Restoration Planning for the Victorian Home

A guide to restoration planning and how to avoid "The Money Pit"

Historic Restoration Planning: Part 1 Assessment                                by Paul Willham

Restoring you home is much like losing weight; you have to keep at it. That is where developing a “plan of attack” is important when restoring your home. For most of us the purchase of an old house is an emotional experience. We see it, we love it, we see the “potential” and we buy it. Often those decisions are made while looking through “rose colored glasses” and years later we are asking ourselves “what were we thinking”?

The first step to restoration is assessment, you have to “really” look at your home. One of the most costly areas to restore are the things people never see. The electrical, plumbing and HVAC are critical systems that are the internal organs of your house and must be in sound condition or if several years old must be replaced. Most houses today need a 200 amp electrical service, in fact in many municipalities it is the code. Speaking of codes it is a good idea to visit your local permits and building department to find which “code’ they are using for plumbing, electrical and HVAC. You can purchase a copy of the code book or you can download it from an online source. If you are doing your own work this is your “bible” that will guide you on your way and if you are hiring someone it will establish part of the guidelines for the “scope of work” for bidding the job.

To do your general assessment you have several options. Many Old House websites have “checklists” that you can download. This can be a guide. For example if a water heater is more than 8 years old you should plan on replacing it. Knob and tube wiring does not meet code, carefully inspect plumbing in your basements for leaks. If you are adding more bathrooms as part of the restoration you may need larger supply lines. Speaking of basements, is your basement dry? If not is the source a flawed foundation or could it be something as simple as a drainage issues. What level of restoration will you be doing? The Secretary of the Interiors guidelines for Historic Restoration are a valuable tool . You can download these and print them out. You will need to do your homework and become as knowledgeable as possible so you avoid costly mistakes.

When doing your assessment it is a good idea to get a neighbor to join you. Someone who “Is not in love” with your home can be more objective. You may want to consider hiring a home inspector. A typical home inspection can run 250 to 500 dollars, however, be sure that your home inspector is familiar with old houses. You don’t want someone who inspects “tract homes’ to be inspecting your home. Another route is a Restoration Consultant who specializes in historic properties and can provide detail assessments and develop “scope of work” and “bid specifications” for your project.

Typically after you look at the “major” items like foundation, roof, HVAC, electrical and plumbing, you will then need to look at the “fun stuff”. How your home is laid out, what changes may have been made over the years. If you home was ever a rental, was it “cut up”. Just where are your primary plumbing and electrical runs. Where do I want my bathrooms. If you are removing bathrooms or kitchens, if you home was a rental, then you will also be removing plumbing lines in walls. If you are uncertain as to just how your home was laid out, the first step is to look around your neighborhood, are there similar houses? If so, meeting your neighbor can be a good thing. There is nothing like seeing a restored home or better yet a mostly original home to give you a clue as to the original layout. Many homes were built based on “pattern books” which are available through Dover Press, you can find them on or even EBAY.

Once you determine all the problems your old house has you need to do your own “self assessment”. What are my skills? Can I do my own plumbing for example, do I like to plaster or drywall. Will local building codes even allow me to do this? What will be my contribution to the project? If you really hate to do drywall and are not good at it then you will likely need to hire someone. Also you will need to look “realistically” at how much time per week can I devote to restoration work. Most of us have jobs, kids and responsibilities other than “working on the house”. How much can you spend and in what timeframe? Will this be a “phased restoration” as most are or do you plan a top to bottom full restoration where you leave and let the contractors have at it. For most of us we have to live in our homes while we restore. Finally you need to get an idea of what you home will be worth in “restored” condition. You local realtor may be able to help you on this and you should also look at your homeowners insurance to see if special “riders’ are required when restoration work is being done.

Historic restoration Planning: Part 2 putting your plan in Writing

In Part 1 we discussed the planning phase of writing a restoration plan; today we will talk about writing the plan, key components and creating an orderly flow of work.

A properly executed restoration plan will save you thousands in time and money. The biggest reason why most restorations go “over budget” is a lack of planning. There is a common desire to “get something done” often that will involve painting or wallpapering with no consideration to electrical or plumbing work that may be necessary and, you guessed it, you find your self tearing up a wall to do something at a later date which adds time and money to the overall restoration costs.

Generally speaking restoring a house is like building a new house, there is a logical order of things that must be done. The problem with restoration unlike building a new home is that because things are already there, you have to undo some things before you can restore.

If you did your homework as outlined in Part 1 you will develop Bid Specs and Scope of work so that on the items that you are contracting you are telling the contractor what you need rather than the other way around. For example an Electrical Scope of work might look as follows:


Electrical to install a 200 Amp 40 circuit Breaker box with emergency shutoff, New weather head and Meter base to be located on the Northwest corner of the residence, Electrician will be responsible for running wiring in the “chase” areas provided by the homeowner. Each room will have outlets every six feet. Kitchen and bathroom outlets per drawing with GFCI protected circuits. Outdoor outlets on front and back of home per drawing. Contractor to be responsible for acquiring permit, and provide a copy of insurance and/or bonding. Final payment will be made after city inspection and final walk though with homeowner

A good restoration plan will essentially provide a Timeline of activities and as a rule are in the following order:

Bid Specifications and Scope of work.

Roof: The key to a good restoration is a solid roof.

Demolition: Removing everything that is “in the way’, old partitions, plaster or drywall

Foundation: address any foundation issues

Mechanical: Plumbing, Electrical and HVAC

Exterior: Painting, tuck-pointing and wood repair.*

Interior: restoration and finish*


Update Insurance coverage

*Many prefer to do Interior before Exterior and it really depends on the circumstances. However if you do the Exterior Work First you will inspire you neighbors. 

Punch lists: You should prepare a punch list for each room in the house that identifies the scope of work This will outline the things that you need to do in each room and will include the “details” such as installing outlet covers and switch covers and will look something like this:

Bedroom 2: Prime and paint room, strip and refinish woodwork, sand and refinish floor, Install chandelier, Switch and outlet covers, replace restored door hinges and handle. Install window locks, Paint old floor register and reinstall, Install closet system.

You should have this Punch /“to do” list for every space in the home and as you complete these items you should check them off. Also you should take pictures of every phase of the project, print them out and put them in a binder. When you get discouraged, and you will, pull the book out and look at the before pictures and realize just how far you have come!

Detailed planning with good budgeting (always build in an extra 30 percent) will result in a well restored home that you can be proud of. The plan will keep you focused and on track, and with the money you saved, you can take that vacation…you know that thing you used to do before you bought your old house.

Restorations that are well planned can save homeowners thousands.

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