Old House Money Pit

Kendall Holmes

"We've found the house of our dreams, a pre-1900 Victorian. While the house is in great shape, our parents joke about 'the money pit' and warn that catastrophes await us. Are old houses really more expensive to own and maintain?"

Getting spooked by those jokes might be the biggest catastrophe! You'd end up buying a new townhouse with bouncy floors, paper-thin walls and a parking lot where the front yard ought to be.

Assuming you've decided to avoid that route, let me fuel both sides of your family's friendly feud: No, old houses aren't inherently money pits, especially if they are in good condition. But yes, old houses usually are more expensive to own and maintain.

Here are some reasons why:

  • In many communities, your money goes farther when buying an older house. You get more rooms (and bigger rooms) with higher ceilings. You get a bigger yard, too. Size is wonderful. But in and of itself, extra size carries extra costs.
  • Old houses cost more to heat and cool than their newly minted cousins. They're bigger and draftier and don't have as much insulation. In your note to me, you indicated that the house you hope to buy has tight windows and a new heating system. These will certainly help keep costs down. You can help yourself even more by caulking cracks and adding insulation. But you shouldn't expect new-house thermal performance from a turn-of-the-century Victorian.
  • Old houses need more exterior maintenance than new houses and it usually costs because you're dealing with materials that have been exposed to the weather for a century or more rather than a year or a decade. Additionally, the architectural complexity of many older houses--coupled again with their size--pushes costs even higher.
  • The very features that attract many of us to older houses--their rich woodwork, their beautiful floors, their elegance--tends to make us view ourselves as stewards of these homes rather than supreme rulers. We respect old houses and try to preserve the things that make them special. So we use the best paints and authentic wallpapers. We buy light fixtures that come from a restoration catalog rather than the local home center. And then we hire the best craftspeople we can find to do the work we can't do ourselves. All of this costs more than you'd spend on a new house in a subdivision.

Those are some of the key reasons older houses cost more to own. One way to deal with this reality is to establish a line in the family budget for home maintenance, and then make sure you put money into this account each month.

So, what about the catastrophes your parents are warning of? You can avoid them by learning as much possible about your home before signing a purchase agreement. Money pits come in many shapes and sizes, from historic houses to brand-new homes in expensive subdivisions. In future columns, I'll deal with what to look for when buying a house.


About the Author
By Kendall Holmes, The Old House Web

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