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The biggest challenge in inspecting your own house is to be able to see it as if for the first time. Let me suggest one mindset you might adopt that may help detach you from your day-to-day life. Try thinking like an archaeologist.
You don’t have to wear a pith helmet to do it; this is an architectural kind of archaeology. Your job is to go back in time and try to identify layers of change in the house. You’re seeking signs of alterations made in the past. Unless your house is very new, some changes were made, even if they were only cosmetic. Most older homes have seen a lot of change: remodeled kitchens, added baths, dropped ceilings, partitions added or removed, paint jobs, floor or carpet changes, updated lighting fixtures, and on and on.
Unless you just bought the place yesterday, you’ve probably made some changes yourself and encountered evidence of other people’s changes. Is there cheap paneling on the walls? How about a ceiling with dusty old acoustical tile? Such surfaces are probably evidence of 1960s remodeling work. In a house that’s more than thirty years old, you are likely to find wood floors beneath wall-to-wall carpeting while such carpeting in more recent homes typically was laid directly on a plywood subfloor. Narrow strip flooring in a house you know was built before the Civil War was probably applied in the twentieth century directly on top of earlier wide-board floors. Beneath a surface layer of wallpaper may be more layers of paper, as well as wall board or perhaps plaster and lath.
If you are lucky in your archeological investigations, somewhere beneath the layers you’ll find much evidence of the original house. If you’re not so lucky, someone gutted the place and off to the dump went much original fabric (that’s preservationist jargon for the physical material of the building, the implication being the original component materials were interwoven).
The changes made in remodeling usually go more than skin deep. Often the floor plan gets transformed, too, with new walls added, old ones removed, new doorways introduced or old ones closed up. A small bedroom or pantry may have become a bath. Perhaps two original rooms, such as the kitchen and dining room, were opened into one another to create one larger, multipurpose space.
If you have already detected changes made to spaces in the house, how was the floor plan changed? Look for evidence of new partitions. If you noted any apparent additions while examining the exterior, follow up those clues inside. How about the bathrooms? Patch marks or long straight cracks in a plaster wall are often indicators of change.
When you were examining the exterior, did you detect certain windows that differed in form, style, or detailing from the rest? Look carefully at the window trim on the inside. Follow the baseboard, cornice, and other moldings from room to room. Does the trim remain the same throughout?
Often in older homes, there are fancy areas with more elaborate moldings (the parlor, the entry hall, the dining room) and private areas with fewer and simpler profiles (the bedrooms upstairs). Even when such differences are evident, however, the moldings usually relate to one another and are consistent within a given room or area. But when the same room has two different window treatments, the chances are that you are looking at two different generations of construction work. In a house that has been renovated over the years, it’s not surprising when different molding profiles have been used—tastes change, and the local millwork supplier will sell different molding profiles from one generation to the next. So look for things that are different: When there are two or three interior doors that are different from the rest or if the floorboards vary only in one area, those are clues that something changed.
Trim and Wall and Ceiling Surfaces. Examine every surface. You’re looking for cracks, stains, and peeling paint. Look at the corners in particular: they’re structural points where problems often reveal themselves. Are there water stains anywhere? Look with especial care at ceilings and walls beneath upstairs bathrooms. Showers and bathtub enclosures are notorious for leaking. Is there peeling paint? In an old house, this can actually be a health hazard, especially for children, since lead paint was once commonplace.
The Floors. Perhaps the most common floor covering is wood, whether it’s hardwood like oak or maple or a softwood like pine or fir. Wood has a literal and visual warmth that can enhance the comfort of a room. A quality wood floor, when well maintained, can be beautiful and durable. Do you have wall-to-wall carpeting? If you’re going to change it, you need to see what’s beneath. If there are tile floors, are there loose tiles? Have the grout joints deteriorated?
Windows and Doors. Are the windows loose in their frames? Are the window sash suspended on sash cords and pulleys like mine were? Again, in a cool climate that means the cavities in which the weights are hung are energy eaters, allowing heat to escape. Do any of the doors stick? Is there a thick buildup of paint on the edges of the doors or on the jambs (the inside surfaces of the door frame)?
Examine all the details of the house. Make notes of problems—and any desires you might have to change things.
Safety Concerns. Does each staircase, inside and outside, have a handrail? Are the railings solid? Is there adequate lighting? In an older house, an occasional creaky tread is not unusual—but if virtually every step complains when you walk up the stairs or there’s a noticeable give, it’s time to check that out.
Are there smoke detectors on each floor and, in particular, is there one near the bedrooms? Is there a window in each bedroom that opens enough to serve as a fire exit?
Don’t leave out the fireplace: Is the chimney lined? Is there adequate hearth in front of the fire box? (According to most building codes, it should project at least 16 inches and extend at least a foot on either side of the firebox opening). Has the chimney been cleaned recently? Is there a damper? The damper—which closes off the chimney flue when not in use—is key to conserving energy in the house. Without one, the chimney flue continually draws warm heated air out of the house.
In order to restore, preserve, or simply renovate your home, you need to examine the place in detail as you think through your needs and desires. You know your house and what aspects of it make you unhappy. Make notes not only during your walk through, but as you go about your daily activities. Are there rooms that are too hot or cool? Are there too few electrical outlets? Not enough of this, too much of that… keep a running list.