Questions to ask before buying an old house
Historic houses are charming, but age often comes with problems. Check these things before you commit to that beautiful old home.
© Darren Setlow/Built Images/Photolibrary
With home prices down as much as 50% from their peak several years ago, especially in certain real-estate markets, many people are deciding with good reason that now is the time to jump into homeownership or to invest in real estate. While living in a brand-new home has its perks, these newer homes often lack charm and personality.
This is why some people are drawn to older, historic homes, which are often oozing with character. The downside is that they can also be money pits and cause endless frustrations for homeowners. As the owner of a historic home myself, I'll be the first to say that owning an old home isn't for everyone. But in spite of the time and money I've poured into my 1910 Craftsman, I'd still much rather live here in than in a swanky new subdivision. So how do you know if owning a historic home is right for you? Here are five questions you should ask before you sign on the dotted line.
1. Is the foundation solid?
Old homes often have foundation issues, which are incredibly costly to fix. When you're looking at a historic home, leave the living room and bedrooms for last. The most important information is down in the basement. First, check the foundation for signs of cracks or shifting. Also look for and test for mold in the home, as it can be a sign of a weak foundation and other problems. You'll likely need to get a thorough home-inspection service to tell you for sure if the foundation is solid, but if you see signs of crumbling or cracks, it's best to move on.
2. How old is the electrical wiring?
Many old homes still have the original knob-and-tube wiring. Although it works, it can pose a fire hazard — especially in the attic, where it's likely to be covered by insulation. Evidence of the knob-and-tube wiring will be in the basement. If the home's wiring is outdated, make sure you consider the cost of updating it. It's a huge, expensive job. I know because I had to rewire my entire home after I bought it.
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3. How old is the plumbing?
If the house still has the original cast-iron pipes, you might need to replace them because of mineral buildup, corrosion or leaks. Make sure you closely inspect any exposed pipes in the basement to see if they're in working order. Mineral buildup in the pipes won't be noticeable until you're trying to take a shower and realize that very little water is coming out. And if you're wondering, yes, I had to replace all my plumbing too. It wasn't fun.
4. How is the house heated?
Old radiators may add character, but they're an expensive way to heat the house. Make sure you carefully analyze how much fuel oil you'll need to heat the house. If the home has central heat, check to see how old the furnace is. This is another expensive replacement.
5. How's the roof?
Replacing a roof is one of the most expensive home repairs you'll make. I replaced mine recently, and I could have taken a plush European vacation on what I spent. Make sure you check the roof and the attic carefully for leaks. If the roof is more than 10 to 15 years old, you might need to replace it sometime during your ownership of the house. (Bing: More advice on buying an older home)
As you can see, owning a historic home is fraught with potentially expensive repairs, but don't let that scare you off from considering buying one. There are definitely some pros to owning an older home, starting with the fact that they are typically incredibly well-made and built with good, sturdy materials and strong craftsmanship. They also usually contain beautiful old wooden floors, gorgeous trim and molding, heavy wooden doors and cozy fireplaces that beg to be lit on winter evenings.
- On our blog, 'Listed': Remodeling at record level; builders still glum
Old homes are often in neighborhoods that are full of character, where you can walk downtown or sit on your deep front porch and visit with the neighbors. And if you're really lucky? Your old home might come with a friendly ghost to keep you company. Mine sure did.
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Good day, When I was in Mosul, Iraq I bought a home off the internet. It was inspected by the top notch guy...He said there would be issues. I had many pictures taken of the home and sent to me. I bought site unseen. The house and property were under represented. Many features undisclosed which would have made the sale easier. I am familiar with old houses. Go into anything like this with this attitude it all needs replacing. Replace the roof. Mine had the original shake under all the junk. New roof garage to match, sheathed and properly sealed, gutters. Plumbing and septic. Plumbing was CPVC plastic and although good poorly installed. Septic was brick and located about 5 feet from the house, well was stated to be at 75 feet, (actually at 22) had iron and sulfur, particulate. Installed a water filtration system installed, new well drilled. Since the kitchen and bathroom plus a bathroom installation is being built on the second floor, all plumbing and septic will be replaced, a new septic system dug, in work. Wiring. The wiring was an atrocity, dangerous and installed in a manner that I had not seen before. The house was updated with 200 amp service, a good thing, but how it was wired...the old braided cotton wiring mixed with new, polarization not followed and 110 legs run off of 220 lines. Extension cords used as behind the wall wiring, on the 220 line a dryer cord with wires tape to the prongs with three 220 items on this one line. Heat, 220 base board and Gas, one word KAFREAKINBOOM, the coal fired furnace would have killed everybody.
Hot water was one gas water tank plumbed to an electric water tank??? Go into old homes especially with the idea that it all needs replacing. This home was an area founder home and the original family lives on the farm directly behind me. A 78 year old man stopped by and he was the last person born in the home, his father visited as well. His comment was he loved to slide down the banister. He was almost 98. This home was build in 1869. The foundation is solid, the bricks fired on the property. As this thing progresses I've talked to the original owners family and have given them their belongs back, old button shoes, a babies breakfast dish, a pen knife carving of the name sake from the Amish build barn of one foot solid oak beams, things we find as we go. Still have extra original bricks and the 3x7 timber stored in the barn. Old homes are an adventure an if your not willing to spend the time and money then buy a new one. If solid walnut thresholds and drawing rooms, parlors, cast iron stoves aren't your bag, hand hued wood and crown moldings and tin ceilings don't appeal, the mechanical door bells and the 1 1/4 inch hard wood floors, the front and rear doors aligned for the breeze, doesn't work for you then take it all in when you visit. Then go back to your range style home and turn the satellite system on watch some mind sucking reality program.
I'll live mine.
Just as a note, how much could be written on that new home. Yes people call old homes money pits, old junk and haunted. The wood in this house cant be found on earth, there's none left. The front door threshold is walnut over 26 inches wide and three inches thick, still good wood. Says it all from the first step.
Mike in Ohio
I am a real estate developer, own an older house ( family home for now over 66 yearswhere four of us children were raised, many dogs, etc), and each paragraph of each question is so very accurate, personal too. I have had "opportunity" with each subject you covered.
But, I think if a person uses your advice, uses a seasoned reputable inspector, and includes the costs within the overall pricing of the house, much can be said about older houses. They are fun and comfortable and have certain quirks.
Thanks for a good description.
That isn't a question that can be answered without an actual on-site inspection. It could be as simple as 'you need a de-humidifier', or it could be as complex as hydrostatic pressure forcing water through your basement walls (which is a BIG problem that you would need to resolve IMMEDIATELY). Spend the money to get a REAL expert (probably an engineer) to tell you the truth. [truth versus 'what you want to hear' which you WILL hear from shysters]
The two most important parts of your house, structurally, are the foundation and the roof. Deal with this immediately.
Responding to Truthhurts:
You might want to consider sump pump but if you really want it dry you can have what's called a French Drain System installed. I must warn you it is very expensive. I was quoted 11,000.00 six years ago. It's a very invasive process that requires the floor to be jack hammered and drains installed. The price might be lower depending on where you live and now that the economy has taken a dive it might also be cheaper. Good luck!
Oh, one more thing: my home and office are in a house that is over 100 years old (can't pin down the exact date of construction) and I am the first to say an old house is not for everyone.
Remember Jimmy Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life" and the way the decorative piece on the top of the railing post came off in his hand every time he headed up the stairs? To one person there are little peculiarities that give a house character, the imperfections that the Japanese call "wabi" which make this particular house unique among all houses. To another person these are nothing less than devilish frustrations.
If you are trying to update your centenarian house to the same standards, comforts and efficiencies of a new house you will go broke trying and you will never quite succeed. My advice is to embrace the differences - even the difficulties - and if it is not in your nature to do so then that quaint historic house might not be for you.
These guidelines do not just apply to very old houses. We bought a house built in 1962 in a neighborhood known for well built houses. It's one of those cases of if I knew then what I know now I would have approached it differently. Here's a list:
1) Has the basement ever flooded, if the basement is finished are there issues behind the walls/foundation. If a wall/founcation appears to be questionable, hire a firm that can give you an appraisal. Sellers are desperate for buyers, if you are qualified, you can ask for a lot.
2) If someone looks like it was or might have been repaired (in cases of work well done) ask what happened. Same applies for any other damage.
3) If you know of a reputable remodeling firm, hire a general contractor to view the house with you at inspection. An inspector for the most part is fairly worthless. A GP will tell you the actual condition and what needs to be done, when it needs to be done and approximately for how much. An electrician would be worthwhile also.
4) Approach it with the worst case scenario. If you do not have the money, do not buy it. "Character" in a home that is a fixer costs you more than buying one that is renovated, save your money for a chunkier downpayment.
When a house is sold as is, the buyer has to abide by the contract. Each state has its own rules. In WI only things approved by the state that are listed in a standard contract or what the buyer adds can a buyer get out of a contract. It is not open ended..
Buyer be advised with an older house. I have a 150+ year old farm house that I bought over 30 years ago when FHA still approved such homes. Repairs are never what you think think they will be. Remodel a bathroom - next thing you know you have a hole to the basement because everything is rotted and beams need to be replaced. Open up a ceiling and find the OLD wiring complete with the ceramic connectors. Move in a refrigerator or washer or dryer - better check the complete doorway because the possibility that the bottom is narrower than the top is there. Don't even think of putting a king size bed up those stairs!!! Oh yeah, it's a money pit but they stand up to the blizzards and the hurricanes because they are too stubborn to cave in!
Is the front door big enough to fit a full size refrigerator through it so we can actually re- do the kitchen?
And, did they bother to insulate when they resided?
We will never buy another old house again after what we've been through with this tiny 75 year old flipped house purchased at inflated 2007 prices (yes, we did keep our mortgage affordable which is why we ended up with crap). In fact, I'm so disgusted with the "American Dream," I'm seriously lobbying for a modern apartment, again, after the five year plan is up. I did not think people resided without bothering to insulate, and, I didn't even think to ask about it. At least, when we leave, this house won't be bleeding energy out the windows and doors, anymore. We won't bother with replacing the different decades of wiring or the ancient plumbing, though. I'm sick of running into tiny doorsills inside the house, too.
I didn't buy a house in 2007 only to find myself living in 1937. Complete and utter bull poo.
One thing that isn't even mentioned in the article is homeowners' insurance. It may be different elsewhere, but here in the Northwest, we had to talk to a number of insurers before we found one that would write a policy on our 1892 Victorian. Even though we now have new plumbing, wiring, foundation, and roof, it is still a factor if we go to switch insurance companies.
Oh, and if you do buy an older fixer, don't kid yourself. We thought we'd be done with renovation in a couple of years - we've had the place 20 years now and still aren't done...