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The Challenge of Buying a Century Old Farmhouse

Updated on February 11, 2016

If you had asked me a year ago where I would be in a years time I sure as hell would not have answered on a small farm, renovating a century old house in a remote area of the beautiful Byron Bay Hinterland of NSW. But here I am having moved in to a partially delapidated, partially livable 120 year old farm house in the quiet village of Dunoon. We moved in on the 25th of April and enjoyed a double celebration with the 25th being our Anzac day commemorating the victory at Anzac Cove in WW2 of our nations history, and took up residence amidst the other inhabitants in our farm house including mice, rats, Bilbi's, a Koala and a python that had lived in the walls and roof of the house for who knows how long.

Byron Bay Hinterland

So of course if you are a surfer or a visitor to the NSW north coast or an ex hippie or a current hippie you will have heard about Byron Bay. Famous for it's pristine surfing beaches, laid back lifestyle and funky vibe, Byron is the ultimate holiday stay for many in Oz, and world wide.

While Byron itself is a tourists paradise it's Hinterland is sublime. Fertile green valleys, lush farmland, tree lined roads with over hanging arches and pretty country lanes. Byron's hinterland is quite the paradise for long held dreams of a move to the country.

Having lived and worked in Sydney for a decade, we had longed for a move to a slower pace country area and had set our sights on somewhere on the NSW south coast around an hour or two from Sydney. However rising property rates and a steady influx of cashed up sea changers leaving the city saw our dream there become steadily more distant. Putting our dream on hold we decided to take the plunge and prepare our house for sale anyway and see where it lead us. So five months later after sorting and downsizing we packed everything into a Pod (storage container, see previous related hub). Finalised our work commitments by the year end and sold and moved out of our Sydney home by late January.

It was only as we began the trip up north to my daughters for Christmas that we decided to consider the NSW north coast as a possible destination.

She needs some work

Fortunately for us renovating houses has been part of our job description for some years now and the farm house is the fourth house that we have given a partial make over too. While we had tiled floors, knocked down walls, taken up carpet and polished floors, installed new bathroom amenities and painted previously, we hadn't had to take in the old character and feel of a house before and try to remain sympathetic in its make over. Seasoned renovators we know the rule of thumb of renovating; white palette, open plan; minimalist approach. But this house is teaching us everything we have never known before. Estimated to be an old girl of 120 + years or so we were led to believe, with it's council records washed away in the regions worst flood in decades, she is proving to be an exciting and somewhat challenging project. Our desire is to re purpose some of the building materials from the old house including doors, beams, windows, anything we can really, and have used some of the old barn doors as pantry shelves, and some of the old hard wood beams as feature beams.

Morning Mist Over the Garden

Tree by the Garden
Tree by the Garden | Source
Out the kitchen window
Out the kitchen window | Source

The Orchard

Not only are we restoring the house, but we are also working on a plan to improve and increase the already established orchard with a variety of boutique citrus. Which has meant, getting rid of unproductive trees, pruning, fertilising, spraying for aphids, ants mealy bugs etc and generally maintaining our 25 Macadamia trees, 10 Mangoes, several Guavas, 20 plus citrus, including finger and Kafir limes, blood oranges, common or bush lemons and clementine mandarins spreading straw around the roots, regularly weeding, mowing, mulching and adding plenty of magnesium to the soil.

Lessons Learned

Part of the reason I wrote this hub is to share some of the challenges that we have faced along our journey, some of which set us back and caused no end of upset...A friend asked me recently if I would ever do this again what would I do differently, these are some of my thoughts;

* Make sure before you pay a deposit that council has your plans - we found out after we'd paid our deposit that the plans for the property were washed away in one of the regions worst floods of it's history several years ago. Have a your solicitor/ conveyancer look them over thoroughly and make sure of all building entitlements; water easements; if you have well water what part of the property do the pipes access; electricity poles and accessibility etc etc. If you don't have plans then you really need a professional to contact council and do the asking and make arrangements as it can get quite complex handling it yourself. We had a great conveyancer who perservered until we were happy with the outcome.

* If you are going to restore an old house there is a lot to consider - First you must find out if the house is heritage listed; if it is, it can change everything about your renovations with the legal requirements placed on your house.

* If not, the next step is, if the house is livable stay in it for a while before you make structural changes. In 6 weeks or 3 months time you can change your mind, and time gives you a better perspective to see what feels right for you.

* Enlist a builder who is sympathetic to the restoration of an older house.If your hearts desire is to re-purpose and reuse materials as ours is, you don't want to spend time trying to persuade your builder of what you want done even if he seems like a nice guy, or you have heard he is a fantastic builder. It's a frustration better done without. Get a number of quotes, find out their hourly rate, and ask for a quote to completion of the work; and more importantly ask for evidence of their work. I can't stress this enough, we should have done this, even though we went on word of mouth, we didn't and learned the hard way. A good builder will want his reputation to go before him and should be able to produce evidence ie a recent renovation of theirs to examine, a client to chat to or a body of photos to look at. And if possible if your builder can't do all that you require, try to have him finish his work before enlisting the services of another builder. Not only will this be easier for you to track for payment, but also will prevent a conflict of interest, if for instance they are both perfectionists.

* And finally if you have the time and inclination buy your building materials yourself particularly second hand materials. Be guided by your builder, sure, but if you know what you want and have renovated an old house before, and it has worked, trust your instinct and go with your gut. Most good builders who get a feel for what you want will work with you and accommodate your ideas and will only insist otherwise if it structurally won't work.

For us the biggest mistake we made was assuming that having done it before ie renovated several houses that we could do it again. WRONG. Renovating a house as old as ours requires new thought processes and different approaches. Learn all you can before you start. Talk to people that you know have done it. Google, google, google ideas; experiences; resources; buy magazines, books, read articles on pinterest etc etc etc.
You can never know too much.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Old Wooden BeamsBeautiful Re-purposed Cedar Doors
Old Wooden Beams
Old Wooden Beams | Source
Beautiful Re-purposed Cedar Doors
Beautiful Re-purposed Cedar Doors | Source

Word of warning...If your builder talks too much or explains every little detail of the job, or goes into detail on his personal issues, you will have to get tough and keep him on track...or let him go...

Labor of love

Restoring an old house is definitely not for the faint at heart, nor for the inexperienced. For us it really is a labor of love and I'm sure it will be for some time to come. It is our choice and one we have been so happy to make.

A parting word. If you love old homes and love creating something beautiful out of a run down dilapidated, wrecked old house it can be one of the most exciting and beautiful experiences you ever embark on. Happy renovating...


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    • carter06 profile image

      Mary 21 months ago from Cronulla NSW

      Hi Flourish, just got this..and almost did, but he was safely removed by my son and relocated some 20k's away. The carpet python is, even though a large snake, relatively harmless and is protected. They are common to this area, and further north, and usually will leave you alone if you leave them alone..however I'm not a lover of them and opt for having them removed and relocated..


    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 22 months ago from USA

      I would've split a the thought of a python living in the walls. Omg!

    • carter06 profile image

      Mary 2 years ago from Cronulla NSW

      Thanks Genna, wow that colonial home of yours would have been pretty special for you, hard work but well worth it..

      Learning is so important especially on a job like this one, there is so much to know..


    • carter06 profile image

      Mary 2 years ago from Cronulla NSW

      Hi Jodah, it is a challenge but it's exciting and keeping me young..I think:)

      It really is so beautiful here, I mean this time last year I didn't even no 'here' existed..thanks for dropping by..keep up your great writing, enjoy it when I drop in..


    • carter06 profile image

      Mary 2 years ago from Cronulla NSW

      Hi Chef, it is a great project, loving the opportunity to do it and using some of the original beams in the house really adds to the homes character. We are loving the orchard too and preparing the soil now for a good winter crop..too cold up there in Yorkshire for oranges yet?? would be happy to send some over but just a bit too far! have a great day..


    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 2 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      Your story brought back memories. I spent my early childhood years in a colonial home in Jersey before my family moved to the mountains in the upper north region of that state. The work it took to restore that old place I will remember, always. But the results were something to cherish, as you have with your home. You have penned a terrific hub with many tips and words of advice -- especially, "You can never know too much."

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Mary, thank you for sharing your experience. It is challenging but you are in a beautiful part of the world and I am sure you will make it great. How lucky to have all those fruit trees too.

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 2 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Fascinating project. Like the idea of re-using the old beams if they're still sound. Why not? And yes, keeping a close eye on the builder is essential as they can can get up to all sorts of tricks! Love the orchard with all those citrus fruits. Yum. Perhaps, when global warming hits, we'll be growing oranges in Yorkshire!!