Tips, tricks and resources to fix up an old Baltimore rowhouse on the cheap

Published on: June 27, 2022 at 6:00 am EDT

Updated on: July 11, 2022 at 11:29 am EDT

Exposed brick behind the wall in reporter Tim Prudente's Baltimore rowhome. He has been working to restore the once-vacant property.

Everyone knows Baltimore’s an old city, but consider this statistic: The median age of a house in Baltimore is 94 years old. That’s according to a 2020 analysis of census data by the real estate website Sundae, which ranks Baltimore fifth — ahead of Washington, New York and San Francisco — among U.S. cities with the largest portion of old homes.

You don’t have to look too far here to find someone who’s fixed up an old house. In Baltimore, it’s a shared experience.

I’ll be an enterprise reporter at the new Baltimore Banner. To me, that means chasing good stories wherever they may lead — sometimes about my own experiences.

Before the pandemic hit, I moved into a broken-down 19th century rowhouse in Baltimore and set to work. I figured it’d take a few months to bring the house into order; it took me two years.

These are the tips, tricks and resources I picked up along the way.

The floors in Tim Prudente's Baltimore rowhome. He has been working to restore the once-vacant property.

Yes, you can refinish your floors

Homeowners covet the wide pine planks of old Baltimore rowhomes, but the decades leave them in rough shape. I found cracks, gouges and a maze of old termite trails. Past generations had drilled holes for old wiring, now openings for mice and bugs. I learned to refinish a floor for less than $300.

I skipped The Home Depot to rent a floor sander from Sunbelt Rentals. The equipment supplier allows you to pick up Friday afternoon and return early Monday for the price of one day. Home Depot would charge you for three.

There are plenty of how-to videos online. One tip: Save your sawdust after sanding. Mix the sawdust with your finish, say polyurethane, to form a putty that can be pressed into holes and gouges. Spread a thin layer over termite damage or splintered edges. The putty will dry hard in a few days and match the existing wood. Just run over it with the sander. This trick saved me from having to replace many boards.

Reporter Tim Prudente applies finish on the wood floors of his Baltimore rowhome.

Save money with salvaged materials, borrowed tools

With all the old homes in Baltimore and the perpetual redevelopment, there are plenty of places to buy used building materials. Everyone knows of the massive South Baltimore warehouse Second Chance, which can be pricey. A co-worker recommended an inexpensive alternative: The Loading Dock, Inc. in East Baltimore. Want to redo your bathroom? They have an especially big selection of tile.

Avoid buying costly tools with a membership to the Station North Tool Library. Monthly dues range from $5 to $20. From the website: “We have hammer drills, miter saws, sanders, bike tools, landscaping equipment, common home improvement tools and more.” The library offers classes, too.

Teach yourself

As a journalist, I’m mindful of my sources. The internet will tell you how to do just about any home improvement job, just not always correctly. It’s easy to try to fix something only to make the problem worse (trust me). I relied on the classic home improvement sites such as thisoldhouse.com and oldhouseonline.com for trustworthy instructions.

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Subscribe to the magazine “Old House Journal” for a wealth of advice, tips and lessons. I found people around Baltimore tend to hoard these magazines, then give them away for free. I learned much from hundreds of old issues I picked up from a friendly homeowner in Charles Village. Check the usual giveaway sites, such as Nextdoor.com, and you’ll find some, too.

Find your home’s history

The Great Baltimore Fire of 1904 destroyed many property records, so it can be difficult — impossible even — to find the year an old house was built. The Maryland State Department of Assessments and Taxation website shows some information, including recent owners and sale price. The build date listed, sometimes 1920, is often a placeholder, though.

Dig a little deeper with Maryland Land Records. Start an account for free, then trace the old deeds, liens and mortgages back through the years. To go even deeper, use your library card number to access the databases of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. Try searching with your address. I found obituaries for men and women who lived in the home all the way to the early 1900s.