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Renovation uncovers water problems in crawlspace, challenging our romance with our 1920s farmhouse

The Maynards find more surprises as they continue renovation of their 1924 farmhouse in Hyattsville, Md. (James Loren Payne Photography)

You either love old houses or you don’t. My wife and I happen to love them — at least some aspects of them.

Many old houses have character and materials that you don’t typically find in an average new home, which may include hardwood millwork, old-growth wood flooring and doors, marble mantels and many other quality elements that were common in a bygone era.

But that’s the romantic side of old houses. The reality is that they can be rife with structural and foundation issues, obsolete wiring and plumbing and poorly insulated walls. Frequently, the floor plan isn’t set up for the way people live and entertain today.

The last time, I told you about the surprises we encountered with the second floor and the plumbing. Well, the issues kept coming.

Back when our house was built, a brick foundation was common. At some point between 1924 and now, someone plastered over the exterior foundation wall above grade, which is not always a good idea. The bricks don’t get a chance to dry out, and over time the trapped moisture causes the mortar to fail and the bricks to deteriorate.

I contacted the Brick Industry Association for guidance, and they recommended that we remove the plastering, replace the damaged bricks and repair the deteriorating mortar joints. Rough estimate: $7,000. (There goes our summer trip to Copenhagen.)

More Maynard: When walls in old home come down, new renovation problems emerge

The crawlspace is a more pressing concern, however, and tangentially related to the brick foundation wall. It’s likely that the house had only a shallow crawlspace when it was built. During a subsequent remodel, workers dug down another three feet to enlarge the space.

Construction methods being what they were in the early 20th century, basement waterproofing was not exactly common practice. As a result, the crawlspace has some water infiltration. So we need some type of remediation work to fix the problem, although we are unsure what the real issue happens to be.

We are not the only ones. Several company reps have taken a look at it, and each has a slightly different theory. A few have recommended that we dig a trench around the perimeter of the basement floor to install a perforated pipe that would catch the water and drain it to a sump pump.

Another recommended that we attack the problem from the outside. This requires excavating the dirt down to the foundation wall, applying an asphalt-based waterproofing membrane to the outside, and then covering the wall with a drainage board. In addition, a perforated drain that is laid at the base of the foundation wall will catch water before it enters the house. The estimates range from $12,000 to $23,000.

A third professional provided yet another explanation. We are waiting on his final assessment and a definitive answer. Stay tuned.

We had another, less serious and less costly, surprise, too. The porch ceiling was covered with vinyl beadboard, but a quick exploration revealed that the original wood was still there. Our plan to remove the vinyl and scrape and paint the old surface went out the window when we found out that large chunks of it had been removed for some sort of a repair. There was nothing left to salvage, so we installed a new ceiling, which looks awesome — at least it will when it’s primed and painted.

Meanwhile, the interior work continues. The electrician has completed the recessed lights in the living room and kitchen, the carpenters have hung most of the interior doors, and the plumber has completed 95 percent of the rough work. Bath fans and the tub are in, and the plumber has started the custom shower pan in the master bathroom.

More Maynard: We found a home we could afford after touring 100. Now the real work begins in making it livable.

This might be a good time to talk about our design plans.

As I mentioned before, we have high ceilings and an open, efficient floor plan that is more than likely not original to the house. We believe it underwent a 1991 renovation that reorganized the flow of the house and added a powder room and master suite. Unfortunately, the renovation stripped the period details and left cheap doors, inferior light fixtures and builder-grade hardware. So we have a relatively blank slate.

I’ve always admired how European cities blend traditional and modern design, so we are doing the same.

Because we are in a historic area, the design plan calls for a hands-off approach to the exterior. We’ll replace the exterior light fixtures with versions that are more appropriate to the house’s era. The interior will have a blend of traditional and modern elements. We are refinishing the oak floors and keeping the existing molding and trim. The new interior wood six-panel doors and the Craftsman-style wood entry door will all get modern lever handles.

The kitchen will have gray flat-panel cabinets (with frosted glass uppers), white quartz countertops, a pro-style faucet, an island topped with walnut, a burgundy gas range, a dishwasher covered with a cabinet panel and a counter-depth refrigerator that will give us that custom look without that custom price tag. Yes, please!

Nigel F. Maynard is an architecture and design writer/editor who temporarily lives in New Carrollton, Md., with his wife, Stephenie, and their 140-pound harlequin Great Dane, Yeager. Over the next few months, he will chronicle their experiences renovating their 1924 farmhouse in Historic Hyattsville, where they will relocate when the work is done.