With some vision, flexibility, patience and creativity, an old Northern Michigan house can become a dream home. Here’s how with tips from Venture Properties.

There’s no way around it—if you want to live in the heart of a Northern Michigan small town, you’ll probably end up buying an older home.

Most of our towns took off in the late 1800s, when the lumber industry was booming. This created neighborhoods with everything from the struck-it-rich lumber baron mansions to more humble, shotgun cottages that workers called home. Both have tons of character and charm—and some potential pitfalls.

But nothing to fear, says Marissa Wege of Venture Properties. Wege, in addition to being a Realtor and crackerjack stager, is now on her fourth Northern Michigan old-home reno (a Traverse City Slabtown Victorian) and has completely fallen in love with the process.

Kitchen after renovations

Photo by Venture Properties

After kitchen renovations.

Kitchen before renovations

Photo by Venture Properties

Before kitchen renovations.

Kitchen and table before renovations

Photo by Venture Properties

Before kitchen renovations.

“With an older home, you’re not buying amenities or a price per square foot,” she says. “You’re buying an experience.” Because let’s face it—older homes live differently. The way the rooms relate, the way the home interacts with the street, the ceiling heights, materials, and features like front porches all create a feel that impacts how we live, and often in beautiful ways.

But not every old home is a beauty. And some can require a whole lot of creativity, vision and investment to get back to their former glory or a new and livable redesign.

The number one challenge, says Venture Properties owner Kimberly Bork, is that “people often have trouble seeing what it could be.” For first-time fixer-uppers, it can be daunting to see past ugly wallpaper, dated Formica or old-house quirks like lack of a main floor bedroom.

Here’s how to approach shopping for an older home and tackling a renovation:

1. Understand great bones. A layout with space and flow, a decent sized kitchen and beautiful details like beams, arched doorways or high ceilings can give you a lot to work with.

2. Start with simple fixes. One of Wege’s favorites? Get rid of ceiling fans and update all the light fixtures. Bork has a few more—like sanding down wood that’s in bad shape and adding a fresh coat of polyurethane or paint. “Can you sand old butcher block, can you paint the cabinets or get new faces for the cabinets? There are all kinds of affordable fixes,” she says.

Island and stove after renovations

Photo by Venture Properties

3. Think outside the floor plan. To make funky floor plans work better, look for things like specialty appliances that will work in an older kitchen, such as a counter-depth fridge, smaller ranges and ovens or 18-inch-wide dishwashers. Need another bathroom? “Steal the laundry room and add a bath there, and opt for a stackable washer/dryer in a closet or basement,” Wege says.

4. Reinvent built-ins. You can add value, usability and drama by adding doors, paint or new shelves. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Remodeled bookshelf

Photo by Venture Properties

5. Use materials wisely. Kitchens are notoriously expensive, Wege says. “If you’re on a budget, plywood countertops sealed and coated can look amazing and are so much less expensive than solid surface counters.” Keep the cabinet boxes if possible; if they’re solid wood and are old and dated, hire a professional painter to put on a good coat and they will last another 100 years.

6. Paint the trim! “Everyone thinks it’s a cardinal sin to paint old woodwork, but it isn’t,” Wege says. “Don’t be afraid to get a paint sample and see what you think. Try it; it can transform a house.”

7. Know where to invest. When deciding where to spend, Wege and Bork both agree on these top four: flooring, lighting, kitchen cabinetry and baths.

8. Become best friends with your contractor. “Treat them like gold,” Wege says. “Bring them donuts, be organized and easy to work with. Good contractors are hard to come by and they are so busy they can pick and choose their clients.”

Remodeled kitchen

Photo by Venture Properties

9. Shop for homes lower than your budgeted price range. Be creative with where you’re going to put your money. People love getting turnkey homes, but they are pretty rare. Instead, be willing to look for potential and upgrade a diamond in the rough.

10. Look for the hallmarks of value in an old home. That includes things like land—perhaps property or a double lot that can be split—as well as more architectural details, such as a lovely fireplace, good wood floors under carpet, exposed brick and stonework. “All of those are a yes—they tell a story.”

11. Don’t waive your inspection. Forgoing contingent inspections may be here to stay, but Bork always recommends an inspection anyway for your own knowledge.

12. Understand old home dealbreakers. Every old home is going to have a little something going on. Crumbling foundations are a big dealbreaker, says Bork, but sagging foundations can be worked with. Walls and ceilings can be changed or moved, but water issues? Leaks, rot, mold and other related problems can be tough to mitigate. Make sure you fully understand the source of the issue.

13. Paint goes a long way. A really, really long way. Fresh paint on porches, trim work, old exteriors, or to refresh dated and funky rooms (including wood paneling) can work minor miracles in transforming the look and feel of a space, making it feel crisp and new.

Photo by Venture Properties

But the most important advice from Wege and Bork is to have fun with it. “Make sure you are doing it because you want to; then it’s a joy,” Bork says. She adds that living in and waiting on construction can be really stressful, so be mentally ready to have your patience tested and be prepared for surprises both good and bad.

“In the end,” Wege adds, “you have something that nobody else has; you can’t replicate that authenticity. And that is a lifestyle choice.”

Photo(s) by Venture Properties