THE SAFETY AND SECURITY OF YOUR HISTORIC HOME is a crucial component of protecting you, your home, and possessions. Today’s blog post includes typical topics related to safety and security, and how to ensure that your home is protected. 

2 safety issues: peeling paint that is probably lead-based, and worn, slippery stairs.
Photo by Erik Witsoe on Unsplash

 

Lead Paint. Lead paint has been used heavily since the 1700s through the late 1970s (mostly any house built pre-1978 is of concern – unless it has been abated). Health risks of lead exposure – a potent neurotoxin – are well-known, and include brain and nervous system damage, hearing and vision loss, impaired development in children, among other things. Follow the steps below to appropriately manage your lead paint: 

  • If you are unsure if your home still has lead paint, pick up a DIY test kit at a hardware or home improvement store.

  • If you know that the lead paint has not been abated, you can still safely live with it if it is undisturbed, as long as it is well adhered. In such cases, it is helpful to encapsulate it under a latex primer and topcoat. Preventing paint failure this way is the most cost-effective method.
  • If you plan on updating the paint, follow safety guidelines, including these:
    • Prioritize safety over speed of removal – people who have opted for speedy techniques have been injured by toxic lead vapors or dust from the paint they were trying to remove, and this dust created by removal is the most common route of exposure to lead. We recommend chemical paint strippers (reduces exposure to lead dust) or SpeedHeaters (an infrared paint stripper with an operating temperature lower than the vaporizing point of lead, that only heats the surface vs. going in between or under work areas, decreasing chance of fire). These methods are less likely to cause injury to person or to the historic fabric underneath than other – including abrasive/aggressive – methods. 
  • If you feel you need professional assistance, hire a qualified contractor who has EPA RRP (renovation, repair, and painting) certification.
    • However, we acknowledge that hiring a professional to strip paint is expensive because it is labor-intensive. Use the 80/20 rule: 80% of work is unskilled or semi-skilled, 20% is skilled. If you do some of the unskilled/semi-skilled work yourself, you can save money and some of the historic fabric. For example, instead of assuming you must remove an entire piece of historic fabric because it is covered in lead paint, such as a built-in, consider taking time to do some of the work, then hire a contractor for the parts that are out of your wheelhouse.  
  • Further resources include the EPA’s website information on lead, here.

Asbestos. Asbestos has been used as a relatively inexpensive and effective fire-retardant material and insulator, and was highly popular between the early 1940s through the 1970s. Unfortunately, this is also harmful if the material is damaged or disturbed it is likely to be harmful, as tiny abrasive fibers are easily inhaled. Prolonged exposure can lead to lung disease or cancer. Signs of damage include crumbling easily, or if it has knowingly been sawed, scraped, or sanded.

  • If undisturbed, it does not pose a threat, so the best tactic is to leave it undisturbed. This is generally the only step you can safely DIY; damage or disturbance requires professional intervention.
  • If you are unsure if it has been damaged or disturbed, have it inspected by an industrial hygiene firm.
  • If the inspection confirms that it needs to be addressed, contact an asbestos abatement contractor.
  • The EPA also has information on managing asbestos, here.

Porches, Balconies, Railings, Steps. These areas pose several potential safety issues, especially when exposed to the elements. They function not only as safety features but also as highly visible decorative elements, according to the National Park Service (NPS). Depending on when they were built, they may have less protection from and be more susceptible to insect damage. A damaged or missing porch apron can allow moisture or animals under a porch, leading to problems of a weak and unstable foundation, and bio-hazards. Also, limited maintenance or mere ageing may lead to unsound areas for walking, increasing the chance of people slipping and falling. It is important to check for obvious signs of damage or danger, including rotting, broken or loose features, bite marks, cracks, mold and mildew, uneven level, and unusual sounds or give when weight is applied. 

  • If you determine there is damage, depending on the type and severity, you can attempt to rectify it yourself utilizing information from NPS and our many blog posts on porches (here). First and foremost, keep in mind that preservation of as many elements as possible is always the first line of defense, before considering replacement. 
  • A simple fix for step surfaces exposed to moisture (and therefore posing increased slippage) as suggested by NPS is to add grit to the wet paint during application.
  • If you determine animals or insects are present, you may consult your homeowners insurance in finding exterminators or a professional pest removal company. For mold and mildew removal, wear protective gear and cleaning standards as recommended by the EPA, here
  • Hire a qualified contractor for more complex needs.

Structural Problems. This is very similar to the above topic, but may also include entire foundations, walls, and roofing support. It should go without saying, but structural problems are an entire-house problem. But, they also are generally salvageable and should not be considered a lost-cause. It’s important to be aware of and look for common causes or signs of structural problems, including overgrown vegetation, house features leaking water or other sources of too much water like flooding or springs, damaged or missing roof tiles, and cracks or bulges in walls, uneven or difficult-to-open or close windows and doors, as well as sagging, bowing, cracked, or sloping floors. 

  • If plants are the problem, simple actions such as pruning crowns and roots of the plants can help prevent further issues
  • Depending on the type of water damage, you may need to replace roof tiles, or clean gutters and pipes
  • Utilizing general facade maintenance, such as the methods suggested by NPS or our blog (here) can help guide you
  • Many problems will likely require hiring a structural engineer

Fire. Fire is a major threat to historic homes, and permanently changes the historic fabric, if the building survives. The biggest risk of fire is actually during restoration, when tools can overheat, chemicals can mix together, etc. Along with fire comes smoke and water damage. 

  • Do a cursory inspection for potential fire hazards.
  • Plan an escape route.
  • Keep fire alarms and fire extinguishers throughout the home, and escape ladders in upper floor rooms. Sprinklers can be a great addition if your budget can afford them, as the new systems are designed to do less damage to historic fabric on installation, and certain systems are specifically designed to suffocate a fire without damage to historic fabric. 
  • Keep important items and documents in a fire-proof safe.
  • Be especially careful during the holidays, when holiday lights and extension cords pose major threats.
  • If smokers are present, set limits on when and how smoking can occur, if at all, on the property.
  • Inspect chimneys for damage and keep them clean.
  • Inspect wiring. Knob and tube wiring can be functional, if in good condition and if they are not overloaded. However, if something needs to be updated and we recommend upgrading electrical panels from fuses to circuit breakers.
  • Ensure that contractors and other workers follow strict safety guidelines to prevent fires.

Security. Security is a concern in every home, and there are several things you can consider for your historic home.

  • Consider having layers of protection, the first layer being physical security. This should include deadlocks and bolts, preferably low-profile so as not to interfere with the historic fabric. Windows should be maintained, including their locks. If your home still has functioning historic shutters, these can add additional protection. This may also include historically-accurate walls, fencing, and gates. 
  • Another layer may include electric alarms and detection. Wireless alarm and camera systems are preferable for historic homes to decrease damage to historic fabric.

 

Kevin Sullivan, insurance agent at National Trust Insurance Services, LLC, joined the Practical Preservation podcast to discuss unique, historically-focused insurance services offered by the company. We covered a multitude of topics including:

  • The insurance company’s inception by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2003, due to a significant lack of insurance options specific to the needs of historic properties
  • The differences between insurance for historical properties and typical homeowners insurances – including a greater focus on replacement costs vs. actual cash value – to guarantee that damaged historical features will be replaced with the same materials and craftsmanship
  • The various types of specialty insurance they offer under the umbrellas of historical homeowner insurance and insurance for museums/organizations/businesses
  • Tips for historical property owners and stewards, including consulting with an agent to determine the appropriate insurance limit and best plan for one’s budget
  • General challenges with insuring old buildings, as well as unique challenges and unpredictable changes to insurance related to COVID-19

 

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For Seminars and Education Sessions, please contact Brian Phoebus – [email protected]

Kevin also recommends that stewards of museums, organizations, or businesses in historic buildings take this time of social-distancing and closures to review their current insurance policies to clarify that what they have is what they need, and update as necessary.