Renovate an old house?


Material Information

Renovate an old house?
Series Title:
Home and garden bulletin ;
Physical Description:
ii, 21 p. : ill. ; 24 cm.
Sherwood, Gerald E
United States -- Forest Service
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service
Place of Publication:
Washington, D.C
Publication Date:
Slightly rev.


Subjects / Keywords:
Architecture, Domestic -- Designs and plans   ( lcsh )
federal government publication   ( marcgt )
bibliography   ( marcgt )
non-fiction   ( marcgt )


Includes bibliographical references (p. 21).
Statement of Responsibility:
by Gerald E. Sherwood.
General Note:
Issued March 1976 ; Slightly revised November 1984.
General Note:
"U.S. Government Printing Office: 1985 0-465-814 ; QL 3"--P. 21.

Record Information

Source Institution:
University of Florida
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
aleph - 004954566
oclc - 659860073
System ID:

This item is only available as the following downloads:

Full Text

United States
Department of
\ / Agriculture
Home and
Garden BuUF
No. 212,\0o



Renovate an

Old House?

I I~1-----


AN EXPLANATION.--.-----.--
The Wood-Frame House-and
Change..------------. __
Key Points to Consider... ----
Foundations --__---------_-
Walls. ---------.. .....
Damp basements -------
Structural Wood Frame. ----
Recognizing decay damage_
Termite problems-..------
Floor supports _------
Floor framing ----------
Wall framing_.----------
Roof framing ----------
House Exterior. ------------
Siding and trim --------
Roof -----------------
Windows ----------.---
Doors ----------------
Porches _--------------
Chimneys and fireplaces --
House Interior_-------------
Walls and ceilings ------
Trim, cabinets, and doors__

March 1976
Slightly revised November I'..s I




Insulation and Control of Mois-
ture -------------------- 13
Air leakage-------------- 13
Insulation---------------. 14
Moisture control ---------- 14
Mechanical Questionmarks ---- 15
Plumbing --------------- 15
Heating ---- --------- 16
Electrical---------------- 17
PEARANCE----------------- 17
Traffic Patterns in House------ 17
Layout-------------------- 17
Work area-------------- 18
Private area-------------18
Relaxation area --------- 18
Appearance----------------- 18
FINAL EVALUATION ---------- 19
Major Reasons for Rejection -_ 19
Guideposts for the Final Deci-
sion--------------------- 19
Cost------------------- 20
Location---------------- 20
Sentimental Value -------- 20
A Caution------------------- 20
Your Own Feelings ----------- 20

For Sale by the Superintendent of Documents,
Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 2 11111

Renovate an Old House?

Gerald E. Sherwood

Forest Products Laboratory, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service

Many people consider renovating an old house,
but is it possible, or would it be worthwhile? This
bulletin suggests some points to weigh. Because
many houses that might be candidates for rehabili-
tation are old houses of wood, much of the emphasis
here is on wood structures. Emphasis is placed on
how to view the house, from foundation to roof, and
how to look for the condition of important items.

The Forest Products Laboratory is maintained
at Madison, Wis., in cooperation with the
University of Wisconsin.

M-143 473
Figure 1.-One old wood-frame house was revitalized like this.


The Great American Dream has
always included a dream home--
and today many Americans are
still looking for fulfillment of that
While some persons will be
satisfied only with a new home,
many others will be grateful for
any home that meets their needs.
Frequently this means revitalizing
an old house.
But there are always the nagging
questions: "Is this house worth
renovating? Could I do it? Should
I do it?"
For most of us, our home
represents the largest single ex-
penditure we will make. Obviously
it is important-and just as obviously,
no single answer covers all situations.
This bulletin points out some
of the things to consider if you
are thinking of remodeling that
common structure-a wood-frame
house. Information presented here
is based on six decades of research
and experience on wood construc-
tion by the Forest Products Lab-
oratory, Forest Service, U.S. De-
partment of Agriculture.
No single publication can ade-
quately discuss all items to be
considered in evaluating a home
for renovation. Here attention is
focused on the building itself, with
no mention of where that house is
It is beyond our scope here to get
into such problems as the condition
and future of the neighborhood,

availability of transportation, dis-
tance to shopping and schools, or
the vulnerability to such natural
disasters as floods.
This bulletin can only give guide-
lines. You are still the one that
must answer the question: After
I have the facts, do I really want
to renovate that old house? '

The Wood-Frame House-and
The wood-frame house has been
common in the United States since
the 17th century. Today houses of
various ages exist across the coun-
try. Some older dwellings have been
well maintained and remodeled to
keep pace with contemporary living
requirements. On the other hand,
many older houses lack modern
conveniences and comforts; some,
through neglect, are in a deteriorat-
ing or dilapidated condition.
A well-built house that is properly
maintained does not wear out
quickly. It may become outdated
and lack certain conveniences and
comforts, but it does not wear out.
Normally, wood does not deteriorate
in strength or stiffness from age
alone for many years. For instance,
most structural properties changed

I Further information on deciding if a
house is worth rehabilitating-and guide-
lines on how to do the job-are given
in "New Life for Old Dwellings: Ap-
praisal and Rehabilitation," USDA
Agriculture Handbook No. 481, 1975.

little in timbers from Japanese
temples 3 to 13 centuries old. Only
shock resistance was seriously re-
duced after several centuries.
In spite of the permanence of
the wood-frame house, many older
houses are being razed, or have
been abandoned to a slower destruc-
tion by decay, insects, rodents, and
the elements. Some houses have
deteriorated to a point where re-
habilitation would be impractical;
but many might be restored to a
sound condition and updated in
convenience and comfort (fig. 1)-
and at a lower cost than building a
new house.
Rehabilitation may have other
advantages besides savings: The
owner can stay in familiar sur-
roundings; some older houses pro-
vide more space than can be
achieved in a new house at reason-
able cost; the work can usually be
done as finances become available;
the character of the older house is
often preferred over a new one; and
renovation conserves our timber
resources because it takes less ma-
terial to rework an old structure
than to build a new one.
For many years the U.S. Depart-
ment of Agriculture, specifically
through the Forest Service, has
been concerned with wise use of the
Nation's timber resource. After
that timber is harvested, a large
amount goes into housing. There-
fore, it is logical that research
on wood houses has long been a
part of the Forest Products Labo-
ratory program. From experience
have come some general considera-
tions in regard to rehabilitating a
wood-frame house.

Whether a house is worth re-
habilitating can be determined only
by systematically inspecting the
house and comparing the necessary
repairs with the value of the finished
product. If the foundation is good
and the floor, wall, and roof framing
are structurally sound, the house
probably is worth rehabilitating,
but a thorough inspection is still
in order.
General suggestions are also given
later for examining heating, plumb-
ing, and electrical systems; but
professional help will probably be
desirable. Some contractors will
assist in determining the condition
of the house and suggesting if
repairs or replacements are re-
quired. Local building code re-
quirements must be met, and these
vary. What seems to be a minor ad-
dition or repair might require a
major revamping of the entire
structure for code compliance. In
most communities a building official
will inspect the house and indicate
code violations.
It takes considerable time to
make a thorough examination. This
may be no problem if you own the
structure and can observe it at
various times. However, if you
are considering purchase of the
building to renovate, you probably
have limited time to make your
evaluation. You do not have the
time to watch and see if cracks are
increasing or the basement might
be flooded by spring rains. The
only real answer is to be as ob-
servant as possible, make your
decisions carefully, and seek pro-
fessional help when necessary.

Key Points To Consider
The first thing most of us notice
about a house is its appearance-
outside and inside. But as im-
portant as appearance is, we need
to look beyond it. How is the house
arranged? And especially, what
kind of condition is it in? Thus we
get down to basics of appraising a
house for rehabilitating.
Consider these points in deciding
whether a wood-frame building is
worth reviving :
1. Is the foundation good?
2. Is the house frame square and
generally free from decay and
insect damage?

3. Is the house arranged for
good livability?
4. What might have to be done
to bring it up to your
The following pages briefly sug-
gest how these key points might be
evaluated. Once you have a good
basic structure, many avenues are
open to improve its appearance and
comfort. Painting and landscaping
improve the appeal of any home.
But the important thing is that the
basic structure be good and that
the house be restored to good
condition for long life.


From a rehabilitation standpoint,
the condition of the basic structure
is the most important determina-
tion you will make. A house with a
good foundation and structural
frame is usually worth reha-

Check the entire foundation for
general condition. In particular,
watch for uneven settling which
may distort the house frame or
even pull it apart (fig. 2). Such
settlement may distort window and
door frames, loosen interior finish
and siding, and create cracks that
invite outside air.
A small amount of settling is not
unusual, even in some newer struc-
tures, but the degree is important.
For instance, a single localized

failure or minor settling that may
be corrected by releveling beams or
floor joists is no reason to feel the
house is not worth rehabilitating.
On the other hand, numerous
failures and general uneven settling
would suggest that a new founda-
tion is required. If so, the odds are
against the house being suitable
for rehabilitation.
Walls.-Many old houses have
stone or brick foundations. Check
the masonry foundation for cracks
and crumbling mortar, a common
defect that can often be repaired.
Extensive deteriorations may in-
dicate the need for major repair or
Most foundation walls of poured
concrete have minor hairline cracks
that have little effect on the struc-
ture; however, open cracks indicate

A 0

Figure 2.-Uneven foundati
ment: A, may result in a h<
out of square. Evidences m
B, eaveline distortion; C, sa
ridge; or D, loose-fitting
even binding windows.

a failure that may get prog
Houses that have a cra
under them, instead of a b
usually have a foundation
piers supporting the centA
floor joists. This support
checked for cracks and
the same as the p
Damp basements.-Damn
ment walls may require
repair, especially if the I
space is to be used. The d
may come from many s
clogged drain tile, clogged c
downspouts, cracks in wa
of slope of the finished
away from the house fou
or a high water table. If
check for dampness by el
the basement a few hour
heavy rain.
The most common s
dampness is from surface
flowing against the foundat
This might be from downs
surface drainage. Keepin

away from the foundation can
Best be accomplished by proper
A high water table is a more
serious problem. There is little
possibility of achieving a dry base-
ment if water comes in at various
times of the year. Heavy founda-
tion waterproofing or footing drains
may help, but it is unlikely they
M-142 will do more than minimize the
on settle- problem.
house badly
ay include Structural Wood Frame
digging roof
frames or The building frame should be
carefully examined to see if it is
distorted from foundation failure
ressively (fig. 2) or from improper or in-
adequate framing. It should also
wl space be checked for decay and insect
basement, damage.
1 wall or Recognizing decay damage.-Look
er of the for decay in any part of the house
must be that is subject to prolonged wetting,
settling, such as wood close to the ground.
)erimeter Decay thrives in a mild temperature
in wood that is wet.
Lp base- Even seeing fungal growth or
a major wood that has lost its sheen and is
)asement abnormal in color does not indicate
dampness the extent of any damage. The
1ources- two strength properties that decay
>r broken reduces are hardness and toughness.
ills, lack Therefore, one way to determine
d grade the extent of damage is to prod the
nation, wood with a sharp tool to see if
possible, it mars easily, or to pry out a
examining splinter to check on toughness. If
s after a toughness has been greatly reduced
by decay, the wood may break
source of across the grain with little splinter-
;e water ing and lift out with little resistance.
ion wall. Termite problems.-The main
pouts or wood-attacking insects that might
g water be a problem in wood-frame houses

are termites. Termites come in
two forms: Subterranean termites,
which must have access to the
ground or other water source, and
nonsubterranean termites, which
do not need direct access to water.
Subterranean termites often build
earthen tubes on the surface of
foundation walls as runways from
the soil to the wood above. When
the subterranean termites eat their
way through the wood, they often
follow the grain of wood, leaving
galleries surrounded by an outer
shell of sound wood.
Nonsubterranean termites live
in wood without such connections
with the ground. In their paths
through the wood, they cut freely
across the grain, rather than follow-
ing the grain as the subterranean
termites do. These nonsubterranean
termites exist only in warm climates
and particularly along warm coastal
areas. Combating these insects us-
ually involves the services of pro-
fessional exterminators.
Floor supports.-In a house with
a basement the floor is ultimately
supported by wood or steel posts.
Start by examining the posts. Wood
posts should be supported on pedes-
tals, rather than be embedded in
the concrete floor where they may
take on moisture that leads to
decay. Examine the base of the
wood posts for decay (fig. 3) even
if they are set above the floor slab.
Steel posts are normally supported
on metal plates.
Girders rest on top of these posts
and should be checked for sag.
Sag is permanent downward deflec-
tion that can be noted especially
near the middle of a structural

member. Sag is seldom a problem
with a steel beam, but it may be
with wood beams. Some sag is
common in permanently loaded
wood beams, such as those support-
ing a bathtub, a heavy appliance,
or a partition. Even so, sag in a
wood beam is usually an appear-
ance problem rather than structural.
Some deflection is normal and about
%-inch deflection in a 10-foot span
girder is acceptable in design.
Unless parts of the house have
obviously distorted, it is seldom
Floor framing.-Sill plates, or
joists and headers, rest on the
girders and on top of the founda-
tion. They are exposed to moisture
from the concrete and are thus
vulnerable to decay or insect attack.
Wherever possible, examine these
contact points and the entire floor
framing system for decay and insect
damage. Watch especially if the
basement or crawl space is very
The floor joists that rest on the
girders should also be examined
for sag. Here too some sag can be

M-143 309

Figure 3.-Check wood for decay at
points of contact with concrete, such
as: A, floor joists supported on con-
crete walls; B, framing supported in a
pocket in a concrete wall; and C, wood
post supported on a concrete floor.

expected and is not necessarily a
sign of structural damage. It is
usually not a serious problem in
floor joists unless the foundation
system has settled unevenly, caus-
ing excessive deflection in parts of
the floor system (fig. 4). Sag might
be considered excessive if it is
readily apparent.
A floor may seem excessively
springy when walking across it.
This may be remedied by adding
extra joists or girders to increase
Another point of particular con-
cern is the framing of the floor
joists around stair openings. Some
builders estimate that 50 percent
of the houses built have inadequate
framing around stairs. Check floors

around the opening for levelness.
Where floors are sagging, the fram-
ing should be carefully leveled and
Wall framing.-The usual stud
wall normally has much more than
adequate strength. It may be dis-
torted, however, for reasons covered
in preceding sections. Check open-
ings for squareness by operating
doors and windows to make sure
they do not bind, but fit correctly.
Some adjustments are possible but
large distortions will require new
framing. Also check for sag in
headers over wide window openings
or wide openings between rooms.
Where the sag is readily noticeable,
new headers will be required.

M-149 840
Figure 4.-Badly sagging horizontal member A, has resulted in: B, uneven floor;
C, cracked plaster; and D, poorly fitting door. (Defects accentuated to illustrate the

M-143 370
Figure 5.-Watch for sag at A, ridge; B, rafters; or C, sheathing. Rafters are frequently
tied, as at ceiling joist, D, to prevent them from spreading outward. Flashing, E, is
used at intersections of two roofs or between roof and vertical planes.

Roof framing.-Examine the roof
for sagging of the ridge, the rafters,
and the sheathing (fig. 5). This
is easily done by a visual observa-
tion. If the ridge line is not straight
or the roof is wavy, some repair
may be necessary. The ridge will
sag due to improper support, in-
adequate ties at the plate level,

or even from sagging of the rafters.
Rafters will sag due to inadequate
stiffness or because they were not
well seasoned. If the sheathing
sags, it may indicate the rafters
are too far apart, strip sheathing
is too thin, or plywood is too thin
or has delaminated.


Good exterior and interior finish
items, insulation, and mechanical
equipment are essential from two
standpoints: Your own living stand-
ards and long service life from the
structure. Replacement of some of
these items may be expensive,
but it is usually practical to add
them to a house that is struc-
turally sound.

House Exterior

Exterior wood on a house will
last many years if it is kept free of
moisture and given reasonable care.
Failure of exterior finishes on
siding or trim results most com-
monly from excessive moisture in

the wood. But finish failures may
also be caused by poor paints,
improper application of good paints,
poor surface preparation, or incom-
patible successive coatings.
Excessive peeling may require
complete removal of the paint.
Since this can be very expensive,
re-siding may be considered. How-
ever, new siding will not solve
the problem of moisture that con-
denses in the walls during cold
weather-condensation due to lack
of a vapor barrier. Vapor barriers
are discussed later.
Siding and trim.-The main prob-
lems with siding and trim stem
from excessive moisture, which can
enter from either inside or outside.

One main contributor is lack of
roof overhang, which allows rain
to run down the face of the wall.
Moisture may also enter from the
inside because of the lack of a
vapor barrier and subsequent con-
densation of water vapor within
the wall.
Look for space between hori-
zontal siding boards by standing
very close and sighting along the
wall. Some cracks can be calked,
but a general gapping or looseness
may indicate new siding is required.
If the boards are not badly warped,
renailing may solve the problem.
Check siding for decay where two
boards are butted end to end, at
covers, and around window and
door frames.
Decorative trim sometimes pre-
sents unusual decay and mainte-
nance problems, particularly where
water may be trapped.
Good shingle siding appears as
a perfect mosaic, whereas worn
shingles have a ragged appearance
and close examination will show
individual shingles to be broken,
warped, and upturned. New siding
will be required if shingles are
badly weathered or worn.
Brick or stone veneer may be
cracked because the foundation had
settled unevenly. Cracks can be
grouted and joints repointed, but
large or numerous cracks will be
unsightly even after they are
patched. The mortar also may be
weak and crumbling, and joints may
be incompletely filled or poorly fin-
ished. If these faults are limited to
a small area, it may be possible to
correct them. For improved appear-
ance, the veneer can be sandblasted.

It is important to prevent water
from entering a masonry wall or
flowing over its face in any quan-
tity. Examine flashing or calking at
all projecting trim, copings, sills,
and intersections of roof and walls.
Plan to repair any of these places
where flashing or calking is not pro-
vided or where need of repair is
Porous or soft brick or stone
should be coated with a clear water
repellent after care has been taken
to see that no water can get behind
the veneer.
Roof.-Roof leaks should be ob-
vious from damage inside the house.
A look in the attic may also reveal
water stains on the rafters, indi-
cating small leaks that will eventu-
ally cause damage. Damage inside
the house is not always attributable
to roofing, but could be caused by
faulty flashing (fig. 5) or by con-
The most common roof covering,
asphalt shingles, shows deteriora-
tion by becoming brittle and losing
surface granules. More important,
however, is the wear that occurs in
the narrow grooves between the
tabs or sections of the shingle, or
between two consecutive shingles in
a row. This wear may extend com-
pletely through to the roof boards.
This is something to be inspected
very carefully. As a guide, a good
asphalt shingle should last 18 to
20 years.
Wood shingles also find consid-
erable use for covering pitched roofs
and are most commonly of durable
woods such as cedar. When many
individual shingles are broken,
warped, or upturned, the roof
should be completely replaced even

though there is no evidence of
leaking. A good wood shingle roof
will last up to 30 years under favor-
able conditions.
Built-up roofing on flat- or low-
sloped roofs should be examined by
going onto the roof and looking for
bare spots in the surfacing and for
separations and breaks in the felt.
Bubbles, blisters, or soft spots indi-
cate that the roof needs major
repairs. By contrast, alligatoring
patterns on smooth-surface built-up
roofs may not be a failure of the
roof. The life of a built-up roof
varies from 15 to 30 years, depend-
ing on number of layers of felt and
quality of application.
Flashing (fig. 5) is sheet metal or
other material used at intersections
of wall or roof components to pre-
vent water seeping in. Check for
corroded flashing that should be re-
placed. Likewise, check for corroded
gutters and downspouts, which
might even be helped by repainting.
If the house has no roof overhang.
consider adding one in remodeling,
It will greatly reduce maintenance
on siding and window trim and will
prolong the finish on both.
Windows.-Windows may present
a difficult problem in old wood-
frame houses. If they are loose
fitting and not weather-stripped,
they let in uncomfortable drafts
and let heat out. Check the tight-
ness of fit, and examine the sash
and the sill for decay. Also check
to see if the window opens and
closes without binding.
When considering the replace-
ment of windows, check the window
dimensions. If the window is not
a standard size or if a different size
is desired, the opening will have to

be reframed or new sash must be
made, both of which are expensive.
Where openings are quite large,
double-weight glass may be re-
In cold climates windows should
be double glazed or have storm
windows, both to reduce heat loss
and avoid condensation. Again, if
the windows are not a standard
size, storm windows may be expen-
Doors.-Exterior doors should fit
well without sticking. If the door
frame is out of square due to
foundation settlement or other rack-
ing of the house frame, the opening
will probably have to be reframed.
The lower parts of exterior doors
and storm doors are particularly
susceptible to decay and should be
carefully checked. Also observe the
condition of the threshold, which
may be worn, weathered, or de-
cayed, and require replacement.
Storm doors are necessary in
cold climates, not only for heat
saving and comfort, but also to
avoid moisture condensation on or
in the door and to protect the door
from severe weather.
Porches.-One house component
vulnerable to decay and insect
attack is the porch. Check to see
if any wood is in contact with the
soil-for instance the steps-and
plan to correct that situation where-
over it exists. Check all wood mem-
bers for decay and insect damage.
Give particular attention to the
base of posts or any place where
two members join and water might
get into the joint. It may be
worthwhile to replace a few mem-
bers, but the porch that is generally

deteriorated should be completely
rebuilt or removed.
Chimneys and fireplaces.-The
most obvious defect to look for in
chimneys is cracks in the masonry
or loose mortar. Such cracks are
usually the result of foundation
settlement or the attachment of
television antennas or other items
that put undue stress on the
chimney. These cracks are a partic-
ular hazard if the flue does "not
have a fireproof lining.
The chimney should be supported
on its own footing, not by the
framework of the house. Look in
the attic to see that ceiling and
roof framing are no closer than 2
inches to the chimney. Either defect
should be corrected immediately.
If the house has a fireplace,
check to see if it has an operating
damper. Where no damper exists,
one must be added to prevent
heat loss up the flue when the
fireplace is not in use. A fireplace
that looks as if it has been used a
lot probably draws well; however,
you can check this by lighting a
few sheets of newspaper on the
hearth. A good fireplace will draw
immediately; a usable one will
draw after about a minute.

House Interior

Interior surfaces deteriorate due
to wear, distortion of the structure,
and the presence of moisture. Some-
times the problem is further com-
plicated by the use of cheap or
improper materials, improper appli-
cation of wall coatings or floor
surfaces, or excessive layers of

Flooring.-In checking wood
floors look for buckling or cupping
of boards, which can result from
high moisture content of the boards
or wetting of the floor. Also notice
if the boards are separated. This
separation, which could come from
shrinkage, is more probable if the
flooring boards are wide.
If the floor is generally smooth
and without excessive separation
between boards, refinishing may put
it in good condition. But first, be
sure the flooring is thick enough to
permit sanding. Most flooring can-
not be sanded more than two or
three times; if floors are too thin to
sand or have wide cracks, some type
of new flooring will have to be
Floors with resilient tile should be
examined for loose tile, cracks
between tile, broken corners, and
chipped edges. See if any ridges or
unevenness in the underlayment is
showing through. If you replace any
tile in a room, it often means re-
placing all tiles because tile changes
color with age and new tile will not
match the old.
Walls and ceilings.-The interior
wall covering in old houses is usually
plaster, but may be gypsum board
in more recently built homes. Wood
paneling is usually limited to one
room or to a single wall or accent
Plaster almost always has some
hairline cracks, even in good con-
dition. Minor cracks and holes can
be patched, but a new wall covering
should be applied if large cracks and
holes are numerous, if the surface is
generally uneven and bulging, or if

the plaster is loose in spots. The
same general rule applies to ceilings.
If walls have been papered, check
the thickness of the paper. If more
than two or three layers of paper
are present, they should be removed
before applying new paper. All
wallpaper should be removed before
Paint may have built up to
excessive thicknesses on walls and
ceilings, or be badly chipped. If the
surface is to be repainted, old
paint will have to be removed,
never a fast or simple task. Some old
surfaces also may be covered with
kalsomine, which also require con-
siderable labor to recondition. Often
the best solution may be to cover
the old surface with a new panel
Trim, cabinets, and doors.-Trim
should have tight joints and fit
closely to the walls. If the finish is
worn but the surface is smooth,
refinishing may be feasible. If the
finish is badly chipped or checked,
removing it will be laborious re-
gardless of whether the new finish is
to be a clear sealer or paint. Ob-
viously, trim or cabinetry of plain
design will be easier to refinish than
that with ornately carved designs.
Sometimes the only feasible ap-
proach is to replace all the trim.
Matching the existing trim is
often difficult. It any trim is dam-
aged, or it is necessary to move
doors or windows, all trim in the
room may have to be replaced. Small
sections of special trim might be
custom made but the cost and ef-
fect should be compared with com-
plete replacement.
The problems with interior doors
are much the same as those for

exterior doors except there are no
decay or threshold problrn-.

Insulation and Control of
Old houses are often drafty and
cold, but this should not rule out
remodeling an old house. Some ex-
plii-,. will be involved, but you can
achieve a warm comfortable home.
This is done primarily by reducing
air leakage and by adding insula-
tion. Many utility companies will
conduct an energy audit and ad-
vise you on retrofit needs and the
expected payback time for various
improvements. When these meas-
ures are taken, moisture move-
ment and control must be
considered to prevent potential
condensation problemri
Air le'l:I r.-Looking at the
general condition and fit of win-
dows and doors gi\es some indica-
tion of airtight ines Weather-
stripping is a relatively low-cost
improvement and can do a lot to
reduce air leakage. How,.' ever, it
may be wise to replace windows
and doors that fit loosely, which
would be a major expense. In cold
climates, storm windows and
storm doors are essential for re-
duced air leakage, as well as added
insulation for glass, areas. Observe
the degree of air leakage on a
windy day by holding a lighted
candle near window.-, baseboards,
electrical outlets, or light fixtures.
The flame may flicker exce-i\ ely
or even be extinguished where
there is a lot of air leakage. If
extensive changes in the interior
finish materials are planned, re-
duction of air leakage may be pos-
sible by the addition of complete

vapor retarders on walls and ceil-
Insulation.-Look in the attic to
determine the amount of ceiling
insulation present. The uninsulat-
ed ceiling represents a large source
of heat loss on cool days as well as
a large source of heat gain on
warm days. At least R-24 insula-
tion should be provided for homes
in mild climates and R-38 or more
for those in cold climates. For most
commercial insulations, this
means about 8 inches for mild cli-
mates and about 12 inches for cold
Wood-frame cavity walls should
be fitted with insulation. It may be
necessary to remove some siding
and sheathing to determine if insu-
lation is present. The addition of
wall insulation to an existing
house is more complicated and
more costly than installing it at
the time of construction; however,
it is necessary for comfort as well
as energy efficiency in the cold
climates. Insulation is also needed
under floors for crawl space houses
in cold climates.
Moisture control.-Most energy
conservation measures require
some consideration for moisture
control. Tightening the house may
result in higher indoor relative hu-
midities and consequently more
moisture being carried into wall
cavities and attics by air leakage
and by transfer through porous
materials. If insulation was added
sometime after the house was
built, there is generally no vapor
retarder in the walls or ceilings.
This combination can result in
condensation in wall cavities (fig.

6) and attics; however, in houses
that have been retrofitted by em-
ploying good practices, major mois-
ture problems have not developed.
In cases where condensation does
occur, it can result in paint peel-
ing, streaking, buckling of siding,
or decaying of roof sheathing.




1 -

/ -9



0 0


M-143 368
Figure (i.-Vapor retarders reduce mosi-
ture problems in new construction but
are seldom present in houses built before
the mid-1l::1's. A. Without vapor retard-
er, water vapor from the room moves
through the wall and condenses on the
back of cold sheathing or siding. B. Vapor
retarder has greatly reduced moisture
movement into the walls.

The single most important mois-
ture control measure is the main-
tenance of indoor humidity at a
reasonably low level during cold
weather. In most older homes,
moisture will not reach high levels
during cold weather without me-
chanical humidification. Eliminat-
ing humidification, or setting it no
higher than 35 percent relative hu-

midity, will usually prevent seri-
ous condensation problems in the
structure even though vapor re-
tarders have not been installed.
Most older walls and ceilings
have several coats of oil-base paint
that act as a vapor retarder.
Where oil-base paint has not been
used, a commercial vapor retarder
paint could be applied, especially
in high humidity areas such as
bathrooms and kitchens. If new
gypsum board or paneling is
planned, a complete vapor retard-
er can be added before the new
finish material is installed.
Check in crawl spaces for a va-
por retarder laid on top of the soil.
If there is none and the crawl
space seems quite damp, add a va-
por retarder. Also check for open-
ings that allow air movement from
basement or crawl space into wall
cavities. Block such openings to
keep damp air out of the walls.
It is not easy to determine if
vapor retarders exist under con-
crete floor slabs. If the floor seems
damp most of the time, there prob-
ably is no vapor retarder. To be
sure of a dry finish floor, a vapor
retarder would have to be added on
top of the slab with a new finish
floor applied over it.
Venting to let moisture escape is
required in the attic and in the
crawl space. The degree of damp-
ness indicates the general adequa-
cy of this venting; however, adding
insulation will make these spaces
colder and may require more vent-
ing to prevent condensation.
Without a ceiling vapor re-
tarder, substantial moisture passes
from the house into the attic; it
condenses as the moist air contacts

the cold roof members. For good
circulation of air through all the
attic area, locate both inlet and
outlet vents properly. These vents
not only help keep the attic dry in
winter, but keep hot air moving
out of the attic during summer and
help cool the house.
Observe the size and location of
crawl lpacc vents. For optimum
cross ventilation and minimum
dead air space, locate at least four
vents near building corners. The
use of a soil cover reduces the vent-
ing requirement.

Mechanical Questionmarks
Because many of the plumbing,
heating, and wiring systems in a
house are concealed, it may be
difficult to determine their ade-
quacy. For the same reason it is
difficult to make major changes
without considerable cutting of
wall surfaces and, in some situa-
tions, even structural members.
In a very old house the mechani-
cal systems may have to be re-
placed; this quickly becomes a
major item in the cost of rehabilita-
tion. At the same time, properly
installed new systems will add to
the comfort and convenience of the
house. One bonus can be the
dramatic recovery of space and
improved appearance of the base-
ment when an old "octopus" grav-
ity warm air heating system is
replaced by a forced-air system.
Building code provisions relating
to mechanical systems should be
carefully checked.
Plumbing.-Check several fau-
cets to see if the flow of water is
adequate. If there is any question,

inspect pipes carefully to be certain
the service is large enough.
The main distribution pipes
should be %-inch inside diameter
but branch lines may be %-inch
inside diameter. Sizes can be
checked easily.
Inade Will be Outade
Copper pipes------ "
Copper pipes .------ 3 "
Galvanized pipes_- %
Galvanized pipes_ --" 1 %
Water pressure is important. If
the supply is from a municipal
system, the pressure in the mains
will be all right. However, if the
house has its own water system,
pressure can be a problem. Check
the gage on the pressure tank,
which should read a minimum of 20
and preferably 40 to 50 pounds.
Anything less will indicate that the
pump is not operating properly, or
that the pressure setting is too low.
The water from any private well
should be tested for purity even
though the well has been in con-
tinuous use.
Plumbing fixtures that are quite
old may be rust stained and require
replacement, or it may be desirable
to replace them just for appearance.
Check for leaks in the water
supply system. Rust or white or
greenish crusting of pipe or joints
may indicate leaks.
Check shutoff valves at the serv-
ice entrance and at various points
in the system to determine if they
have become frozen with age, or
little use.
Additional supply and drain lines
may be desirable in modernizing a
house. Keep in mind any new lines
that may be required for automatic
washers, added baths, adequate sill

cocks, or in reorganizing the layout.
Heating water in a hot water
heating system may be satisfactory.
but a water heating coil in a hot
air furnace seldom provides enough
hot water. Also, it requires a sep-
arate system during summer months
when the hot air heating is not
needed. A gas water heater should
have at least a 30-gallon capacity
and preferably more. An electric
water heater should have a capacity
of 50 gallons or more.
The drainage system consists of
the sewer lateral (drainage line
between the house and the street),
the underfloor drains, the drainage
pipes above the floor, and the vents.
Pipes may have become clogged or
broken or they may be of inade-
quate size. Venting in particular
may be inadequate and far below
code requirements.
About the only quick check is to
flush fixtures to see if drains are
sluggish. Note any excessive suc-
tion when a toilet is flushed.
Run the water for a few minutes
to check for clogged drain lines
between the house and the sewer
main. If a private sewage system is
involved, learn what you can about
the adequacy of the drain field. If a
new drainage field is needed, some
codes require percolation tests of
the soil.
Heating.-Changes in heating
systems and concepts of comfort
outdate the heating systems in
most old houses. Central heating
with heat piped to all rooms is
considered a necessity in all but
very small houses.
A quick inspection of the heating
system will seldom show much
beyond the kind of system and

apparent condition. The only way to
check the adequacy of the system
satisfactorily is through use. If the
system provides the desired degree
of comfort, then check the furnace
or boiler for overall general condi-
tion. If you have a question, seek
professional help.
Electrica.--So many new elec-
trical appliances have come into
common use in recent years that
many old houses do not have
adequate wiring to accommodate
them. Therefore, the first electrical
item to check is the service. The
service should be at least 100
amperes for the average three-
bedroom house. If the house is large
or if air conditioning is added, the
service should be 200 amperes.
If the main distribution panel has
room for circuits, additional cir-
cuits can be added to supply

power where there is a -hortag'.
Otihrwie another dli-tribution
panel may be added.
Examine electrical wiring wher-
ever po.sible. Some wiring is usually
exposed in the attic or basement.
Wiring should also be checked at
several wall receptacles or fixtures.
If any armored cable or conduit
is badly rusted, or if wiring or
cable insulation is deteriorated,
damaged, brittle, or crumbly, the
house wiring has probably de-
teriorated from age or overloading
and should be replaced.
At least one electrical outlet on
each wall of a room and two or
more on long walls is desirable.
Ceiling lights should have a wall
switch, and rooms without a ceiling
light should have a wall switch near
the door for at least one outlet.


The value of the house being
considered for reconditioning, and
the convenience and pleasure of
using it over many years, are
strongly affected by the layout and
appearance. Consider the adequacy
of room size, the relationship of
areas to each other, convenience,
the pattern of traffic, and individual
privacy. Conceivably many houses
will not lend themselves to an
ideal arrangement without excessive
cost, but adequate living conditions
may be possible with some sacrifice
in arrangement.

Traffic Patterns in House

Observe the probable traffic pat-
terns through the house. The gen-

eral rule is to avoid traffic through
rooms. If this cannot be prevented,
at least keep traffic at one side of a
room rather than through the
The traffic picture might be
improved simply by moving doors
to the corners of rooms or by placing
furniture in a manner to direct
traffic where it will be least ob-
Ideally, houses should have rooms
arranged in three areas-the private
or bedroom area, the work area of
kitchen and utility rooms, and the
relaxation area of dining and living
rooms. A family room, a den, or a

recreation room may exist in or
between those general areas. The
den should be out of the general
circulation areas and, if it is part
of the bedroom area, may double
as a guest room. A recreation room
in the basement can serve some of
the same functions as a family
Work area.-Most critical is the
location of the kitchen in relation
to other areas of the house. The
kitchen must be directly accessible
to the dining area as well as to the
garage or driveway for ease in
unloading groceries. A kitchen near
the utility room is also convenient,
because work is often in progress
in the kitchen and utility room at
the same time. If possible, traffic
should not pass through the range-
refrigerator-sink triangle.
The size of the kitchen is im-
portant. There was a period
when kitchens were made small
with the idea that this was con-
venient. Now the many modern
appliances that commonly go into
a kitchen, as well as the inclusion
of a breakfast area, require much
more space. If the kitchen is too
small, a major addition or alteration
will be necessary.
A coat closet near the kitchen
entrance and some facility for
washing up near the work area
are desirable. However, in the
small house neither may be feasible.
Private area.-The bedroom and
bathroom area should be separated
as much as possible, both visually
and acoustically from the living
and work areas.
Every bedroom should be acces-
sible to a bathroom without going

through another room, and at least
one bathroom should be accessible
to work and relaxation areas with-
out going through a bedroom. One
of the basic rules of privacy is to
avoid traffic through one bedroom
to another. If this privacy is not
presently provided, some changes
in layout may be desirable.
Check the size of bedrooms. It is
desirable to have a floor area of at
least 125 square feet for a double
bed and 150 square feet for twin
beds. Smaller bedrooms can be
very usable, but consider limita-
tions for furnishing them.
Relaxation area.-The relaxation
area is usually at the front of an
older house, but rooms at the side
or rear may be used, particularly
if this provides a view into a land-
scaped yard. If the house has a
small parlor or a living room and
dining room separated by an arch,
consider removing partitions or
arches to give a more spacious
feeling. Where load-bearing par-
titions are to be removed, added
support (such as a beam) will be
required. Professional help may be
necessary to determine this.
The main entrance is usually at
or near the living area. Check for
a coat closet near this entrance.
Also desirable is a passage into the
work area without going through
the living room, or at least not
more than a corner or end of the

Many people will agree that the
appearance of a house is important
but fewer may agree on what they

like. Because taste is largely a
personal matter, only basic guide-
lines will be given here. Simplicity
and unity are the major considera-
tions. A good "period" style may be
worth preserving. In fact, a house
possessing the quality commonly
referred to as "charm" may be
appraised 5 to 10 percent higher
than plainer ones. However, style
or charm can assume less impor-
tance after you live for awhile
with inconvenience, discomforts, or
constant repairs.
Simplicity is one of the first
principles. Observe the main lines
of the house. Some variety adds
interest, but numerous roof lines at
a variety of slopes present a busy,
confused appearance. Strong hori-
zontal lines are usually desirable in
a conventional residence to give
the appearance of being "tied to

the ground." Strong vertical lines
tend to make a house look tall and
List the number of materials
used as siding. There should never
be more than three, and not more
than two would be preferable.
Look at the trim and see if it seems
to belong with the house or is just
stuck on as ornamentation.
Unity is as important as sim-
plicity. The house should appear to
be a unit, not a cluster of unrelated
components. Windows and trim
should be in keeping with the style
of the house. Windows should be of
the same type and of a very limited
number of sizes. Shutters should be
one-half the width of the window
so that, if closed, they would cover
the window. Porches and garages
should blend with the house rather
than appear as attachments.


After you have completely ex-
amined the house for renovation,
listed any repairs necessary, and
considered the intangibles, evaluate
your findings. Some general guides
for evaluating the information are
presented here; however, use judg-
ment in drawing your conclusions.

Major Reasons for Rejection

Throughout the discussion, some
major reasons have been given for
rejecting a house for renovation.
These reasons are restated:
1. The foundation may be com-
pletely unrepairable. Houses are
occasionally moved onto a new
foundation, but this is generally

not economical
otherwise in

unless the house is
extremely good

2. If the entire frame of the house
is considerably out of square, or
if the framing is generally decayed
or termite infested, the house is
probably not worth renovating.
3. If numerous components must
be replaced, or major repairs and
replacements combined are numer-
ous, the suitability for renovation
is questionable.


for the Final

If the foundation and frame are in
reasonable condition, and the re-

pair and replacement items do not
appear excessive, base a final de-
cision on the following factors:
Cost.-If the cost of buying and
renovating the house does not
exceed the fair market value of
houses in the area, it is a sound
investment. A general rule-of-
thumb for a house presently owned
is that the rehabilitation cost should
not exceed two-thirds of the cost
of a comparable new house. The
cost can be arrived at in two ways:
A. If the work is to be done on a
fixed price contract, the contractor's
bid will give you a definite figure.
However, this figure should be
increased about 10 percent for
unforeseen extras.
B. If you (as the owner) plan
to do most of the work and are
concerned with the economics of
the project, first get bids on items
that will be done by others. Second,
figure the cost of all materials for
work you would do. Third, esti-
mate your labor time and establish
costs using a fair hourly rate. If
you are not experienced in building
construction, increase your labor
estimate by 50 percent because
much time is lost in doing work a
little at a time. There is also a
strong tendency to underestimate.
Location.-A particularly good
location would be justification for
spending more; a generally un-
desirable or deteriorating location
would indicate that much less than
two-thirds the cost of the new house
should be spent.
Sentimental value.-If there are
sentimental attachments, the value
of the renovated house must be
decided by the individual con-
cerned. However, neither the fi-

nance company nor a prospective
buyer will allow anything for senti-
mental value.

A Caution
Projects go very slowly when
worked on by one individual in his
spare time. If the house is to be
occupied immediately or at the
earliest possible moment, do the
necessary items at once and then
plan to work in "projects" with a
breather space between them. No-
body wants to live in a mess
continually, and nobody can work
continuously without risking having
the project "go sour." Be as realistic
as possible. It will increase the
enjoyment of the work and the
satisfaction of the finished home.
Also, consider that your ideas may
change after you move into the

Your Own Feelings
After considering all these points,
your personal feelings and needs
about a house must be recognized.
For instance, you may be satisfied
by a remodeled kitchen instead
of desiring a completely new one.
Each member of the family has
activities that may require special
considerations. Even the part of
the country you live in affects how
you use your indoor-outdoor space.
Ultimately, you may come to
the decision that "we must have
more room." Generally you will
consider better use of the present
structure-expansion into attic,
basement, or garage. But after
exhausting these possibilities, you
may decide you have to add on a
room or a new section. This opens

up new possibilities to meet your
unique needs.
In the final analysis, these de-
cisions depend on some personal
feelings that are not necessarily

expressible in terms of logic. You
need the sound information on
which to base the choice, but
ultimately it is your own decision
on what will work best for you


Further information on building
and use of wood is available in a
number of U.S. Department of
Agriculture publications prepared
by the Forest Products Laboratory.
Copies may be purchased from the
Superintendent of Documents,
Government Printing Office, Wash-
ington, D.C. 20402.
Wood Handbook: Wood as an
Engineering Material. U.S. Dep.
Agric., Agric. Handb. 72. Rev.
1974. Stock No. 0100-03200.
Wood-Frame House Construction.
U.S. Dep. Agric., Agric. Handb.
No. 73. Rev. 1970. Stock No.
Construction Guides for Exposed
Wood Decks. U.S. Dep. Agric.,
Agric. Handb. No. 432. 1972.
Stock No. 0100-2577.

Selection and Use of Wood Products
for Home and Farm Building.
U.S. Dep. Agric., Agric. Inf.
Bull. No. 311. Rev. 1972. Stock
No. 0100-2501.

Wood Siding-Installing, Finishing,
Maintaining. U.S. Dep. Agric.
Home and Garden Bull. No. 203.
1973. Stock No. 0100-02680.

Condensation Problems in Your
House: Prevention and Solution.
U.S. Dep. Agric., Agric. Inf. Bull.
No. 373. 1974. Stock No. 0100-

Principles for Protecting Wood
Buildings from Decay. U.S. Dep.
Agric., For. Serv. Res. Pap. FPL
190. 1973. Stock No. 0101-00362.

Information is also available from many other sources. Most libraries
have books dealing with some aspect of rebuilding and refurbishing. In
addition, several well-known magazines devote considerable space to
allied subjects.


The use of trade, firm, or corporation names in this publication is
for the information and convenience of the reader. Such use does
not constitute an official endorsement or approval by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture of any product or service to the exclusion
of others which may be suitable.

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