- - Wednesday, November 21, 2012

When home inspector Stephen Showalter made his way through a historic home on the Eastern Shore recently, he noticed something a bit quirky.

“The main beam in the home was actually the center keel of a boat,” said Mr. Showalter, a Maryland state home inspector whose Showalter Property Consultants frequently deals with older properties. “Back then, people often reused and recycled things.”

And thereby hangs a tale. Older homes, whether they are historic, centuries-old properties or were erected just 50 years ago, all have stories to tell about the people who worked and lived there. Bits of the past are all around, in the ghosts of millwork or the outline of a long-ago stair, in the scars left by a saw in an old beam, or in the wads of newspapers stuffed behind a wall — great insulation back in the 1920s and 1930s.

“You’ll find old root cellars, old coal chutes, old coins under the hearth,” Mr. Showalter said. “Sometimes, you’ll even find the original slate roof; good slate can last 200 years.”

Piecing together those bits is a large part of the allure of owning an older home in the first place, their current stewards often say.

“An old house can tell us a lot,” said Arlington historian Kathryn Holt, herself the owner of an old house. “How houses change can really give you a sense of history.”

Old-house people know what to expect when it comes to their homes — leaky basements, creaky floors, walls that can be more than a bit out of plumb. Others tend to come to the place by happenstance, drawn by a quirky cornice or unexpected turn of the stair or just by the look of the place, so unlike today’s predictable homes.

“I knew someone who found a false wall and behind it was a fireplace,” Ms. Holt said. “Between the 1890s and 1920s, fireplaces were no longer fashionable, so a lot of people took them out or covered them over.”

For old-house people, a large part of the allure of an old house is that connection to history and the ways people adapted to changing circumstances.

“They added on here, they added on there,” Ms. Holt said. “Now people just tear down and build a McMansion.”

Additions could point to growing families and changing lifestyles. Some can reveal something about the technology of the period — or lack thereof. Ms. Holt’s 1890s-era house boasts a kitchen floor that’s a step up from the other rooms on that level, to allow for what was then a state-of-the-art pumping system.

After World War I, homes generally got smaller, Ms. Holt noted, as women began doing more of their own housework without servants. Hence, the smaller bungalow.

Styles of architecture also are revealing. Using a good reference, such as Virginia and Lee McAlester’s “A Field Guide to American Houses,” can help you fix your home’s place in time. Paint types, nails and the telltale marks of a handsaw also can help you date your home, or at least parts of it.

Still, modern-day renovators often find themselves staring at something completely different from what they expected once they strip away an exterior wall or peel off some old wallpaper.

When Bruce Wentworth, a D.C.-based architect with more than 25 years of experience, removed the asbestos facade from an Italianate 1870 row house, he was surprised to find something else along with the cedar clapboard siding under the asbestos shingles.

“All the ghosting remained from the window hoods,” said Mr. Wentworth, whose design-and-build firm, Wentworth Studio, has been involved in major renovation projects throughout the Washington area. “The ghost of the trim was all there; we took measurements and were able to replicate all of the millwork.”

To do so, Mr. Wentworth made use of “Victorian Architectural Details,” published by Dover, a reprint of old catalogs that once were the mainstay of the Victorian-era contractor.

And there are plenty of ghosts inside as well.

“You see a lot of chestnut trim on Capitol Hill,” Mr. Wentworth said. “Of course, that means the house was built before the chestnut blight.”

It is fairly common to find names or initials — a record from those who put up that wall or laid down those boards.

“Older people tended to mark things,” said Ms. Holt, who has encountered the initials of carpenter Asa Donaldson in many an Arlington home. One Arlington home even bears the paw prints of a long-ago kitty that stepped in paint and then tracked it along the floor.

“Things like that give you a feel for what was going on,” Ms. Holt said.

During a bathroom renovation of an old house, Mr. Wentworth removed a medicine cabinet and found a letter from one of the home’s former occupants to her daughter in Rehoboth.

Even the windows of old homes can bear witness to the past. Back in the Victorian era, many a pair of lovers would scratch their initials in the corner of a window with the lady’s engagement ring, leaving those of us who follow to wonder how they fared in the years to come.

Peeling back layers of wallpaper also can reveal a story, from patterns that once were popular to messages written on the back of the paper.

Paint, too, can tell a tale. A technique called cratering, which involves slicing away a patch of paint and then lightly sanding around it, reveals the earliest coats, which can contain a clue to the history of the room. Curators at the William Paca House in Annapolis once discovered a room that had been painted black, a testament to the grief a family felt at the death of a child.

Hidden places, such as behind the molding, or in attic and basement crawl spaces, are natural resting places for pieces of the past. Many a child’s toy has been found behind a built-in bookcase, or a now-valuable penny found pinned for decades underneath a strip of molding. Marbles frequently rolled away, out of sight and out of mind until being retrieved years later. Newspapers stuffed in walls as insulation or left behind as mementos by carpenters and other workers offer glimpses of a time gone by.

Among the most poignant traces: Those markings, often on the kitchen door frame, with the dates and heights of children long grown.

With all these clues, it’s just a quick trip to your local library or county courthouse to find out even more. City directories, census records, tax rolls and other records can reveal even more about the family who once owned your home. Sanborn maps, useful for homes built after 1866, give descriptions of size, layouts and outbuildings for homes in the District. (Sanborn, a fire insurance company, is still in business.)

Tax records, available at your courthouse or town hall, indicate the value of the property and its previous owners. Sudden increases in value can indicate new construction; these can be useful in narrowing a date.

Still, there are some hard realities associated with owning an older home, including dealing with water damage and wood rot, creaky floors and leaky basements. Often, older buildings were constructed before building codes and regulations, so a quick fix may turn out to be not so quick after all.

If you are in the market for an older home, there are a few things you should look out for as you make your way through. A good home inspector, particularly one who specializes in older properties, can help you narrow your choices. And whether you are contemplating Richardson Romanesque or midcentury modern, here are some basics to keep in mind, no matter how much you are charmed by the home’s other virtues.

  • Water. A stone foundation practically guarantees a leaky basement, so you will want to ensure that some sort of barrier is there to keep out the moisture. Check to make sure old wooden beams and sills are free from moisture from below.
  • Maintenance. Just like newer homes, how well the home has been maintained improves its life for generations yet to come. Mr. Showalter notes that 150 to 250 years of work done in an age before codes and permits can create dangerous conditions down the road.
  • Termites and other critters. Termites and powder-post beetles can do a number on an older home.
  • Pipes. A few older homes still boast the old galvanized piping, which can present homeowners with a host of unexpected problems. Mr. Showalter noted that older cast-iron pipes can fail from the inside out, and that kind of damage doesn’t always show up on a home inspection.
  • Paint, etc. Over time, lead-based exterior paints oxidize, leaving a lead powder on the surface that eventually could wash into the soil. This accumulation can pose a health risk to children and pets. Heating systems and exhaust ducts may contain asbestos or asbestoslike materials, which also were used in vinyl flooring and roofing tiles.
  • Electrical. Many older homes contain electrical components from multiple eras; they are practically a historic encyclopedia in themselves. But be careful. Mr. Showalter notes that they’re beautiful but fully capable of electrocuting someone.
  • Structural. Be sure to look at the foundation because foundation failure or repairs can be quite expensive. Diagonal cracks in walls emanating from the corners of doors and windows may indicate soil or foundation movement.

Of course, all of the above can be fixed, even for those with limited budgets. In the end, the challenges of owning an older home are all about the person, and the family, willing to take them on.

“It’s a special type of person with a special kind of mindset that buys an old house,” Ms. Holt said. “You’re not there to impose, you really are the steward of the past.”

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