10 Lessons I’ve Learned From Living in a 100-Year-Old Philly Rowhome

The good and the bad about all that "character."

My house celebrates its 100th birthday this year. It’s weird, when I really stop and think about it, to ponder all the lives its lived — and all the people who’ve lived in it over the past century.

My husband, Chris, fell in love with our South Philly rowhome before I did. He had to convince me we should buy it. But it’s been nearly four years since move-in day, and, with countless improvement projects, DIY forays and homeownership lessons under our belts, I can say I finally came around, too.

Here’s what we’ve learned along the way.

1. Classic Philly rowhomes were built to last.

Sure, our house has required some maintenance issues, but its bones are solid as a rock, especially our thick sturdy walls. We marvel with our neighbors all the time about how we can’t hear each other in our homes. Heck, even our furnace is at least 50 years old and still kicking. (Knock on wood, please.) Based on some of the issues I’ve heard from friends in newer homes — like leaky roofs, flimsy walls, obvious corners cut here and there — I can confidently say they don’t make ’em like they used to.

2. The real beauty is in the details.

One of the reasons Chris was so instantly smitten with our home was its abundant original details: subway tile in the kitchen, glass transoms dividing the downstairs rooms, thickly painted trim, well-worn (in a good way) hardwood floors, and more. Even the swinging French doors leading into our kitchen were in pretty good shape; we replaced one screw in the floor plate and fixed the swinging mechanism so the doors no longer crash into each other when they close. These are exactly the pretty details guests notice and fawn over whenever they come to our home.

3. Every project takes at least twice as long as you think it will.

But all that character comes with quirks — and the quirks can create interesting obstacles that require creative workarounds. And all those creative workarounds add precious time to your projects. Why? Because …

4. Nothing out-of-the-box will work exactly right.

We learned this lesson about five minutes into our very first DIY home project. A few weeks after we moved in, we decided to install a ceiling fan in our bedroom. Chris is pretty handy, so he decided to do the work himself. He found a kit for installing ceiling lights and fans between joists, an extendable bracket that, when you crank it into position, attaches itself to the nearby joists to support the weight of your ceiling fan. Well, it didn’t take long to realize that this ingenious little short cut wouldn’t work for us: our old joists were only 12 inches apart instead of modern standard minimum of 16 inches, and the darn thing would only work with 16-inch joists. Sigh. So instead, Chris had to build a custom bracket to make it work, turning our easy-breezy one-hour project into a weekend of endless trips to Home Depot.

Want to know some other things that will trip up your fixer-upper timeline? Nothing in your home will be level, and no corner is even close to 90 degrees. Consider this fair warning.

5. You’ll need more tools than the average homeowner.

Like a hammer drill, because now you have brick walls covered in plaster, so if you want to hang any heavy pictures or shelves, you’re going to need the right tool for the job. The tool collection we’ve accumulated over the years is rather impressive. Of course, we have the basement space to store them. But one of our very best discoveries was the glorious West Philly Tool Library, where a yearly membership entitles you to free tool rentals whenever you need them, everything from air compressors and drills to ladders and saws. The library has been a DIY lifesaver on more than one occasion.

6. Demo-ing plaster is a real pain.

Have you ever needed to demo a plaster wall, say, to expose the brick behind it? We just did this in our bathroom and boy, oh boy, was it a pain. A dusty, messy, heavy pain. Just know what you’re getting into if you venture down this path.

7. You’ll get creative with storage.

The first thing I noticed when we toured our home during our house hunt was its lack of closets. (Apparently the oft-repeated tale of an onerous closet tax is a myth, which is unfortunate because it’s at least a fun explanation for my lack of closet space.) So, much of my homemaking these past four years has revolved around creative storage solutions, like the open clothing racks in our bedroom that serve as our “closet” and the cabinets we’re still planning on installing downstairs to hide our one-year-old’s endless supply of toys. When all else fails, stuff just winds up in plastic bins in the basement. Or, you know, getting donated.

8. If you’re going to upgrade one thing, make it the doors and windows.

Old homes are notorious for leaking precious warm air in the winter and air-conditioned air in the summer. Our back door was so bad that first winter that you could legitimately feel a breeze blowing in the kitchen. Over the years, we’ve updated all but one window in our house, fully replaced the rotted-out front door, and repaired the leaky back door. The result? A much warmer home and noticeably lower gas bills. As for that one window we haven’t replaced, shrink-wrapped cellophane has served us pretty darn well.

9. Be sure to poke around in your basement’s dark corners.

Among the gems we found in our basement was a big ol’ box of subway tile for our kitchen — a glorious discovery when we replaced our kitchen windows and needed to patch the tile. Our friends found a wine press (!!) built into their basement. So, you never know.

10. Don’t underestimate how nice it is to have fabulous neighbors.

Philly is a city defined by its characteristic rowhomes, which means we’re a city of neighbors in the truest sense. We literally share our walls. My house supports my neighbors’ homes and vice versa. So if you have awesome neighbors, like we do — ones who’ll help us sweep up the trash that blows onto our stoop (grrrr) or who’ll shovel us out during snow storms or who’ll even share a bottle of wine on a random Tuesday night — you can thank your lucky stars you live in Philly.