Steps to consider when converting a House of Character

Steps to consider when converting a House of Character

Acquiring a Maltese house of character is like owning a slice of history. These houses, with some dating to the sixteenth century, are found in narrow winding streets in the oldest parts of our villages or in the unspoilt countryside surrounded by fields. They are sought after for their rich character and beautiful features.  

Know what you are looking at.  

When someone decides to buy and renovate a house of character, they need to know what to look for and appreciate what to preserve and enhance. The authentic stone features that are typical of these houses are typical of dwellings built in Malta hundreds of years ago and once played vital, functional roles in the lives of the many families who lived in them.  

One should also be aware that houses of character were not built all at one go. It is very likely that extensions were added, and alterations made over the years to accommodate the changing needs of society. In fact, one would be able to notice a fusion of architectural styles in such houses.   

Built exclusively with the traditional honey-coloured Maltese limestone, a typical house of character has double-thickness and sometimes even thicker outside walls, called dobblu and imramma respectively. These create both thermal and acoustic insulation. Depending on the period when the house was built and occupied, one might find traditional flagstone floors or patterned Maltese tiles.  

Looking at the ceilings, one should immediately notice long slabs of stone, called xriek (pl. xorok) forming the ceiling. The xorok rest on corbels, or kileb (pl. klejjeb), jutting out from the perimeter of the room. The length of the xorok together with the protrusion of the klejjeb, dictate the width of a room. Wider rooms were built using arches, or hnejjiet, which supported the xorok in the middle. 

Although no house of character is identical to another, they do share some characteristics. One may find many small rooms on various levels, usually situated around, and having access to, an internal courtyard. This served the purpose of ventilating the house and offering much needed respite in the hot summer months and providing natural light during the day. Expect rooms to have different floor levels even if they’re on the same floor. Outside, in the courtyard, one usually finds a staircase, sometimes with treads that have been worn out with time, leading to the bedrooms on the upper levels. A typical Maltese feature is a spacious landing at the top of the stairs, before entering the bedrooms.  

Some houses, but not all, may have other features like quirky nooks in the wall, skylights, cellars, mill rooms and usable wells. It is not uncommon for a house to have a remissa for an entrance. It is typically a wide door, opening into a wide entrance, where the horse-drawn cart was kept for the night. The door leading to the house would then be at the back of the remissa. Of course, the more authentic features the house has, the higher its value. 

Understand what work needs to be done. 

The challenge is to convert an old house to meet today’s standards of modern living. One has to keep in mind that the house originally served a family which lived in another era, without electricity and where every room had a specific function and was separate from the rest.   

Anyone who sets their mind on renovating a house of character needs to understand that there are works on many levels involved: structural, electrical, restorative, etc. Therefore, when you are seriously considering a particular property, make sure you are accompanied by someone with a trained eye, a person who can appraise the property and its characteristics and knows what works will need to be carried out.  

Get bills of quantity for the works needed, usually an architect would be able to issue this at a cost. If you are planning to knock down walls or lower the level of a room (and more often than not there’s plenty of soil underneath those flagstones and tiles), you will need to include the cost of dumping that excessive material in the total expenditure.  

Once you have a clear idea of the costs involved, factor it in your purchasing budget. The total cost of the works is usually substantial, depending of course on how much work needs to be done to make the place habitable. Therefore, the cost to purchase the property should be much lower than the total budget you have for it.  

Appreciate good workmanship. 

Contract workmen who have the skills for and the experience of working in houses of character and understand the sensitivity of the environment they are working in. Make sure your builder is licensed, understands the properties of the Maltese stone and is skilled in traditional building techniques.  

Next to enter the scene, is usually the electrician and plumber, who will, in all probability and as per Maltese custom, be one and the same person. Again, confirm that they are an authorised licenced electrician because by law you need to have the electrical work certified. Discuss how they will do the wiring and plumbing, which will undoubtedly be either non-existent in the house or needs to be redone from scratch. A dedicated electrician who values these properties will not just chase across the wall to arrive straight from Point A to Point B, but will painstakingly clean out the plastering between the stones to embed the electric cables within. It is more laborious and takes longer but after the plastering is done the cables will be hidden from sight. Regarding plumbing, discuss the pros and cons of traditional terracotta plumbing which blends in nicely with the old stone.  

Once the structural works and plumbing and electricity are ready, it is the right time to bring in the tile layer and the carpenter. It makes sense to discuss flooring before woodwork. Decide whether to keep any flagstones or tile the whole area. Don’t be disheartened by any mismatched tiles. It is not uncommon for tiles and patterns to be different across the house. Nowadays there are companies which have brought the Maltese tile back to life and would be able to produce new tiles matching the patterns already in place. Once the levels have been established by the tile layer, the carpenter can enter the scene and take the necessary measurements for doors and windows. Traditional Maltese apertures don’t come cheap therefore do not be quick to rid yourself of any old windows already inside the house. Discuss whether these can be restored and be made useful again. When discussing apertures, make sure you discuss insulation and ways to make them more watertight.   

Another point worth mentioning, which might seem trivial to many, is to discuss with all the workmen involved what needs to be salvaged and/or get repaired – like stone, tiles, apertures, ironwork - and what needs to be discarded. Communication with all people involved in the project is key. 

Therefore, expect costs for structural works, restoration of walls and staircases, plumbing and electricity, new flooring and bespoke furniture. 

What might be missing from the house.  

People who decide to turn a house of character into their dream home know that there are a few things that they will have to compromise on. One of them is a quick move. People who have had an old house converted know that it takes time – the planning phase with the architect and builder, the wait for the permits, the conversion itself including structural changes and restoration. If you want a particularly good contractor, you might be placed on a very busy schedule and you will have to wait months for the works to start.  

Another issue might be parking. Most of these houses are situated in very narrow streets with hardly any parking spaces at all. And there is a big chance that it is not possible to turn a room at the front of the house into a garage.  

Another major difference between different types of homes is that modern ones boast big, combined living areas. These are sometimes just not possible in houses of character. There are walls that cannot be knocked down as they are supporting walls and therefore adjacent rooms cannot be converted into one big open space. A good architect should be able to tell whether the internal layout can be changed. 

If you are considering a particular house of character check whether there are any irregularly shaped rooms. If a wall is not straight, it will mean that you cannot buy furniture off the shelf, but you will need to get a carpenter to make bespoke furniture which might cost more.   

As with all homes, a house of character has its own running costs. There is regular maintenance to do on the stone, like a special treatment or sealer. The apertures also need to be sanded down and repainted at regular intervals to keep the wood protected. Then there is heating in the cold winter months. A house built in Maltese stone will keep cool and damp in the winter months, requiring efficient heating.  

A heritage worth preserving. 

A person who has fallen in love with these Maltese houses knows that a tastefully renovated house of character, where new meets old, is the epitome of Maltese style. 

Understanding and appreciating a house of character takes a trained eye. At Zanzi Homes you can find real estate specialists who, with their years of experience in the local scene, can assist you in picking the home with the most potential for you. You can find out more at  


Conway Wigg
Written By

Conway Wigg