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Essay

The Quirks of Living In An Old Home

by Lauren Chorpening

Every once in a while, I’m reminded of how quirky our home really is — how impractical features of it can be. I get in the rhythm of things (i.e. kick the door twice to get it to latch while pushing my body weight into it to lock it), and forget that other homes don’t function like mine. My 1900-era home, my full-of-potential fixer-upper, has quirks. And of course, the longer I live here, the more I discover.

I don’t know why, but I had always assumed these oddities would be pretty standard in old homes — creaky stairs, squeaky doors, etc. but some of the most prominent quirks in my house, I’d never heard of before. Like our front entryway, for example. We have a nice size entry room with a large closet and a large window right off of the front door and it connects via door to the living room. It has the same hardwood floors, same original doors and same window as the rest of the home, but zero insulation in the walls and no heat register. It’s a complete icebox in the winter. I’d love to store our coats and shoes in the entry closet but if the temperature is 5 degrees outside, the temperature is 7 degrees in the entry. We have to keep the door to the living room securely closed with a weather strip all winter long. I’m not sure why it was designed this way, or why when forced heat was added to the home, it was excluded. Or why, when the house was insulated, it was excluded.

Another quirky element has been the electrical. And maybe it’s more finicky than quirky but when we moved in, all of the overhead lights worked. We had electrical updated in the kitchen and bathrooms and they still worked. A few months later, we had a few outlets in the back of the house updated, and the back entry overhead light and the living room overhead light in the front of the house both stopped working. The electrician said it was impossible for that to happen. But here we are, almost 120 years after the house was built, and switching out an outlet in the kitchen killed the lights in the front and back of the house.

I could write 5,000 words on the weird bits about my home but with every strange and maybe-not-so-desirable aspect, it’s still my dream house. And I honestly don’t think too much on the “problem” areas. They’re inconvenient for a second and then I’m back to enjoying the home my husband and I are creating together. Some things might get fixed (I would actually love to stop kicking the door closed or putting on a frozen coat in the winter) but others probably won’t be changed — at least while we live here. I like that my stairs creak. It makes me think of all the kids that have ever lived in this house that probably used to fly down the stairs on the way to breakfast. I like that the only fireplace in the house is in the unfinished basement with the stack going through the center of the house because that’s how they kept the entire place warm.

Older homes have quirks. I know older homes aren’t for everyone and aren’t without a few headaches for those who love them. While there is a list of issues I wish we could fix, there’s an even bigger list of my favorite things about living here, like the tall ceilings, large windows, wood floors, dark doors, huge bedrooms and the overall sense that this home has a past and we’re just part of its story. Lauren

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Comments

  • Your honesty is refreshing. We tend to isolate ourselves when it comes to problems during renovation, quickly adopting the mindset that we are the only ones in the world who has a house with this particular problem. Especially when everything worked “just fine” prior to renovation. Once we get started and hit the first “wall” (pun intended), we think to ourselves “why is it always me? Why does every renovation I try create a bigger mess?” In reality, everyone runs into these sorts of quirks and its encouraging to commiserate with a fellow renovator!

  • Hi Lauren,
    Thanks for sharing this story! Love the photos your posted. I live in a home that was built in 1925. Even with all its “quirks” I absolutely love it. The hardwoood floors, high ceilings, creaky stairs, working fireplace in the living room, built-in cupboard and exposed brick in the kitchen, chair rails, crown molding – the list goes on and on. Even though I have lived in my home many years, it’s still a work in progress. I would not change a thing about it. And oh, by the way – my entry room is also freezing! Don’t know why it was never adapted for heat, but oh well….

  • I think the mistake many people make when buying a dream older home, is not having the budget or even a clue about how basic infrastructure in an old home might need updating. Yet, is so important to have healthy and robust electrical, plumbing and insulated envelope so you don’t get mold, house fires, structural collapse or huge, unnecessarily high energy bills. Your home is lovely! Why not invite an insulation contractor over to see about getting your entry way fixed….there may be a way to blow insulation into the walls and definitely easy to add more attic insulation. It is money well spent.

    My father and brothers are firefighters and the first thing they said when I bought a 1932 bungalow with knob and post wiring was to get it brought up to code pronto. They have seen people die in housefires caused by old wiring. I now have a practically new house: drywall, insulation, triple paned windows and modern wiring that allows me sleep soundly at night knowing I’m safe and warm. And I still love the old house quirkiness left behind: the scarred wood floors, the gingerbread, etc. and I LOVE my PGE bill, its 75% less than what the previous owners were paying in winter.

    • I once rented a really old house (one of the oldest in town actually). I’m sure none of the wiring had ever been updated.

      The day after my roommate’s father, who owned a fire extinguisher / lightning rod business, visited for the first time I came home to find a fire extinguisher in every room of the house. Every room, even the bathroom. In the living and dining rooms were two lovely antique brass ones that he had refurbished to working order.

      That’s what I call love.

  • I’m in the UK, and the vast majority of our housing stock is Victorian, built roughly between 1830 and 1900, so most of us recognise a lot of this! A lot of us have a full structural survey done by a chartered surveyor before buying a house, and use any major structural defects to renegotiate the price. The oldest house I’ve owned was built in 1620, the youngest in around 1870. The survey that came back on my 1620s house came back saying that the kitchen was “not fit for human habitation” but I bought it anyway! Most of our houses are terraced, which means they’re joined together with others at both sides, because of the pressures of space, which really helps with the heating bills. We tend to heat with gas central heating, so a central boiler pumps hot water into a radiator in each room, so it’s radiant not convection heat. This is old technology, we’ve had radiators since Victorian times, do it’s designed to work with the fabric of the building. It’s important to remember that old houses weren’t constructed in the same way as modern ones, and they were never designed to be air tight, lime mortar and brick or stone, and internal lime plaster breathes, and lets damp air out, as does the original draughty single glazing. When things get too air tight, damp and mould can actually develop. I’ve lived with original windows in three houses, the 1620s one, one built during the civil war so 1640s ish, and one built in 1780. The 1620s one was a terrace, the 1780 a flat – one quarter of an old ‘dower house’ (for those who’ve seen downton abbey, where the dowager might live!) so heating was fine. The civil war one was in the proper deep no streetlights countryside, and it was freezing. We’re not allowed to replace windows in listed buildings (as all of those were) so I’m not sure I would chose to live somewhere so old in the countryside again, unless I had a lot more money to spend on heating! My current house it from somewhere between 1830 and 1860, it’s Victorian in style, but laws were put in place in 1860 which stopped that type of house being built, so it’s from before then. My first job is to get my builders to scape out the modern cement mortar, which had been put in sometime before the 1990s in an effort to make the house airtight, but has instead caused horrible damp, and replace with lime, thankfully the faces of the stone haven’t blown, which can happen with cement, as the moisture tries to escape through the stone, freezes and expands. The original windows are long gone (replaced with hideous pvc) and building regulations prevent me putting in new single glazing, so I’m having new double glazed timber sliding sashes put in, and will just have to keep them cracked open for ventilation, except during sub zero temperatures! Luckily my electrics have been done recently (I think within the last 5 years looking at the fuse box), so while they may not be 100% up to code they’re certainly not dangerous, and I have a new ish combi boiler for my heating and hot water. I also have to have the ‘basement’ (it’s only about 30cm underground) damp proofed, with the 30cm of soil dug out away from the wall, so I can use it for its original purpose of kitchen diner. It wouldn’t have been so damp in Victorian times, as the coal-fired range would have have been on constantly, like a modern aga, and they’d have had a servant down there, so they wouldn’t care! However, for modern life it needs damp proofing, which sadly means losing the original flagstone floor and about 6cm of ceiling height.

    This has turned into a proper essay / rant! Hope some of you found it interesting anyway.

      • Thanks Pheralyn and Ypsi, I’m glad it was interesting, I’m embarrassed how much I wrote, and I could have kept going! I think it’s all at the forefront of my mind because my builders start on Monday, yay!

  • yes! my home is the same! of the two rooms upstairs, only one had heat run to it. the other, while it has a cold air return, has no heat!!? i have to keep a space heater in there or i wake up to a 35° room in the winter. and, the addition that was put on did have heat run to it, but was not insulated. and was not built on a concrete slab. :| but….. it’s still my house, and i love it.

  • This whole post spoke to me. We bought our 1900 rowhouse about 5 1/2 years ago. We are just about to start a pretty major remodel and the “quirks” are really starting to make themselves known. Crooked flooring, bizarre wiring and exposed piping are just some of the issues we’ve come to deal with. Still, I’m in love with the house and cannot wait for this remodel to be done.

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