Hole-y historic house!
Fix it now to avoid bigger projects

By Laurie Arendt


Says Lisa Koby of Koby Restoration in Grafton,
“ignoring (a problem) won’t make it go away.”

There’s no denying the charm of an older home. From a Cream City palace to an elegant Painted Lady, older homes offer a sense of historic character not often found in new construction.

That isn’t to say, however, that older homes are as easy to take care of as newer ones. Thankfully, a simple rule of thumb applies to older home maintenance and repair: Many big problems tend to start out as little problems.

“It’s a general rule with just about anything in a home,” says Steve Korobkin, owner of Handy Hands Inc. in Bayside, “when you notice that something is wrong, take care of it before it becomes a major issue.”

Korobkin says that many older homes, particularly in the southern Northshore, are very well crafted. “There are some really fine-quality homes in Whitefish Bay and Shorewood,” he says. “You don’t see too many issues with homes built on that level.”

However, older homes often can become a little cranky. Some of the common issues that Korobkin has dealt with have included doors,
windows and plaster walls. “Older homes often have doors that won’t close, and the solution may be as simple as tightening or replacing the hinge screws,” he says. “Sash cords in windows can stick after a few decades, and wax or a silicone spray can cut the friction on them.”

Cracks in plaster walls are often a minor, but annoying, problem for homeowners. “You shouldn’t try and use a hammer on plaster walls because it can cause cracking,” he says. “If you want to hang something, drill a hole and find the stud. It’s also not unusual to find cracks that simply appear...and reappear after they’ve been patched. This isn’t typically a serious problem, but is more of a cosmetic issue for some homeowners.”

He says that the problem may not be an inadequate repair job. “If the home is moving, it will keep cracking,” he says. “When that happens, I often try using caulk and latex paint, both of which have some ‘give’ to them.”

Creaky floors often plague older homes, and these repair jobs require a troubleshooting team. “Sometimes you need to screw a board down, other times a board needs to go up,” he says. “It’s also possible to fix a creaky older floor that has been carpeted by using screws with break-off screw heads.”

Stopping minor hot spots from becoming major repairs is also a good approach when dealing with the outside of an older home, particularly with brickwork. “If you see that your bricks are starting to pop, it means that you have a water infiltration problem,” says Lisa Koby of Koby Restoration in Grafton. “Ignoring it won’t make it go away. In fact, the problem will just get worse.”

She says that different types of bricks show different forms of wear. Cream City brick, which is very popular in the Northshore area, has a softer composition that many other types of bricks. Some brickwork is extremely porous and prone to damage quicker than other types of brick. Likewise, mortars wear differently depending on their age and composition. Koby says that while brick tends to wear extremely well compared to other building materials, virtually every brick building will eventually require some repair or restoration.

When it is needed, properly restored brickwork should look authentic. “That’s the whole idea behind the concept of restoration,” she says. “You don’t want it to stand out or look new. We can do quite a bit with brick and mortar color so you can’t tell the restored area from the original.”

When it comes to a roof, previous repair jobs often can add to the
problem. “Adding layers to an existing roof creates a heat blanket,” says Steve Holling, president of Advanced Roof Restorations in Cedarburg. “The more layers, the less smooth your roof becomes.”

Holling says that most older homes typically have multiple layers of
roofing materials, such as a cedar roof and two layers of shingles. “If that’s the case for your home and your roof starts leaking, there’s probably already some damage since cedar soaks up water. Instead of a single spot, you might have a water problem that extends five or six feet through the cedar.”

A lack of ventilation can also cause moisture buildup in the attic. “This can rot the plywood underneath your roof surface,” he says. “And then you’ll start to see black spots—fungus—growing up there.”

Another issue that strikes some older roofs is asbestos. “There are
a few in the area, particularly in Cedarburg,” says Holling. “You can recognize an asbestos roof by their grayish color and flat tiles.”

Undisturbed, an asbestos roof isn’t a problem. “If it’s intact, your best option is to do nothing with it,” he says. “It’s an expensive job to remove one. I worked on a project where the home was barely 1,500 square feet, and it cost the homeowner $4,000 to have the roof removed.”

When such a serious project is in your home’s future, it’s important
to leave the work to the experts. Plumbing, heating and electrical issues should all be referred to a specialist, and not just because of their skill level and experience. Building codes have changed significantly since many older homes were first built, and to simply replace an existing system may not comply with your community’s codes and regulations. Before doing any significant repair work, it’s important to obtain the proper permits and check the current building codes.

If a simple, weekend repair job is in your plans, a number of resources are available to make sure the job is done right. “One of the best sources for advice is your local, community hardware store,” says Korobkin. “They know certain things, and are more than willing to offer their advice and suggestions when you come in.”