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Restoration 101: Dodging The DIY Minefields

I didn’t do all that well when I took Algebra I. I tripped over “variables” big time. I was accustomed to constants, like numbers. You either added, subtracted, multiplied or divided numbers, right?  Not any more, because with Algebra there was a twist – variables! Instead of friendly numbers, equations now started showing up with “x’s” and “y’s” as well as (a+b) = (c-d).  Alphabet co-mingling with numbers? What is going on here? I made it through Algebra, but I struggled. More importantly though, I learned a lot about variables and it has served me well. (Ironically, after college, I ended up teaching Algebra I. And at the risk of being boastful, I did quite well. My supervisor once asked me why my students scored so well. I remember telling him that I made sure they knew what a variable was and how it could change on a dime – move the goal post. Once you understood variables and their function in an equation, things got a lot easier.)

The same can be said about restoration work. If you don’t understand the variables in restoration, you too may acquire that “deer in the headlights look.” One of the first things anyone buying or living in an old house should learn is to be careful who you let work on the house. Experience means a lot and in my opinion, is the most important variable you need to learn. It can also come in different forms. 

Let’s say you need work on those old windows that last opened when Tennessee Ernie Ford sang “Sixteen Tons”, say about 1955. Are you going to hire someone who’s experience level amounts to walking into a building supply house, walking out with a vinyl clad window set and slapping it into the hole he created with a Sawzall and a crowbar when he tore out your original 1907 double hung window? I hope not. I hope you would recognize the value of experience. It may take a little longer but in the end, your restored original 1907 double hung window will look better than the vinyl clad peep hole that would be happier on the side of a double wide than your bungalow. There is a world of difference between someone who has worked on new homes vs. older homes. Ask questions, get referrals, call previous clients, do some legwork, get down in the trenches and do the due diligence. Are you going to pay more money? Probably, but put things in perspective. You want someone who has experience working on, and familiar with, old house problems. Not someone using your house as a test site to find out if they have a clue as to how to replace a termite-damaged sill.

Another iteration of the experience variable is the DIY trap. Whether you know it or not, there is a multi-billion dollar industry out there stroking your ego and taking advantage of your good intentions by telling you, “yes, Mr. Fixit, you can do it yourself.” I’ve seen the results of well-intentioned homeowners and they can be rough. I saw this first hand recently – a young, energetic homeowner called me to look at his bungalow in the Morningside area. He had gone to a local big box, building supply store and had been told he could easily refurbish his ailing kitchen floor all by himself. He walked out with a rented buffer, synthetic pads, some sort of chemical stripping product and enough advice from the sales clerk to screw up his floors – which he promptly did. He also got the stripping product on his baseboard and started peeling off paint. When I asked him what the salesperson recommended he use to clean the product off the floor and baseboard, it was like I had hit the pause button. He just stared at me and finally said, “uh, we didn’t get that far.” His pregnant wife put on one of the best eye rolling exhibitions I have seen in some time, accompanied by a very patient smile. The story has a happy ending and their kitchen looks fine now.

I am all for a homeowner using his/her time, skills and money to maintain their home, but when repairs need to be made, take a step back and ask yourself if you are honestly capable of doing the work properly. We know your heart is in the right place but are your skills sufficient? I have close to fifty years experience around building trades. Do I repair the plumbing in my house? No. Will I repair plaster? No. How about electrical repairs? Since I don’t want to see my house burn to the ground, I don’t touch that either. In a different context, would you go up in an airplane if the last person who performed repairs didn’t even read (or have) the instruction book?

My final variation on this theme involves compensation. A lot of homeowners use the cost of new construction as a metric for what to pay someone for restoration services. Big mistake. To me, new construction is almost like “plug and play.” Take the stuff out of the box, plug it in and that’s pretty much it. When you are working on a 100+ year old house, the equation is many times more complicated. This is where restoration enters into what I call the “sixth sense stage.” There are times when a set of eyes that have been looking at old houses for decades will see things your eyes will never pick up, and if those eyes belong to a person who has a decent business, they won’t be the lowest estimate you get for the work. Are they taking advantage of you? Well here’s a simple test: did they drive up in a Mercedes, Lexus or slick BMW? I doubt it. Did they pop out of one of those tricked-out franchise trucks and show you the remote control that opens/closes the van doors and windows from across the street? Probably not. When my dad got out of the wood floor business in 1989, he was still driving his 1965 Chevy Sportvan that had replaced his 1950 panel Chevy truck. Aside from being a Chevy fan, he pointed out that most skilled workers he had met acquired experience, not money. If you’re hell-bent on joining a country club, stay out of restoration.

Variables in Restoration Math 101 aren’t nearly as hard as Algebra I, but they do come in different shades. Part of the allure of buying and restoring older homes is learning those different shades. My house only dates to 1920, but when I see work coming up I follow the same guidelines as if I had never touched a hammer. I know there is a wealth of information out there but if it’s coming from someone who’s skills are in writing or selling and not actually doing the work, I’m going to listen to the experienced voice – even if their sentences aren’t complete and low on multi-syllable words.

We must also exercise patience. Restoration work marches to a very different beat. In many cases, a good portion of restoration work is the reversal of well-intentioned but poorly executed work from the past, and unlike new construction, you don’t get to set the parameters of the work. You have to work with what has been there for decades, or even centuries. Patience has always been a tough virtue but it is worth it for happiness and peace of mind. It is time and effort well spent.  I wish you the best on your restoration adventure.

Michael Purser | © Rosebud Co.  2016

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