20 Things You Learn from Living in a 100-Year-Old House

updated Jan 2, 2023
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It’s officially the ’20s again, and we’re throwing it back to the Roaring 1920s all week. Whether you love Jazz Age decor, historic homes, or just learning how people lived 100 years ago, we’ve got you covered. Cheers, old chap!

Living in a house built 100 years ago can mean looking at charming architectural details, relishing rich historical stories, and celebrating sturdy, natural building materials. Unfortunately, a house built in the 1920s can also mean dealing with 100 years of regrettable past renovations, rot, repair needs, and other not-so-fun sides of older house ownership.

Nick and Sarah Waldman are familiar with many of the facets of living in a 1920s house. Sarah is a family wellness writer and the author of “Feeding a Family – A Year of Simple and Healthy Family Dinners” and Nick is an architectural designer and maker who is also a graduate of Rhode Island School of Design’s Master of Architecture.

Together, they tackled the renovation of a 1920s-era house on Martha’s Vineyard. Apartment Therapy actually toured their home four years ago, and I fell in love with the way they balanced keeping the home’s original character alive, while also modernizing it for their young family.

Most of the home’s exterior details were kept intact, and inside, fresh white paint highlights the house’s original beauty (including beautiful floors, molding, and even cute elements like a vintage sink and claw foot tub). The biggest update the couple made to the house was a modest addition where they created an open modern kitchen using simple lines and natural materials.

Lessons on buying a 100 year old home

Every house is different—and every family’s needs are different—but many of the lessons Nick and Sarah learned from living in and remodeling a 1920s house can apply to those living in a house of any age. Below, Nick shares some of the most important things he and Sarah learned about living in a house built in the 1920s.

1. Do a thorough check of the structure before purchasing

The original framing could be compromised—it’s worth bringing a contractor in to walk the house and crawl in all the spaces you don’t want to crawl into. Look out for any structural rot or pest infestation like carpenter ants or termites. Check the sill plates (the first wood that sits on top of the foundation wall) to make sure it’s all still solid and not rotted. 

Check the foundation for any cracking or water infiltration. The lumber used back then was often of superior quality to what is available now, so if the house was well cared for and preserved, the structure should be great. But, sometimes structural members like beams and posts are undersized for our current building codes. 

2. Beware of old wiring

Electrical systems from the 1920s can need a lot of work. Ask a trusted electrician to check out the property and walk you through what updates would look like before purchasing. Our home didn’t need wiring work because it had been updated at some point, but what you want to look out for is the old style “knob and tube” wiring.

That will need to be updated if the house still has it. Knob and tube could support the electrical loads of the time, but isn’t adequate for what our appliances now require, and can lead to fire hazard.

3. Beware of old pipes

Similar to the structure and electrical systems, most homes from the 1920s have outdated plumbing and HVAC systems—in fact, in 1920, only 1 percent of American homes had both electricity and indoor plumbing. These are core systems of the home so a professional review is vital.

There’s nothing necessarily bad about old pipes if they’re in working order but it’s important to survey the existing plumbing before buying. Our house had no specific issues associated with an older plumbing system.  

4. Research the history of the house and get inspired by its story

Almost every home built in the 1920s has a story about the neighborhood back then, the families who have lived in it over the years, even the town politics a hundred years ago.

What was interesting about our house is that the same builder built five of them scattered up and down our block. Each one had slightly different details, but it was obviously the same basic design. So it was fun to take that base and tweak it a bit with our modern kitchen addition.   

5. Preserve the original character of the house where you can

Homes built in the 1920s were often small and cozy. Opening up the rooms to make small spaces into larger spaces or changing major characteristics like the roof line and face of the house can erase the original character. I think for the most part, the 1920s-specific characteristics to hold on to are mostly on the exterior of the house. It’s about respecting the architectural details of the time and preserving them.

In my opinion some new houses, (typically those built by contractors without the aid of architects), are stripped of architectural details to save time and money. So preserving those original details on houses that still have them is important.

Keeping the same foundation and footprint is entirely a case-by-case basis. In our case, the kitchen was in the dining room and completely non-functional, so we chose to add an addition that housed just the kitchen and keep just the dining in the room where the kitchen used to be. It just made more sense for our family and how we like to cook.

6. And keep as many original details as possible

Architectural details from the 1920s are charming, and unique, and add character to the house. For us, this was molding, doors, and flooring.

7. Discard any poorly constructed renovations

It’s not worth hanging on to a badly designed and built 1970s bathroom or porch addition, for example. The bad for this house was the layout of the kitchen. The dishwasher was in a closet (bizarre) and the range and counters were installed higher than the two windows (also bizarre). With Sarah’s work and our love for cooking, we felt we needed to add a new kitchen that would better support how we wanted to live.

The awkward thing that we couldn’t overcome was the full bathroom off the dining room and the second bathroom only accessed through a small bedroom. We needed two bedrooms and couldn’t re-work the second floor to get access to that bathroom without eliminating the second bedroom. So that layout just stayed quirky.   

8. You can add modernity to the inside

You can keep original details and preserve original character while adding modernity. For example, we added a modern kitchen addition and selected modern light fixtures to reflect our personal taste.

9. Maximize insulation where you can

Modern advancements in building technology are what make modern homes more efficient. They use less energy and are “tighter,” so they lead to less heating and cooling loss. This is important because on a whole, the goal is to use fewer resources to run a home (less energy, less fuel, etc.) and a large part of that is starting with a well-insulated house. 

Insulation in the 1920s wasn’t as advanced as it is today, and older houses are cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and use a lot of energy to keep it at the desired temperature (or many layers of clothing in winter). Adding insulation can help.

10. Use local or state incentive programs to make your house more efficient

Our 1920s home had horsehair insulation in many of the walls and very old, drafty windows. Cape Light Compact here in Massachusetts helped us insulate our basement at huge cost savings.

11. Bigger is not always better

Homes from the 1920s can be compact, smaller cottage-sized homes. Rather than risk losing the original character with a monster addition, think about ways to maximize the space you do have. Make smart additions where your family really needs it, like refinishing the basement or transforming the front porch into a three-season family room, for example.

12. But knock down walls if you have to

Because rooms in older homes tended to be smaller to conserve heat, even just one edit to a wall or door can really change the flow and layout of a home, without completely changing the feel of the home’s original character. During renovations of this house, the wall separating the old dining room was knocked down to expand the living space and allow natural light to permeate.

13. Don’t let the exterior inform your choices on the interior

Some of the best architectural projects in my opinion are surprising in this way: The exterior may look like a traditional 1920s cottage but the interior is updated, open, bright, and comfortable, like ours. Don’t feel like you have to match the inside of a home to the outside!

14. If necessary, build something new

And don’t try to make a newly built element fit exactly into the old look. Have your new piece make more sense for modern living. For example, our kitchen addition has bigger windows and more volume than would typically be seen in a house this age.

15. Use natural materials to give it the character of when it was built

In other words, no plastic, vinyl, or aluminum siding.

16. Just because you have an old house, doesn’t mean it needs to look old

Fresh paint, new shingles, and refinished floors go a long way.

17. Get creative with windows

Black windows look great with a historic window trim painted in a light color—we chose a sage green to balance the black windows.

18. Update tired appliances but keep pieces with character

Try to keep the good pieces like claw foot tubs and charming sinks (we seriously cleaned and repainted our claw foot tub and love the charm of the old sink in the upstairs bathroom). When it comes to replacing older, no longer functioning elements, treat new purchases on a case-by-case basis.

19. Homes from the 1920s lack storage space

Think about ways to add crawl spaces, loft storage, or built-ins to accommodate your needs. [Nick designed and built the bookshelves in the living room out of scraps from their kitchen remodel, for example.]

20. Modern furniture can look great in more historical spaces

Don’t be afraid to pick modern pieces for your historic home. The simplicity of modern design complements the workmanship in an older house. Any pieces that are more timeless and can exist in any era—not just the 1920s—can work in an older-style home.

Design Within Reach sofas, rich brilliant willing lighting, and any of the classics that never go out of style like the Eames lounge chair, etc. all look great when combined with 1920s style architecture.

It’s clear from the way Sarah and Nick speak about their 1920s home that this was a dream house for them in many ways. But after many years, they sold this house to move in with Sarah’s parents house in West Tisbury (another town on Martha’s Vineyard) temporarily.

For the past year and a half, they’ve been working on another dream: “We sold our house because we saw an opportunity,” explains Sarah. “Our lifelong goal has always been to build our own house, taking in all of our family’s needs and finding a piece of land to be our forever home. When we finished renovating our Vineyard Haven home we decided to look for land and found some a few months later. Nick has designed our house and is doing some of the work (along with friends and professionals) so it is a long but very personal and rewarding process! Our goal is to live in our new house this summer- fingers crossed. You can get a sneak peak at it on my Instagram, @sarah.waldman and Nick’s, @nickwaldmanstudio.”

Thanks to Nick for lending his architectural expertise, and for Sarah who coordinated the entire interview and provided extra photos. All of their responses have been edited for length and clarity. Thanks also to the great photos from the original tour that Emily Billings took.