The Hidden Challenges of Remodeling Older Homes

7So you live in a beautiful older home that you bought for its charm and character and now you want to upgrade it a bit – or a lot.

Remodeling older homes can be challenging. Beneath the vintage details that retain their beauty for hundreds of years may lurk infrastructure – pipes, wiring, foundation, roofing – that doesn’t.

Time takes a toll on the things that made a house run like clockwork 100 years ago, but now may be deteriorating or nowhere near contemporary building codes and standards. This is not necessarily a given, but it is a possibility.

Because M Design Build has so much experience with older homes, we anticipate those “surprises,” and we make our clients aware of the possibility of discovering hidden issues as we work. While we don’t look for problem areas in homes, we know what we see when we see it.

Some things you may encounter include:

Structural Issues

Issues may be discovered after demolition occurs that were not anticipated, but which may need to be addressed before the project can proceed.

  • Extra effort – and investment – may need to be made to retain the character of your home while making it safe and functional.
  • Code issues may arise due to archaic materials and installation processes.
  • Water can be your friend (what a lovely pool!) or your nemesis, as it leaks through windows, floors and old roofing.

Plumbing Issues

Today’s plumbing is dramatically different than that of yesteryear. So while your sink, toilet and tub may be a newer vintage, the pipes that make them run may not be.

  • These days, PVC – plastic – is the standard, versus copper and lead in the past.
  • Galvanized pipes – steel pipes covered with zinc – also were used in the “olden days,” and they may calcify over the course of decades.

Electrical Issues

Old wiring is one of the banes of owning an older home. Not enough outlets, wires that have been rerouted and rerouted again, fuses that blow at the most inopportune time.

  • Circuits are the electrical order of the day, with fuses being the antique of electrical systems. You may need to replace your fuse box with circuit breakers and new wires to ensure your home has the safe, reliable electrical service it needs.
  • Knob and tube wiring was the standardized method of electrical wiring in buildings, in common use in North America from about 1880 to the 1930s. Yours may have been working just fine, but your electrical contractor or electrical inspector may say trouble lies ahead.
  • Electrical codes have gotten stricter since the early days, due to concerns over the potential for fire. So don’t be surprised if your inspector calls out things that may seem iffy to you.

Asbestos and Lead

Many older homes may still have asbestos and lead within the structure. These may be in plain site or concealed within the walls. Both have been deemed to cause some significant health issues. If asbestos is suspected in a noticeable area, we will ask to take a sample from the floor (linoleum, usually) to have it tested.

Some other areas are more noticeable, such as boilers and associated piping. However, on occasion, asbestos may be unveiled during the demolition phase of our project. This is usually found wrapping old ductwork or radiator pipes. If the material is intact, it’s not necessary to remove it, however, the option will be presented.

  • If your home was constructed prior to 1978, it undoubtedly contains lead. Lead is usually found on painted surfaces and some pipe fittings. M Design Build takes every precaution to contain this hazard.

HVAC – Heating, Ventilating and Air Conditioning

If changing or updating these major parts of your mechanicals is on your remodel list, you’re looking at some big projects in terms of both time and cost. But well-running, up-to-code systems are critical to your comfort and safety, so if there are “surprise” problems, or if your older systems are not doing the job, repairing or replacing these are seldom optional.

  • Insufficient or inefficient air circulation can result in mold, heat distribution problems, or hot and cold spots.

The Roof

The roof on your our older home may be made of wood shingles, clay tiles or slate. If it was installed correctly, it may have done its job for many decades, and with no obvious problems. But, as we’ve discussed, a remodeling project may reveal problems in the making.

  • Leaks may be addressed with patching, or the problem may run deeper and mean a whole new roof.
  • Gutters and flashing may be rotting, rusting or detaching from the house.

As with any home improvement, you can go with a high-quality (and aesthetically pleasing) option for a roof replacement – like cedar shake shingles, or composite materials like fiber cement, metal, or slate — or you can opt for a variety of standard dimensional shingles, which now come in colors and patterns to give you more choices.

Gutters and flashing may require replacement, which, again, you can find in materials that will be compatible with the exterior look and feel of your older home.

This information is not meant to scare you, but rather to make you aware that with an older home, there may be unforeseen problems, but your remodeler will help you decide next steps and involve whatever professionals are necessary to create a solution.

Working with older homes sometimes means unexpected complexities. We anticipate those “surprises” and make clients aware of the possibility of discovering hidden issues as we work. Candidly, building and working with new homes is easy because there is less uncertainty. M Design Build doesn’t look for problem areas in homes, but, again, we know what we see when we see it.


Contact M Design Build to discuss remodeling your older home near Milwaukee, WI.

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