I’m a fan of the character and charm of old houses. Living in New England, I was surrounded by Victorians and Colonials, Federals and Cape Cods. I love to see houses that match their place. I’m delighted by row houses in New York and pictures of Pueblo architecture in the Southwest. My area is home to many Spanish style and Craftsman homes. And the California coast used to be dotted with cute, airy beach bungalows.
In recent years I have come to realize that the reality of home ownership and usage is very different from the historiocity many people subscribe to. Old houses are great, except for all the reasons that they are bad. I believe grand old homes with beautiful details and craftsmanship deserve to be respected and maintained. But the vast majority of old homes were constructed quickly and cheaply. Furthermore, homes are living objects, in that they require constant maintenance, repair, and replacement parts, not to mention modifications to support modern living styles.
I love my current house. It is a compact one story built in 1928. I find the style and layout charming. I like the stucco and arches, built-in cabinets and fireplace. But I will freely admit that my house lacks any significant architectural detail. It is nice to live in only because it was expanded in the 1990s to add a third bedroom, second bathroom, and expanded kitchen.
The previous owners also added modern air conditioning, updated the electrical service, blew in insulation, replaced all the wood floors, and put in a new roof. When we moved in, we had to embark on a variety of projects including shoring up the crumbling chimney, replacing the failing sewer line, replacing a bunch of old windows, and adding earthquake bracing. We also had to rip out all of the dangerous old knob and tube wiring and put in a new heat pump air conditioner.
How much of the original home remains? The 2×4 framing, which is too thin to provide adequate insulation. The foundation, which has had significant patching and repair, and will probably need more. The stucco has been redone many times, the plumbing has been changed and expanded over time, the bathroom redone completely. There is original cabinetry and millwork, and a few original windows, but we keep those for sentimental reasons even though they are horrendously energy inefficient.
I love my house, but I wonder more and more, were I have to have money and opportunity, would I buy another old house, or would I build a new one? As an infrastructure nerd, I see a lot of appeal in modern earthquake- and fire-resistant building methods, structured wiring, plumbing manifolds, and spray foam insulation. While old-style craftsmanship is hard to come by, it is certainly possibly to build new houses that charm and delight. Heck, every recent season of This Old House has resulted in a house that is usually charming and always more new than old – sometimes reconstructed completely!
Does an old house have intrinsic worth? I’m increasingly in the YIMBY camp with the belief that the answer is “no”, and the instinct against tearing down non-significant homes is holding cities back.