Perhaps the resale home that interests you is not a three-year-old preowned ranch, but a 110-year-old Victorian or a 126-year-old farmhouse; in other words, not just an older house, but an old house. Especially in a newer town, homes that date back to the 1930s are also old enough to consider old.
It is certainly true not all old houses are glorious examples of their particular architectural style. Some do not appear to have any particular style. However, one thing you can say for even nondescript oldies is that they are solid. After all, they are still here, after all these years. And while not all of them have stained-glass windows, medallion ceilings, and other grand touches, many of even the simpler ones have little nooks and crannies and design features that are just not that common in newer houses.
Some houses are just old; others are officially historic. In the latter case, the house may have been named to the National Register of Historic Places, which comes under the U.S. Department of the Interior. Such houses have architectural or historic significance. Frequently, they do not stand by themselves, but are part of a historic district — Brooklyn Heights in New York is a well-known example. Some old houses have state historic status, and others are local landmarks.
Do these homes intrigue you? Do you want one of your own? If so, there are some important points to consider. For example, don't let your love for old houses lead you to buy a withering but charming wreck of a structure that is far beyond your financial capabilities to fix up. Mortgage payments, real-estate taxes, fuel bills, plus a hefty home-improvement loan could be far too much debt for you to handle, especially if you are a first-time buyer and homeownership is new to you. Better look for a home that is old but in need of a smaller infusion of funds. Find a house inspector familiar with old, possibly historic, house construction. That should not be difficult in a town with a sizable inventory of older residential properties.
If there is a historic district near you or a neighborhood that has seen a revival of interest in buying and fixing up old houses, you might contact their civic association or one of the homeowners directly. They are likely to have names and addresses of artisans they recommend, as well as those they suggest you avoid.
Be very sure you know if the house that interests you has any historic designation — local, state, or federal. That can affect how much, or how little, hacking away you will be able to do with repairs or installations. This designation affects how you can treat the outside of the house — setback, paint colors, surface materials, and so forth. Inside, you are on your own, although an addition or bumping out a wall to create a bay window may have to be approved by the state or regional historic-district commission.
Contact your state historical society or local landmarks preservation commission for more information. These offices are likely to offer preservation project guidelines you can apply to your old house. In the main, they will help show you what is worth preserving and what can be altered. You will find, and learn as you go along, that distinctive stylistic features should be treated carefully and sensitively.
Probably the most important point to take away from a discussion of buying an old or a historic house is this: Be sure that you and any workers you engage know exactly what is to be done, before any irreversible attacks are made.
Give yourself time to get acquainted with your house before you start any serious work on it. Most homeowners find that they change their minds several times about how they want the kitchen remodeled or whether they want that dining room wall knocked out. One of the advantages of not being able to afford to do everything at once is that you can alter plans mentally without making serious financial and or design mistakes by moving too quickly.
You should think not only of remodeling or preservation, but also of the market value of your place. Future buyers will not appreciate a dropped ceiling, for example, no matter how much you spent to put it in. However, they will appreciate the house's original eleven-foot-high ceiling with handsome moldings. You would be wise to keep the older ceiling, repairing the plaster-work if necessary.