What To Do With An Old Farmhouse

old farmhouse

Old farmhouses. They have a lot of charm and character (ie. unique problems and challenges).

If you’ve dreamed of a country house, or have recently acquired country property with an old house, you’ll be faced with the dilemma of remodeling, making do, or tearing down. That decision will not be easy.

I feel there are two factors that should weigh in heavily in deciding if an old house should be kept alive and fixed up, or put out of its misery:

  1. the condition of the foundation
  2. the internal framing

If a house has a solid foundation, even if it’s made out of field stones, it likely has a good footing upon which to make changes. Why put money into a structure with a crumbling or weak foundation? Large cracks, tilting walls, and obvious water penetration are all bad signs.

Being able to determine the condition of the “bones” of the house will be harder. Standing in the middle of a room and jumping a bit can give you a sense of the solidity of floor framing (do you feel movement or bouncing? – you shouldn’t). Are walls plumb and square? Do doors and windows open and close cleanly? Are there water stains in ceilings or walls? Poke an ice pick into spots you think are questionable, like below windows (you should not be able to poke into wood with the pick unless it’s rotting).

150+ Years Old

old farmhouse
Doesn’t look too bad from the outside, does it?

The old farmhouse on my family’s land has been used as a rental for the last 60 years or so. It was probably constructed in some haste by the very first owner of the property in about 1850. They needed shelter from the Wisconsin winters while trying to clear and farm the land. Many people have called the place home over that time, and it has slowly been worn down by time. The little house has seen better days.

Now that the recent renters moved out a couple months ago my folks are letting me decide if I’d like to occupy the house (part time) and see what I can do with it. After many hours of sorting out the leftovers from the recent tenants I’ve come to the sad conclusion the old house should really come down. There are just too many things going wrong with the structure that lead me to decide my money’s better spent elsewhere.

Not wanting to go into too much detail on the condition of the house I thought I’d share with you some of the more troubling features that lead me to throw in the towel.

Long Term Water Through the Roof

A slow leak in the roof of a house, if left unchecked, can do far more damage to the internal framing than you’d imagine. In the bedrooms there’s evidence that there’s been water coming in for a very long time. It’ll be interesting to see what the wood looks like when the demo team rips off the roof over this section. This is one of two places where plaster is rotting away badly.

water damage in farmhouse

Wet Bathroom Floor

This one’s a mystery, as the bathroom hasn’t been actively used for a few weeks now. But, upon tearing back the flooring the “subfloor” is obviously wet with much mold growth. Is there a micro leak in the plumbing somewhere that’s pushing water between the layers of flooring? The warning sign that something bad was going on is the slope of the floor – toward the toilet. This says to me there’s a slow rot of the wood going on underneath.

wet bathroom floor

Sketchy Basement Foundation

There’s actually a full basement under part of the house. In this small section the furnace and water heater have been installed. The foundation here is small, flat-ish field stones. Whatever mortar was between the stones when the house was constructed is now pretty much gone. At one point some tuck pointing was attempted, but I’m sure the ever present dampness kept popping the mortar out. Despite this the walls in this section are still pretty plumb.

old stone foundation

The additions to the house (or what I’m imagining were later additions) are built on footings and crawl space. In short: they’re a mess. You can even see light coming in at the far end. I was wondering why I’d open the basement door and a mosquito or 2 would come flying out.

crawl space under farmhouse

The Best Use of Financial Resources

With what I’ve learned about home building and maintenance over the years I would predict that dropping $50k-$100k on this house for basic repair work would not be unreasonable. Seriously. Between fixing the roof, and then fixing the foundation a sizable chunk of change could be dropped here. And even with basic structural repairs done… you’d still have a dank and musty old farmhouse. The place would really need to be gutted to eliminate the funk of decades of human habitation.

Putting that money toward demolition and then a new construction is money better spent, in my opinion. With being able to use the existing well and septic a decent little NEW house could be had for that $50k figure, maybe closer to $75k if you wanted a full basement. Not too bad for new construction that’s up to modern building codes.

If you have a story of what challenges you’ve faced with a very old farmhouse please share!

2 thoughts on “What To Do With An Old Farmhouse

  1. Hello from Wheatland, WI!!
    We are having rh same dilemma as our farmhouse is extremely old and while we use it as a summer “cottage”, we have decided to move here permanently (from Chicago) to better tend the farm business and this house just won’t do!
    We have a friend in construction coming next week to look at it and give us a recommendation.
    Hope your construction is going well!
    Marisa- Starry Nights Farm


    1. Hi Marisa! Thanks for the comment. In the end it really is tough to say goodbye to an old farmhouse that has a lot of history and character. But, the state that it was in was very marginally livable. After spending about a week moving around the house and cleaning things up it became apparent how bad things really were. It would’ve taken thousands of dollars to fix things – and then still end up with a very very old house. I’d rather put my limited resources toward a whole new house that’s built waaaaaayyyy better and will last a very long time.


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