Old houses have undeniable charm, but their unique features range from “quirky and desirable” to “annoying or outright dangerous.”
Whether you’ve always dreamed of living in a historic mansion or a cozy little Sears house, you should know what you’re signing up for before you start buying.
Let’s look at some of the old houses’ most surprising, confusing, and outright weird features.
1. Witch Windows
These quirky windows, or Vermont windows, were installed diagonally on houses. Legend has it they were designed to prevent witches from flying in on broomsticks. Interestingly, their purpose was more practical: to accommodate long, narrow spaces without cutting into roof rafters.
2. Secret Passageways
Hidden corridors or rooms are built for various reasons, including concealing valuables or enabling escapes. One fascinating fact is that secret passageways were also used to help smuggle people or contraband during prohibition and to aid the Underground Railroad in the U.S.
Before refrigeration, iceboxes were used to keep perishable food cold. They were lined with materials like zinc or tin and insulated with sawdust or cork. Remarkably, large blocks of ice were delivered to homes by ice wagons, and the ice was placed in the icebox to keep food cool.
4. Parlor Stoves
These decorative cast iron stoves were used for heating individual rooms in older homes. They often featured intricate designs and patterns, making them beautiful conversation pieces. Intriguingly, some of these stoves were also designed to burn coal or wood, depending on the fuel source available.
5. Gaslight Fixtures
Before electric lighting, many homes were lit using gas lamps. Gaslight fixtures often featured elaborate designs and materials like brass or glass. Notably, gas lighting led to the development of the gas mantle, a device that greatly improved the brightness and efficiency of gaslights.
6. Priest Hole
Secret chambers were built into homes during the English Reformation to hide Catholic priests from persecution. These cleverly concealed spaces were often located behind walls or under floors. One interesting fact is that some priest holes were built by a Jesuit lay brother named Nicholas Owen, who was later canonized.
7. And what’s with the very tiny elevator?
Dumbwaiters were once common features in old houses. They allowed servants to rapidly transport food and other items between floors without climbing the stairs. They also allow for fantastic jump scares in horror movies.
These days, dumbwaiters are usually walled off. Not because of the horror movies (well, not entirely because of horror movies), but because people have children, they don’t want to lose them in their walls.
8. Cover it with carpet
Some weird features of old houses originated after they were constructed, such as layers of wallpaper.
Many older homes had beautiful hardwood floors. Later, new owners covered those floors with whatever was fashionable. Sometimes, these floors can be recovered. Good hardwood can refinish quite nicely.
9. Ornate Plasterwork
Intricate molding and designs adorned the ceilings and walls of many old homes. Plasterwork was often highly detailed, featuring botanical, geometric, or mythological motifs. A fascinating aspect of this art is that skilled plasterers create molds or use freehand techniques to achieve the desired effects.
10. Built-in kitchen appliances
Before the days of refrigerators, ice boxes were common. But you’re probably not looking for a house that old.
Nevertheless, you’ll frequently find multiple stoves built into a kitchen and cooktops set directly into the counters. Back then, they built things to last; they didn’t worry about their refrigerator dying in a few years.
Speaking of refrigerators, the original “refrigerated” bins were just very cold cabinets. If you’re purchasing a historic house, you’ll have to love the kitchen area a lot. And you may not find today’s built-in standards, such as dishwashers.
11. Laundry and trash chutes
Historic houses had a lot of holes in their walls. Laundry and trash chutes were also fairly commonplace. You toss it in, and then you stop thinking about it. It all goes into a bin in the basement to be handled later.
Interestingly, while you won’t find central HVAC, you could find a central vacuum system. Keep your eyes open for round holes in the wall that look like something twists onto them. Those are central vacuum systems that were quite popular not too long ago.
12. Intercom Systems
Intercom systems were all the rage through the 50s and 70s. They work exactly as you’d expect. Press the button, and you can talk to any other room.
What were people doing that they needed intercoms? You find them in even modestly sized homes, but they were necessary. There were just so many halls.
Today, everyone has a cell phone. And most intercom systems no longer work. But they could form the basis for a pretty interesting sound system.
13. Sleeping porches
This one is pretty regional. Sleeping porches were common in areas where you could sleep outside without dying. Sleeping outside was considered good for your health… and a good option when it was hot out (remember, no HVAC).
Of course, this isn’t true anymore, but many old homes still have them. Many of them are now masquerading as a regular “enclosed porch.”
14. Knob-And-Tube Wiring
Now, let’s get to some of the exciting stuff. Knob-and-tube wiring was used from the late 1800s until around 1950. It’s an old-fashioned wiring system known for being difficult to work with.
First, changing out is hard because it’s in the walls. Second, it’s too weak for most modern appliances. Third, it’s a huge fire hazard.
If you have wiring that hasn’t been modernized, you need to get an expert to check it out.
15. Coal Doors
A small, wrought iron hatch goes into your basement. Is it holding back a very small prisoner? These are coal doors, back when a furnace ran on coal, and people delivered coal door to door. The goal would be directly shoveled in. Today, a coal door can be replaced by a window or just used to shove firewood into your basement.
16. Phone Nooks
At this point, you might not even recognize one of these if you saw it. Phone nooks were small, built-in areas where you could plug in a phone and chat without standing up.
When phones went wireless, these little nooks got forgotten about pretty quickly. But maybe they could have a second life as a charging/docking station.
17. Random Toilets
Visit many old homes and find random toilets in odd places. Sometimes, they won’t have anything else near them. What happened?
Older homes didn’t have as many bathrooms as we demand today, so people who need to add a bathroom generally have to tie it to existing plumbing. So, you’ll see a freestanding bathroom in the basement, next to the laundry room, or just next to the kitchen.
18. Beds in odd places
Old homes have beds built into walls and even ceilings. They were used to save space. People didn’t have as much desire for giant homes in the past, but they did have a lot of family members.
When beds are placed in the walls, they’re called Murphy beds. They pull right down. When beds are placed in ceilings, they’re Sorlien beds. They frequently had to be cranked down. Either way, it’s an ingenious way to save space.
19. Boot Scrapers
Metal devices mounted near doorways for cleaning mud or dirt off boots before entering the house. They were a common feature in homes during the 18th and 19th centuries. Curiously, some boot scrapers were designed with ornate shapes, turning a utilitarian item into a decorative element.
20. Corner Sinks
These triangular sinks were installed in tight spaces to maximize kitchen efficiency. They were often seen in smaller homes or apartments with limited counter space. Interestingly, some corner sinks featured built-in drainboards or dual basins, allowing for more versatile use within the kitchen.
Conclusion: Do you find these weird features of old houses endearing?
Those are just some of the weird features of old houses. A historic home is ideal if you found any of those features inexplicably appealing.
The weird features of old houses aren’t necessarily a drawback. They add character and charm.
When you buy an old home, you need to know what you’re getting into. But old homes have a character that newer homes frequently don’t.
We can help you find the home of your dreams, new or old. You can start by finding out how much you qualify for.
To some, an “old house” means the 1960s. To others, it means the 1800s. Older houses tend to be well-built but smaller than their modern counterparts, but quite a lot depends on the trends of the time.
Electrical wiring, plumbing, foundation, and roof issues are all common problems for old houses. You need a thorough inspection to ensure an old house is even habitable. You don’t want to find out that the walls are full of mold.
If you purchase an old house, you should have a lot of money in the bank or knowledge in your head. Become handy fast. You will need to repair things you may not have even known existed.
That “extra little door” is known as a servant’s entrance. Even so, for a long time, most people used the side entrance of a house; the front door was reserved for important guests and occasions.