A while back, a client of mine asked me to give the once-over to a house he was hoping to buy. It was a charming, well-kept little cottage with all the hallmarks of a history—some gouges here, some settlement there, perhaps a few cracks in the plasterwork. It wasn’t dilapidated by any means; rather, it had a nice warm patina of long use.
Happily, he did end up buying it. But when I came back a few months later to see what improvements he’d wrought, I was dismayed. He’d systematically gone through the house and replaced anything that showed the slightest trace of wear with brand-new stuff from the local hardware emporium. Hefty old doorknobs with the burnish of fifty years had been swapped in favor of tinny, glitzy brass ones; ditto the old lighting fixtures and bath fittings. The varnished wood trim (which had a few nicks and scratches, to be sure) had been smothered in a bland coat of bright white latex. And the wood floor—whose dents and imperfections bespoke the foibles of who knows how many sets of grandchildren—had been sanded glassy smooth and coated with a hi-tech sealer.
So much for a warm patina.
Still, I can hardly blame my client for wanting to make his little cottage sparkle. Us Yanks want everything to look like new. Maybe it’s because the U.S. is a relatively young country, and newness is practically all we know. But just as likely, it’s because advertising relentlessly conditions us to believe that new things--whether cars, clothes, or trendy toys for the kids--are always better than old ones. That goes for houses, too. Those of us who can’t afford brand new ones opt for the next best thing: We buy old ones and then “renovate” them into oblivion.
The point, as you’ve no doubt guessed by now, is that new isn’t necessarily better. So here are a few thoughts to consider before you wield that screwdriver or paintbrush at your defenseless old house:
• Think twice before consigning any part of your home to the junk heap. The quality of the building materials in most prewar homes—whether hardware, flooring, or light fixtures—is generally higher than the stuff that’s available today. In the long run, there’s little to be gained by exchanging quality materials that show some age for rinkydink goods that’ll briefly look brand-new.
• Use that paintbrush sparingly! The nature of today’s paint formulas makes repainting an iffy improvement. Therefore, if you have a reasonably intact coat of oil-base paint on your doors, for example, you’re far better off living with it than covering it with a latex paint, which won’t have the same shine or durability.
• Learn to live with a few scratches here and there. Americans are obsessed with keeping their homes pristine; unfortunately, the nature of the universe puts them forever on the losing side of the battle. Home ownership is a lot more fun when you learn to take the odd flaw in stride. That’s not to suggest that you neglect your home, but rather that you learn to accept a reasonable level of imperfection.
Europeans, I’m loathe to admit, are way ahead of us on this count: They’re quite comfortable with buildings that are old and timeworn, because they regard age and imperfection as a badge of honor, not as a sign of decrepitude.
• Finally, remember that any idiot can make a home look new, but only time can produce one with a history.