Is your Old House on a House Tour? How to keep sane (and welcoming!)

Being asked to put your older home on a Heritage House Tour is a great compliment. But it also can scare the homeowner with a lot of “What-if ?” questions.

Communities have heritage house tours every year. They raise money for worthwhile causes within the community, and allowing your home to be included on a tour is a way of making a big donation to that cause.

Our house has been on three Heritage House Tours, and we have been happy to be involved. We have speeded up some redecoration that we were planning to do anyway, and cleaned the house thoroughly, and sent some items off for recycling, but the event itself, in each case, went smoothly. Visitors were happy, nothing has ever gone wrong, and we feel that we had contributed to the community, and its appreciation of history.

A peek into “how-the-other-half-lives” (people with old houses!) is part of the attraction of Heritage House Tours. This is an opportunity not to disappoint the visitors who have new homes!

Being organized can allay any fears that may arise when faced with the question of a few hundred (or more) visitors walking through your home. It is still your home, and you have several choices in how visitors may enter your house, and also where they will be allowed to go.

Here are some tips for homeowners asked to be included on a tour:

    1. Make sure that the tour organizers have insurance in case of a visitor tripping on your steps. Sometimes the homeowners insurance will cover such things, but it is best to ask well in advance.
    2. Plan a visitor route for the guests. It is generally good to welcome people at the front door, and have a set path through the house so everyone sees all the rooms, and there are no ‘bottlenecks’ with people backtracking.
    3. Sometimes people allow visitors to roam the open rooms looking at their leisure. Other times, it is a good idea to arrange things a little more like an historic house museum, with stanchions and ropes, to guide visitors, and also allow them to see the rooms not clogged by other guests. Using roped areas also allows better peace of mind for the safety of knick-knacks left out, so they will not be handled. Stanchions can be made or rented, or borrowed from local banks that are often closed on weekends when house tours are held. Often only a ribbon is required to indicate to House Tour visitors where they can go in a house.
    4. Each and every open room should have a volunteer steward standing in it, keeping a gentle eye on the visitors. It is very helpful if each volunteer is provided with an information sheet, so they can answer basic questions. The information sheet should have two kinds of information – general information on the house (age; who built it; how high are the ceilings? [an amazingly popular question, especially in grand Victorian houses]; what kind of wood is used in the trim?; etc.) A second kind of information is also useful – and that is particular to the room hat the volunteer is standing in: (what type of tiles are in the fireplace; who is in that portrait?; are those light fixtures original to the house?)
    5. Close off rooms if you do not feel like having everything open. Teenagers’ rooms often do not fit the gracious atmosphere of a heritage house tour. An attractive “Private – Please DO NOT ENTER” sign will dissuade visitors from peeking.
    6. A place for visitors to take off their shoes is always welcome. It is common procedure to ask visitors to take off their shoes at the door. The tour tickets should make this clear. Visitors may bring slippers or wear clean socks. All shoes will be removed. No bare feet are allowed. A couple of chairs on a porch will assist folks in taking off their shoes and putting them on again.
    7. Local florists may be asked to provide arrangements for each house. With an ad for the florists on each ticket, along with a sign (Provided by “Blooms” florist) by each arrangement, the arrangements can also be a gift to the homeowner from the organizing committee.

Seasonal flowers from either florists or the garden are a good addition to a house tour

    1. Share the history of the house with the visitors. Make a special panel with early photographs, or have pictures showing the restoration work you have done. Use the opportunity to showcase the local history, and take pride in preserving the early architecture of your town.
    2. If possible, set up a special display in the house. Set the dining table for a Victorian dinner, with all of grandmother’s china and Aunt Betty’s best crystal. How about a small display of the early light bulbs that were still in the house – or some of the wallpaper that you found at the back of the closet? Make the visit special for your guests.

A display in a house still under restoration attracts attention from visitors. Every project does not have to be finished! Visitors are doubly appreciative when they see the work involved in restoration projects.

    1. Enjoy the house after the visitors have left. With proper planning, it will seem as if all those people were never there! Invite some friends for a take out meal and a bottle of wine sitting around your Victorian Dining table in your spotlessly clean house. It will be a memorable evening!

A Dining Room set up for a house tour – showing how the owners live “all the time” (not true in most cases!). The room was ribboned off so it was viewed from the end only, with a volunteer steward in the room at all times

The follow-up from a House Tour can also be fun and rewarding. For some time after, you will be stopped on the street and thanked for your generosity, which is a very pleasant feeling. You may have an occasional phone call asking about “that great colour in your Dining Room” or “who refinished your floors?” This gentle interaction supports the preservation of heritage in your community, and increases dialogue between residents about their town, and the character of where people want to live.

If you like your Old House, it is very probable that others also appreciate it! It feels good to occasionally share it with others through a Heritage House Tour.