NHC*: How to maintain your historic house

Maintaining what you already have is the most economical solution in the long run for preserving the most appropriate features of your older house.   In today’s world, green sustainability practices demand that we sustain our resources rather than arbitrarily replace them.      Maintaining your house is very ‘green’.

The early Newburyport craftsmen built with a combination of skill and high-quality materials, so many buildings have remained intact for well over 200 years.     The key is preventive maintenance.     It is critical doing renovation when it is needed and before deterioration results in damage beyond simple and inexpensive repairs.

Most damage to a house is caused by the elements of our New England climate – water, sunlight, and air pollution are factors but also the effect of the nearby ocean and the extremes of cold and heat.      Damage occurs when protection against these forces (paint, caulking, flashing, etc.) is insufficient.      There is the constant attack by wood-consuming insects in the spring, summer and fall months.

In sections ahead, each exterior feature is addressed in terms of its protective function and its maintenance hazards and requirements.    Suggestions will be provided on recognizing the problems and then how to repair or replace each feature.

Step-by-step guidelines on Maintenance

1.    Study your house carefully and establish when it was built, its style and its most important features.    What features are original?    What has been added?   What may have been removed?

2.    You may want to search for old photographs, postcards, or newspapers that can give information about your house.   Title information at the Salem Registry of Deeds and tax records filed at City Hall are useful resources.    Also visit the Library archives, as it houses the written and photographic history of Newburyport.   And see the Custom House and the Historical Society for information on past merchants and seafaring owners.

3.    Don’t hurry!**    Live in your house and understand how it works, what its problems are, and what work you may wish to undertake-both inside and outside.    Think carefully about changes.   Live with your ideas for a while before rushing into any large undertaking.   Most important, schedule the work sequence and timing realistically so you can be assured of pleasing results.

4.    You may want to measure and draw the plan of your house before you begin any substantial interior work.   Check your systems-heating, plumbing, electrical-and consult a professional if there are any problems.

5.    Photograph your house before, during, and after your work.   It will provide an interesting record of your efforts.

6.    Do as much of the work as you can yourself to save money, but don’t hesitate to consult your neighbors and professionals when needed.

There are certain common trouble spots on a building’s exterior.    Routine inspection of these areas can uncover minor problems before they become serious ones.  

Some places to keep an eye out where the  elements may attack:

No chimney cap & cracks in the brick

Undersized downspout

Caulking, paint or cracked clapboards

Defective valley on roof between gables

Vegetation too close to the house

Roof shingles loose or missing

Boards too close to ground level

Cracks in cornice

Cracks or loose joints in the wood trim

Masonry needs repointing

Rainwater not carried away

Cracks in frame and sill

Inadequate flashing at roof edge

Clogged gutters

Open joints in brackets and handrail

Wooden steps in contact with ground

Consult the Home Inspection Checklist in the Appendix as it provides a useful format for inspecting your house. (I will post the Home Inspection Checklist in the next NHC article.)

-P. Preservationist

* NHC stands for the Newburyport Home Companion – A maintenance & renovation guide for homeowners living inside the Newburyport Historic District

** My wife and I created the 50 list several decades ago to attend maintenance issues.    We are still at 45 and working on the last few – patience is important.


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