Although only four neighborhoods of the Northside’s 14 have official historic districts, older houses of all types and architectural styles pepper each and every neighborhood.
Many older Northside houses sit vacant and waiting for industrious owners to restore them to their former glory — many for a steal.
Renovating a home in one of the four city historic districts — Manchester, Allegheny West, the Mexican War Streets and Historic Deutschtown — does come with one big caveat: any changes to the exterior have to be approved by the Historic Review Commission.
“You have to restore it or maintain it as close to the original construction of the house,” said East Allegheny Community Council board member Nick Kyriazi.
The trade-off is knowing that neighbors won’t be able to do anything to damage the value of surrounding homes.
Living in an historic district might not be for everyone, though, and the Northside provides plenty of opportunities to renovate older homes with historic values in all its neighborhoods.
Historic homes possess character and charm “not easily (or affordably) replicated today,” Louise Sturgess, of the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation, said in a fax.
“By occupying a historic house you are supporting sustainable communities and giving a new generation of use to a familiar and often memorable neighborhood landmark.”
There are basically two ways to go about renovation: do it yourself or hire contractors. A list of contractors can be found on Historic Deutschtown’s website, www.deutschtown.org.
The RenPlan, a program run by the Community Design Center of Pittsburgh, also has a list of contractors who have experience working on historic homes. The list is at renplan.cdcp.org.
RenPlan Director Kate McGlynn stressed the importance of finding a reputable contractor who is knowledgeable about historic homes and skilled in using the types of materials often found in older Pittsburgh homes.
Even for those working with contractors, McGlynn said that breaking a renovation project into phases is an important step that many people struggle with. Whether or not you decide to work with a contractor, coming up with a plan of action and a budget is important, especially if you can’t live in the house while you renovate.
For $150, the RenPlan will send a certified, experience architect or design professional to your property to speak with you about big picture planning, where you should start your renovation and where you should focus your energies.
“We really see it as the first step in the renovation process,” McGlynn said.
The RenPlan consultant will also leave renovators with fact sheets (also available online) and information packets. McGlynn stressed that the consultation is not a fully formed strategic plan, but is a good first step for those who feel overwhelmed by the renovation process.
“It’s a conversation,” she said.
House tours are another way to get a feel for what a finished historic home can look like inside and out, Kyriazi said. Most historic neighborhoods organize tours, so call the neighborhood you’re interested in and find out when theirs is.
Things to look our for
For those without oodles of cash lying around, there’s the do-it-yourself model. Although History and Landmarks Property and Construction Manager Tom Keffer said that DIY renovation is entirely possible, there are a few things homebuyers should be aware of.
“It has been my experience that water infiltration is the source of greatest concern to people who are renovating historic houses,” Keffer said in a fax.
Improperly cared-for roofs, gutters and windows can all let water into the house, damaging the structure and in extreme cases, the foundation.
McGlynn said another source of concern in buildings that have been vacant for a long period of time is the utilities. If they’re shut off, it’s impossible to see if they work properly, and the homebuyer runs a higher chance of needing to replace them.
“The roof, masonry/wood siding, windows, electric and HVAC are most likely to need the most work,” Keffer said.
Not including the purchase price, a complete rehabilitation typically costs between $140,000 and $180,000, although doing it yourself could save between $40,000 and $80,000, Keffer added.
Another renovation challenge is understanding individual elements that need regular maintenance, like the roof and windows and any finishes that are essential to the home’s character and value.
“What’s the right thing to do so that it preserves the look of the home?” McGlynn said, noting that original materials might not always be available, and care should be taken in finding appropriate replacements.
Do it yourself
Keffer recommends leaving the roof, plumbing and electrical wiring to professionals, but “the home owner should do all the interior demolition” like “removing all the trim carefully for reuse, removing all damaged plaster and lath down to the studs [and] removing all fixtures, cabinets and carpeting.”
As long as you’re willing to learn, installing insulation and drywall are easy enough, and most people will be able to clean, strip and refinish trim, windows and doors as well as clean and polish hardware like door knobs.
“Use a dumpster service that will separate the material and salvage reusable items, thus reducing landfill space,” he said.
If money is a concern and time isn’t, Kyriazi said it’s even possible to do more difficult tasks like plumbing and electrical installation.
“I did one room at a time and it took me 12 years,” he said about restoring his Avery Street home. “I learned most of this stuff by going to the hardware store” and asking.
Both McGlynn and Kyriazi recommend walking around the neighborhood and knocking on doors.
“I would just knock on doors, sometimes [the homeowners] have done it themselves,” Kyriazi said. “A lot of people who’ve renovated houses can give advice.”
McGlynn said, “It really helps when you move into the neighborhood to talk to neighbors.”
It’s also important to keep the original design of the house in mind when working on the exterior. The RenPlan’s website has fact sheets detailing Pittsburgh’s common architectural styles and how to find replacement parts that keep with original design.
“Never do white” windows, doors or exterior paint, Kyriazi said, because during the Victorian era white exterior details were only used for country homes, never for city houses.
He also said to never change the size or shape of your house’s windows, or use a new door. Finding the right kind of door is a challenge; for Victorian homes, doors with four or five panels are accurate, but six paneled doors were never used.
“For me, seeing the wrong panel on a door is like seeing a Chinese nose on an Arab,” he said.
Reap the benefits
All of that work doesn’t appeal to everyone, but the satisfaction of renovating an older home can more than make up for all the frustrations and challenges. A renovated historic home will also retain its value and sell more quickly.
Another plus is really getting to know your space, McGlynn said. “It’s really amazing what you can find.”
Some people also take the time to research the history of their homes and its previous occupants and building history, which adds another layer of interest and value to the home.
“One advantage of living in a historic home — particularly on the Northside — is that you are part of historic neighborhood made up of walkable blocks, sidewalks, green spaces and main streets,” Sturgess said in a fax.
McGlynn agreed. “You really feel that [your home] is true to the city where it’s located.”