[10 on Tuesday] Restore vs. Rehabilitate: Which is Right for Your Historic House?

Posted on: May 14th, 2013 by Julia Rocchi 7 Comments

Our previous toolkit series walked you through the steps of finding and buying a historic house. Now the search is over, and you’re the proud owner of a new old home -- congratulations! Sooo … now what?

As you’ll find out, historic homeownership brings with it a unique set of questions, decisions, and goals. Our next toolkit series is designed to guide you through the process and offer practical advice on how to make the most of your historic home.

Let’s address one of the most basic questions first: Should you restore or rehabilitate your house? Your decision will influence the house’s finished character, the project cost, and the amount of time it takes. It will also impact how much of the work you take on yourself and how much you’ll hand off to professionals.

With this in mind, here are ten things to keep in mind to determine which approach will work best for you:

1. Identify the factors that will shape your decision. Deciding whether to restore or rehabilitate your house, and to what extent, involves understanding its history, architecture, and present condition of its materials, finishes, and systems. You should also consider your household’s lifestyle and what personal needs the finished house must accommodate. More broadly, local historic district designations, local building codes, property insurance and other regulatory or financial considerations will impact the path you take.

2. Review the house’s history. Who lived in the house and when? Did important events occur there? Did either (or both) scenarios have historical significance? If so, you could consider restoring the house to that period to help interpret its history.

Historic home is Los Angeles. Credit: Kansas Sebastian, Flickr

3. Know what “restore” means. To restore a house means to return its interior and exterior appearance to a particular date or time period. Strict restorations -- ones that eliminate everything not present during the period chosen -- are rare for homes, with most owners opting to maintain modern systems (plumbing, anyone?) and sympathetically designed changes, such as later additions, that add to the house’s history.

4. Know what “rehabilitate” means. To rehabilitate a house means to make it useful and functional for contemporary living while preserving important historic and architectural features. For example, a rehabilitated old house would always include modern electrical, mechanical, and plumbing systems, a modern kitchen, and other attributes typical of present-day homes.

5. Choose your approach. The major difference between restoring and rehabilitating is to either exactly duplicate a particular period or concentrate on preserving a sense of the changes that have occurred over time. For example, if an Italianate-style house had lost its wood eave brackets, a restoration project would duplicate them in wood as they originally appeared, while a rehab project would add new brackets of a compatible design in an appropriate substitute material (ex. fiberglass).

6. Evaluate existing alterations. Consider the quality, design, materials, and craftsmanship of the original house as well as the changes that have occurred over time. Compatible interior and exterior changes of the same or better quality than the original house, even if done in different styles or materials, should probably be kept and restored. Conversely, you should probably remove any poorly designed or executed changes.

Stairs under restoration. Credit: NPCA Photos, Flickr

7. Design new additions and alterations with attention to detail. When adding to or altering your home, consider its scale (apparent size), actual dimension, and massing (proportion/balance). Use materials, textures, and colors similar to those of the original building.

8. Integrate modern touches with care and caution. The key to a quality rehabilitation is how well it accommodates modern technologies and living styles. Keep changes non-intrusive and compatible with the house’s design and style, and don’t let alterations destroy or cover historically or architecturally significant features or materials.

9. Take care not to falsify the history of the house. This might seem counter-intuitive, but you actually do want to be able to tell additions apart from the original. That way, the house’s history is visible and transparent. Also be careful not to design additions that make the house appear to date from an earlier or later period, or alter the house’s details to an extent that suggest a different architectural period.

10. Look to the experts. For a more detailed list of recommendations, check out the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. This jam-packed resource from the National Park Service includes guidelines on preservation, rehabilitating, restoring, and reconstructing historic buildings.

There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to determining whether you should restore or rehabilitate your historic home. Let your property, capabilities, and needs help guide your decision, and chances are you’ll arrive at an accurate, appropriate solution.

Have you already restored or rehabilitated your historic home? What tips would you share with new historic homeowners?

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi is the director of digital content at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and walks around looking up at buildings.

10 on Tuesday, Real Estate, Tools

7 Responses

  1. Erik

    May 14, 2013

    Great post! I was just writing my own on this as I was in the middle of a conundrum. Once you can settle the argument between your brain, wallet, and conscious you start to feel at ease.

  2. Ware Petznick

    May 15, 2013

    Super article Julia! You have captured some main points that will be so useful to anyone considering revitalizing – restoring – or “updating” their historic home.Cheers!

  3. Sherry

    May 23, 2013

    I feel better about the rehabilitaion we are just finishing after reading your article.

    We had to add on a kitchen. The original one became a wonderful panty. It was 9’x11′ with 3 doors, a window and 8′ of built in fir cabinets. The existing counter was 12″(not a typo). We have kept existing materials and used quite a bit of salvage. The main thing that bothered me was having to replace the casement windows. Even with storm windows they leaked a lot. But tried to duplicate the look. The addition windows are salvaged and are 3 over 1 instead of 1 over 1. This distinguishs the addition. We put in new electric, plumbing and heating. I think what we have done will keep this house livable and lovable for another 95 years.

  4. Sue

    May 23, 2013

    Great article!
    As an owner of a historic house where a previous owner has redone the kitchen, I can appreciate how fitting in with the character of the house and not trying to look exactly the same is important with this type if work.
    Do you know anything about the beautiful asymmetrical house puctured between point 2 and 3?

  5. PresNation

    May 24, 2013

    Sue — yes, I do know a little bit! The photos (taken by Michael Smith, Kansas Sebastian on Flickr) are of the Frederick Mitchell Mooers House, aka the Wright-Mooers House, in Los Angeles. It’s listed on the National Register. More info here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Mitchell_Mooers_House

    Hope that helps!
    Julia Rocchi
    Managing Editor

  6. Jaye MacAskill

    May 24, 2013

    These 10 on Tuesday posts are really helpful! Thanks National Trust for helping to spread such important information in such a concise format!

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