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A house with good bones

A century-old home in rural Prince Edward Island gets a much needed restoration

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Photo by Zach Hancock

The property in Point Prim, P.E.I., was overgrown with long grass and weeds when Zach Hancock first saw the online sale listing in 2012. The tiny, 100-year-old shack of a house was in no better shape. Creatures lived in the walls and the roof leaked, causing water damage everywhere, but the home’s bones remained strong. The house was vacant since the 1990s, with members of the community checking on it over the years.

After years of travel, Hancock wanted to lay down roots in P.E.I. Despite the house’s rough state, the water views and rolling farmlands lent the property, with its apple and walnut trees and lilac bushes, endless potential.

“One of the most common questions I’m asked is, ‘Wouldn’t it have been cheaper to just tear it down and build a new house?’ The answer is yes, but that is not what interested me,” he says. The house was listed for $75,000 but was reduced to $49,000. Hancock’s offer of $46,000 was accepted.

The quaint, two-bedroom house spans 1,300 square feet on just over one hectare of land tucked in off of the main highway on a road that winds down a narrow peninsula to the island’s first and oldest lighthouse, Point Prim Lighthouse.

The old home needed major renovations. Hancock was overwhelmed at first with the amount of work needed, and had no idea where to begin. After a complete home inspection, he learned that the only update in recent years was the electrical wiring. Literally every other part of the house needed repairs.

“I soon realized I had no choice but to start from the bottom and replace the foundation since the walls were starting to fall in,” he says. Seeing the house lifted high into the air was a sign of what the future held for this house, but also of the challenges to come. “A lot of the plaster cracked everywhere, so I found myself patching that for months,” he says. “Luckily I have some family and friends that were good to help too.”

He replaced floor joists, installed a new carrier beam for the house’s main support, and new sills for the house to sit on. Once all of these jobs were completed, Hancock replaced the entire south-facing side of the house that a carpenter ant infestation rotted completely.

Hancock hired contractor Devin Tierney, of Compass Construction, in Charlottetown to install six skylights in the new steel roof. Tierney says there is much homeowners should consider before undergoing major renovations to an older house.

“Be fully aware there might be hidden surprises when opening up or removing walls,” Tierney says of older homes facing major renovations. Tierney found rot and electrical that needed to be rerouted to accommodate the skylights, but says Hancock was lucky. Out of date wiring and insufficient insulation in interior and exterior walls are two common, high-cost complaints.

“Homeowners should have some funds set aside to compensate for cost of unforeseen issues that really can’t be neglected upon discovery,” he says.

One of the more challenging projects Hancock faced throughout the entire renovation was finding a sufficient way to heat the old house during the winter. There was no heating system in the home when he bought it.

He always dreamed of having a wood stove, which of course is not as easy as buying a wood stove and lighting a cozy fire. He had to install a new double steel-lined fly in the chimney, as well as a new chimney top along with a heat pump as a secondary source. “They were both working great, but I could somehow still see my breath,” he says. Hancock soon found out there wasn’t a single sheet of insulation in the walls. He solved this issue by having blown-in insulation put in every wall and the attic, which helped, but there was still no heat rising to the upper levels of the home.

While installing a ceiling fan in the dining room, he noticed a hole where there was once a grate to allow heat flow from downstairs to rise. He installed an antique floor grate to fill the hole where a previous grate had been, and another one above the wood stove. “This finally did the trick and I was warm and comfortable,” he says.

Once all of the major structural renovations were complete, Hancock focused on decorating the home, which involves a lot of plants. “I find they add so much life to a space and would choose plants first over any piece of furniture,” he says. “My house is filled with natural light which also makes it easy for my plants to thrive.”

Each room in the home has a cozy, cabin vibe. Like the structural renovations, the original décor badly needed a facelift, but offered some pleasant surprises underneath.

In the living room, he ripped up old red, sun-faded and stained carpet to reveal dark hardwood floors which he complemented by painting the walls nearly black grey. A black, antique cast iron stove welcomes guests to this comfortable space, including a $9 antique chair found at Value Village that Hancock had Blair Hall Reupholstering in Vernon Bridge refinish.

Hancock says his favourite room in the house is the kitchen. It is by no means a chef’s kitchen, but it works as a perfect eat-in country-style cookery. Sunlight pours in from every side of the house all day long, and he knew this room was going to be special.

Of all renovations, the bathroom was the most dramatic. It started out with fish-printed wallpaper on one wall, bright green paint on another mixed with pink and white tiles. He painted the tiles with white semi-gloss tile paint, and found a vanity with a unique marble top at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore in Charlottetown for only $120. “It’s been a conversation piece ever since,” he says. After all of the time, energy and money spent on this older house, Hancock is attached to it. He can’t see himself leaving the house or its community.

“I still have little projects on the go, but now that I’ve come this far, I’ve found myself really getting to enjoy the space and surroundings,” he says.

He enjoys his vast gardens each summer, picking fresh berries in the morning and vegetables for dinner. He finds peace in tending to his flowerbeds that he has built up over the last few years, and spends quiet time watching the farmers harvest their crops in the nearby fields. He says there is nothing quite like taking his rescue dog, Simon, for a walk to the water below the house, or sitting by his wood stove during a classic P.E.I. snow storm. “The location couldn’t possibly be beat if you tried.”

Hancock’s restoration went as expected, but Tierney reminds homeowners to evaluate their budget and to assess their wants versus their needs before undertaking a project of this magnitude.

“Older homes are a fixture of P.E.I. and it is nice to see them when they get a breath of fresh air,” he says. “Just have a thorough home inspection done with a professional before to have a better idea of what your wants are and how to budget to accommodate them.” Hancock knew he had the option of tearing the older house down and building from scratch, but he also knew this little home was something special.

“I’d far rather restore and appreciate the history and hard work that once went into building these beautiful pieces of art,” he says. “I think my home has a personality of its own that you wouldn’t come by in a new build.”

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