Some surprises in old houses are great — like finding original wallpaper under layers, or finding hearty wood floors under carpet or tile. But some surprises are bound to be unpleasant and costly. Buyer beware.
“They just don’t make ‘em like they used to!” I used to roll my eyes at this one. Historic and vintage homes are no exception; they were built to last. These homes are often incredibly well made with strong, sturdy materials and exceptional craftsmanship. They draw you in with gleaming wood floors, delicate millwork, large windows and cozy fireplaces. All these qualities draw buyers to historic homes, with good reason. However there are things to look for when considering an older home purchase.
I have talked with so many clients that love the idea of an old house but really don’t know what kind of a roller coaster they may be getting if they take the leap. I thought a basic (very basic) road map might be a good idea.
Is the FOUNDATION solid?
Historic foundations are, well, old. If the foundation of your home has issue, it can be very costly to repair. The basement can tell you a lot about the foundation and its condition. Depending on the age of the home, foundations can be stone, brick, cement and any combination of these. I have seen plenty of homes with wood foundations. Now there’s t-r-o-u-b-l-e.
- Check the basement walls for cracks or signs of shifting.
- Look AND test for mold. This can be a sign of a weak foundation.
- Efflorescence and spawning is not unusual. Softer stones and limestone mortars need to breath.
- Have an inspector take a look, but if you see warning signs, it might be best to move on.
What kind of ELECTRICAL WIRING and how old is it?
Most historic homes were originally wired with knob and tube. This can pose a fire hazard, especially in the attic where the wires would be covered in insulation. If the wiring needs updating it’s an expense that needs to be considered.
- Check the basement, you will see the wiring and be able to determine the type.
- Test electronics in the home, if they short out, there could be a problem.
- Have an inspector/electrician check that the wiring is up to code, in many older homes updates are made and can be unsafe if not done properly.
How old is the PLUMBING?
Does the home have the original cast iron drains and brass supply lines? Over many years of use, these pipes can become corroded or have buildup and residue inside. They may need to be replaced, yet another costly repair.
- Check the basement (basement is the key to all kinds of home secrets) to make sure there are no leaks or corrosion on the pipes.
- Turn on the shower and faucets to check the water pressure, if there is little to no pressure you will want to have your pipes inspected due to build up.
How is the house HEATED?
Historic homes are usually heated one of two ways – radiant heat or forced air (central air). Radiant heat is usually more cost effective and efficient, while forced air systems are convenient because you can have air conditioning, but more costly. Radiant heat is a topic on which I could go on-and-on, and will in a future post. Personally, I think it is far superior for older homes. Each system has its pros and cons.
- Find out if radiant heat is water or steam.
- Check the radiators for leaks or cracks – if these are present, they will need to be replaced or repaired.
- Check the boiler system in place, how old is it and what is its capacity.
- Check the furnace, if it is an older model consider replacing in the near future with a higher efficiency model.
- Check the location of the air ducts, sometimes condensation on them can cause water damage in the ceilings and walls (as older homes were not meant to have air conditioning).
What is the condition of the ROOF?
Historic as well as newer homes will typically have to have an asphalt roof replaced every 10 to 15 years. Other materials, such as tile and slate, can last upwards of 100 years, but are far more costly to repair/replace.
- Check the roofing material AND the age of the roof to determine its remaining life.
- How deep are the eaves? Water rolls off the tops of the eaves, into the gutter, and away from the house.
- Check the attic for any leaks, holes or damage to framing.
- Check all the ceilings and walls in the home for water damage.
Buying a historic or vintage home can seem overwhelming, but if you arm yourself with the right tools and information you make educated decisions about what you are getting into. Check the basement and the attic – that is the best equivalent of ‘looking under the hood.’ That is where you may find the most glaring issues. If it all looks good or you have concerns, have an inspector take a look so you know exactly what is wrong and whether or not it is worth the investment.