How to survive your first old home purchase

December 15, 2015

An older home is a wonderful thing.

Aside from the charm and character, an old home brings a host of problems not found in newer houses.  Like poor wiring, cracked foundations, clogged pipes, and weak roofs.

Now, don't avoid an older home because of these issues, they're normal.

But old homes need special attention because today's building codes are very different than 50+ years ago.

In fact, many homes weren't inspected by city code officials at all.  So it takes a trained eye to spot the unique problems of older homes.

Especially if they're hiding beneath a renovated or remodeled surface.

Leaving you with old materials and building methods that wouldn't meet today's standards.

So a professional home inspection for older homes is a good idea.  Because some lurking problems aren't obvious without expert probing.

For example, it’s important to know if the foundation can handle the weight of a renovation or addition.

And over time new bathrooms or kitchens will mask plumbing and electrical problems.  Like the shiny new sink connected to a clogged pipe only a few feet away.

So let’s look at some common problem areas:

1. One of the first places to look in an older home is the basement.

These cellars kept household items and dry goods and were 

never meant as living spaces.

TV's weren't invented and a rec room was unheard of!  So the fancy finish may make the

basement feel solid, but who knows what lurks behind the paneling?

Faults and failures here can mean expensive repairs or higher insurance rates.  And decades of exposure to poor drainage or high moisture can cause serious deterioration.

That's why I turn my nose on when I walk downstairs.  A musty odor tells me that rot and mold are nearby.

2. The roof is also a problem area after half a century of cold winters and hot summers.

No matter how many times it's been re-shingled.

Chimney deterioration is common. Look for rusted flashing, rotted fascia boards, and a sagging roofline.

3. Ceiling insulation is also a common (but minor) problem in older homes.

You might see new insulation on top of sawdust, shredded paper or wood shavings as a way to cut the heating bill.  This a no-no because these materials are combustible.

Check to make sure there's enough attic ventilation, too. This wasn't always important 50+ years ago.

4. Hot air and hot water heating systems are still around.

These rely on gravity and low-pressure steam so not only are they expensive to run, their parts will be way past their life expectancy.

5. Many 50+ year-old homes still have 60-amp service.

Knob-and-tube wiring is a special concern because it's so unique and old.  In fact, this is the reason many older homes have no insulation the attic.

6. The plumbing is the last focus area.

Clay tiles break
Cast iron drain pipes crack and clog
Galvanized water lines restrict water flow
Vent pipes get plugged up

In fact, the plumbing system is my #1 concern in older homes.

I also find copper pipes connected straight to galvanized pipes.  This is bad because it causes corrosion and breakdown.

So there you have it.  Insider tips to beat the biggest problems in older homes so you can really enjoy the charm.

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Steve Rodriguez

Steve is a Certified Master Inspector® and owner of Bulldog Professional Inspection Services in Kansas City, Missouri. He is the author of The Ultimate Consumer Guide To Home Inspections and has been a professional home inspector since 2003.

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