Gut an Old House: What You Need to Know to Avoid Disaster

Written by Brittany Allen

Contrary to what horror movies might want you to think, there isn’t anything nefarious lurking in the walls of your old home. While you might find outdated electrical work, or a lack of insulation, gutting your house won’t release any demons of the past. However, it could be more work and a more considerable investment than expected if you don’t go into it without a plan.

What does gut an old house mean?

Remodeling a house and gutting a house are not the same; however, these terms are often used interchangeably. Remodeling a home means you’re changing specific aspects of the home, such as a kitchen or bathroom, and updating features like cabinets, fixtures, and lighting. Gutting a house removes all the drywall or plaster and strips the home down to ceiling and wall framing. This leaves no wall surface behind and sometimes even includes flooring. 

Before you start

True to our design-build nature, we recommend you take a minute before starting your gut project to assess what you do and do not like about the old house. Take notes on the details that make the home unique to you. For example, older homes often have large trim details and doors with more interesting profiles than their modern cousins. If you replace these items with contemporary options, you might lose the home’s character that you love so much. Making a note will allow you to implement them back into the house and stay true to the home’s original design. 

Additionally, make notes of what you don’t like so you can change it while you’re remodeling. For example, a common change people want to make to older homes is adding more receptacles. Now that there are so many devices that need power or to be charged, it can be a good idea to add more receptacles to the older home that likely didn’t have enough before. 

Find a Contractor with Experience

With any construction project, the best way to ensure success is to find a contractor you can trust. With older homes, it’s crucial to find someone with experience in keeping the details and authentic beauty intact even when upgrading and rearranging the house. A contractor with experience will be aware of the elements that bring together the specific architectural style within a home and keep it in check. For example, earlier carpenters used different wood materials than we do today. Being sure to replace trim and flooring with the same material they used back then will keep your home seamless even when it’s gone through a total gut. 

Challenges that come with gutting an old house

The most intimidating part of gutting an old house is not knowing what to expect. To ease those fears, here are some of the challenges you might face. 

Moulding and Trimwork

The trim in old houses is often more ornate and more prominent than in newer homes. You can sometimes find replicas to replace it, but sometimes it may take additional work and cost to recreate custom molding to match the original trim. 

Additionally, when you remove the old thicker plaster and replace it with the thinner drywall, window and door trim must be reworked to accommodate the thinner walls. This also can leave a gap around the baseboard that shows the gap between the hardwood flooring and the subfloor. This could cause much more work than expected if there isn’t already a plan in place. 

Studs and Walls

When that old plaster is removed, it might not be as simple as putting up new drywall and you’re done. Studs are not always even under the plaster since it could be applied to make up for uneven boards. To get the drywall to be installed straight, you might have to add two by fours to make the drywall lay flat. This will add more work and additional lumber costs. 

If you go beyond removing just the plaster and start removing walls, the floor will be impacted because the walls will leave gaps in the flooring. This could mean a total floor replacement, adding more work and cost to the project. 

Opportunities that come with gutting an old house

Gutting can present many challenges, but it also allows for many opportunities to upgrade the home while keeping its character and original architecture intact. 

Electric and Plumbing

Gutting exposes many things, including electricity and plumbing. Codes are different in every municipality, but often you must bring electric and plumbing systems up to code if they are worked on or exposed during a remodel or a gut. This might be a downside for your wallet, but it will make the home more efficient and safer. 

Gutting is also an excellent time to add more receptacles. Old houses tend not to have as many, making charging and powering all our devices a challenge. It makes it easier to add more lighting too. Overhead lighting will brighten the older home that initially might have only have a floor lamp.

Insulation

Most older homes have no insulation at all. If they do, it’s typically disintegrating and almost useless—another upside to gutting to the opportunity to insulate all the walls while they are exposed and open. You’ll save money in the long run when all your heat and air aren’t leaking through those old walls. 

Making Repairs

Exposing the inside of the walls also lets you find and fix potential moisture leaks around windows and other areas that might have caused damage down the road.

Fixtures

Without gutting the home and trying to work around the plaster might cause more problems down the line for newer fixtures like faucets. New faucets are made to fit the thinner walls of drywall. Since you’ve gutted the home and installed new drywall, the newer fixtures you’ve selected will be installed smoothly and without the need for finagling. 

Moving and Replacing Walls

Gutting the house will make moving walls easier than if you tried to leave some parts of it up. While it might mean you need to replace the floor as well, there’s no better time to reconsider the layout of the home than during a complete gut. 

Gutting out the old plaster will be better for your wallet in the long run too. Drywall is more tolerant of movement, and cracks in plaster are almost impossible to fix without going into significant work.

As with any home project, the best way to protect yourself from never-ending deadlines and a sore wallet is to do your research and start with a plan. Older homes deserve respect and love, and gutting one is hard work, but the reward of a refurbished older home with modern amenities is worth it. 

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