"Unhacking" a 4-unit MF to a SFH

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Hello all!

We are looking at an old Victorian that has been hacked into 4 apartment units, but we would want to restore it into a SFH. Obviously we have lots to consider..

Anyone have experience with this that can share the lessons learned?   What are some of the things we should look out for / budget for?  

Sam & Heather Jones 

Well, the first thing that you should look for is to check your zoning regulations. There are some areas near me that are full of multifamily homes, many previously converted from large single family homes, that are now simply zoned "MULTI." That is, you can only build a multifamily in that area and you can't convert a multifamily into a non-conforming structure e.g., a single family home.

So, before you do anything double check that!

I've never personally rehabbed a home that old, but I love old buildings. So, I know a fair bit about them because of my love for them. :)

Here are common issues that other people have run into:

  • Check to see if local ordinance forbids changes to the building's facade. Also check with a local real estate attorney on this point too. Lots of times certain characteristics of buildings that old have legal protections. 
  • In general, you'll probably want to tear most rooms down to the studs. Why? You'll see.
  • Prior to electrification, do you know how people lit their homes at night? Candles? Nope, not really. They lighted rooms with gas lamps during the Victorian period. So, be prepared to remove many meany yards of pipe that have nothing to do with plumbing!
  • There have been many revisions to the electrical code since the house was built. Chances are different parts are frozen in time at different periods of electrification. (I've known some homes that old to only have 110 coming in instead of 220.)
  • Further, lots and lots of handy men over the years have been told to "just fix" many plumbing an electrical issues. So, in addition to ancient wiring you're likely to find "non-standard" wiring in more than a few places.
  • So, please just take as a given that the entire house will need to be re-wired from the basement fuse panel through to every wing of the house.
  • I don't know what the roof is made of but if you happen to have a ceramic tile roof don't get rid of it. Repairs are rare (they last about 100 years between major repairs) but expensive. Major repair of a tile roof is about $30,000.
  • Keep the old wood frame windows if you can. Using modern windows in a house that old never works out well. It just isn't in keeping with the character of the house. Properly glazed and sealed wood frame windows are extremely efficient. If they've been taken out, please put period style replacements back in!
  • I don't know how the house is heated but be prepared to replace the heater(s.) If it's heated with oil, be prepared to convert it to natural gas. Typical heating oil to natural gas conversions run about $5,000 - $6,000.
  • If there is original woodwork, go out of your way to keep it. This may mean spending lots of hours with paint stripper and a putty knife but it's worth it! Don't paint it, stain it.
  • Floors: chances are your floors are hardwood. If you see other flooring material, peel it back. You might find yet more flooring material. Keep peeling until you reach hardwood or find sub-floor. Chances are you'll find hardwood. Sand it down and stain it. If the floor has pet stains, handle it Nicole Curtis style and stain it dark and the dark spots will just look like a variation in the stain.
  • Check the sub-floor. Lots of times old rags were used as insulation. Over the course of 100 years these have probably bio-degraded to useless pulp.
  • If any of the bathrooms still have their original subway tile they're going to be thicker than modern subway tile. Also, they may be adhered to the wall with concrete, yes, really.
  • In homes that old servants typically lived in the attic and the basement and you might find features that reflect this. For example you may find small dumb waiters (or shafts for them) in places that don't make sense.
  • Also some stairways might seem oddly placed until you realize that these are the "back stairways" for the servants to use and move around while staying mostly out of the main house.
  • Check the foundation and footings in the basement. They may or may not be in good condition after 100 years. This will probably be one of the first things you want to check.
  • Walk-in wine cellars make wonderful upgrades to homes this old. I'm just saying. :)
  • In any event be prepared for more code enforcement related issues than usual. In general, "once you've touched it you have to bring it up to code."
  • If you don't want to convert the house to forced air heating there is a wonderful option for cooling a house this old: ductless air-conditioning.

That's all I can think of at the moment. I hope that helped. I want to rehab my own Victorian home in the next few years. I really think I have the soul for it.

Good luck with your renovation and conversion. Please update this thread with your progress. I'm sure the entire community would love to hear how things go!

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