Red Flags for Buyers of Old Homes

Old House

Older homes have charm, character, and curb-appeal. Buyers tend to fall in love with them at first sight. Along with their beauty, older homes tend to need significant upgrades that can quickly gobble up household budgets. Not all old homes are money pits, but they all warrant a thorough home inspection. Old houses used the technology of the day and unless the previous owner upgraded key components, you are going to foot the bill sooner or later. Here are some things to think about before you write a quick offer.

Old houses have cellars rather than basements. They tend to have low ceilings and be damp; not a good combination for renovating. When foundation walls are made from rubble, stone or block not only are they likely to be damp but there are other potential issues. Significant cracks in walls and crumbling mortar are signs to watch for. If they have already been renovated, you may inherit mould or other issues behind the walls. Just keep in mind that cellars were not built to be living space.

Smaller electrical services are often found in older houses. The current just wasn’t needed back then, but it sure is now. Back then services were 30 amps. Now larger homes commonly have 200 amp service. If you see an electrical panel with fuses rather than circuit-breakers, you should plan on an upgrade. Homes built before the 1930’s can still have knob and tube wiring, hidden piecemeal behind walls. A couple of signs are receptacles mounted horizontally in baseboards, two-prong plugs and the ever-so-charming push-button light switches or ones with twist knobs. Upgrading requires more than electrical work, walls must be opened and refinished adding to the expense.

The plumbing system in an old house may consist of a series of retrofits cobbled together. It’s not uncommon to see cast iron, galvanized steel, copper and plastic pipes in one building. Cast iron and galvanized pipe work well for decades, but eventually rust on the inside and clog. Depending on the amount to replace, and its accessibility, repairs can be a major expense. Make note of their presence or absence.

Lead was often used for water supply piping. Some people consider this a major issue, others don’t see the risk. Just remember that if you buy a house with a lead pipe water supply, when you want to resell some of the buyers will be scared away. It’s expensive to dig up and replace the supply pipe to where the city service enters the property. After all that the city lines may still have some old lead pipe. Take a peek where the water supply enters the basement. If you see only copper pipe, the house has passed another quick test.

Fireplaces and wood-stoves were often the only source of heat in old houses. Somewhere along the line coal, oil, gas or even electric heat may have been installed. Lots of old houses still use hot water and radiators to distribute heat rather than today’s more common forced air systems. If the listing says natural gas forced-air heat with air-conditioning, you may have dodged another upgrade. Despite the charms of radiators and comfort of hot water heating, the house is less likely to have a central air-conditioning because the duct-work is hard to retrofit.

Original windows in old homes will be single-pane glass. When it’s all about the charm this may be a concession you are willing to make. Do make sure that the windows operate properly and are not painted shut. Double-hung window mechanisms can be repaired but the costs add up quickly. Older homes are less airtight and poorly insulated by today’s standard. Be prepared for a few drafts and higher utility costs. Make sure you see some bills.

Slate, cedar shake and cedar shingle roofs are stately features of any home and seem to look better with age. Be aware that the cost to repair or replace them are higher than today’s common asphalt shingles. If you see missing or broken shingles take note. While it may look charming, take special note of shaded areas that have moss growing on them. The less pretty name for moss is rot and it means repairs are probably overdue. While you are walking around the house admiring the roof-line and decorative trim, take a look at the chimneys. If they have a lot of character you may have some bills coming. Watch out for leaning stacks, missing bricks or mortar and cracks. As impressive as ivy covered walls appear, they grow by digging their tendrils into the mortar and may be doing damage to your masonry under that leafy facade.

The uniqueness and beauty of older homes can make them wonderful places to live and they are often in terrific locations. Knowing a few of the missteps to avoid can help you to sort through MLS listings quickly. I hope this article has opened your eyes to some red flags you can watch for when shopping for older houses. This is not an exhaustive list and is no substitute for a good home inspection. Here’s hoping that old house is your dream home.


Author: Rob Cornish is a Home Inspector in Ottawa, Canada. © 2013 HomeXam Inc.
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