truly invest in a home’s upkeep.
Take a closer look at the windows.
Susan Brinson, of interior design site House of Brinson, notes that windows can be the eyes to the integrity of the home. “The number one maintenance thing that says if a historic house is well maintained is the windows,” she says. “If I were buying a historic home, I’d look for well-maintained wooden windows. Bonus points if they are original to the period of the house. Look to see if the house has good screens and storms already made — it will help with your energy bills. There is a myth that old windows are not energy efficient, but if they are well maintained, they are. Look for copper (or metal) weather stripping and a snug fit when the windows are closed.”
Look for original doors and staircases.
Original doors, including the elusive pocket doors, are certainly something to get excited about — not to mention vintage knobs left in pristine condition. There’s nothing worse than a beautiful historic home with doors that feel like hollow cardboard.
A solid wood staircase is another huge win. Oftentimes, these are ripped out in renovations and replaced with cheap alternatives, so if the previous owner kept the original intact, that’s a definite check in the well-maintained column.
Notice inconsistencies in renovations… but know it’s not necessarily a red flag.
As you do your tour through the open house, you may notice inconsistencies like hardwood flooring that doesn’t match from room to room. While this may not be ideal from an aesthetic standpoint, it’s not necessarily a red flag. It likely means the previous owners renovated as needed while living there and, unless they hired shoddy contractors or did an amateur DIY, typically this type of renovation can be better than an all-in-one flip.
Note whether the walls are plaster.
Plaster walls sound like an intimidating prospect to many. You imagine it crumbling at the slightest touch of a nail but, in reality, it’s actually stronger than drywall, stands up to water, and is soundproof. If a house has plaster walls in good condition, you know this is a home that has been well cared for.
Always keep an eye out for obvious water damage.
Perhaps the most important thing you should do when looking at a historic home isn’t necessarily the most fun. Lise Hanley of Instagram sensation Cheap Old Houses, says, “Look for obvious signs of active water damage! Water stains could possibly be left over from a problem that has since been fixed. But if you feel wetness on the walls or floors, it could be masking a larger issue.” Water damage is an easy-to-spot issue that can cost big bucks in the short and long term.
Glance around at the surroundings.
While you may want to leave exterior assessments about the foundation to the experts, you can glance around to see whether the owners have kept the property up — and whether their neighbors have. Is the landscaping clean? Is the house next door run down? An impeccably maintained home can become less appealing if a tree falls down or the house next door caves in.
Lastly, Hanley notes that no matter what you see, most issues can be addressed. “Remember that few (if any) issues are unfixable, and not all fixes will break the bank,” she says. “Always consult an expert if you think something seems scary enough to cause you to walk away — it might not be as terrible as it first seems!”