Buying an Old House
Dear Home Inspector: What are the most important things to look for when buying an old house?
If you are considering only older homes, then you have probably removed maintenance free from your vocabulary and have no weekend plans for coming years. Higher repair and maintenance expenses should be factored into your budget when calculating the total cost of purchasing an older home. Repairs, renovations and even pre-purchase inspection costs can be considerably higher than if you were buying a newer home.
If it has been maintained, the structure of an old house usually needs only some minor repairs, reinforcement or maintenance. Later additions and alterations may be built to a lower standard than the original home, however, and can be in need of major repairs or renovations. This doesnt mean that all original structures are flawless. Neglected crawlspaces can have foundation and floor structure defects. Wood destroying insects can damage timbers for years before they are detected. Perpetual water intrusion and previous fires could have damaged areas that are now concealed.
In most older homes there is usually at least one major system in need of updating. Keep in mind, most mechanical systems have been added to an old home and were not considered when it was originally constructed.
Knob and tube wiring
Electrical. Knob and tube wiring was used when electricity was added to homes, generally in the 1920s to '30s. This wiring was mainly used for electric lighting, since major electrical appliances were not available for residential use. When the latest conveniences became affordable in later decades, this wiring was altered and expanded. This ungrounded wiring system is not very compatible with modern electrical appliances. Usually the incoming service is undersized as well. In some old fuse boxes, it was a common practice to install fuses on the neutral conductor in addition to the hot. An inexperienced homeowner might assume that twice the amount of circuits exist. Physical damage, age and added insulation to homes can create unsafe conditions as well.
Heating. As coal became readily available, central heating systems were retrofitted to existing homes. Most coal fired systems have been converted or updated to oil or gas and these systems originally vented into unlined chimneys. Chimney flue liners, if present, are usually made of terra cotta and can rapidly deteriorate with higher combustion efficiency heating equipment. Restoring old chimneys and relining flues are common expenses of owning an old home. The age, type, condition and efficiency should be considered when evaluating the heating system. An old cast iron boiler may be manufactured to last for a century or more, but updating to a modern system can reduce future heating and maintenance costs.
Plumbing in old homes is usually a mix of old materials and some new. Existing systems are extended to additions and remodeling a kitchen or bath can warrant updating the piping below. Iron and lead pipes become clogged with corrosion and mineral deposits and are typically updated in sections as needed. Cast iron drain piping corrodes from the inside, becomes thin, pitted or cracked. The horizontal sections usually go first, sooner if drain cleaners, containing sulfuric acid, have been used in earlier decades. Unless the home has been gutted recently, you can almost count on updating some of the piping and fixtures.
Roofing. Unless the home is under eighty years old and has a slate roof, it is likely the roof is not original to the home. There is a multitude of roofing materials, all with their own life expectancies and regular maintenance requirements. Many old homes have multiple additions with different types and ages of the various roofs. Like the plumbing system, the individual sections are replaced as needed.
Health and Safety. Recent discoveries and statistics have changed building codes and product specifications. Some building materials and practices used long ago are no longer acceptable in newly constructed homes. Some safety items can be easily added or altered in older homes. Hand railings can be improved inexpensively. Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors can be easily installed. Other health related concerns, like asbestos and lead, can be quite expensive to correct or remove.
These are just a few of the areas of concern to an old house buyer. The most important part of purchasing an older home is having a sale agreement covering inspections and testing and hiring experienced professionals to evaluate your potential purchase. With a contract protecting you from major defects, you can focus on other important aspects of home buying like deciding if the location, size, character and potential of the home is suitable to your family and lifestyle.
William Kibbel III is a home inspector and restoration consultant specializing in historic residential and commercial buildings. He is vice president of Tri-County Inspection Company, serving Southeastern Pennsylvania and Central New Jersey.