homes offer a host of opportunities for customization, blended with
character and history, which is why many people love them. But the flip
side is that the older they are, the more likely they are to come
bundled with unpleasant surprises—including some you might not even have
Fixing them is sure to be expensive, but knowing what to expect can help you prepare your budget. Here’s what to look for in an old home, depending on when it was built.
home that is more than 100 years old might seem like a sweet deal,
especially if you’re fond of classic architecture and “This Old House,”
and don’t mind a healthy dose of down-and-dirty DIY. But buyer beware:
These gorgeous antiques can make “The Money Pit” seem like a documentary
of your life.
is somewhat inevitable that many of these older homes will have some
type of settling, so you will see floors that look like they are leaning
slightly. Often, tilting is nothing more than a cosmetic annoyance—but
it could indicate expensive-to-fix foundation issues.
Unrenovated homes might also have knob-and-tube wiring,
the early electrical systems that were common until the 1930s. Ceramic
knobs and tubes run through the floor joists or wall studs, carrying
electricity throughout the home. However, the rubber insulation can
degrade and create a fire hazard. And without GFCI outlets (ground-fault
circuit interrupters, which trip the circuit if there is a surge in
current), the system isn’t grounded.
Fixing it is pricey, so get ready—and start working on getting estimates from some good electricians.
Balloon framing was
invented as an inexpensive alternative to traditional timber framing,
and was used frequently from the late 19th century through the 1920s and
early ’30s. Instead of complicated joinery to keep post and beams
well-connected, balloon framing utilizes… really, really long boards. And nails.
Sketchy as it all sounds (“balloon” was originally a derogatory term indicating that the frame might just blow off in the wind), the structure itself is relatively sound. But the framing can be a tremendous fire risk. Unless the gaps between the planks are filled or well-insulated, basement or crawl-space fires can rocket upstairs.
Homes built in the 1930s and earlier—and the occasional ’40s home—typically used clay sewer lines.
Tree roots can invade every type of sewer line, but the clay kind are
particularly vulnerable because terra-cotta, the material they were made
of, is brittle and liable to break. Because plumbers typically cobbled
together shorter pipes to form the line, they might separate over time,
causing leakage and soil contamination.
isn’t your only potential sewer problem: Your water main and sewage
line may be installed too close together to meet modern standards. Most
municipalities require at least 10 feet of separation. While no one will
make you dig up your existing lines, the regulation can greatly
increase the cost of a replacement if either line breaks.
Clay lines aren’t the only troublesome sewage system. Cast-iron sewer lines, popular from the mid-20th century to the ’80s, can corrode or crack, with a replacement cost in the many thousands.
Buyers might also find ungrounded outlets, especially if the home hasn’t been sold since its construction. Expect an expensive update to ground your system and mitigate your fire risk. At the very least, GFCI outlets will need to be installed.
Feeling a little chilly in your Mid-Century bungalow? Check inside the walls.
1960s homes were not built with an emphasis on insulation. Energy prices were much lower, so preventing heat loss was not a huge concern for builders or homeowners.
unlike replacing a sewer system, improving insulation is an easy DIY.
Rent an insulation blower from your favorite hardware store—expect to
spend about $50 per day—and your home will be toasty long before
Expect to find fewer outlets per room and fewer circuits—which means all your electronics could trip a fuse. And if you find single-strand aluminum wiring—common
during the copper shortage of the late ’60s and early ’70s—be prepared
to replace the system. Faulty connections overheat the wiring, creating
(surprise!) a fire hazard.
course, you can’t ignore the No. 1 problem of homes built in the 1970s:
the decor. Shag carpeting? Avocado walls? Fake wall paneling? Ugh.
Fortunately, you don’t need a home inspector to point those out.
By the ’80s, builders had figured out how to build a mostly modern home. But there is one quirk to look out for: PB (polybutylene) piping.
Prone to rapid degradation and subsequent bursting, these gray-colored
water pipes cost homeowners millions of dollars in water damage.
Most PB has long been replaced, but if you’re unlucky enough to score a home that still has the faulty piping, budget for a replacement. Even if you don’t care, your homeowners’ insurance company may decline to cover you until a change is made.
Count yourself lucky if your old home isn’t rife with problems—but not too
lucky. One of the joys of home ownership is knowing that something
will always go wrong. But even when it inevitably does, don’t panic.
Everything is fixable.