Urban restorations

By Jennifer Barger
Thursday, January 21, 2010

For some aspiring homeowners, phrases like "as is" or "fixer-upper" sound as ominous as "termite infestation" or "nuclear power plant views." Still, there are many nesters itching to rehab a Queen Anne on the Hill or a Federal rowhouse in Old Town Alexandria, creaky floors, tiny closets and decrepit bathrooms be damned. In the book "Restoring a House in the City" (Artisan, 2009), journalist and former House & Garden editor Ingrid Abramovitch shows that older homes can be livable and lovely, and provides ideas for making them so. We chatted with Abramovitch about the book, which chronicles 21 renovations from the District to Brooklyn, where she lives.

What's the siren call of owning an older home?

People recognize that they just don't build houses like these anymore. These places were made by hand, by craftsmen who used exquisite materials, like first-growth wood paneling. They're gorgeous. It's so shortsighted when people remove things like that due to current fashion.

How can you update an old house without destroying its soul?

It's a question everyone who undertakes a restoration needs to ask. But I don't think there's a cardinal sin when restoring a house, except thinking that older houses are museum pieces and that they can't be relevant to modern life.

When do you know that a house is too "as is" to fix up?

Well, if the house speaks to you, go for it. But get a really good inspection done before committing. Try to find out what the budget will be for the things that'll need fixing. But you have to realize it isn't easy to renovate! I didn't even renovate my house, but it has constant issues: We've repointed the bricks, replaced the front door and done the floors.

What areas do people update?

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