Buying an Old House: Just What Are We Getting Into Here?

Scott Gibson

My wife and I no longer live in an old house. I think it amounts to taking a breather, not a permanent switch from old houses to new ones.

When we built our current house five years ago, we swore it would be our last. Yet no one in the family believed us, and in my heart I'm not sure I did either. There's something inexpressibly wonderful about an old New England Cape with its various appendages and a big barn.

We'll be back.

I just need a few more years to gird myself for the inevitable problems that come with owning a house that's been around for a century or two.

We moved into such a house in 1980 with two young children and a third on the way. Not long after, I reached under a chair to retrieve a tennis ball one of the kids had pitched there, and in groping around my fingers came into contact with a section of rotten wood. I broke off a few chunks of what turned out to be the sill and pulled them out to look.

How had we missed this in our pre-sale inspections?

We had missed it because we didn't care if the sill was rotten. It was our first real house. All we saw was a charming brick Cape built around 1800 with an attached ell and barn on the edge of a wide field with the Kennebec River in the far distance.

I realized that morning I had some work in front of me; how much it was impossible to say.

Before it was all over, I had jacked up the ell and cut away the lower 4 feet of the building with a chainsaw. There was nothing left to save. The amputated posts dangled in the breeze for six weeks while we put in a real foundation and built new underpinnings for what was left of the structure.

Anyone who has owned an old house will find nothing unusual in this story.

An old house is a string of surprises, usually starting with a minor repair that mutates before your eyes into a major undertaking. It requires many trips to the hardware store and lumber yard and can cost several times more than your wildest pre-repair guess.

A year or so after we finished rebuilding the ell (and replacing a boiler that sucked down 2,400 gallons of fuel oil a year, which was somewhat before or slightly after rebuilding the chimney, I can't remember exactly) I was pulling off some rotten fascia on the back of the house. This was just prior to putting on a new roof, which as many of you can appreciate followed tearing off three layers of old asphalt shingles.

I put the claws of my hammer around a piece of trim and gave it a gentle tug.

The board popped off and I found myself looking into a roiling nest of carpenter ants that had taken up residence in the eave.

As the ants scattered in all directions I climbed down the ladder and went inside to find my wife.

You're right, I told her. It's time we sold this old place and built something that will be easier to take care of.

And that's what we did. Not once, but twice more. We seem to burn ourselves out on a renovation, retreat to a house that isn't falling down and then mysteriously find ourselves back in an old place.

I'm counting on it. Just not quite yet.

Search Improvement Project