Tips for Restoring a Historic Home

Updated on: January 30, 2023

A picture of the exterior of a large historic Victorian house.A picture of the exterior of a large historic Victorian house.

Restoring a historic home is challenging but can also be incredibly rewarding. The National Register of Historic Places will examine certain criteria to deem a property as historical, including the property’s age (usually having to be fifty years or older), significance, and integrity. They also have stipulations about modifying, remodeling, or renovating a historic house.

Restoring one such property takes immense responsibility and meticulous time, effort, and care. All of the details must accurately reflect the era in which the structure was originally built, including total adherence to local building codes and regulations. However, what draws people to these classic homes is their inherent character and charm that can't be found in new constructions, and each one is visually unique in its aesthetics.

With patience and perseverance, restoring a historic home can become an enjoyable project with the bonus of having something extraordinary to show for it.

1. Learn About the Property

Understanding the history of your property and its past owners is paramount to successfully restoring it. Researching is a great way to get started, and numerous online tools are available to help with this. Many local governments also offer access to records that may be useful for your project. You can also consult the local Historic Preservation Office for guidance and advice on how best to preserve the home's original charm while meeting modern building codes.

The more information you can acquire about the property, the better prepared you will be to restore it accurately. Doing so is also an excellent way to pay tribute and honor its past owners while preserving a little piece of history for generations to come.

2. Learn About the Design

Once you have a general idea of the home's history, you must become familiar with its original design. This knowledge will be invaluable when it comes to restoring the home. First, it is essential to recognize what is original and should remain as-is versus what needs updating or replacing. For example, if a staircase is original and needs repair, you should focus on recreating it to look exactly as it did when the house was first built.

You should also be aware of common design elements typical of historic homes in your area. This may include things like simple cornices, gabled roofs and dormers, or Greek Revival columns. Researching local historic properties can provide a wealth of information that can be helpful when restoring your own home.

3. Learn About Safety Standards

Safety is always a priority, whether restoring an old building or constructing a new one. Therefore, staying up-to-date on the latest safety standards and regulations in your area is essential to ensure that the property is safe for you and anyone who may enter it. 

It's also important to point out that some safety codes may be legally mandated, so you must be aware of any applicable laws in your area. Remember that some property characteristics, such as wiring or windows, may degrade over time and become less safe. In these cases, replacing them with new materials that meet the current safety standards is crucial.

By researching and staying up-to-date on safety regulations, you can ensure that your historic home restoration project is successful and meets all safety requirements.

4. Use Original Materials

While replacing old materials with new ones may be tempting, it is best practice to retain as much of the original material as possible. This will help keep the property's original charm and character intact while meeting any necessary modern building codes.

Using original materials can be challenging for several reasons. First, some materials may be difficult to find or expensive to replace. Second, if you are unfamiliar with the property and its original design, it can be hard to know which pieces should remain untouched and which ones need replacing. Additionally, some materials may have aged and deteriorated over time, making them unsafe to use.

In these cases, use your best judgment. Research the original design of the property, talk to local experts or salvage dealers who may know of similar materials, and carefully inspect any pieces you plan on reusing for safety. By taking these steps, you can make sure that your historic home restoration project is done with as much integrity as possible.

5. Assess the Utilities

In addition to assessing the structure's condition, you must assess any utilities associated with the property. This may include plumbing, electricity, heating and cooling systems, and even phones or internet connections. In some cases, these utilities may have become outdated or degraded over time and need replacing.

It's also important to know any utility costs associated with the property. For example, depending on the age and condition of the utilities, there may be a substantial cost to upgrade them or connect them to other services. Similarly, making major changes to the structure itself, like adding an extra room or moving walls, can affect the utility costs.

6. Assess the Appliances

Beyond the structure and utilities, it's essential to assess any appliances associated with the property. This may include things like:

  • Stoves;
  • Dishwashers;
  • Refrigerators and other large kitchen appliances.

It's necessary to determine which items need replacing or upgrading to meet the current safety standards and regulations. While some of the appliances may be original and retain some charm, it's best to replace them with newer models if they do not meet the current safety regulations.

7. Protect and Preserve Historical Elements

When restoring a historic home, it's crucial to protect and preserve any historical elements or features of the property. This may include things like:

  • Furniture;
  • Original architecture;
  • Fixtures and artwork.

Try to keep these elements intact and in their original condition to maintain the character and charm of the property. To do so, you may need to hire experts specializing in preserving historical elements. If not, there are a few steps you can take yourself, such as:

  • Cleaning the materials with special care;
  • Restoring any artwork or decorations;
  • Using protective coating on fixtures and furniture.

By preserving these historical elements, you can ensure that your historic home restoration project is successful and reflects the home's original beauty.

8. Carefully Integrate Modern Elements

Integrating modern elements into the home may be necessary to improve functionality or meet safety standards. This can be tricky, as you want to ensure that these new elements fit in with the existing design and keep the historical charm of the property manageable.

Kitchens, for example, are a difficult room to restore while maintaining historical charm — this means the right cabinet style is paramount to successful renovation. Opting for a style that’s too modern will compromise the historical ambiance of your home, while selecting something like a shaker cabinet can enhance it.

With that in mind, you could update cabinets or even design a whole new kitchen to find the right balance. These changes work to adapt your kitchen to modern life, though they will all have to be done carefully. Additionally, instead of replacing everything, opt for subtle changes, such as adding modern drawer pulls or updating lighting fixtures.

If you need help with how to go about this process, consult a professional specializing in historic home restoration. They can help you choose the right materials and features to update your kitchen without compromising the historical magic of the property.

9. Don’t Falsify the History

It's imperative to remember not to add elements that are meant to imply historical value or authenticity falsely. This may include things like:

  • Faux-aged materials;
  • Reclaimed furniture;
  • Replicas of historical items.

Instead of falsifying history, try to blend modern and historical elements to honor both. You can achieve this by choosing materials similar in style to existing ones but more durable and updated for today's standards. For example, you could install new hardwood floors with an aged stain or use window shutters with a classic design. Then, depending on your project's needs, you can find a way to incorporate modern elements that still embrace the historical feel of the property.

10. Consult Experts

When restoring a historic home, it can be beneficial to consult experts specializing in this type of project. They can guide you through the process and offer advice on how best to preserve any historical elements while making necessary safety or functionality updates. Additionally, they may suggest ways to maximize energy efficiency or identify potential issues that may arise during the restoration process.

Restoring a historic home is an exciting endeavor, but it also requires careful planning and attention to detail for successful results. By following these tips, consulting experts, and carefully integrating modern elements, you can transform your property into a beautiful ode to its history.