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At Home with Marni Jameson: How to update older homes without messing them up

By Marni Jameson Published: May 17, 2014
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Every time I move into another home to stage — and I’m in my fourth in three years — I play a game of “If This Were Mine.”

If this house were mine, I would rip this out and put that in, knock this down and stick that up. It’s an affliction.

Fortunately, because I don’t own these places, I am all talk and no caulk. All nail and no hammer. Because I have been living under a restraining order that comes with non-homeownership, these homes have been spared from clueless improvements that could have actually harmed them, particularly the older homes.

My last three houses have been historic: a 130-year-old Folk Farmhouse, a 100-year-old Southern Plantation-style home, and now an 85-year-old Spanish Mediterranean. Though different in character, what each has in common is a past — and that, I have come to understand, is worth preserving.

“In an effort to upgrade old homes, I’ve seen people do some frightening things,” said a contractor who was in my kitchen this week doing some work on the home where I now live. “They tear out important and valuable architectural elements and replace them with off-the-shelf items from the local big box hardware store, all in the name of improvement.”

The worker, who didn’t know what I do for a pseudo living, was chatting in passing while I packed my lunch for work, but I was listening closely and thinking, “That could be me!”

All this was up for discussion a couple days later when I talked with Nicole Curtis, host of HGTV’s Rehab Addict. Curtis regularly takes on falling-apart old homes — ones others would have leveled or improved but made worse — and restores them authentically.

We soon sounded like historic home evangelists in need of an intervention. “People don’t do the wrong thing on purpose,” said Curtis. “They do the wrong thing because they aren’t educated.”

“Well, let’s fix that,” I said.

“The biggest mistake people make when improving an old home is they try to do what’s hot right now,” Curtis said. “But what’s hot right now won’t be hot in 10 years. What will always be hot — and will maintain the home’s value — is keeping with the era of the home.”

Her advice — tear out almost nothing, restore what’s there — is not only better for the home’s value, it’s easier on the wallet.

On her short list of what she would add or replace in an older home are these modern conveniences: Walk-in closets “but added in a way where they don’t take away from the character of the home,” updated heating, cooling systems, and plumbing systems, “so homes are comfortable, safe and more energy efficient,” and new appliances that weren’t invented when the house was built. “No one will ever say, ‘Oh my gosh, why did you put in a dishwasher?’”

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