Things I wish I’d known before buying my period house


Things I wish I’d known before buying my period house

It’s always easy to be wise in retrospect. “If only I’d known”, you may often think to yourself when renovating your period house. But in truth as these customer testaments reveal, most renovators would not swap their money pit for a problem (and character) free new-build under any circumstances.

What are our customers best nuggets of wisdom they can share?

Here are some of the collective nuggets of wisdom from a large handful of our customers, the proud and often frustrated owners of old houses that they have been busy restoring. Hopefully these experiences will help you save money renovating a house or at least go into a renovation project with your eyes open.

Many of our customers, when asked what they would like to have known before they bought their period house, focus on the universal issues of damp and rot, inherent in older houses:

Kelly says:

“I'd anticipated damp issues and rotten windows, but didn't appreciate how difficult it would be to do things like removing old paint from fireplaces that had built up over a 100 years. Having to try various toxic pastes that were scarcely better than lead poisoning doing a Darth Vader impression in my ventilation mask whilst picking paint out of filigree was not what I imagined when I bought my place! I've managed to restore one but can't muster the courage to tackle the ordeal of the rest.”

Stephen has obviously passed a few uncomfortable nights:

“The thought "come on, large single glazed leaded windows can't be that cold..." Comes to mind.

Oh, and manor houses converted to apartments. "Listen, you can barely notice the footsteps and creaking floorboards upstairs...until they're at home at least...“

Tracey seems like she’s seen it all and has a lot of unfortunate experiences to report:

“I could write a list!

Having just finished a renovation of an 1890 Double fronted Victorian house (I have before pics and some afters if it helps..)

  • Floors - they will not be level, so if you decide to tile, budget for a whole heap of floor leveller. If you decide on underfloor heating remember you cannot feel it through a thick floor so make sure your builder levels the floor FIRST before laying underfloor heating!
  • Rooms - they are not square, neither are the walls, bear this in mind when you think you may be able to fit normal furniture in there!
  • Added extensions - if you find one has been added, make sure you take off any cladding etc BEFORE the builder prices it - chances are little extensions that have not been maintained may well need taking down and rebuilding
  • Joists - thoroughly check for woodworm - seemingly large joists can be found to taper off inside the supporting wall where they have been eaten away
  • Cellars - if you convert - make sure you dig down far enough - unlike my short builder, it's now a place for small people only at my house...
  • Sash windows look stunning framed with Victorian architrave, low cost and gives real impact.
  • When ordering coving on high ceilings consider the height of the finished sash window framed WITH the right style of Victorian architrave otherwise there is not enough room for a curtain pole!
  • Sanding floorboards takes way more work than you think - and several grades of belt sandpaper. Beware of hiring industrial sized sanders, chances are your floorboards are not completely level, any unevenness rips the sand paper, and sometimes breaks the fixing bolts from the machine, be really sure you want to save those floorboards before you start, it's a bigger job than you think.

ps I did budget for new wooden sash windows throughout - I am now living on cheese sandwiches they cost so much!

pps wouldn't change a thing - LOVE my period house”

It sounds like Simon is becoming a real renovation expert and has provided us with some great tips to include here:

"Of course we have found dodgy DIY, poor electrics, bad filling and repairs and hopeless decorating but nothing that doesn’t get put right as I go through the house room by room.

Your comment about windows is interesting. I’ve been amazed so far at how good a condition the windows are in this house given it was built in 1867. The frames are generally sound and only a small amount of filling has been necessary. I do regret our decision to use a ‘specialist’ company to make new double glazed sashes for the kitchen. I don’t believe the double glazing makes anywhere near as much difference as draught proofing and at £900 per sash it needs to save a lot on bills for a very long time to recover the investment.

Fortunately I watched what was done and am now an ‘expert' at stripping down, restoring and draft proofing sash windows, even down to the lime mortar frame packing and burnt sand mastic sealing. The quality of my work is much higher than the specialist company we hired - and thats a big problem generally, finding someone who will do a good job, the right way. The other big plus is that the materials are easy to order online from Reddiseals and it probably only costs around £40 per window.

One of the other things I’ve learned is that cleaning up floorboards and waxing with a hardwax finish is much better than sanding and varnishing. I scrubbed up our kitchen floor with sugar soap and a scrubbing brush, filled the gaps with pine slivers and then finished it with Osmo hardwax and it has turned out to be much more durable than the professionally sanded and varnished hall floor. All the grain, and years of use is still visible which gives it much more character and if it begins to wear or gets damaged more wax can be applied without having to re strip. The hall floor is a mess now with bits of varnish flaking off due to non floor friendly Airedale claws!

victorian kitchen floor renovation sanding staining varnishing

My next task is to take the varnish off our living room floor and try a different colour wax for that.

I think the overall thing is to do your research, there is a huge amount of information out there and some ingenious solutions.

My favourite at the moment has to be Peelaway paint remover. Its gone through 147 years of paint in a single application leaving clean bare wood - amazing."

Katherine has had a really frightening experience with the ceiling in her old house:

“I wish I had known more about lath and plaster ceilings. Specifically, I wish I had known how terrifying and messy it is when they collapse, because I would have pulled the lot down and replaced with plasterboard when we were refurbing. I'm all for original features and character but those ceilings can be downright dangerous!”

Ben & Stephanie from Switzerland surprised and enlightened us with their experience of builders in both Italy and Switzerland:

“My wife and I did three old houses up. One thing we find the hardest is to find builders who understand the beauty of an old house.

Renovating period door

For them old doors or windows should be ripped out and replaced with UPVC. Initially we asked many builders to help us, and found that a lot of them would not work properly in order to restore what good was left in the house. As a piece of advice we'd tell someone who wants to have a go, try it yourself. There are a lot of good tips to be found on the net.”

stripping floor boards in victorian house renovation

Peter has obviously been through the mill with the electrics and other badly chosen and planned fittings in his period property:

“In my house they had fitted lots of extra circuits including additional sockets, two electric showers, and an outhouse extension. All these had separate fuses or circuit breakers depending on time of fitting. They did not expand or modernise the existing fuse box but just fitted extra breakers alongside. Some circuits had been disconnected but the wiring was still present. The wiring was fairly modern and didn't need replacing but it was connected to a very old, bakelite style fuse box.

An old burglar alarm system was installed but didn't work although wiring remained everywhere.

Sinks had been installed (badly) in each bedroom (may have been a B&B at sometime or just the current fashion), and the plumbing had been replaced a couple of times, leaving old holes through floorboards and walls that hadn't been filled or finished in any way. Holes that the mice loved were everywhere allowing mouse nests under the floorboards! When will builders learn that they need to fill the gaps in walls around pipes to stop rodents!

Windows had been over painted so many times that they either didn't open or were so badly fitting allowing gales to penetrate in windy weather.

Modern ceiling downlight were fitted in several rooms that just didn't look right in an old property!

Picture rail mouldings had been removed in some rooms but not all.

Cast iron guttering had also been painted so many times that the paint was holding it up.”

We hope Ann has managed to resolve some of these issues by now:"

  • Old plumbing won't take a new pressurised boiler , it makes them burst
  • We also had a hidden well,
  • Hidden foundations from old out buildings
  • Roots from old long gone trees
  • It was definitely best to have all windows replaced with double glazed hardwood. But hard to find a supplier
  • Suppliers of just about anything is a problem.
  • Solid floors harbour ants nests
  • Bricked up airbricks prevent fires from drawing
  • People will have done bodge jobs and hidden them
  • The only thing holding the plaster on the walls is the wallpaper, yes really.
  • You need a lot of money if you want to match old mouldings
  • We have no foundations!”

Gaza has some really good advice which any experienced renovator will agree with:

“Our main observation, apart from the usual issues with damp, movement, sourcing materials, maintenance, the long period of renovation, the endless dust, builders mistakes ( you have to watch them like a hawk!), and the endless overruns, is that everything you do takes a lot longer and requires major thought and research. Every room required a master plan and serious project management to try to achieve appropriateness. Replacing period features meant that nothing would really fit, it is always hard to find, builders and decorators don't know what you are talking about and probably think that you are weird, everything costs more, from the paint, the furniture and the fixtures. We reckon it took at least 3 months to design each room and locate the items, and that was pretty intense, not to mention the costs and travelling around to locate items, so we usually needed a 'renovation holiday' in between, so the design elements should not be underestimated post structural renovation. This part took years to complete, and the house is really not that big!

It's all done now, and everyone says 'how lovely', but they will never have any idea the effort involved to achieve it! Would we do it again, of course, you either have the bug, or you don't.”

Janet again really seems to know what she is talking about and how come out the other side relatively unscathed:

“As this house is Bill's 6th (and last) full restoration project, he's gotten pretty good at avoiding the pitfalls. I guess the best advice we can give after seeing what others get into is organize your work by order of importance. Evaluate structure first (highest priority) systems secondly, and leave the decorations until last. This is the hardest thing to do but most essential.”

Sandra has obviously found sourcing of materials and people to help her as a real issue:

“I bought my Victorian 3 bed terraced house eighteen months ago. There are a few things that I hadnt accounted for.

I didnt expect to have to spend hours trolling the internet trying to source architectural mouldings doors and skirting boards.

I knew it wasnt going to be easy but wasnt prepared for the frustration....and the cost. There are plenty of companies offering a custom service to cut skirting board etc but they charge the earth. You have to pay for them to make the cutter which can be anything upwards of £50 and that’s before you even start. I wanted a small amount of moulding for round a door panel. I found a company on line who had the exact profile I was looking for. Excitedly I rang for a price and couldn't believe my ears. Over £100!! The guy I was speaking to obviously realised I was shocked and began to try to justify the cost. I don’t understand there are many Victoria and Edwardian houses still standing and plenty of people who in this day and age still want to retain their original features. Why isn't there companies who keep original moulding, skirting boards etc on the shelf. The reason they are so expensive because suppliers stick to their money making operations in the hope that someone is going to be desperate enough to pay for their services. There is no need.

Another issue that I hadnt really anticipated was having to deal with previous owners bodged jobs. Within the first 2 months I had to have the chimney sorted cos theyd fitted a multi- fuel burner incorrectly which in fact was a death trap and a new central heating boiler installed. The beautiful sash window had all been painted shut and window furniture was missing. It took me ages to find a tradesman who would take them on. I decided to expose the beautiful original floor boards but the job was spoilt by finding boards unsympathetically sawn and broken which must have happened when central heating was installed. I will eventually replace the damaged boards but it could have been so easily avoided Im sure.

Even though everything I try to do on my Victorian property takes twice as long and costs three times as much I wouldn’t trade it for all the world. Its a love have to have the lows to appreciate the highs. ”

Fran's road really has been long and arduous but having visited her project we feel confident that eventually, she'll have a wonderful home as the location is truly incredible:

"No job will be easy and every task (however small it may seem) has at least 2 more tasks lurking behind it

Never use a steamer on old walls for wallpaper removal however arduous the job seems.

The plaster on old walls seems to crack and collapse and one must budget for re-plastering at some point in every room. The walls behind the plaster seem to follow suit and collapse randomly.

Plaster and lath ceilings are not funny. Do NOT touch the woodchip covering them unless you want a possible whole ceiling collapse.

Condensation causes large damp patches on the walls - we wasted months checking roofs/flashing/chimneys etc etc

Tradesman do not cross jobs and have very definite lines as to their role.

Tradesmen always think the person working before them did a rubbish job whether they did or didn't.

I do wish I had understood that the 'advice' given by tradesmen is not the best advice for me but the easiest solution for them.

Double your budget. You'll need it.

You need to supply copious amounts of tea and biscuits every day.

Damp comes with the territory.

The people you thought would help, don't, and visa versa. Some friends turn up and muck in bringing smiles and cake, some talk a lot and do nothing."

Natasha warns about the dangers of PVC:

"I think the main thing that we could never have predicted when we bought our house was how much we were going to fall in love with it and how you really care about it so when it comes to fixing (everything) you really don't want to do a quick fix but for the house you want to do it right!!! Crazy as it sounds!!! We have ended spending more in almost all areas for a higher/more in keeping (better in our opinion) finish. It's surprising when talking to trade people even when they say they are used to working on period houses what they then go and suggest and it normally involves white PVC!" 

Angela has a few more unusual tips:

“how low the sun goes in mid-winter and where it strikes back in spring

- stripping wooden doors in an acid bath makes them warped and fraying so they don’t close properly

- roofers found on the internet may be just a cypher charging 100% mark-up on sub-contractors- moral of the tale- know who you are dealing with and deal with them directly

- the daughter of the previous owners but one- to get the lowdown on the history of each room and outside space- where the original flagstones are etc

- Victorian Emporium offers a better quality and less expensive range of wooden mouldings than the local carpenter is able/willing to supply or make..”

We just had to include Holly’s comment to try to give a balanced view. What this proves is that despite the work, frustration and damage to the bank balance and years of toil, most renovators would do it again and again (and do) and that Holly’s conclusion is a rarity:

“Basically don't do it and buy that nice new build down the road.”

Everything that Deborah has to say we agree with 100%, especially the last sentence:

“This is a random list of observations, having owned a timber framed house for 10 years, then a London terraced Victorian flat more recently.

Be prepared to spend both time and money on your property.

Be alert to how many defects several layers of wallpaper can cover - we had a hole in the roof and whole rooms needing replastering when ours was been removed.

Don't be afraid to get to the root of a problem. Avoid temporary patching as hidden issues will come back to haunt you.

To avoid nasty surprises with upping of quotes from builders half way through a job, try to strip back and define the job more fully for them. It will take time, but at least both sides know from the outset what needs to be done. You also get to know your property in depth and may find some hidden pieces of history which your property has passed through.

 Attempt to have an overall vision of the large basic jobs which need attending to - electrics, plumbing, heating, roofing before you decide to 'do the lounge' and lay expensive flooring only to have it spoiled later.

Do a regular appraisal of what needs doing. It's best to nip problems in the bud.

Water damage can manifest in a huge variety of ways, from damp from below / above / rot. Ensure your property can breathe.

Embrace working with traditional materials, develop contacts with traditional craftsmen. Our local council gave us details of lime plasterers in the area, for instance.

Learn new crafts - lath and plastering.

 We joined a group of people all of whom owned timber framed properties. They were a mine of information about who or what they had found beneficial locally on their journey through renovation.

Protect yourself during any work. Lime dust and lead paint are toxic. Dispose of materials in line with local regulations.

Take a moment to enjoy what you've done!”

Shireen chaired her Residents' Association for many long years, hearing about and resolving the problems of living in an 1878 Victorian block, which are useful insights if you are renovating a flat:

"Here are just a few we have encountered over decades :

  • gutters leaking into ceilings, and mansard roofs with rotting felt, 
  • ancient lead/copper flat roofs which cost our landlord a small fortune to seal and repair,
  • wooden sash windows, lovely and large and airy, but beware rotten woodwork,
  • well-insulated flooring pre EU rules, then new fire regulations, which meant stripping out the old insulation, replacing it with fire-proofing insulation, resulting in no sound-proofing between floors…. we're all so conscious of this; flats with any form of uncarpeted flooring, fashionable as this may be, cause the greatest nuisance.
  • plumbing ! ancient lead piping stripped, replaced with larger dimension pipes,
  • drilling, and routing pipes, wiring etc under floorboards, and old very thick beams which broke a few drills, a nightmare;
  • old chimneys and open fireplaces, beautiful though unused, which, with the wind in the wrong direction, blows the rain water straight down to the hearth;

There are many pluses though, and after close on 50 years here, I still enjoy my home. Funny how the nightmares fade !"

Through sheer persistence it seems that Edwina finally got to the root of a major issue:

“Unbeknown to us when we bought our Victorian house in 1975. Long before, during the Second World War all the vents in the cellar had been blocked up because the occupants were convinced the Germans were going to drop gas bombs and the cellar served as an air raid shelter for the street. The problem was no one thought of unblocking them after the war and it was only when we were battling raging dry rot that we discovered they were the cause.”

Some tips from Lucy on furnishing your property: 

“We are in the process of restoring a Grade 2 listed house, the oldest part of which is medieval. Downside of old houses: more costly repairs and higher heating bills. But you get bags of character, and I think they are easier to decorate successfully than more minimalist modern styles of house, where anything but mid-Century or modern furniture can look wrong. Both antiques and modern furniture look great in old houses. Antique brown furniture is incredibly cheap at the moment- it's far cheaper to buy a Victorian mahogany wardrobe with fabulous patina than it is to buy a boring new version from the High Street.

The trick is finding skilled workmen who know how to do things properly, and unfortunately there aren't that many around so they are certainly not cheap, but our experience has been that you get what you pay for......”

It seems that Georgina is still in the midst of a number of issues and we wish her luck in resolving them:

“The cellar is damp, nobody is willing to have a look where the water comes from, the most honest say that the house being on a slope, will always have some damp. The dishonest quote between £8K and £12K to have the cellar tanked. I went for the honest ones, changed a window (guess what, rotten), closed the coal hole and use it as my – basic – gym! No problem with marginal damp!

Windows: what a nightmare

Original tiles broken, do I mend them or do I get new ones to substitute them? At the moment I left them as they are and told the cleaner to be extremely careful when hovering!

The bath was horrible, I wanted it to go but cast iron! We live off a very narrow and difficult lane, nobody would get it so had it enamelled and accept it and every day there is something else, but I love it!”

Through requesting, gathering, reading and digesting all of these fascinating customer experiences, the thing that struck us is that us renovators are part of an exclusive and growing club of people that just love old buildings and want to do our best for them, no matter what the cost to our health, free time and wallet. The motivations to this need to renovate old buildings are many and varied and include emotions such as the need to nurture and care for the building (it needs us), pride, vanity and wishing to leave our mark on something that goes well beyond our lifespan. But thank goodness we all have this bug and where would these beautiful old buildings be without the likes of us? Probably flattened and blocks of faceless flats built in their place.

Categories: Buying a property, Preservation   Tags: period properties

Posted by cathal - Feb 06, 2022 - 20:09

​buying and repairing a victorian property is quite a challenge. as others have commented, almost impossible to get a proper trademan. good luck in finding a ‘non-plastic wood’ carpenter! when it comes to dampness, there is a reason, unfortunately few tradesmen have a clue and instead always want a damp proof course. Basically tradesmen don’t get taught about principle (instead, quickest, cheapest, plastic solution). The most basic issue of establishing the correct indoor and outdoor levels is crucial. Avoiding bridging of external render also important to protect the walls and the render itself.

A bucket of lime putty is terrifically useful and can save you large sums….the putty can be used for lime wash paint, plastering all areas, repairing brick work etc - all from a single bucket of lime putty!

lime. wood and linseed oil are your friends, plastics, vinyl and cement are not.