Old houses that aren't old

posted by Jeff | Sunday, November 16, 2014, 9:04 PM | comments: 0

We've been addicted lately to watching Rehab Addict on HGTV. Sure, part of it is because Nicole Curtis is extraordinarily charming and legit, but also because the show is more like a documentary than a reality show. I think it might be perceived that I'm a hater of old stuff, but that isn't the case.

Yes, we bought a completely new house, a "McMansion" if you will. It's completely non-extraordinary, aside from the fact that it's ours and no one else ever lived there. There are some details in certain places that certainly required some craftsmanship (where we spent extra), but otherwise it's pretty much a production house. It's not like the million-dollar place down the street with stairs carved out of reclaimed wood from an old castle in Germany.

My objection to older houses is a combination of the energy efficiency (or the lack thereof) and the drafty nature of them. I grew up in a house that was a hundred years old, and it was always cold, even with space heaters upstairs. I recall Diana's house was just freezing for reasons I couldn't even explain. You could feel cold air blowing on you.

But the show has demonstrated that a combination of restoration and some clever design can make an old house special. It often requires stripping it down to the studs, mind you, but it can obviously be done. I'm amazed at how much stuff she can repurpose. That process can in some cases result in wins like modern insulation. Certainly the geography matters in those cases. I guess the point is that an old house isn't that old when it has been renovated.

The biggest difference in old versus new really does come down to craftsmanship. It's very obvious to me after building two houses that you get what you pay for. I think the biggest issue in the production house business is that the skill of the guys doing the rough trades is almost always suspect, and that you have to serve as the QA department for the builder is ridiculous. On the plus side, much of the framing is done by machines off-site, which you can trust to get the math right.

A hundred years ago, things like wood detail and tile were done with great care. Now, not so much, unless you pay more for something nicer. When I look at our house, the only things that feel "nicer" are the things that were extra (the frameless shower door and some molding on the cabinets is all we really did outside of flooring).

The long and short of it is that an old house doesn't have to suck if you're willing to put some time, love and money into it. Lots of money, I think.


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