Common Issues With Older Homes
Buying an old home may allow you to live in a stylish, affordable piece of history. Unfortunately, it can also bring with it a lot of issues that you may not be prepared for. What seems like a great deal at first may ultimately cost way more than you bargained for. There are problems to look for when buying an old house you should be cognizant of.
It always pays to do your research before investing in real estate, particularly when the property in question was built over 50 years ago.
The following tips will give you an idea of what issues to watch out for when buying an older home. Avoid getting caught up in the potential of the house before you look carefully at these problem areas.
If you are purchasing an antique, you should be even more leery of doing your due diligence. When buying an old house, it pays dividends to know how to pick a home inspector that will go through the house with a fine tooth comb.
While inspecting any home is important, it becomes even more paramount to check for problems found in older homes.
Take a look at the tips for buying an antique including highlights of things you may want to research further.
Asbestos makes an incredibly useful flame retardant, which is part of why it was so commonly used in older buildings. Unfortunately, when airborne, the barbed fibers can be inhaled and lodge in the lining of the lungs, eventually leading to a deadly form of cancer. The EPA finally banned the use of asbestos in building materials, but not until 1989.
Many older homes have had the asbestos removed and replaced with something safer, but some have not. You obviously want to know if the home you are interested in still has asbestos. If it does, you will need to consider the costs of removal, which can be pricey.
While a good home inspector can point out what looks to be asbestos, you cannot tell for sure unless it is tested. Much of the asbestos found in homes was on wrapping found on pipes in the basement and used as insulation.
There is, however, another area where asbestos can be quite common in older homes and that is the flooring. What you may think looks like dull linoleum could, in fact, harbor asbestos. It is typically only a problem though if these tiles are cracked, flaking or otherwise damaged. If they remain intact, there shouldn’t be an issue with them.
2. Lead paint
While lead paint is #2 here in my list, it is the #1 problem you should be addressing when buying an older home. If you have a child under the age of six living in the home, it is mandatory that the lead is removed. In fact, it is a federal law!
When lead is consumed by people, it can cause significant health problems, particularly in growing children. Homes built before 1978 could have lead paint, which is why property owners are required to disclose the possible existence of lead paint to renters or buyers. You can paint over the old paint, but the dangerous lead paint will still be there underneath.
Massachusetts has an excellent form explaining how the lead paint law works. Lead paint is something you should take very seriously when buying an old house. Do your research and due diligence when it comes to the lead paint law.
Not too long ago, I was involved in the sale of a two family home in Hopedale Massachusetts where a tenant was living in one of the units with a child under the age of six. After the buyer had done an inspection, they discovered the home had lead paint. A home confirmed to have lead paint can present a whole series of issues that you need to be keenly aware of including your responsibilities as an owner.
3. Problems found with the foundation & Sills.
The foundation on older homes can be cracked, leaning, sunken or otherwise damaged and in need of repair. Everything else in the house sits on the foundation, which is why foundation issues must be addressed for safety and to keep the home livable.
Of course, all foundation problems are not equal. A few settlement cracks may be normal and safe, but you need an inspector to tell you one way or the other. Foundation repair can be expensive, something to keep in mind when you consider the price of the home.
One of the issues that is even more prevalent in older homes is damage to the sill plate. Over an extended period of time the sills in a home can become susceptible to water, insects and other external elements. The entire building rests on the sill plate which in turn sits on the foundation. With older homes having sill plate problems is not uncommon at all.
Checking the sills carefully is something that should be done by a qualified inspector. The sills can be fixed if they are damaged but often it requires jacking up the home which can cause damage to walls such as cracking if not done very carefully. Sill problems are not uncommon when buying an antique. Here is a terrific resource on what you need to know about sill damage.
4. Electrical problems
The electrical systems in old homes were not designed to keep up with modern usage. Computers, mobile devices, televisions, HVAC systems, appliances, dishwashers, washer/dryers – we use a lot of electricity, far more than people did fifty or more years ago.
If your lifestyle includes the use of a variety of electronics, you want to make sure that the home you are buying will work for your needs.
One of the more common problems to look for when it comes to an older home is knob and tube wiring. Knob and tube wiring was prevalent from the 1890’s to 1930’s. It became far less used right around 1950. This type of wiring consisted of single-insulated copper conductors run within the walls or ceilings, passing through joist and stud drill-holes via protective porcelain insulating tubes.
They were supported on nailed-down porcelain knob insulators. Where conductors entered a wiring device such as a lamp or switch, or were pulled into a wall, they were protected by flexible cloth insulating sleeves called loom. The first insulation was asphalt-saturated cotton cloth, then rubber became common.
As a home buyer what you need to understand is that knob and tube systems lack the capacity to handle the level of power usage in today’s modern homes. One of the big problems with knob & tube wiring is that homeowners often abused the system by replacing blown fuses with fuses rated for higher currents. By doing so the wiring was subject to higher levels of current that risked heat damage or fire.
Another problem with knob and tube wiring was the prevalence to be damaged by home renovations. Its cloth and rubber insulation dried out and turned brittle fairly easily. Additionally, it could also be damaged by rodents chewing on the wiring.
The biggest problem, however, with knob and tube wiring is the ability to get homeowners insurance. A large percentage of insurance companies will not write insurance on homes with knob and tube. Many companies will insist the knob and tube wiring is replaced or that an electrician certifies that the wiring is in good condition.
Additionally there are many lenders who will not give a mortgage to a borrower who is purchasing a home with knob and tube wiring. If you are looking at purchasing an antique where knob and tube wiring exists, it makes sense to speak with your lender and insurance company up front.
5. Ungrounded outlets
Look around the home at the electrical outlets. Do they have three holes, or only two? If they only have two, you are not going to be able to use any devices that require grounding in the outlet – like your computer or your nice new flat screen television. While cheap adapters exist, they are not safe for long-term use, which means you will need to have an electrician fix the problem eventually.
Here is a great resource on how to go about fixing ungrounded outlets. Dealing with ungrounded outlets is not the end of the world and certainly not a reason to avoid purchasing a home.
6. Insurance costs
If you do have old electrical or plumbing systems in your house, you may find it difficult or expensive to get homeowners insurance. Many policies won’t cover damage caused by old, worn out systems. To get the insurance you may have to update your home extensively, which will cost a considerable amount of money.
Be sure to check out this guide to homeowners insurance where you can get a good handle on everything you need to know about protecting your valuable asset.
7. Roofing issues
Like everything else on the home, the roof may have seen better days. You may look up and see missing shingles and moss, or patches of new shingles placed over the old. Or, you may see what looks like a roof in good repair, but the inspector may discover issues that are not visible to you from the ground.
There are definite signs that you need a new roof. Take a look and see how to tell if you need a new roof.
Keep in mind, previous owners may have chosen to save money by adding new shingles over the old across the entire roof, which will look uniform, but is not the right way to replace the roof. Done more than once, it can cause damage to the home.
8. Issues With Water
If you are buying an older home the odds are increased that you could be purchasing property with an old style water source. Many years ago people had hand dug wells as their sole water source. Having a hand dug well can cause some fairly significant issues. Today’s modern homes are equipped with artesian wells that are drilled.
The problem with shallow dug wells is that there is increased risk of contaminants. Have a look at this comprehensive guide to buying a home with well water. Your drinking source is something you don’t want to take chances with. Many home buyers skip the well test which can be a critical mistake.
9. Energy efficiency
Older homes were not built with energy efficiency in mind. Many do not have any insulation, or the insulation that they do have is old and ineffective.
The windows are often single-pane. To get the most out of any heating or air conditioning, you are going to need to update both the insulation and the windows in an older home.
If you are going to be purchasing an antique, I would highly recommend becoming familiar with the best energy upgrades for an old house. One of the first things you should do is get a home energy audit. These evaluations are relatively inexpensive and often times free. A professional doing an energy audit on an older home can save you quite a bit of money!
10. Insects and pests
An old home usually has unwanted guests that stick around long after the old owner has moved on. Insects, rats, mice – older homes are ideal homes for pests that you probably don’t want to live with. Some of them can be inconvenient, while others can be health hazards.
If termites are an issue, you may find that certain areas of the home are in worse repair than you initially realized. An inspector can tell you more about the particular home you are looking at, but don’t be surprised if he or she finds quite a few pest problems.
Insects are more common in older homes with older wood that may have water damage. Termites are something you should take extreme care with when purchasing an older home or any home for that matter.
When purchasing an antique don’t be surprised if the inspector points out old powder post beetle damage. Usually these bugs are not still active, however, you need to make sure the existing damage is not something that will adversely affect the structure.
11. A Realtor unfamiliar with older homes
Any experienced Realtor has probably sold quite a few older homes, and will be aware of all the possible problems buyers can run into. But not all Realtors are experienced, and you may wind up working with someone who has little experience in this area.
If you are considering older homes, make sure to ask your Realtor if he or she has experience with them. You are making a big purchase, one you want to be happy with. Work with an agent you feel like you can depend on to guide you effectively and look out for your interests.
One of the bigger stumbling blocks in buying an older home will be the home inspection and subsequent negotiations for any needed repairs. You are going to need someone in your corner who is a skilled negotiator. If your agent truly doesn’t understand the issues it is awfully hard to do that.
At the bare minimum, your real estate agent should attend the home inspection to hear the problems. Many agents skip the home inspection which is a huge mistake.
Buying a piece of history can be an exciting proposition, however, it is paramount to know exactly what you’re buying when it’s an antique. Older homes tend to have more significant problems than younger properties. As long as you do your due diligence, I am sure you’ll have a property to be excited about for many years.
Additional Helpful Home Buying Advice
- What improvements should I make after buying a house via Kyle Hiscock.
- How to find a home you’ll love forever via Anita Clark.
Use these additional home buying resources to make sound decisions when purchasing a home.
About the Author: The above Real Estate information on the problems to look for when buying an old house was provided by Bill Gassett, a Nationally recognized leader in his field. Bill can be reached via email at [email protected] or by phone at 508-625-0191. Bill has helped people move in and out of many Metrowest towns for the last 30+ Years.
Are you thinking of selling your home? I have a passion for Real Estate and love to share my marketing expertise!
I service Real Estate sales in the following Metrowest MA towns: Ashland, Bellingham, Douglas, Framingham, Franklin, Grafton, Holliston, Hopkinton, Hopedale, Medway, Mendon, Milford, Millbury, Millville, Northborough, Northbridge, Shrewsbury, Southborough, Sutton, Wayland, Westborough, Whitinsville, Worcester, Upton and Uxbridge MA.