It’s no secret that old homes have a very special kind of character that is difficult to replicate in modern spaces. From Cape Dutch to mid-century modern or even 70s-kitsch, a well-preserved period property has the potential to achieve record-breaking sales figures in the right market.
To fulfil this potential, many owners of heritage or period properties opt for careful restoration to return things to as-built condition. According to David Jacobs, Gauteng Regional Manager for the Rawson Property Group, this is not only a very costly option, in certain circumstances it can actually diminish the value of the home.
“It’s easy to forget that the value of an old property isn’t just about aesthetics,” says Jacobs. “Yes, they’re beautiful and have unique features and wonderful character, but they also have a huge amount of history recorded in their walls. It’s this history that is at the core of their value to true heritage fans, and the restoration process can wipe a lot of that away.”
Jacobs is quick to point out that this only applies to restoration involving the removal of original building materials or features and replacing them with modern equivalents in the original style.
“We see this a lot with things like wooden floors, lime plaster walls and roof tiles – things you don’t really think about as being integral to a building’s value,” he says. “In reality, these are a treasured record of original building materials and techniques, and their scars of age and use aren’t considered blemishes – they’re more of a living diary.”
In addition to holding clues to the ins and outs of daily life when the property was new, Jacobs says original materials are often more suited to keeping old buildings in good condition than modern alternatives.
“So many old homes struggle with things like damp, because the original lime plaster and suspended wooden floors have been replaced with cement and concrete slabs,” he says. “These prevent the walls and underfloor spaces from breathing the way they were designed to do, and all that trapped moisture causes flaking paint, musty smells and rotting floor boards.”
Instead of restoring a heritage home by replacing worn or damaged materials, Jacobs suggests opting to repair the originals instead, whenever possible.
“Obviously, this can be difficult when it comes to things like plumbing and electrical,” he admits. “Safety and functionality does come first. That said, original light switches and lamps, taps and bathroom fittings can all usually be connected to modern pipes and wiring, and add a huge amount of character – and value – to a home.”
Jacobs says a surprising amount of original features can be repaired rather than replaced, from patching wooden windows to adding hidden supports under uneven staircases or floors.
“Even original plaster can often be repaired and patched with traditional materials for a fraction of the cost of redoing it,” he says. “You just need to find a team of trusted artisans with the knowledge and expertise to work in more traditional ways.”
This, he believes is the main challenge for heritage property owners.
“As a society, we’ve almost lost the art of repair over the years,” he says. “Things are designed with a lifespan of five or ten years, and after that we just throw them away. The joy of old buildings – and old fittings and features – is that they were designed to last a lifetime. With careful repairs and maintenance, they can often outlive their modern equivalents, protecting not only our history, but also our bottom line!”