Home Renovation

What Restoring an Old Home Can Teach You About Life

Lessons from people who’ve lived in—and loved—old houses.

May  3, 2021
Photo by Jordan Slocum and Barry Bordelon (Brownstone Boys)

Late last year, my husband and I bought an 1826 colonial in the Hudson Valley. As a first-time home owner, the learning curve was steep—there was plenty to be grasped about things like mortgage rates and down payments, real estate trends, and property investments. Ever the students, my partner and I threw ourselves into mastering anything we thought could come our way after owning the home, too—how to spot water damage, the best method for heating an old house, how to reinforce a rickety stairwell—the list truly went on and on.

I thought my degree in home ownership would be tangible and actionable, a suitcase packed with knowledge about how to renovate and then care for something that we gleefully sunk our savings into. Little did I realize though, that buying an old home came with a slew of less tangible—and perhaps, more important—life lessons, too.

There is no such thing as just “living” in an old home. The property constantly asks of you—more time, more money, more energy. It’s a relationship where there’s never not work to be done. Your weekends are sacrificed at the altar of home improvement, with endless to-do lists and a symbiotic relationship of give and take that is, while not always equal, ever-alluring.

Living in an old home with the intention of restoring it back to its original glory has a way of turning the mirror back towards you and reflecting back a whole bunch of preconceived notions you may have: the value of money (and time), the perception of perfection, and the importance you’ve put on things that are new and sparkly. Six months in, and I’ve learned just as much about myself and life as I have about how to repair gaps in wood floorboards, unstick our old wood windows, and catch the cave crickets in our basement.

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Top Comment:
“Here's one lesson I can learn from reading this--you have to be rich to restore a home like this.”
— Scott

Curious as to whether these lessons came to anyone who has called a storied property “theirs,” I reached out to several of my favorite old-home owners to inquire about the lessons they’ve learned while living in, renovating, and loving their old homes. My takeaway? Sometimes the best teachers in life have four walls and very creaky floors.

Remember: You’re Just Part of the Story

If there’s one thing I’ve come to value from living in an old home, it’s how small it makes me feel. We are not the first, second, or even third family to live in our house—in fact, its history dates all the way back to the founders of our town, and there have been 14 families that have called it home since 1826. Like many old-home dwellers, we don’t consider this property “ours”—instead, we consider ourselves caretakers of the space, taking care of and nurturing it until it (hopefully) goes on to lead a life beyond us. It’s an ethos that is at-once comforting and humbling.

“I have grown to appreciate my role, not as the owner of a historic home, but as a steward of this space, celebrating its past, present, and future,” says Britton Rogers, who is living in and restoring an 1890 Victorian home in the Inman Park neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia. “Recognizing and respecting a home’s history is important—when you embark on renovating a historic home, there is a responsibility to do the work thoughtfully, with the mindset of leaving this home for the next steward.”

“An old home is a reflection of years of love and life within its walls,” adds Stacy Grinsfelder, a restoration and preservation expert, voice behind the blog Blake Hill House, old-home owner (of course) and host of the podcast True Tales From Old Houses. “Everything in it may not be reflective of your style, but also consider and respect the people who passed through it before you, instead of quickly discounting their memories and hard work.”

Let the House Speak to You

There’s no place for ego when owning an old home. Whether you’re painting a few walls to make it your own or renovating a decades-old kitchen to bring it into modern times, your opinion is no longer the only one that matters. Turns out, your house has a say—it’s telling you to pause, look, and listen to what serves it, too.

“Being a good listener is essential when owning an old home,” say William and Susan Brinson, who are restoring their 1800s Greek Revival home in New York’s Hudson Valley and documenting it all on their blog, House of Brinson. “The house tells us what the house needs. Right now, it needs the plumbing fixed. If I ask nicely and listen to the house, maybe it'll be a decor project soon. It’s always a balance in listening to what the house wants and what we want as the people living here”

“Our home has been standing and adapting to new residents for over 130 years, so I like to think it knows a thing or two,” adds Rogers. “No matter what plans we drew up, the house had always had a plan of its own. Peeling back layers of previous renovations revealed little clues into the home’s past. Our architect designed a beautiful staircase with a curved first landing, wainscoting throughout, and a newel post fit for a Queen Anne Victorian home, but as soon as we demoed the non-historic wall supporting the staircase, ghost lines of the original bottom stairs appeared. Turns out, the original staircase was much simpler and, since it was our goal to restore the home to its original layout, we went back to the drawing board and simplified our design. Life—and in this case, a historic home—are always evolving. Evolve with them!”

Don’t Be Afraid to Learn as You Go

“If you’re part of the old house community on Instagram, it’s easy to feel intimidated,” says Jessica Rhodes, who is intentionally and carefully renovating a 1700s upstate New York home, Danascara Place—that she rescued from foreclosure in 2018—and documenting it all on her blog, Park and Division. “There are so many aspirational accounts where people renovate a historic home in a year with the help of a huge team of contractors and all the most luxury reproduction products—but that’s not the only way to care for an old home! There’s a long tradition of scrappy historic renovation using salvage products and learning as you go. You can still be sympathetic to the time period your home was built, save the original details that are intact, and make small changes that will help preserve your home as a piece of history for years to come, without a huge budget. You just have to take your time, and be willing to learn new skills. It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to choose the budget choice sometimes. If you have love in your heart for your old home and you’re willing to keep learning along the way, you will end up doing your house a great service.”

Jessica Rhodes is renovating a 1700s home in upstate New York. Photo by Jessica Rhodes, Jessica Rhodes

“We’ve learned to resist instant gratification,” add the Brinsons. “We’re usually fast movers and like projects to be completed with all the boxes checked off, but there’s nothing that instant about an old house. If we try to change it too fast, we often end up back where we started.”

Embrace The Imperfections

“We’ve learned to love and appreciate the character and imperfections that centuries-old stuff has,” say Jordan Slocum and Barry Bordelon, collectively known as the Brownstone Boys, thanks to the 130-year-old Brooklyn brownstone they pour love into (and document on social media). “Not everything in life—or in your home—will be "perfect" and it's sometimes better that way. Our window casing and original shutters have wear and tear on them, but they tell the story of why we love our space so much. Our original stairs are very creaky but remind us of the many people who walked up them for over 130 years.”

Creaky stairs, welcome. Photo by Brownstone Boys

“Always pause before you change something,” add Cathy and Garrett Poshusta, who are renovating their 1912 farmhouse in Washington state and documenting it all on their blog, The Grit and Polish. “As we race to embrace the newest designs and trends, we should take a moment to recognize the trade-offs we make as historic details—and the connection to the past they offer—fade away. Stair treads worn by thousands of steps over decades may still be perfectly functional and have a careworn beauty that can’t be replaced.”

Appreciate the Journey

“When you buy an old house, you can feel like you’re constantly overwhelmed by the number of projects staring you in the face every day,” says Rhodes. “As you walk up the stairs you’re thinking, ‘How are we going to refinish these without damaging the antique woodwork?’ You step onto the floors and think, ‘These need to be refinished eventually, but should we do them before or after we paint all the rooms?’ You will find yourself constantly thinking about what needs to be added to the list, and all the time, thought, money, and labor that needs to go into the house before it is ‘done.’ We’ve realized over the years that that is no way to live. Whenever we find ourselves falling into that line of thinking, we open up the folder on our phone and look at photos from when we closed on our house. Ours may be an extreme example because it was abandoned for nearly a decade when we bought it, but even in our other homes, we were always shocked by the difference even a few months made. Progress always seems slower when you’re in the midst of things, but when you look back at the sum of all the hours you put in here and there, you’ll be amazed and hopeful, instead of thinking about all the work yet ahead of you.”

Allow Life to Happen to Your Home

“Old homes, with all of their imperfections, give us the space to live and grow that can be harder to find in a shiny new house,” say the Poshustas. “We have three young kids, and our marble counters show it—lemon juice drips, turmeric around the stove, and yes, a wine stain or two. We celebrate these (and the dings in our moldings, and stickers on our floor, too) as marks of a life well-lived, instead of flaws that need correcting. We have learned to love the patina of life that an old home celebrates.”

What's the greatest lesson you've learned from living in—and loving—an old house? Share your old-home stories with us in the comments below.

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ArtAlan May 18, 2021
The take away from this is total commitment. I have in past gotten involved with old properties. It is an easy concept to consider when you live in the historic north east of the USA with so many potential properties available. Again, this is a process of total commitment of energy, time and money. The 1986 movie The Money Pit is great in highlighting the pitfalls when this restoration concept was first popular. After expending so much effort and money, it is hard to justify such an investment upon resale. Real estate values will always be based on location not restoration. So while it is an honorable and potentially rewarding pursuit to restore a historical structure enter fully informed of the commitment involved as well as the limit of satisfaction. Then there is the sense of living in an architectural museum of sorts. My experience has led me to pursue renovation as opposed to restoration in order to combine the best of what was and what is. Great article.
Scott May 3, 2021
Here's one lesson I can learn from reading this--you have to be rich to restore a home like this.