Avoid Getting Hammered

Picking the right home is tricky. Picking the right historic home is doubly difficult, because old houses almost always come with surprises.

Remember the first rule of renovation: Takes longer, costs more. And before you buy, take a good long look at:

* Yourself. "Are you the kind of person who can roll with the punches?" asks Rich Lewis, a historic-renovation contractor in Alton, Ill. "Because if you're not, maybe you'd better look at that three-bedroom in the suburbs.... There's always an element of surprise in an old house."

* The house. Have an inspector - someone familiar with old houses - look over the structure, especially the basics: foundation, plumbing, wiring, roof, etc. For repairs, get quotes from several contractors who work on old homes. Tote up all the repairs, and prepare to spend 2-1/2 times that amount (the surprises, remember?).

* The neighborhood. Financially, location may be more important than the home itself. Is the area on the upswing? Are people on the block fixing up their homes? Mr. Lewis looks for historic homes in fringe areas that are improving. It's riskier than buying in a more established block, he admits, but the potential financial gains are bigger.

* The plan. Once you buy, put together a plan of action, before anyone lifts a hammer. For example, make sure to weatherproof the exterior of the house before renovating the interior. No one will care how beautiful your wallpaper is if the roof leaks.

"You have to resist the temptations to do the fun parts first," says Gordon Bock, editor of Old House Journal.

* Contractors. If you use them instead of doing the work yourself, make sure you feel comfortable working with them. "If one can find a contractor that they're comfortable with and follows through with everything in a timely fashion, that's 90 percent of the battle," says Jim Belote, who's turning an old mansion into an Alton bed-and-breakfast.

* Time. Pace yourself. "A lot of people get burned out," says Anne Doucleff, a professional appraiser in Alton who has rehabbed three old houses.

So go slow and remember you're just part of a process. "Whatever we do with one of these houses, we're adding to the history," Lewis says. But "we're by no means the end of that house. All you've really done is left a fingerprint. And that to me is kind of neat."

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