Real Estate

It has a history ...

Buyers of historic homes need to be aware of what they're getting

Previous fire damage was evident on the gutters of this historic Professorville home. Once the framing was exposed, it was clear that there had been significant burning to the second story. Even the studs were charred. Photo courtesy Sam Benzacar.

Falling in love with a historic house is a bit like falling in love with a woman. You may notice some faults, but once you're smitten, you quickly overlook them.

So says Sam Benzacar, president of Creative Habitat Inc., a design/build company with offices in Menlo Park and Los Angeles.

But to make sure those home quirks don't come back to haunt you, it's best to go into the restoration/renovation process with a detective's eye, he said. That's how he approached a recent project — a 1903 Colonial Revival/Shingle Style home in Professorville — which garnered a Palo Alto Stanford Heritage (PAST) award for design and implementation.

A deeper look at the smoky residue on the gutters revealed a long-ago fire that left the framing boards charred. Earlier homeowners had simply ignored the damage.

Under the three layers of exterior siding was rotten wood. The siding had been applied without the plywood sheeting and waterproofing required in today's building code.

"It harbored humidity and rot that was there and gave it more. (It had) little oxygen to ventilate, so it kept rotting away," Benzacar said.

Termites were evident near the foundation, where wood touched dirt directly. "Because it's a historical home, it's not the usual termite damage you'd expect ... The termite has (had) much more opportunity to do substantial damage," Benzacar said.

Nothing in the termite report gave a heads up to such extensive damage, he said, but that's not surprising given the report's disclaimers that inspectors were not able to access every nook and cranny.

"Those disclaimers are the Achilles' heel. It wouldn't be a big deal in a current home, but in a historical home they could be a huge difference," he said. "The bottom line is inspections are there to monitor everything in the realm of normal, not historical."

But worse than the termite damage was the effect of water and mud touching the wood framing, creating rot.

"The criteria of construction at the time was different, codes were different. In many ways it was built better, like framing and materials used were great. However, even if you put the best of materials and you lay them directly on dirt, exposure to termite and wet rot are tremendous, obviously. That's where major damage to framing members were," he said.

The lesson learned here is "with any remodel, expect the unexpected, but in a historical home, take it to the nth degree and also be much more investigative, proactive and go beyond standard inspection. Be a detective," Benzacar said, advising potential renovators to hire experts to probe deeper. "People who move the house go under the foundation in order to raise it. They know what to expect."

Bencazar has been designing and building homes since the 1980s, but this is his first historical renovation. Born in Israel, he came to the U.S. to study. Bencazar eventually finished medical school and began a general surgery residency at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, but he was perpetually seeking new challenges and thought he'd like to try neurosurgery, he said.

"Medicine was the ultimate. It was a lifetime project," he said of his feelings at the time.

A trip to the West Coast in pursuit of that residency instead netted him a wife and a year off to try something new. He started by designing and building small homes in Palo Alto in the 1980s with another builder.

"I did a small home and it was a great success, then another, then expanded into bigger projects in Atherton. I became addicted to it. It was the peak of creativity for me," he said. Along the way he self-studied architecture and design. Today he does much of the design for Creative Habitat, but is aided by licensed architects and interior designers.

He has found the same satisfaction in building as he derived from helping people through medicine.

He found the Professorville home a challenge. "Not only did we have to update the house, but we increased the size of it, added a basement, but still kept its true style to the point that no one would ever know the extent," he said.

Benzacar began the work knowing that the new owners loved the home the way it is and loved its character. "We wanted to update it, tweak it, make it suitable to the family," he said, while following the City of Palo Alto's rules for working on older homes.

"Changing anything in windows and doors was out of the question. The façade was a given, but that doesn't affect the floor plan. Then we worked backwards. The biggest question was whether to include a basement under the existing structure," he said.

"It opens the renovation, expansion into a new realm. In order to move it, we had to make sure it's secure, that the structure is not going to collapse on you while you're moving it, raising it, etc. That psychologically prepared all of us that it would not be a minor project," he added.

As for the additional cost, Benzacar noted that "expense is relative to return. If you look at square footage that you added — in Palo Alto — and what they got in return, there was zero investment in land. You've got pure gain of square footage, without affecting the exterior mass of the house."

The renovation did allow them to fix an earlier slap-dash addition of a sun room and replacement of four or five kinds of windows. "Now the windows are uniform, coherent. We gave the structure a much longer life," he said.

"What we did was took the addition, integrated it into a historical, more conservative look. We took it to a better place, not only structurally but aesthetically — (which is) why we got the PAST award. We remained true to the original, but not true to the slopped-on addition that looked horrible," he said.

Benzacar's advice for those thinking of buying and renovating a historic house:

"They need a true reality check — and not what they would like to hear."

Benzacar said many buyers see a historical home and fall in love with it. Then they go through the motions of inspecting it and really don't want to see more.

"If you want to see more, you'll invest more ... If you dig deep enough, there will be minimal surprises. That's the key," he said. "Be aware of what you're buying into.

"You're not only getting potential problems, but you're getting a potential great prospect."

Freelance writer Carol Blitzer can be emailed at

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