How hard could it be to replace a 90-year-old toilet? It seemed likesomething a plumber could handle, maybe even the one standing in mybathroom in 2013, telling me that a crack in my tank meant mine wastoast.
No problem, I thought, I’ll just swap it out.
And this is when I learned rule number one for owners of old houses:Never utter the phrase “just swap it out.”
I will not belabor the details of early 20th-century plumbing, but trustme when I say that if I had simply replaced my commode, a new modelwould have been perched roughly half a foot from the wall. To get to theshower, I would have had to climb over the new fixture.
The solution? Rip up the original tile floor and move the plumbing.Other problems would have followed: The mint-colored wall tiles wouldhave likely been damaged and needed replacement, too. I might havehad to open the kitchen ceiling to access the pipes above. In otherwords, to replace the toilet, I would have had to gut my vintage 1924bathroom to the tune of $25,000.
And this, my friends, is how I found myself on a website calledThisOldToilet, which sells, as you might have gathered, old toilets. Lidsand seats are their specialty, but I scored a tank in my size and model,although not in the same off-whitish hue. A two-toned look was not myfirst choice for bathroom décor, but one day I’ll get around to reglazingthe bowl and pedestal sink, a task I’ve been told is doable.
Continuereadingthemainstory Owning an old home when you don’t really know what you’re doingmeans you might bond with fellow homeowners on Facebook groupslikeMontclair Rehabers: Group Therapy for Old Houses + CluelessOwners. (This really is a group, and I really am a member.)
Yes, some people grow up with a sledgehammer in hand, and perhapsthose are the ones posting photo brags of their impeccably restoredTudors on more established Facebook groups likeOur Old House. Butfor those of us who were more likely to call the super whenever thefaucet in our apartment dripped, homeownership can come as a shock.
Buy a newer house and, for the most part, replacement parts areavailable at your local Home Depot. Not so with an old home that stillhas its original charm. Plumbing ages, for example, and can crumblewhen you try to replace a fixture. Champions of older homes will tellyou that the structures were built with high-quality materials meant tolast, and that is certainly true. But when something does reach the endof its life — like a decades-old crystal doorknob that falls off in yourhand — you’ll spend days surfing eBay looking for a replacement,because nothing like it exists on Wayfair.
“We’re just a bunch of stupid city dwellers thinking, ‘Oh, no big deal!I’m going to buy a 150-year-old house and fix it,’” said Stella Gilgur-Cook, who started the Montclair Rehabers group in December after shediscovered that repairing the grand staircase of her “Victorian-ish”four-bedroom in Montclair, N.J., was actually a big deal.
Mrs. Gilgur-Cook, 41, a health care administrator, and her husband,Josh Cook, 41, who works in video and film production, moved withtheir two children from a rental in Forest Hills, Queens, last August.The couple did not set out to buy a fixer-upper, but ended up with ahouse that needed some work. (Don’t they all?)
As their first project, they wanted to remove carpeting from thestaircase and sand off layers of old paint. But carpet has a way of hidingsecrets, and removing theirs revealed serious damage to the top steps.“You could put your hand between where the step ended and the nextriser started,” Mrs. Gilgur-Cook said. “We freaked out.”
That’s when they decided to call a professional, and promptly learnedrule number two of homeownership: Good luck finding one. (Especiallyone who knows how to restore, not just replace, parts in an old house.)
“A good man is hard to find,” said Mary Kate Spach, a member of theboard of directors ofPasadena Heritage, a preservationist group inPasadena, Calif. “A good contractor is even harder to find.”
Mrs. Gilgur-Cook interviewed “a whole parade of people.” Some saidthey could do the work, but then never came back. Others insisted thewhole structure had to be ripped out and replaced. She hired onecontractor, but the crew quit after sanding the first step. Finally, shefound a company that specialized in old staircases and, for $8,000,fixed hers.
Old houses woo you with character. Step into a center-hall colonial, andyou swoon over crown molding and carved woodwork. But it is theantique kitchen or bathroom that is the real conversation piece. (Youthink my toilet is funky; I haven’t even told you about my shimmerybathroom wallpaper, a rather bold update made by the previousowners. As I have no idea what lurks behind that sturdy paper, I haveresisted removing it and bringing the bathroom back to its originalstate. Besides, the bling has kind of grown on me.)
“Houses with authentic parlors are a dime a dozen,” said Ken Roginski,who writesOldHouseGuy, a blog that laments the prevalence of vinylsiding and other ill-advised updates. “But if you could have an authentickitchen or bathroom, it’s a museum piece.”
Mr. Roginski also works as a consultant to homeowners, chastising theones who have succumbed to the lure of newness and replaced theirrattling wood windows with silently sliding, but charmless, double-paned ones, and advising others on how to avoid such a fate.
Wondering what to do about your shabby shutters? Read the Old HouseGuy’s exhaustive treatise on the subject, prefaced with an ominouswarning: “What one thinks is a simple mistake will destroy a home’scurb appeal. Don’t let this happen to you!”
When you’re done, you’ll either roll up your sleeves and get to work, orneed a Xanax.
Which brings us to rule number three: Do It Yourself is harder than itlooks.
Sure, Nicole Curtis can scale a ladder and bring an ornate gable roofback to its original glory in30 minutes flat on the DIY Network show“Rehab Addict,” but try that project with your betterhalf on a Saturdayafternoon and you may discover that you’re lacking in this particularlife skill.Or, as Mrs. Gilgur-Cook put it, “You suddenly realize all theadult things you don’t know how todo.”
NewsletterSignUpContinuereadingthemainstory Call in the pros and chancesare they will tell you to toss,not fix, your old stuff.“There’s this phenomenon in the recent world where people don’t try tofix it,” said Gary Tjader, owner of ThisOldToilet, which is based in LosAltos, Calif.
Of course, you could always learn how to be handy. Kelly Hobby-Bishophad never done home improvement until 2010, when she moved in withher soon-to-be husband, Sean Bishop, who owned a 1911 Craftsman-style house in Pasadena, Calif., with original built-in cabinetry and avery long to-do list of repairs. “Let’s say this, we were the ugliest houseon the block,” Ms. Hobby-Bishop, 36, a storyboard artist, said of thefive-bedroom bungalow.
But she and Mr. Bishop, 46, also a storyboard artist, set out to restorethe house to its once-respectable state on a $100,000 budget. Ratherthan hire a general contractor, Ms. Hobby-Bishop oversaw the workand relied on a skilled handyman, Manuel Chavez, for many tasks.“He’s my renovation guru,” she said.
Ms. Hobby-Bishop devotes hours to tasks like sourcing old-growthwood to match the existing wood, or arguing with window installersover how to replace a 100-year-old pane of broken glass so it has thesame seasoned look as the other panes. “You have to fight for thecharacter,” she said.
If your house is old enough — built, say, before the AmericanRevolution — character is unavoidable. “Nothing is square, nothing iseven, no window is the same size,” said Lindsay DiGiacomo, 35, whose1756 Mendham Township, N.J., four-bedroom home still has itsoriginal windows. Forget sash pulleys; hers are held open with woodenpegs.
The house, which Mrs. DiGiacomo owns with her husband, BrianDiGiacomo, 43, a lawyer, has three fireplaces, one with a built-in breadoven and a caldron to boil water. “It’s so ‘Little House on the Prairie,’”she said. “If you go into my attic, the beams that hold up the ceiling area legitimate tree with bark still on it.”
The couple’s two young sons like to drop bits of “treasure” into thecracks between the wide, unfinished plank floors. With a flashlight, theDiGiacomos can spot other artifacts beneath the floorboards, perhapsdeposited by other children decades ago.
Mrs. DiGiacomo has uncovered her own treasures, including a tacklebox stored in the attic that held letters, some written in the late 18thcentury by two brothers named, oddly enough, Will and Bill; a 19th-century receipt for a horse carriage; an election ballot from 1880; andguidelines for how to operate a distillery, once part of the now three-acre property.
Modern conveniences like recessed lighting or an open floor plan arenot options in a house this old. “Everything that you do, you have tothink about — and really, really think about it,” Mrs. DiGiacomo said.“Will this work for this space? What’s behind this wall?”
When the 60-year-old wood-shake roof needed to be replaced, Mrs.DiGiacomo had to hunt down a supplier in Canada who could make theshingles and then try to find someone who knew how to handle such aproject. “I’m kind of a research-aholic,” she said.
Spend enough time trying to figure out what is behind a wall, andeventually you get good at it, even if you didn’t think you ever would. Orat least, that is what I have been told.
In 2009,Jennifer Wroblewski, an artist, moved from Windsor Terrace,Brooklyn, with her husband, Dave Diomedi, 47, a television director, toa six-bedroom Victorian house in Montclair. Once a boardinghouse, the1903 home needed so much work that the inspector told them to walkaway.
“We had no idea what we were getting into,” said Ms. Wroblewski, 44.The roof, foundation and fireplace all needed repairs. “We thought thework would be a chore, but that it would be worth it in the long run.”
Instead, Ms. Wroblewski discovered that she actually liked the process.The turning point came, she said, when the couple removed salmon-covered asbestos shingles from the exterior, revealing gorgeousVictorian cedar shingles beneath. “It looked like a dollhouse,” Ms.Wroblewski said. “It was a magnificent thing.”
After that, they were hooked. “When you realize that with the rightpeople you can bring a house back to life and back to its stately place inthe town, it feels like a good use of my energy,” she said. It also helpsthat she found a good contractor.
In 2016, the couple moved with their two children to a six-bedroom,6,000-square-foot house built in 1894 on Upper Mountain Avenue, agrand road of stately homes in Montclair. The house, Ms. Wroblewskisaid, “is untouched by the passage of time.”
Time did, however, leave its mark on the boiler and air-conditioning system — neither worked when the familymoved into the $1.289 million home. A structural beamalso needed immediate attention. But where anunseasoned homeowner might be visited by a panic attack, Ms.Wroblewski sees a project. “I never thought I was this person,” she said.
As for me, I’m still not convinced I’m that person.