Victorian houses can be a nightmare to renovate. Silly mistakes can cost you thousands and many people fall into the trap of thinking “the cheapest option will do”. That’s a quick and effective way to devalue your house.
If you’re looking to bring your home to its former period glory, you have to restore it sympathetically. Whether you’re extending or sprucing up the place always respect the heritage of the building — even the most simple ones.
This guide will show you the key golden rules that will help you with your Victorian house renovation. The best part is that they’re all accessible and easy to follow. You know what they say: do it once, do it right.
Why you should care about Victorian period house conservation
Some years ago the British obsession with everything Victorian baffled me. “Why look back instead of looking forward?” I used to wonder. Well, I really don’t know what happened to me — perhaps dozens of visits to Cardiff Castle. But now I find myself on the opposite end of the spectrum. I adore Victorian domestic architecture and design.
It was their passion for ornamentation that got me. You find ornaments on doorbells, windows and even gutters. Nowadays, these are the sought-after original features estate agents love. Victorians digested classic styles, such as Classic and Gothic, and regurgitated some of the most charming buildings in the UK. A bit wacky, a bit eccentric and always flamboyant.
STYLE TIP: The architectural details of Victorian interiors, such as joinery and ceiling ornamentation, are the perfect backdrop for any decor style. Go all-white for a minimal contemporary look or introduce heritage paint colours to complement eclectic boho vibes.
I’ve lived in period and new build properties over the last few years. And Victorian and Edwardian houses have been the most problematic. Saying “riddled with issues” is an understatement. However, these houses were built more than a hundred years ago and they deserve all our respect. I don’t think current new build houses will age as gracefully.
The “No Mercy” approach to Victorian house renovation
Recently, I met a former colleague with a shared passion for period conservation. After a hot choc, we wandered around the neighbourhood commenting on the facades, front gardens and numerous architectural crimes — the 70s did a lot of damage. We are strict with conservation and respecting the heritage. Like the Victorian Society with evil eyes.
The “No Mercy” approach means that there is no excuse when it comes to sympathetically restoring a period house. If you don’t know where to start, read about it. If you don’t know how to do it, find someone who can. And if you don’t have the budget, wait for the right moment. It’s that simple.
Victorian house renovation: The 7 golden rules you must follow
Restoring a period house to its former glory can be daunting. Do it wrong and its value will collapse. There’s no place for costly mistakes. Here are the seven golden rules that will help you renovate your property sympathetically.
1.- Take your time to do research
The best place to start is my beginner’s guide to discovering the history of your house. Once you know important details such as the year of construction or the architect you can picture your house within its historical context. The Victorian era spans for over six decades, with design trends emerging and disappearing. So knowing the specific details will narrow down your options.
2.- Respect the architectural period
If you have to replace features always choose those that correspond to the right period. For example, the number of panels on a window, joinery details and fireplace style are all unique to their eras (Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian, etc.) You don’t want to spend thousands on new windows only to find later that they’re the wrong style. Yes, people will notice.
3.- Give your home the Conservation Area treatment
Buildings in a Conservation Area have a protected status. So any modifications or repairs have to be approved by your local authority. They have a series of strict gold-standard guidelines to ensure the building is preserved as it should be. I recommend following (almost) equally strict guidelines, even if your house is non-protected. Your home deserves only the best.
4.- A Building Survey is a must
Wouldn’t it be nice if someone gave you a list of what needs fixing in your house? From the little cosmetic flaws to essential repair work. That’s what the Building Survey is about. Sure, it’s more expensive than the basic Homebuyers Survey, but with period houses you don’t want nasty surprises. Always hire a professional registered with the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.
5.- Restore all original features
These features are closely linked to the value of your house. Remove them and the value will decrease. Do your house a favour and repair or reinstate them. Make the reclamation yard your new B&Q. It’s an easy decision, yet I see people ripping original fireplaces to fit basic stoves or painting over stone (check my bath stone restoration guide to avoid this mistake).
6.- Let go of perfection
Victorian houses are wonky. They always will be. You can replaster every wall for that sharp finish, but the windows are still different sizes and the rooms don’t have square angles. But you know what, it’s fine. Don’t obliterate the weird and wonderful. Embrace it and make it a feature. A little crack in the ceiling is like a grey hair of wisdom.
7.- Think long-term
What is the aim of your Victorian house renovation? Maybe you plan to do up the house and sell. Or extend to accommodate a growing family. Regardless of your final goal think beyond trends. Are anthracite uPVC windows going to be in vogue in 15 years? Invest your money where the real value is. For example, high-quality wooden sash windows.
8.- [BONUS] Learn when to break the rules
Aha, I got you there! Don’t you worry, I’m joking. Really, don’t break them. Unless you want to be the owner of that house down the road forever struggling to sell. Despite popular belief doing things right doesn’t cost more money. All you need is determination and willingness to learn. The future generations will thank you for that — and I won’t look at you with evil eyes.
Would you add another golden rule to the list?
What are your experiences with period homes? Good or bad share your thoughts in the comments below, and spread the conservation love. Remember — no mercy!
If you would like to read more about the topic, I recommend The Victorian House Manual from Haynes. It covers all the aspects of Victorian house renovation from flooring to roofing. The Victorian Society and Period Property also have a series of interesting articles and booklets.Want more? Don't miss the subscriber-only articles in the newsletter Join the mailing list