The Biggest Problems You’ll Run into When Renovating an Old House

Older homes have character, often boasting features like architectural windows and solid plaster walls that you don’t find in many newer buildings. When it’s time to renovate, though, older houses present costly challenges that aren’t so charming. Here are the biggest and most common renovation issues you should prepare for.

My husband and I bought our 1920’s Colonial about a decade ago. Each home improvement we’ve made to this old house has made us scared of doing another: What hidden issue will we find this time? And how much will it cost us? Although some of the problems that come up during renovations apply to newer homes too, older homes have special issues. “Things were made differently back then,” you’ll hear, and that’s not always a good thing. If you’re aware of the potential problems, though, you’ll be able to set a more realistic budget and timeline for your remodeling project.

Decorating Tips

Revamp your windows

Revamping the way your windows look doesn’t have to be expensive. You could personalise your home by giving your windows a new look, with a fresh coat of paint or by simply dressing them differently. Use voile panels to give your windows a fresh, subtle look while keeping light levels high.

Alternatively, simply frame your windows differently by tying back your existing curtains in a new way – look out for distinctive pieces of cord, braid or ribbon, or a coordinating fabric to change their look. If you have a larger budget, consider installing or updating your patio doors to transform a reception room in your home. By installing patio doors you’ll increase the natural light levels in your home and bring the outdoors indoors, so you can enjoy your garden whatever the weather.


Outdated Plumbing and Electrical

Electrical wiring and plumbing problems are common in older homes. Before the 1960s, galvanized pipes were used both within the house and for sewer lines as well. The problem with galvanized pipes is they easily get clogged or corrode over time. During a renovation that involves plumbing, you’ll probably want to replace the pipes with PVC or copper. HouseLogicsays the cost to replace pipes during a renovation can add $250 to $1,000—a relative bargain because the pipes are exposed during the project.


“If you elect to have off-peak (heures creuses) electricity, then EDF will provide you with wiring controlled by their equipment to switch your off-peak system on and off. The EDF off-peak equipment is usually a relay located beside their meter and fusegear. This relay is meant for the control circuit functions of your contactor (contacteur) or off-peak relay (jour/nuit) only. It must not be used to directly control equipment. The EDF relay is timed to operate in the usual manner at the predetermined off-peak times”

Excerpt From: Thomas Malcolm. “Electricity in your French house.” iBooks.


Old electrical wiring can be a safety hazard and will need to be brought up to code. When remodeling my bathroom, I learned that I needed to hire an electrician to upgrade the electrical panel. Homes in the 1920s didn’t have hair dryers, and even something as small as that can draw more power than old household electrical systems can handle. Old wiring is also just an inconvenience: If you’ve ever lost power when running the microwave and the coffeemaker at the same time, you know what I mean. Expect to pay at least $1,300 to $3,000 to upgrade to 200 amp service, $200-$750 to change ungrounded 2-prong outlets to 3-prong outlets, and $4,000 or more to rewire the house to get rid of old knob-and-tube wiring that can start a fire. Depending on your needs and the appliances you own, you may even need to upgrade modern wiring to support new appliances, computers, entertainment systems, and other projects. Isn’t owning a home fun?

Unsafe Materials Like Lead and Asbestos

If your house was built several decades ago, there’s a good chance there is lead in the paint and asbestos in the flooring, ductwork, popcorn ceilings, roofing, and HVAC system. Left undisturbed, these aren’t harmful, but if the project calls for scraping or cutting these materials, the powder or dust can be very hazardous. You can test for lead paint on your own, but for everything else you’ll need a professional to detect and abate these materials if you suspect they’re in your construction.

When I had an abatement company remove the asbestos covering the pipes in my basement, I paid $1,000. HomeAdvisor says asbestos removal ranges from $200 to $700 an hour, and most homeowners spend between $971 and $2,250 to remove toxic lead. Worth every penny for the peace of mind and your family’s safety.

Materials Used to Build Your Home Are No Longer Available

Older homes were constructed to different building standards and codes than today, and often with completely different materials. Bathtubs were smaller, doors narrower, and rooms were smaller too. If want to maintain your home’s old character, it can be tricky finding materials that will match the rest of your house for your renovation. Renovating an old Brownstone? You’ll need solid wood paneled doors and thin oak flooring—all of which are completely different from today’s standards and common materials used in homebuilding today. Shopping at architectural salvage stores or other reuse centers can help, as can finding remodeling pros that specialize in older homes. However, be ready to pay more if you really want to get your hands on matching, original materials that are more restoration than renovation.

Outdated Layouts, Like Long Corridors and Tiny Rooms

Watch an episode of HGTV’s House Hunters, and you’ll quickly learn that the features and floorplans that today’s homebuyers are searching for differ significantly what you’ll find in many older homes. Master bedroom with walk-in closet and attached bath? Open floorplan layout between the kitchen, dining, and living room? Not in older homes. Back in the day, homeowners had live-in staffs who cleaned and cooked for them, and Victorian-style homes had a room for every. Single. Purpose. Common building plans in earlier decades also involved tenement housing, so large buildings were cut into small apartments. Possibly, no one then thought anyone would ever want to live in an “open layout.”

Some of my bedrooms don’t even have closets (so to realtors, they’re not technically bedrooms) and due to the way the home was built, there’s no room to add standard closets. With outdated layouts, finding room to expand a space or rearrange the layout can be tricky. If you want to modernize your home (e.g., for that open space layout), you’ll need to consult an architect or an engineer, as well as a builder to figure out the true cost. Tearing down walls can be both expensive and dangerous if it’s a load-bearing wall, and if you’re thinking about opening up a floor so you can see from the living room through the kitchen, odds are you’ll have structural issues to deal with.

Bad Renovation Work Done Over and Over Again

The older a home is and the more times it’s been sold or changed hands, the more likely any changes to the home won’t have been in keeping with the original design of the house. Sometimes, as in my case, a previous owner’s “improvements” were made with total disregard to the rest of the structure. For example, water pipes for an attic bathroom addition ran exposed through other rooms, rather than through walls or other hidden spaces, the way they should be. Sometimes you won’t discover those kinds of issues until you start a remodeling project. It’s especially important to have a capable home contractor or handyman you can trust to undo whatever old mistakes you find.

All said, if your home has been updated and well-maintained over the years, you probably won’t run into all of these problems. But with older homes, especially those old, charming homes that have been standing for decades, you may not know. It’s best to err on the side of caution and budget much more money and time for your home renovation than you think you need to. The old rule of thumb is to set aside a 15% to 20% contingency for unexpected problems and changes, but if you suspect your home might have one of the issues above, you might want to add even more of a buffer.

Related Post

Quick tip

Paint effects

Try out different paint effects to give your home a new look, try rag rolling, stippling or marbling. If you’re handy with a paint brush and eager to let your inner artist out, then consider painting a trompe l’oeil effect on a wall. Remember you could simply project an image onto a wall and paint around it – you don’t need to be a great artist to have a go at this. So get your paint brushes out and get creative.


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Electrical Tip

“Although at first glance lighting, sockets and off-peak heating in France may all appear familiar, closer investigation will reveal that the installation methods are different to those employed in the UK”

Excerpt From: Thomas Malcolm. “Electricity in your French house.” iBooks.


We are a new website, we are still growing our content, we want everyone that is renovating in France to help us feature what we all wanted to know when we all started, contact us with all your experience and tips, we live just south of Celles Sur Belle, in Deux Servre, 79, and are just about to start out on our next renovation, every job we start on, every problem, product or skill we need to learn about i will try and find some useful information on the internet and share it with you, yes I could do this by sharing it on facebook, but the problem is it just helps facebook and disappears down the timeline, here links and articles will be searchable and here permanently for you to book mark and refer to, so watch this space … and if you have links and articles that have helped you let us know !!1

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