Dreaming of Renovating an Old Building? Read This First

updated May 3, 2019
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(Image credit: Vintage Revivals)

If you spend much time puttering around the DIY/home decor/renovation parts of the internet, you are probably familiar with the work of Mandi, from Vintage Revivals. Pretty much everything she touches turns to gold, as evidenced by her work on The Nugget, a down-on-its-luck travel trailer turned inspiring, DIY-filled small space. Currently, Mandi is in the midst of an even more daunting project, converting a 90-year-old mercantile store/filling station into a home for her family. It’s her biggest project to date, and one she’s learned a lot from. Gamely, she agreed to share some of her insights with us.

Find out everything you can about the property before you buy

For Mandi and her family, it was love at first (or maybe second) sight. They had gone through the steps to build a brand-new home, even going as far as picking out the lot and the plans, but something didn’t feel quite right. So they waited, and kept looking, and fell in love with an old mercantile store and filling station, one of the few vintage properties in their part of Southern Utah. Says Mandi: “I couldn’t just let it be torn down or lost to the elements.” But right off the bat, the property presented its own challenges.

Definitely the worst moment in our renovation when I legitimately thought WHAT THE HELL DID WE DO!??! and had an actual panic attack was after we purchased the building, and then found out (from the bank that we were financing the renovation through) that we had to have Phase 2 Environmental testing done. In the 1930’s a portion of the Merc was used as a service station and had a gas pump in the front. Before we bought it we asked the original owner and the city if the underground tank was still there and they told us no. Apparently that isn’t enough and we had to do the testing. When I started Googling what the outcome of Phase 2 Environmental testing could be I WAS SICK. Luckily everything came back all clear but it could have had horrific consequences. That is a lesson that I’m taking with me to the grave. We just didn’t know, and now we do, and now you do too. DO THE TESTING.

(Image credit: Vintage Revivals)

Focus on the positive, but budget a little extra

When you’re working with an older building, there will be unexpected problems, and unexpected expenses. A little positivity goes a long way, but also, so does a little extra budget.

A huge personality advantage/weakness (depending on the moment) that I have is that I’m unable to see the bad things in a situation. I mean, I see them, but I also see the good, and the good holds way more weight. With the Merc, I knew it was going to be hard and at times impossible, but I loved it too much to give up. To take on a project like this, you’ve got to be able to not panic at every turn, because there will be SO MANY things that come up. I think you’ve got to be financially stable enough that when things do come up you are capable of rolling with it. We had to trench for plumbing and had no idea that the concrete thickness was 4x what normal concrete is. It ended up being way more than what we had anticipated.

Prepare for (and maybe even embrace) the unexpected

The quirks of an older building can represent unexpected budget pitfalls — but also, they’re part of the reason to get into the game to begin with. Mandi tries to keep a sense of humor about her home’s more unusual features, even when they make the project a lot more complicated than originally anticipated.

We have a term at the Merc called #MercPerk for all of the wonky, ridiculous, unforeseen things that go wrong, like finding out that none of the walls are straight or plumb, or that the floor is 3.5″ lower in one part of the building. Or that the window we thought could be easily cut into a wall, actually has to go through steel beam and concrete block. Or that the sewer pipe that was supposed to run parallel along the building does, just 50 feet to the right and through our neighbors driveway. Shall I go on? I think its critical to have a sense of humor in all of it and to realize that if you wanted a perfect house, an old building will never be that. Embrace it! Love the unlevel windows, sloping floors, and crumbly brick, cause that is stuff that you cant fake.

(Image credit: Vintage Revivals)

Be prepared to get a little dirty

Here’s a typical day for Mandi, in the midst of the renovation. Be warned: it is not for the faint of heart.

Yesterday we finished all of the electrical, ordered our windows, and built a fence in the backyard. Today I finalized the kitchen layout and cabinet design, took all of the rough in plumbing over so the plumber can start on that tomorrow, and started restoring some old doors that we’re having hung for our front door(s)- there are 3 of them. I’ve been to Home Depot 4 times and will probably be back again before dinnertime. Also if you’re wondering, I haven’t showered for 3 days.

Do it for the love, not for the money

Buying an older building may initially seem like a cost savings, but when you total everything up, refurbishing and older property can wind up being as costly, or even more costly, than buying a new one. Don’t do it for the savings: do it because you’re looking for a home that is truly unique.

Make sure that you’re doing it because you love old buildings and want to save it, not because you want to save money. When its all said and done chances are great that the cost per square foot is higher for restoration than it would be for new construction. Know that there are going to be setbacks all along the way and be prepared to duck and roll with them. Its the most rewarding thing, though, when you find something that has been long forgotten.

Want to read more about the progress at the Merc? Follow along with Mandi at her blog, Vintage Revivals.

Thanks, Mandi!