16 DIY Skills Vintage Homeowners Should Have

hands wiring an electrical outlet in an unfinished wall
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  • Intermediate
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Homeownership means being in a constant state of maintenance, repairs, and updates. Even new homes require a good amount of TLC, but older homes often come with a long watch list.

If you’re considering an investment in a nostalgic vintage home, also consider what it will take to maintain it. Note that the type of care the building received over the years will make a huge difference in today’s to do list.

A home with a lot of deferred work might need updates to nearly every system while a well-maintained structure may only need minimal repairs.

Like every other industry, construction techniques and material options have changed over the years. While you will likely find your older home was built at the hands of a craftsman, in contrast to many mass-produced homes today, you’ll also notice a lack of modern efficiencies.

That means you might find your house not only needs updates on the surface, but system upgrades for energy efficiency, safety, and overall function.

Here are some common problems you should know how to address if you’re planning to invest in a home that is more than 50 years old.

1. Wiring

This is a significant issue in many older homes. With a combination of older materials and general wear and tear, the wiring in your home will likely need an upgrade sooner than later. You’ll want to know how to fish wires through walls and floors, and safely connect circuits.

With today’s connectivity to streaming, WiFi, Smart devices, etc, the electrical needs of the home likely far exceed what the system was originally used for.

With this in mind, you’ll want to study up on swapping outdated circuit breakers, replacing a circuit panel, and installing a second circuit panel.

hands with pliers working on wires

2. Toilets

Even if your toilet isn’t original, it’s likely old enough to be inefficient or uncomfortable. The location may not be up to current building codes either.

When inspecting a potential home, consider the style and location of toilets to evaluate whether you’ll be replacing them.

Fortunately, swapping out a toilet is a fairly easy DIY project. There’s no need to call in a plumber if the pipes are in good condition and you’re simply installing a toilet in place of an older one.

If you do need to reroute plumbing to relocate the toilet, it’s still possible to do it yourself. However, it’s a much more comprehensive task that includes removing wall materials, flooring, and old pipes.

In addition, you’ll need to know how to reinstall those materials once the job is done.

One tricky aspect of replacing toilets in older homes is they may not have an easily accessible shut-off valve like modern bathrooms. If this is the case, you’ll need to turn your home’s water off at the main. When you put the system back together, include a shut-off valve so the job is easier next time around.

One other note here. If you do have a shut-off faucet, be prepared for it to be stuck or even to break during use. It’s very common for these types of old faucet knobs to corrode. Know where your main shut-off is before you begin, just in case you have problems.

3. Roofing

Some roofing can last 50 years, such as properly installed wood shingles. However, it’s much more likely your home’s roof has been replaced at some point. It’s worth knowing an estimated timeline when it comes to your roof.

You can ask the previous owner how old the roof is and bring in roofing professionals to give you an estimate of the remaining life.

Since roofing is an expensive endeavor, it’s nice to have it in the budget rather than being sprung with an immediate need for repairs.

Better yet, being about to replace your own roof can be a huge cost-saver when the time arrives. Materials costs are only a fraction of the cost of paying professionals to do the work.

Do consider your options for materials and evaluate whether those materials will be under warranty if you do the work yourself. Also consider safety since many older homes feature very steep roof grades.

person repairing roof shingles

4. Drainage

As the landscape changes over time you may find your home’s drainage systems have become overgrown, buried, or broken.

It’s common for older homes to need some attention in the drainage department. Look at the location where the downspout meets the ground. Make sure water is moving freely and flowing away from the foundation of the house.

Repairing problems with drainage can take many forms.

You may need to start at the top with new gutters or downspouts. At ground level, you may need to reroute buried pipes by digging them up, trenching new routes, and relaying pipes.

Inside the home, evaluate the condition and function of your sump pump. If it fails, your home may flood so check it often.

Existing drainage pipes can wear out. If they burst or crack, you’ll need to dig them up and make the repair. If the landscape has dipped or shifted, you may need to change the slope of the area surrounding your home.

It may also be necessary to add French drains or a drain field to divert water runoff.

Another environmentally-friendly approach to consider if you need to make updates is a water harvesting system you can recycle back into the house or the development of a pond and wetland area.

5. Windows

Windows are typically due for replacement anywhere between 15 and 50 years, depending on a lot of factors. If you have an older home, it’s likely you’ll face this issue at some point.

Knowing how to replace windows yourself will save you a ton of money, especially considering the average home can typically require $30,000 or more to replace all the windows.

You probably won’t have to replace them all at the same time, but it might make sense to swap them out as you tackle other updates around the home. Not only will new windows minimize drafts and heat loss, but defective panes can allow water to leak into the frame of the home, causing expensive damage.

6. Paint

Painting is an inexpensive way to upgrade a variety of surfaces. Even newer homes often need a fresh coat. Older homes, however, are highly likely to contain lead-based paint. In the United States, lead-based paints were outlawed in 1978 so if your home was built before that, take heed.

The removal of lead-based paint requires substantial safety components and is best done by professionals. An alternative to removing the paint is sealing it and painting over it. However, you must use products approved for this purpose.

If your vintage home has paint that is peeling, flaking, or bubbling, address it with extreme caution.

woman painting outside of house

7. Exterior Doors

Most older homes feature wood doors that can warp, splinter, and swell over time. It’s common to find one or more exterior doors in need of replacement. This is also true with sliding glass doors, storm doors, and screen doors.

With some basic skills, you can replace any of these types of doors. For exterior doors, make sure to buy the right size. Standard openings have changed over the years so the doors in stock at your local home improvement store might not work.

You can shave off some width or height of a wood door with a manual or power wood planer.

If you can’t find an appropriate fit for your sliding glass door, you may need to reframe the opening to accommodate a different size or install French doors into the opening.

You can likely build your own screen doors with a few pieces of lumber and screening materials. Reuse your old hardware or upgrade as needed.


From the furnace to the ductwork, you’re probably in for an adventure with the HVAC system in your vintage home. Some homes may have been retrofitted over time while others remain far from meeting current building regulations. Efficiency is probably lacking in your aged system too.

There are many considerations in deciding on the right heating and cooling system for a home. Talk to some professionals and get some bids. At the very least this will help you with the planning process even if you decide to do it yourself.

Consider whether you’ll need to repair gaps in existing ductwork and if you’ll need to connect new ductwork into the old for other areas of the house.

Decide whether you need to replace the furnace and if you want to upgrade to a heat pump. You may also want to consider installing ductless systems.

Whatever the situation, if you want to DIY, you’ll need some intermediate electrical and construction skills to get it done.

9. Waterproofing

Basements are notoriously wet locations. If the space was previously finished, it may have been in use for many decades. If that’s the case, the initial waterproofing may need to be reapplied to walls and flooring.

For an unfinished basement, you may have a golden opportunity to convert the underused space into an apartment or other living area.

Basements require many special considerations, such as vapor barriers under the flooring, treatments for the walls, and egress windows. Be sure you know the regulations if you want to convert your basement into a bar, gym, or bedroom.

wet table with waterproof sealant

10. Pests

Critters come and go in many houses. Older homes, however, are particularly susceptible to carpenter ants, termites, and other wood-loving pests.

There may have also been a time in the distant or recent past when the home was invaded by rodents.

Scour the home top to bottom looking for evidence of damage, such as sawdust, holes, or chew marks.

Close up any holes in the framing, especially in the attic where critters like to gain access and make a home. Note that mice can enter any space as small as a pencil eraser so a tight envelope on the home is crucial for keeping them at bay.

If there has been past damage, you’ll need to be comfortable replacing beams, siding, wall framing, and other structural components.

11. Garage Door

If your home has a garage door, you can expect it to wear out. If the motor doesn’t fail first, you’ll often see wear damage along the bottom of the garage door.

Be prepared to swap out the garage door opener, make repairs to the springs, or replace the entire door.

12. Foundation

Really old homes were built on a foundation of large stumps under each corner of the home. Homes from the past century often have poured concrete foundations instead.

Either way, you’re likely to find some issues at some point. Concrete foundations that show cracks will need to be reinforced with steel straps or undergo other repairs.

Wood foundations may need replacement of the support beams. This requires placing supports beneath the house while repairs are made.

The foundation of the home is a crucial element, so you’ll need to decide if repairs are something you can manage or if you’ll need to pay for professional help.

13. Insulation

Your house might not have insulation. It’s no wonder old houses lack energy efficiency with no attics for airflow and no insulation at any level.

If your vintage home does have insulation, it’s likely to check its condition. Most homes of the era will have lost their R-value, meaning it’s time to spray in a new layer of insulation for the comfort of your home and your pocketbook.

14. Fireplace

As houses move, shift, and settle, it creates separation in the structure of the chimney. Air gaps create a vacuum that can increase fire risk.

If your new, yet old, home has a fireplace, thoroughly inspect the chimney for cracks or gaps. Then do the required masonry work before using it as a heat source.

fireplace under construction

15. Driveway

Whether the driveway is stone, asphalt, or gravel, it’s probably going to need some upkeep and repair.

When stones become uneven, you need to unbury them, level the ground beneath, and reinstall them.

Concrete or asphalt may need to be patched, coated, resurfaced, or replaced.

Dirt and gravel driveways will probably need to be graded—new materials laid out, and compacted.

16. Plumbing

Plumbing is another major home system that may be due for an upgrade. If the home has copper pipes you’re probably in good shape. However, all types of pipe will show wear with time.

Be ready to put on your plumber’s apron if you invest in a vintage home. There will be leaks, rusty pipes, and backflow issues to deal with.

Along with the plumbing related to sinks and showers, you may need to upgrade the water heater or deal with the septic system.

Older homes encapsulate an era in a way that floods the memory of a different time. Enjoy the nostalgia and a comfortable home with some well-earned DIY skills and a plan. Get some more ideas in our articles Develop a Unique Bathroom Look Around a Vintage Bathtub and How to Restore Vintage Metal Cabinets.