Considering a ‘Fixer-Upper?’


Considering a ‘Fixer-Upper?’

 There’s a certain appeal to owning and living in one of the beautiful century old homes gracing Duluth’s hillside.  In their glory, these homes were rich in architectural details and solidly constructed. I often encounter folks who desire to purchase and restore an older home.  Rarely an impulsive decision, it does happen, unfortunately, that folks discover, after the purchase, they are in ‘over their heads’ with the cost of necessary improvements. There usually is no turning back at this point, so it’s best to approach this venture realistically. Consider the following before taking the leap into purchasing an older home for restoration.

 Both patience and a ‘hands-on’ approach are generally required to successfully renovate an older home.  Unless you have a sizeable budget to hire professionals, plan on doing a lot of the work yourself and accept it will likely take years to complete.

Prior to purchase, the home should be thoroughly inspected by an experienced professional well versed in the construction and renovation of homes of this era.  Be it a structural engineer, architect or contractor; retain someone with an eye to spot underlying issues.  A decrepit foundation, deteriorated structure or crumbling sewer system will set one back financially before any fun details can even be addressed.  Renovations in older homes often follow a domino effect … touching one thing may result in a ‘Pandora’s box’ of repairs.

 Older homes are likely to contain hazardous materials such as lead-based paint and asbestos that can be costly to abate. Thoroughly assess these issues and determine costs for abatement before taking the plunge.

Verify the state of the mechanical systems.  Is the wiring up to current code with wet locations protected by GFCI receptacles?  Is the service panel large enough to meet the needs of a modern family? If the home has old cast iron and galvanized plumbing, a complete re-do may be required, as these older pipes often deteriorate and crack. Assess the heating system for age and efficiency.  Many older homes have hot water systems great for heating, but do not lend themselves to the installation of air conditioning. Is this important to you? Likewise … insulation and energy efficiency are often missing from these homes, which leads to high heating (and cooling) costs. Check the insulation of exterior walls (often there is none), as well as the attic and foundation. And determine the state of the windows.  If upgrades are needed, you may be facing some big ticket items.

Does the layout of the home lend itself to your family’s life style? If renovations are required, verify if the home’s structure will accommodate the removal of walls, allowing you to create the large ‘live-in’ kitchen-family room you desire.

Lastly, note the architectural details that make the home desirable.  If they are in poor repair and need to be replicated, or perhaps lost over the years due to poorly executed renovations, a little up-front research will help determine the feasibility of bringing them back.

Don’t be ‘surprised’ by unexpected costs that might diminish the joyful experience of restoring an older home. All said … go for it!


Rebecca Gullion Lindquist, CMKBDI am a columnist for Duluth Superior Magazine, a monthly publication dedicated to the finer attributes of life in our Northland.  My column appears in the Style section and is titled ‘Living by Design’.  The following column was published January 2014.

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