For the Love of Old Houses

If you are anything like me, one of the things you love most about Richmond is its historic architecture. The city is filled with many structures and homes built in the 1800s and 1900s. The old houses have a certain charm and character that’s difficult to replicate in newer houses. Some would argue that “charm and character” means more to manage but I believe that is a matter of perspective.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was common practice for skilled craftsmen to include details that are extremely difficult to come by today and/or would be too expensive to incorporate in a new construction project. Materials have also changed significantly. Old-growth lumber was so inexpensive and widely available back then, it was used for the underlying structure as well as the visible finishes. Today, that is considered the “good” stuff and is expensive to acquire. If you were to ask me what positive qualities come to mind when I think about old houses, I’d say:

Solid structure. That old growth lumber makes for very durable, strong structures.
High ceilings. Ceilings higher than 9’ can make a small house feel much larger and more comfortable.
Details. Inlaid hardwood floors, plaster rosettes, detailed moldings, solid core doors
Location. Old houses far outnumber new houses in the city’s most sought-after neighborhoods.

If you’ve never lived in or owned an old house, it won’t take long to spot things that may worry you. That is normal. I repeat… that is normal. I’d probably be more concerned if you DIDN’T have questions or concerns.  

Construction standards are a living thing. They are constantly updated and have been since the idea of building codes was first introduced. What was once considered acceptable building practice, may no longer be allowed by today’s standards. However, just because a historic house may not comply with current construction codes, it does not necessarily mean the house is unsafe or must be updated. The vast majority of items an inspector would point out are likely to be considered “grandfathered” and would only need to be modified if there was a clear/ immediate health and safety issue. Here are a just a few grandfathered building elements commonly seen in older Richmond homes:

– Knob and tube wiring. There are a lot of variables here but the existence of knob and tube wiring does not necessarily spell trouble.

Two prong electrical receptacles. In a perfect world, yes, it would be great if all receptacles were grounded.  However, that’s unlikely in an old home unless it has been significantly renovated. 

Limited or missing insulation. Houses back then just weren’t insulated like they are today. The good news is there are many ways to add insulation.

Missing or short railings. In the past, railings were not required on low porches and steps like they are today.  There are many creative ways to add / improve railings in keeping with the original architecture.

Windows with sash weights and pulleys. Old windows used pulleys, cords and weights to help move sashes up and down. It is very common to see broken sash cords but they are easily fixed.

Old house buyers are also likely to encounter signs of several other issues that are not uncommon in older homes.  As long as these issues have been addressed (or could be in a reasonable/ economically feasible manner), they would not automatically be considered cause for concern:

Old termite damage. I’d be more surprised if an old home in Richmond did NOT have any signs of old termite damage.

Damp basement. Water can get into old basements for many reasons. Sometimes it can be vastly improved with simple landscaping and water run-off changes.

Heating oil tanks. The existence of an oil tank does not mean there is a problem. Soil can be tested for leaks and tanks can be rendered inert. 

Though I believe old houses are fantastic, they aren’t for everyone. I’d encourage you to talk with family and friends that own old houses, discuss with trusted advisors and ask lots of questions if you are unsure.

Interested in finding for your next historic and charming home in Richmond?

Corby Hicks

Phone: 804.937.7540

“I moved here roughly twenty years ago after graduating from the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture.  Now, my family and I reside in an early 1900s home that we renovated in Northside’s Laburnum Park.”

Click here to learn more about Corby.

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