The Cross House

Should Old People Buy Old Houses?

I love the fabulous Kelly and her Old House Dreams, and donate to her every month, automatically, via Patreon.

One thing I often notice is how people comment with something like this:

I love this house and if my spouse and I were younger we’d take it on.

Every time I see this I think: I took on the Cross House at 57-years-old. That is not young! (Today, at 62, I look back and think: 57! A baby!)

I wrote this in my very first blog post:

One thought pushed me over the edge of uncertainty.

Just before I signed a contract I wondered: When was the last time I did something crazy? I had not expected the thought; it just popped into my head.

When I was younger I did a lot a crazy things (no, I will not let you read my diary). In retrospect, many of these actions almost wrecked my life, but some, some, proved deeply nourishing. And, you know, even some of the disasters make me, today, smile when I think: I did what? I admit to a certain pride at the impressive, glittering foolishness of some of my actions.

In 2014 I was fifty-seven. As I have grown ever older I have also grown ever more cautious. This dynamic is not unique to me, but…should I, could I, would I be willing to, for perhaps one last time, joyfully jump off a cliff and toward…?

The last crazy thing I did was in 1996. Had eighteen years really now since passed? The thought stunned me. Eighteen years! Was I now frozen by an old-age sense of caution?

At fifty-seven was there enough boldness left in me to fuel THE craziest thing I had ever done?

The question stopped me cold.

The answer catapulted me off that cliff.

I have no sense. And, obviously, I am immune to a rational sensibility.

Funny though, since jumping — arms outstretched, a radiant smile blazing across my face — I feel many years younger.

Incaution may be a magic elixir.

 

And now, in 2019, I have never regretted taking on such an insane project at my age.

Had I taken on the Cross House in my twenties I would have, almost certainly, become overwhelmed. I just did not have the experience for such an undertaking. But with age comes experience and, it is hoped, some wisdom, and each seems uniquely ideal qualities for taking on an old house.

When I read about some young couple with small kids taking on an old house my heart goes out to them. HOW do they do it? A new marriage? Small kids? AND an old house project? Yikes!

But, when you are older, and the kids have moved out, perhaps this is a good time to do something crazy?

Older people are also normally in a better financial position to take on a old house.

 

In writing this, I recall something from the 1990s, and apologize if I have mentioned it previously. A friend, Laurie, managed a high-end care facility in a huge old house. To stay there required but two things:

  1. You had to be 62 or older.
  2. You had to be ambulatory.

Over many months I noticed one resident in particular. Sue, a retired school teacher, radiated vitality. She effortlessly walked up/down the main staircase. While the other residents would watch TV nightly, Sue replied to letters from former students which arrived weekly in batches. She not only maintained a connection with former students spanning many decades, but she knew all about their spouses, children, and grandchildren.

Sue’s night table was stacked with books, and she subscribed to numerous newspapers. She adored crossword puzzles.

On her birthday, the house would be filled with well-wishers and Sue knew all their names.

One day I asked Laurie: “I’m confused. How is Sue allowed to stay here?”

Laurie: “What?”

“I thought the age minimum was 62. So why is Sue allowed in?”

Laurie shook her head and looked really confused: “I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”

Me, frustrated: “You have a minimum age requirement of 62. But Sue is, what, in her early 50s?”

Laurie laughed. “Oh! I understand now! Yes, Sue does look young but, Ross, she’s our oldest resident!”

My brain could not process this. Sue radiated youthfulness.

“”Ross, Sue is 92!”

I gasped.

 

I have never forgotten this story.

Out of a houseful of senior residents, Sue, by far, seemed the youngest yet she was just the opposite. To me, the reason seemed obvious: While Sue had retired from teaching, she had not retired from life.

Sue was deeply engaged and passionate about so many things. And, for the first time, I thought: This is what keeps a person young.

The story of Sue was in my mind when I took the big leap on the Cross House.

 

I love this house and if my spouse and I were younger we’d take it on.

So, yes, I think being older is actually a good age for taking on an old house, or any seemingly crazy project. Because of my long experience, and because of any wisdom gained over the decades, I am far better equipped for such an undertaking. I am also calmer than I used to be and do not freak at the endless little things. With age, too, comes confidence. I used to panic: Will X ever get done? Today: Yeah, yeah, baby steps will take me to the end.

With that said however I am aware of just how different my 62-year-old body is from my 25-year-old body. My young body could take anything. My older body? It requires caution.

To this end, while I once thought nothing about going up/down a ladder for several hours; today I rarely use a ladder. When I hand-painted the ceiling of the parlor, I used a rolling scaffolding, also adjusted so that I barely had to crane my neck.

I now know when restoring base molding that I can’t say crouched for an hour because when I try to stand my body protests furiously because it gets locked into a recumbent position. Instead, I crouch in short increments of time!

Outside, scaffolding is erected for almost everything and I endeavor to position each tower adjacent to a window so I can step out of rather than climb up the scaffolding. The work platform is fully protected by 2×4 railings, and with a length of 1×12 as a counter so I am not always bending down to pick up a tool. I normally work standing erect, meaning that my “canvas” is what is directly in front of me, basically a working area four-feet high. When I need to move higher, I add scaffolding. Lower, I remove scaffolding. In short, I rarely need to bend.

My scaffolding towers are also safe. I look back at things I did as a youngster and shake my head at how dangerous they were. Today, I am all too aware that a fall or slip at my age could be catastrophic. I often think of Pam, who created retrorenovation.com. One day, after new curtains arrived, instead of using a ladder to hang the curtains she grabbed a nearby chair…and then fell off the chair, very badly breaking bones. In my twenties, I often did the chair-grabbing thing but no longer. Get a ladder, Ross!

Also, even with a ladder, I have trained myself, when stepping down, to look at my feet, for I used to occasionally think I had reached the bottom step when, in fact, I was two steps above. And I fell that short distance. This is jarring when young; dangerous when older.

When young, I prided myself any being able to lift anything and thought nothing about picking up a dozen pieces of 4×8 sheetrock at the lumberyard and hauling them inside my latest project. Today? I call in the order and ask that the sheetrock be delivered and brought inside. And when the buff young man leaves, I tip him. Soooooooo much easier.

In decorating, my youthful ideas were never mitigated by how much work X concept would be. Today, I compromise between brilliance and ease. I have had a number of ideas for the Cross House that I abandoned because they were simply too much work. This would never have troubled young Ross.

 

In conclusion, while my age seems ideal for taking on an old house due to my long experience and gained wisdom, with each passing year I need to adjust slightly to what my body can do. Or, rather, can’t do!

Certainly, taking on an old house is not for everybody. We all have different things which engage us but this post is intended for:

I love this house and if my spouse and I were younger we’d take it on.

And, maybe, maybe, you should.

Sue would approve.

 

 

18 Responses to Should Old People Buy Old Houses?

  1. Well said, Ross. I, too am an older homeowner, 11 years your senior. I have restored and improved quite a few houses in my time; although none as needy as the Cross House. Your approach has you working smarter, not harder, enabling you to work longer. I still work on our historic house and as an old lady, am proud to be able to impress the younger folks with my skills. I’ve slowed down on home improvement, but I’ve continued using my skills and my power tools; just on a smaller scale (as illustrated on my blog). I hope to learn from and enjoy your blog for years to come.

  2. I couldn’t agree more, Ross! My partner and I are both older than you were in 2014 when you bought the Cross House, yet we have just taken on a house with a TON of problems. While only a fraction of the size of the Cross House, our new project is nonetheless a serious commitment of time and resources.

    None of us are getting any younger. But that is absolutely NO reason to avoid tackling a restoration project! Rather, it should be a great incentive to take on a lot of work. Why? There are two primary reasons:

    1) Younger people are not going to do it (they don’t have the interest, knowledge, ability, or resources). Even if they are trust fund kids, their exposure to HGTV has been too detrimental to allow them to do any serious, scholarly, preservation.

    2) Constant work is one of the best ways to stay in good shape: Use it or lose it. Working on an old house is not only fun, but insures that you will not become a couch potato. And it’s a great way to meet people! When you work on an old house, it attracts a certain amount of curiosity — and people who you would not otherwise have ever encountered will suddenly express friendship and admiration. And that provides the opportunity to educate others about the importance (and joys) of preservation.

    It’s a healthy way to give back to the planet… buying more time for unique pieces of our collective history so that future generations will at least have opportunities to explore the past in ways that they would not have had otherwise.

    Sue would certainly understand this!

    Thank you for having the common sense to do something crazy when you were 57. Your work has been — and continues to be — inspirational to so many. That’s important.

    • At 34, I must respectfully disagree with your point #1! We do have the interest in old houses, though seldom met with the knowledge, ability and resources to fix them up. Instagram accounts like Cheapoldhouses cater to a younger crowd and the before-and-afters undo the sins of our boomer forebears: out with the carpet and back to hardwoods, gone with fiberglass and back to clawfoot tubs, vinyl siding taken down and the original wood patched and painted. HGTV treatments and ‘updates’ like vinyl windows are routinely mocked by scores of young Instagramers.

      Maybe I’m just in a bubble, maybe by young people you mean Gen X, but for us Gen Z and Y? We love a cool old place with character and soul.

      • There is always an exception to every rule, and I sincerely appreciate your interest in old houses. Spread the word! I may be so isolated that I have not had the opportunity to see any scholarly preservation work accomplished by Generations X, Z or Y. Please restore my faith in the future of humanity by providing me links to such restorations!

        If such restorations exist, and they well may, you will have to admit that they are not commonplace. Otherwise we would not have so many worthy but neglected and/or mutilated buildings everywhere. Sadly, purchasing real estate is just not a reality for a growing percentage of the population, but that’s a whole nuther topic.

        Ask any realtor what young people are looking for when shopping for a house… they are NOT looking for two-and-a-half story fixer-uppers built prior to 1900. Loving a cool old place with character and soul is very different from actually purchasing one and physically ensuring its survival for future generations in an historically authentic manner.

        Until historic houses appeal to more than a small and very niche market they will continue to disappear at an appalling rate.

        Anything you could do to change my perspective and make me eat my words would be greatly appreciated!

        • Shots fired! (Though I know I didn’t do an academic restoration of my house either.)

          I agree that old houses are a niche product and that they are being torn down or unsympathetically altered at an appalling rate. As for academic restorations, I know someone around my age who has given all his free time over to nominating buildings to Philadelphia’s historic register, and who sued Jared Kushner to block a demolition and won: https://www.phillymag.com/news/2016/08/13/oscar-beisert-philadelphia-preservation/

          I’ve also been to LimeWorks and most of the people who work there (besides the owner) are on the younger side.

          And though I agree that younger people who want a restored older house are a rare exception, I don’t think boomers have a better track record. In the neighborhood where I grew up, I think the younger owners have a slightly better track record than the Boomers at keeping original windows. I’m also biased because I know that when I was a baby people colonialized a lot of Tudor Revivals with brass light fixtures and painted woodwork. And although the really old people had a good track record with preserving 1920’s to 1930’s houses in my parents’ area, they were outrageously bad with Victorian houses where I live now.

          My parents have discussed possibly sooner or later downsizing, and I started to steer them in an older direction. But then I remembered that my mom is a painted woodwork person and also reminded myself only to steer them towards Colonial Revivals or houses that have already been painted.

          And as for not having the time, that’s definitely a thing. I don’t know if I could handle another big project either.

          • Agreed… Boomers don’t have a better track record. But older preservationists are much more likely to be able to successfully tackle a restoration than a younger person… it’s just a fact.

            Veryhappy to learn of the successful blocking of Kushner’s anticipated demolition — and ecstatic to learn of the “Lone Ranger of Philly preservation”, Oscar Beisert. Gotta love a guy like that… what an inspiration! I wish there were a million more like him. Thanks for pointing him out… you have indeed given me a bit of optimism for the future!

          • From an old boomer’s perspective… cut us a LITTLE slack, will ya? 🙂 In 1982, when we started our restoration, there was little available to guide us. I don’t even think “This Old House” was out there on PBS yet (and if it was, we probably couldn’t have seen it anyway – I think we got 3 or 4 channels clear enough to be viewable with our antenna) and the internet wasn’t even a dream yet. We were in our early 20s and went at the job with the definite idea that we wanted to restore rather than renovate, but I’m sure we were guilty of some mis-steps. We did manage to avoid the major boo-boos – no 1980s kitchen got installed! We lived for the next 20 years with our restored Sellers hoosier cabinet as our main workspace and a free-standing jelly cabinet for storage in that huge kitchen space… and it was beautiful. To us, anyway! LOL!

            Anyway, all that to say that most of us were not academics who knew exactly what we were doing back in the day – and now there is so much more information available. All we have to do is convince the younger generation that the history and beauty of these houses is worth the extra work they definitely bring with them. For many, that’s a hard sell.

          • Great point, Beth! When Boomers like us started restoring houses we didn’t have the internet… all we had in the 70’s was a three-hole-punched publication in black and white called “The Old House Journal”! It’s gotten all slick and glossy since then, but that’s another story. My parents subscribed to it back then, and I read every issue with reverence.

            I can’t fault younger people, however… they simply don’t have the same opportunities that we did! They have less freedom, a devalued dollar, deteriorating public schools, and more legal hoops to jump through than we did 40 years ago.

            To put it bluntly, this is not an opportune time for old buildings worthy of preservation. I greatly admire the young people today who are pro-preservation in an atmosphere which is blatantly hostile to preservation.

  3. Hello Ross!

    Blair here from St. Joe, MO! We sold our old house and now live in Liberty Township, Ohio in the north part of Youngstown.

    I LOVED our 120-year-old custom 4-rectangle, but now we have purchased a 1958 Mid-century modern. Not anything like a Frank Lloyd Wright, but a well-built 2600 square foot MCM with original features throughout and extremely well maintained for 61 years!

    All the bathroom tile and toilets are intact, blues, yellows and a soft Lilac!

    My wife appreciates the level ranch with her knees and back issues, but there is just enough restoration and deferred maintenance to keep me busy. Now I just need a source of income so I can restore the Teak outdoor furniture and replace so ancient carpeting!

    Take care Ross!

  4. Oy, I think one of my comments on OHD may have contributed to the idea for a Ross-post! I am “that age” and very cautious… and know that we might now have *close to the amount of necessary* money (and within the next few years, finally, the TIME!!! YAAAAY!!!!) to do a restoration correctly… but still feel very cautious. My husband surprised me yesterday, when driving through Saratoga Springs and drooling over the houses. He actually said “Well, it would have been totally different if we weren’t both working full-time… maybe as retirees…” He was the one who wanted to sell our first house, a wonderful but simple & small 1889 farmhouse that gave us continual “opportunities” to learn new home-maintenance and restoration skills. Quite often, those opportunities were presented at 4 a.m. in the very cold and scary cellar, or outside during a torrential downpour (oh, those Yankee gutters!). Still, we loved that house… its history, its sense of permanence and yet surprises, feeling attached to people who had built it 90 years before we bought it – and almost 70 years before I was even born. We considered naming our kids after them – Daniel and Sarah – because we still felt their presence in the house strongly, and felt that they were approving what we were doing and un-doing. After 20 years, we were still not finished, and with a small child at that point, it just became too onerous. Would I take it on again? Do I have the guts to go for the glory? I want to say yes… but dang it, I am scared… and think I’ve gotten soft from 20 years of living in a 1999 modern box with less-ladderlike stairs and actual insulation!

    Love your writing, Ross – and love your house! Thank you for doing both!

  5. I was doing some landscaping and taking a well-deserved rest…contemplating my sanity, when I got a phone call from my uncle at least 20 years my senior (80’s). When asked what he was up to, he replied nonchalantly, he’d just bought a house to renovate and was cleaning up the landscape. Needless to say I considered it a kick in the pants and quit complaining and finished my project..lol

  6. Our kids (and a lot of other people) think I am crazy, but as I get closer to retirement (3 years to go), I am getting more excited about our old house! I partially blame Ross, Kelly, and a few others for putting ideas in my head; while tired and sore, I am having the time of my life. The exterior of our 1886 Queen Anne is nearly complete, just some trim I want to put back on the porches, but the inside still has miles of woodwork to strip, floors to refinish, etc… and I recently bought a 1940s Cape Cod to restore and sell. I knew the original owners, and it saddened me when their heirs sold the house around 15 years ago to people who did not take care of it. It eventually went to foreclosure this year, and I rescued the old girl. So after spending most of last fall on a ladder restoring my own windows, I am spending this fall on a ladder 6 blocks east, restoring windows on 1.5 story Cape Cod. Last night we were driving home when I noticed a new For Sale sign in the yard of a tired looking but once beautiful 4-square, and before I could say a word, my wife announced “NO! Not another one until you sell the Cape, and finish the downstairs bathroom and pantry!” It’s too bad we can’t keep our wisdom and experience, but regain the energy and stamina of our youth…

  7. I’m grateful for your careful and thoughtful attitude Ross 😊 it sounds silly but when you haven’t posted for a few days (or HAVE posted elsewhere and I haven’t realized, as is most often the case) I worry about you.

    I think it’s fun that there are people all over this world that feel like you are a friend and miss you when you aren’t feeding our Ross addiction 😁 hugs from Mississippi!

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