This Old Money Pit

Renovating an old house can be rewarding, as well as stressful. Be prepared to work on your communication skills—especially where there’s a small explosion…

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She turned the garage into a family room, opened the kitchen and expanded the master bedroom over the screened porch. She also enlarged the bathroom. “We used to joke that we could brush our teeth, go to the bathroom and shave our legs in the shower without moving,” Helme says.

Because she didn’t substantially change the footprint, she didn’t destroy the character of the house. “You have to think about how it will all look together.”

Yet an up-to-date renovation can still keep in character with the house’s birth date. Farmer sinks, for instance, are stylish and retro. Today’s soapstone countertops suit older houses.

Milburn and Campbell’s master bath boasts white tile that looks as though it had always been there, and Campbell has gone out of his way to find doors and banister spindles that suit the house’s original era. But the couple went totally modern in the kitchen, installing stainless steel appliances, a stainless steel backsplash, cabinets with clean lines and granite countertops.

To get bids—and you should get at least three—ask neighbors for names. Contractors who have worked on older homes, especially in your area, are familiar with local building codes and regulations.

Make sure the contractor is fully insured, says Simon, who learned firsthand how important insurance is. She and Dean were finally seeing their house come together—the insulation was installed and the drywall nearly done—when workers accidentally triggered a natural gas explosion. Suddenly, windows blew out, the new drywall came tumbling down, and cracks appeared all over the house. Debris crushed the baby tree the couple had planted in the backyard to celebrate their progress. “It was a miracle people didn’t die,” Simon says. Though the damage caused delays, it was covered by the contractor’s insurance.

When choosing a contractor, a good rapport is vital, Helme says. You’ll spend a lot of time with that person, so you need to communicate.

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