Remodeling a Pre-war Home in the Washington DC Area

When remodeling pre-war homes in Washington DC, pay attention to exteriors and potential challenges to layout changes

row houses with porch and red front door and landscaped front yard with black metal fence after renovation

Remodeling pre-war homes in the Washington, D.C. area presents a rewarding challenge. It’s an opportunity to take a piece of the city’s history and both preserve and improve it. You can create a home with more mojo—a home with historic style and contemporary functionality.

Sweeten offers an outline on what to know before starting older home renovations in Washington, D.C. (plus, which rooms get the most bang for the buck!) 

Sweeten matches home renovation projects with vetted general contractors, offering advice, support, and secure payments—for free.

Where do you start when renovating an old house?

Start with your vision for the result. Consider all that you want and prioritize those features with your budget. Talk with a contractor as early in the process as possible. Go over the mandatory elements, such as electrical and plumbing, that will have to meet current code requirements. Older homes typically need complete upgrades of:

  • Electrical: Older homes need more outlets, plain and simple. Adding plenty of USB outlets makes sense, too, as they allow you to dispense with the extra adapter. Many older homes still suffer from antiquated lighting, with just a solitary ceiling fixture, if that. Energy-efficient puck lights and sconces should be part of any renovation. 

In addition, an updated home should have a 200-amp service, which you’ll learn about through an electrical audit. If you want photovoltaic panels and are allowed to install them, discuss whether the system should be part of your planning with your contractor.

  • Plumbing: Efficiency and style have taken over in plumbing, as shown by low-flow “waterfall” showerheads, wall-mounted toilets, and so on. As for the “guts,” of the plumbing system, you can choose a tankless water heater and never run out of hot water, or go with a heat-pump water heater for greater efficiency.
  • HVAC system: Improvements abound in HVAC systems, with heat pumps and mini-split systems increasingly popular, along with more effective air filtration systems and energy recovery ventilators becoming standard in many places.
  • Windows: Unlike electrical, plumbing, and HVAC, windows are both functional and aesthetic elements, and can vary hugely in cost. Some windows offer more user-friendly features such as opening farther, while others are focused on maximum performance with triple panes and advanced coatings. 

Improved performance is laudable, but costs can balloon for small gains in performance. Your choice of windows is a judgment call, so go over this carefully with your general contractor. You should also do research on the window manufacturers and products so you can learn and ask questions. Windows are a major expense (and are not easily changed,) so take the time to get it right.

basement bathroom

(Above) Sweeten homeowner Nicole remodeled her basement bathroom in Virginia

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Commonly renovated elements in old homes

  • Woodwork: Other elements that often need help include woodwork, built-ins, and floors. Pre-war homes were often hand-crafted with excellent materials, as there were no reasonable alternatives. Time takes its toll, however, and your home’s woodwork may be showing its age. Unless you want a different look or the materials are badly degraded or damaged, it’s often the best and most cost-effective choice to overhaul the existing elements.
  • Architectural salvage pieces may have a place in your renovation, as well, and it can be enjoyable to go see what’s available. Your builder, architect, and interior designer will be invaluable in this endeavor.
  • Distressed plaster walls are also a common feature of pre-war homes. Considering the simple materials used, plaster walls are amazing and hold up well. They lend a feeling of solidity and just feel appropriate in an older or historic building. They do tend to crack more readily with settling than newer drywall construction.

Fortunately, this is a relatively easy fix—getting the right plaster pro on the job. Your contractor will make sure new and old blends perfectly, make repairs properly, and leave you feeling great about this subtle yet important element. 

White and blue modern kitchen with little girl sitting on the quartz countertop after renovation

(Above) Sweeten homeowners Brandi and Chris renovated their Maryland kitchen

Kitchen upgrades in old homes

Because of the intensity of use as the hub of most homes, your kitchen deserves more focus and more of the budget. Not surprisingly, you’ll make more materials and feature choices for the kitchen, as well. Do you really want a six-burner range, or should that money go elsewhere? One feature we strongly recommend is the best cabinets you can afford. Here, you have options.

“Off-the-rack” cabinets have improved tremendously in the last few years as manufacturers have stepped up to meet the demand for both style and functionality. By their nature, off-the-rack or in-stock cabinets will offer fewer choices, but that may be fine if you’re happy with the finishes and sizes offered.

Semi-custom and custom cabinets can provide nearly anything you want, such as finishes, specialized hardware, and sizes to fit any space. You can usually expect upgraded cabinets to show better fit and finish, but you might have to wait for them to be built. This shouldn’t be a problem, as you’ll have many renovation tasks to complete before the cabinets go in.

Another upgrade that might fly under your radar is a heavier sink, either of stainless steel or synthetic material. This is a subjective thing, but heavier sinks just feel solid and have a better, quieter tone with water running on them.

Exterior elements have endured a lot

Outside, the humid climate in Washington, D.C. is no friend to structures. The mortar in historic brick buildings, for example, needs maintenance periodically. Old bricks were much softer than current bricks, and older lime mortars were more flexible than modern mortars. These older materials worked well together.

Today, however, modern mortar costs about half of the traditional lime mortar, so many repairs over the last couple of decades have used the newer, less pliable mortar, leading to bricks cracking and crumbling, instead of the mortar. Typically, you’ll find lime mortar in cream or black tones, while the modern mortar is gray. Check this out and talk with your contractor about how much work needs to be done.

Challenges for layout changes and additions

While these renovation decisions are happening, consider the layout of your home. Does it work for your family, or does it need help? The need for a more functional design may in fact be the driving force behind the entire renovation. Do you need more square footage or just a refinement of the layout? Whether or not you’re able—either physically or legally—to add more square feet is a major factor.

Row homes, for example, may be impossible to add on to. For other homes, setbacks and/or various associations may prohibit changing the home’s footprint, even if the lot has room. If your contractor has worked on other projects in your neighborhood, he or she may already know what’s possible. Nonetheless, it doesn’t hurt to double-check with your historic district.

Allowing for surprises

It’s inevitable to have a few surprises while remodeling pre-war homes. But budgeting for them and preparing mentally, plus going through the house thoroughly with your contractor, will minimize the chances of a major surprise. You’ll also have permits to pay for, and for this, you’ll want to coordinate with your contractor.

When you’re ready to get started on your kitchen or home remodel, work with Sweeten to renovate with the best contractors in the Washington DC area.

Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, scope, and style. Follow the blog, Sweeten Stories, for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation with Sweeten.

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