Restoring an Old House in 12 Simple Steps

by Amy Dorsch Heavilin of Vivacious Victorian

My husband Doug and I are beginning year three of bringing our 1902 Queen Anne Victorian back to life. Twenty-two rooms, and we’re in the middle of restoring just room FIVE. To be fair, the exterior restoration was a beast, and it was completely done during the first two years. We are doing all of the interior work ourselves, because when it comes to restoration, you need really need two things : time, or money. Let’s face it – you need BOTH, but if you don’t have a lot of money, you can make up for it with your own time (and willpower). Restoring an old house is a process, which I understand is why a lot of people don’t do it themselves. But we LOVE the process, even when it’s driving us mad. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to restore a house with someone else doing all the work, and having it all done BEFORE we moved it. It seems so….. I don’t know….. practical? But our way is an adventure, and pretty fun.
Sometimes people ask me what restoring a house is like. So, here’s the process of restoration. It’s OUR process of restoration, but I can’t believe it’s any different for anyone else restoring a house. It’s probably in a different order if you’re doing the WHOLE house at once, and not room-by-room like we are. (And, I swear on a stack of Old House Magazines, I didn’t try to make it twelve steps. It just happened that way.)


The Vision

This is the first step – going into the room, sitting in it for a bit, and knowing EXACTLY what it’s going to look like when it’s done. And I mean, exactly. I do this myself, but other people hire out by hiring a designer or an architect. But the step is still there. This is when I get REALLY excited because all I can see at this point is the finished product. And I start talking IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS.

The room before.


The Pitch

This might be to a contractor. For me, it’s saying to Doug, “So, I have an idea.” And then telling him what it’s going to look like, and saying “Make it go!” and leaving the room before he can say no. Or, if I don’t think my idea is going to be taken well, I’ll just wait until he’s out of sight and yell things like, “I think I’m going to paint the front bedroom black. Does that sound good?”

Some of the inspiration pieces (like painting the room black).


The Lists

What do we need? When do we need it? What will it cost? What do we own already? What’s the timeline? ALL THE LISTS GET MADE. Restoring a house can definitely make you feel like your life is spiraling out of control. For me, having lists and timelines makes me feel like I have control, even if I know every timeline we make goes out the window by week two.

The Deconstruction

I like saying deconstruction instead of demolition. Because we need to preserve and save what we can. There will be a few rooms of this house that will need gutting, no doubt, but ironically, they are the rooms that were reconfigured in the 1950s and 60s and 90s. The original rooms will have VERY little taken out, and usually only to update electrical or fix damage. This is where wallpaper and other oddities come down and move OUT.

The deconstruction begins.


The Problem*

Up until now, most of the steps are easy to budget and timeline. This step is where you get your delays and extra costs. And it ALWAYS happens. This is where you hit your snags, you find something that was done incorrectly, you have to fix something, or you have to research doing something a different way because of what you found. This can be a really fun puzzle, or it can completely derail or deflate you. For us, 90% of the time it’s the former. Thank goodness. This is where if you’re an in-the-box thinker (Doug) you can get frustrated, or if you’re an out-of-the-box thinker (Me) you come up with really crazy solutions that usually work – but sometimes are awful. Many times the solutions to the problems make the room SO much better in the end. For example, we discovered signature and handwriting on the walls from previous owners, and I was derailed, because there was NO WAY I was going to paint over that. So now, wallpaper is going back up, which will smooth the texture of the wall, and it’s a wallpaper meant to be painted, so my original vision will happen, with smoother walls, and history preserved. HOORAY!
*Note : This step can occur at any time throughout all other steps.

Finding signatures and messages under the wallpaper.



How to solve the “message under the wallpaper” dilemma.


The Infrastructure

Bringing lighting to code, fixing walls, floors &rotted wood…. you know, the nuts and bolts.


The infrastructure.


The Land of Tedium

This is usually when steps 4, 5, and 6 do a little waltz with each other. They repeat, they get mixed up, you go crazy….. 4, 5, 6, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 4, 5, 4, 6, 6, 4, 5……..This is also where you go through the Stages of Grief – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Those stage work for home restoration. For real. You never, EVER feel like you’re going to get out of this stage. So much, in fact, that you begin planning the next project, because you’re CONVINCED that you could actually finish an entire bathroom renovation before you finish this stage. I mean, I have a clawfoot tub is just SITTING IN THE LIBRARY waiting to have a bathroom to live in. Seriously. Let’s just start that project and knock it out because this bedroom is never getting finished. You get through steps 1through 3 of the next project before you finally have to come back and finish the current one you’re working on. This is the stage that couples probably fight the most in. We don’t fight (really, we don’t) but I could see how this would be the stage that makes people never want to renovate. And since we enjoy the struggle of solutions, it’s why we love it so much. Thank goodness.

Never ending work.


Still working.


The foot of the clawfoot tub in the library, waiting for a home.


“While We’re At It….”**

This is where you decide to do things you never were planning to do, but since things are destroyed anyway, you might as well add twelve things to the lists because it’ll be easier to do it now, then it will be to do it later. This step is fraught with danger. And it always makes your budget take a hit.
**Note : This step can occur at any time throughout all other steps.

The drawing for the wardrobe I designed.


The Light

At this stage, you can finally begin to see that the room is going to be finished. And some of that excitement from step one comes back into your heart. This is where the you can start putting the room back together. Walls are fixed, mouldings can go up (or back up), and it becomes a room again.

Building the wardrobe – seeing something accomplished.



Lighting is my favorite. And there aren’t ANY original lighting fixtures in this house. So when I find the perfect piece for each room and finally get it up, it is the moment I can breathe again. And I LOVE IT. This step occurs for everyone, it just might not be lighting. Whenever your favorite thing about a room goes in, you’re at this step. This is where something goes in the room that makes your heart skip a beat and you feel completely inspired. And if you have rooms in your house that don’t bring you joy when you enter them, then get to work. Even a laundry room should make you smile when you walk in. Maybe it’s a color or a photograph or a treasured gift. But have a moment in every room that makes you swoon.

The Pretty

Paint. Wallpaper. Color. Rugs. Furniture. Curtains. Pattern. Texture. All of that. This step is where you get to make the room a place to live in. This is where your personality can shine, and the architecture of the room can be what it was designed to be. In our house, we are SO lucky that almost no room is completely square. It’s so interesting, and even though sometimes it makes furniture placement hard, it’s fun to live in a house that has very little “normal” to it.

My beautiful, completed laundry room. To me, it’s perfect.


Back to The Vision

This is where you come full circle to Step One, only this time, it’s real and you can sit in it live in it and share pictures of it and read a book in it and call it home. And it’s always my favorite room until the next room is finished. Always.
So that’s what it’s like to restore a house. It’s inspiring and frustrating and hard – and completely worth it. People have said to us, “I’d love to restore a house, but I wouldn’t have a clue where to start.” Neither did we. But, the house will tell you what to do. And you’ll find quickly that we that love old houses are a supportive community – you’ll always have someone to turn to, scream at, or laugh with. Saving an old house is amazing, and we’re so lucky to still have 17 (and half) rooms to go.

Join The Discussion

Compare listings

Have the most beautiful old houses on the market
delivered to your inbox every single week!

Enter your email below to receive our latest listings,
featured favorites and more !
Have the most beautiful old houses on the market
delivered to your inbox every single week!

Enter your email below to receive our latest listings,
featured favorites and more !