If you own a historic home, here are some important factors you might want to consider.

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Q: We just purchased a beautiful turn-of-the-century home near Madison Park. What should we know before tearing into the antique walls of our new place?

A: Today, my company almost exclusively renovates vintage homes, from mid-century modern to historic. I can tell you without reservation that remodeling historic homes and buildings requires a high level of hands-on experience and knowledge. This is due to the many unique variables the contractor will run into.

Take homes that were built at the beginning of the 1900s, for example. This was at a time in America when exciting industrious creativity, ingenuity, and craftsmanship were beginning to culminate into universal building practices. Independent millwork shops and lumber companies were designing machinery to create proprietary profiles and joinery that were all different, yet were beginning to be used in much the same way. We didn’t have the universal building codes or standard building practices we have today, which can pose quite a challenge for today’s trades people who are taught very specific modern best practices.

Working on these historical homes and buildings, for me, is a kind of archeological trip back in time; to see into the mind of a millwright or carpenter 100 years ago who thought up, designed and used different building methods in such ingenious ways. Amazingly, many of these methods have stood the test of time, a testament to the character of the trades back then.

If you own a historic home, here are some important factors you might want to consider.

Historical value

Like any antique, originality can add to the value of a historic or vintage home. There is nothing wrong with updating the utilities or renovating your kitchen and opening areas to create larger spaces. In fact, these are value-added components to your home.

The key is to update in keeping with original architectural components. Modern cabinets can have an original look. Millwork can be Vertical Grain Douglas fir, oak or cedar. Windows can be restored and era-specific storms windows made if heat loss is an issue to you.

Examples that reduce historical value, though, are replacing your windows with modern insulated glass, or replacing your siding with a modern Hardie Board-type siding.

Settling with age

Most old homes have settled one way or another. There is nothing wrong with a settled home, as long as it remains static. Updating footings is all it takes.

With that said, however, I’ve had to set cabinets in kitchens that were 1.5–2 inches out of level in the floor, which can create challenges like keeping lines parallel when remodeling kitchens.

Front porches or additions often need to be built out of level to match the line of the house, because that will keep the lines consistent with what the eye sees.


It’s important to use materials that match the original home, such as with siding and millwork. I’ve seen remodels where, when finished, you can’t tell there was a remodel because it ties so well with the original.

Continuity is key to any remodel, but with historic homes, it’s not always easy to go down to the local hardware store and find the exact molding you might need, or match the texture of the original plaster, or build to lines that are out of plumb or not level.

Lead containment

Dust control is key to any remodel, but lead containment takes it a bit further. Any historic home will most certainly have lead in the paint, and handling it properly is a must. Lead containment is just that: containment while remodeling. It’s not abatement. Abatement is total removal.

Understanding and using an approach that is a mixture of modern and historical building methods is critical to not only ensure the best craftsmanship quality but also in maintaining the historical value of your home.

Daniel J. Westbrook is the owner of Westbrook Restorations and a member of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties, and HomeWork is the group’s weekly column. If you have a home improvement, remodeling or residential homebuilding question you’d like answered by one of the MBA’s more than 2,800 members, write to homework@mbaks.com.