How to prepare for an old house purchase

By: Shannon Dauphin Lee , Contributing Writer
In: Old House Inspection, Home Improvement Tips, Old Houses

So your heart is set on an old house? If you have fallen in love with an elderly home, you know the surprisingly strong tug at the heart that an old Victorian or Cape or Federal can have. There is just something about these houses, something almost magical, that makes you want to forget about everything but how amazing it will be to finally live in a beautifully restored piece of history.

But before you take that starry-eyed plunge, take a few tips from those who have been there and done that (like me!) and consider what you're getting into when you sign on the dotted line.

Surprise costs lurking in an old house

An old house is the gift that keeps on giving: Just when you think you're done opening your checkbook, another surprise pops up. Here are some of the things you should be prepared to handle:

  1. Electrical upgrades. In most old houses, outlets are in such odd places that they seem like afterthoughts. Besides that, the electrical load required for a house a hundred years ago is nothing like it is now, so the existing outlets can't handle enough current. Expect to add outlets to your house and upgrade the system to handle things like laptops and vacuum cleaners.
  2. Nonexistent phone jacks. It can be easy to believe you will use your cell phone for everything, but what will you do when it's time to install Internet access? Phone jacks in an old home are often nonexistent, must be upgraded or are a mess of wires that make no sense and might even pose a safety hazard. And like electrical outlets, they can be installed in some odd places. You will have to either move them or get creative.
  3. Ancient pipes. Old houses are good things. Old pipes? Not so much. Ancient pipes are much more likely to break, have roots growing through them or drain very slowly. In every old house I have ever lived in, the plumbing was one of the first unexpected repairs I had to dive into -- so now I like to consider it an "expected" repair and budget accordingly.
  4. Old trees. Just as your house is old, so might be the trees and shrubs around it. Old trees are some of the most majestic things you could ever hope to see -- as long as they're healthy, that is. An old tree with dead branches can be a costly problem that needs to be dealt with immediately, before Mother Nature sees fit to bestow one of those branches on your roof.
  5. Crumbling foundations. The foundation was the first part of your house to be created, and after a century of good use, it might be showing signs of age. Even tiny cracks in foundations can get bigger quickly, so keep a careful eye on the exterior. Start saving money now for the day when the foundation gives you trouble.
  6. Unwelcome critters. What is it about old houses that small animals, bats and mice seem to love? No matter how well you seal up your house, they still seem to get in. The best you can do is close things up tight, but still be prepared for the day you come face-to-face with a tiny home invader.

For all the surprises that wait to greet you in an old house, the good things far outweigh the bad. So go ahead and fall in love, but save your pennies while you do.