The “House Sandwich” Method is the Pro-Approved Way to Renovate Your Old Home

published Jan 29, 2020
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The charm of a historic home simply can’t be found in new constructions. If you’ve taken the leap and purchased a home from the 1920s—maybe a colonial revival or Cape Cod—then you may be wondering where to start when it comes to renovating your little slice of history. We spoke with historic restoration company owner and blogger Scott Sidler to find out. 

He recommends taking the “house sandwich” approach to remodeling: “Start with the roof and make sure it’s not leaking, and after that, focus on the foundation to make sure it’s solid,” Sidler told Apartment Therapy. “It may be out of level, but as long as it isn’t continuing to settle, you’re good. Then focus on everything in between.” That includes siding, windows, doors, and, of course, the interior. “After the envelope of the house is in good shape then you can move to the inside and take your time with remodels since you’ve got a protective shell,” Sidler says. Here are five more to-dos to tackle in an old home, whether you’re in the market, have just purchased, or are already living in one.

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Always inspect the electrical system

Sidler says old wiring is usually not a problem unless it meets one of two criteria: “First, you want to make sure you don’t have any breaker boxes made by Federal Pacific Electric,” Sidler advises. These breaker boxes are a notorious problem, since they frequently do not shut off when overloaded, leading to the risk of overheating and possible fire. Federal Pacific Electric, or FPE, is no longer in business, but their breaker boxes are still in homes. While they’re most common in houses built from 1960 to 1985, it’s possible that an older home may have had an electrical update featuring one.

The second issue, Sidler says, is knob-and-tube wiring—so called because it features knobs to hold the wires in place and tubes to guide them through floor joists. “It may have been state-of-the-art in the 1920s but it doesn’t age well and presents a fire hazard,” Sidler says. That’s because the rubber insulation around the wires can become dry and brittle over time, leading to cracks that expose the wiring within. Plus, knob-and-tube wiring was designed to run through walls with no obstruction; any insulation added later for weather or sound-proofing can increase the risk of fire.

Find out if the plumbing is original

“It may not have problems currently, but original copper, galvanized steel, and cast iron plumbing has a lifespan of 80 to 100 years, which means if it isn’t leaking yet, it will be soon,” Sidler warns. Another issue with older pipes? Corrosion buildup on the inside can cause lower water pressure over time, or even lead to rusty, orange water if left too long.

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Keep an eye out for wood rot

“I recommend to folk to do an annual walk around the exterior of their house and check for trouble areas,” Sidler says. These include window frames, siding, handrails, and other wood pieces. “If you check once a year, you can make small repairs that are homeowner-friendly and avoid big expenses down the line for large scale replacements,” says Sidler.

Check out the original windows (but don’t necessarily replace them)

Sidler notes that your home’s original single-pane windows can be fixed up to work almost as well as new ones as long as they appear to be in decent shape. “In the long run, it is more economical to repair them and upgrade them with weatherstripping or storm windows,” he says. “Window replacement is a huge waste of money and only adds to our landfills when the original windows you have which are made of old-growth wood will last centuries with just a little maintenance.” And, he notes, with upgrades done by companies like his, old windows can match or beat current energy codes.

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Test for lead paint

Sidler says you should especially look for hazardous lead paint in windows, doors, and trim. “If it is peeling or in bad shape, then it needs to be handled, especially if you have children under six, who are most susceptible to its effects,” Sidler says. “If you do any renovation of the home or project that will create dust, you have to follow the Environmental Protection Agency’s Lead Renovation, Repair, and Painting work practices to keep you and your family safe. That goes for any contractor you hire to work on your house, too. They have to be certified by the EPA to safely deal with lead paint.” If, however, it’s not peeling or chipping and you don’t plan on sanding it down, then lead paint on the walls poses little risk.