Owning an old house is a learning experience.
The first thing a new owner learns is that there is an ever increasing number of things to be repaired or replaced and an ever shrinking pot of money to do it with. Except for the ultra-rich, owning an old house -- especially if it is a gutted shell -- is a poverty producing experience.
The first task is to decide which crisis is to get attention and money first. Logic and the local government's building codes and health department can provide the answer. You should insure the structural integrity of the building (make sure it does not fall down) and then repair or replace those basic systems -- plumbing, electricity, and heating -- which make the house livable.
Dedicated do-it-yourself rehabilitators have been known to live by the light of candles and without heat of hot water for months. But few people have that level of interest. Begin with the basics of housing -- shelter.
You will want to make sure that the roof is doing its job to keep the rain and snow out and the warmth in. Moisture won't damage just your furniture and clothes. If the wood in the house becomes moist and does not dry, rot can develop. Undetected and untreated, it can damage the basic building elements of the house.
Windows are also part of the water-shedding system, even it they seem to be taken for granted. You will not need to replace rotten window sills or sashes early in the rehabilitation. But be sure that any glass is replaced or the hole boarded over.
Plastic Sheeting is another material that can be used to keep moisture out.
A new roof or roof repairs are expensive but they also last. A well maintained slate or metal roof will last longer than you are likely to own the house.
It will also protect the structural integrity of the house. Foundations, rafters, beams, and joists are what provide the framework for your house. They are often ignored, but when trouble develops can produce the most ghastly repair bills. Reanchoring a wall because of uneven settlement caused by an unrepaired leak from a sewer system is not the way you want to spend your money.
Check for rot or termite damage in the wood beams and the wooden sill plate the house rests on. Any damage should be repaired early in the rehabilitaton process before you have made an investment in plaster, wallboard, or anything else that may have to be removed to get the damage.
Most old houses will have lights, heating, and plumbing but the systems and appliances usually have to be replaced and upgraded to meet the demands of current owners. They can also produce serious problems such as rot in the floorboards caused by leaky plumbing.
An electrical fire produced by a faulty fusebox is another danger. These systems should be replaced before any kind of cosmetic work is attempted and before the money runs out.
Flooring is often the first place termite damage will appear. Subflooring should be replaced early, but the final wood floors or carpeting should not be place until the end to prevent damage from construction debris.
It is a discouraging fact, but basics will cost the most money in an old house -- but are the least glamorous. People will show off a solar unit or a wood stove to guests, but not a furnace. And a new metal roof may keep the snow out of the bedroom but it hardly has the panache of a newly installed marble mantle.
Basics are also the kinds of things that all but the most dedicated -- and perhaps foolhardy -- have done by professionals. You can always practice hanging wallboard in the back bedroom, but there is only one roof. Save the time, energy, and problems and have the basics done by the experts.