Pros and Cons of an Older Home

Below are three articles about the joys and pitfalls of owning an older home

"Old House Delusion Disease" by Dave Barry

More than once I have had my brain paralyzed by what psychiatrists call Old House Delusion Disease (OHDD). My wife and I bought an old house that had every known old-house problem, including termites, not to mention a grand total of one closet, and an entire room that had no electrical outlets -- a clear indication that the house was not built by or for people with a need for, say, lighting. Were we discouraged?

No! We thought it was quaint!

Here's how delusional we were. We had plumbing problems (of course), and in an effort to fix a leak, some plumbing guys were crawling around under our house. They emerged holding some yellowed, crumbling, rolled-up newspapers, which they'd found wrapped around our pipes, apparently as insulation. We carefully unwrapped one of the newspapers and found that it was a Miami Herald from 1927. It had a story in it about Charles Lindbergh.

So there we were, confronted with stark evidence that our pipes, in addition to leaking, were very old. It's like being aboard a boat in the middle of the Pacific and discovering that not only were you sinking, but also your hull was made entirely of Triscuits.

How did we react to this horrible news? We were thrilled! Charles Lindbergh! It was so charming! The plumbers were also very excited, but in their case it was because they knew we would be putting all their children through Harvard.

Our House Delusion Disease is very powerful. Usually, when you buy an old house, you hire professional house inspectors. These inspectors are very thorough: They spend a whole day crawling around the house, and then they give you a detailed, written report, which says "Do not buy this house, you idiot!"


Not in so many words, of course. The report breaks the house down by major defects, then sub-defects. The house, according to the report, consists entirely of defects. You read the report, but because you have OHDD, none of it actually penetrates your brain, even when the inspector goes out of his way to warn you about serious problems:

INSPECTOR: I want to show you something in the living room ...

YOU: Don't you love that room? It has such character! The molding!

INSPECTOR: About the molding -- I wanted you to see this. (The inspector takes a screwdriver and taps it against the molding. The molding disappears in a smokelike puff of wood particles. Then a large part of the wall itself collapses, leaving a gaping hole, through which can be seen, in the gloom, an exposed wire that periodically emits a shower of sparks, illuminating a dripping pipe covered with green slime. A rat darts by, pursued by what seems to be a boa constrictor.)

YOU: Ha ha! These quirky old houses! That can be repaired, right?

INSPECTOR: Well, I suppose it could, if you're willing to ...

YOU: I'm not worried about cosmetic problems, as long as the house is structurally sound. (You stamp your foot on the floor to emphasize this point. Your foot goes through the floor.)

INSPECTOR: Um, that's another thing. Your floor joists have been almost entirely eaten away.

YOU: (retracting your foot) Termites? No biggie! A lot of these old houses have termites! We can just have it treated by ...

INSPECTOR: Actually, it's beavers. They're building a dam in the basement.

YOU: (silence)

INSPECTOR: I've never seen that before.

YOU: (recovering) Well, the kids have been wanting a pet!

At this point the inspector, who has dealt with OHDD before, gives up and edges out of the room, taking care not to put too much weight on any one part of the floor.

You, of course, buy the house. As a true OHDD victim, you would buy this house if it were on fire. Once it's yours, you begin calling what will become a never-ending parade of highly paid craftsmen, who will spend so much time at your house that eventually they will become a part of your family, and invite you to attend all their children's graduations from Harvard.

"Old House? New House? Weighing Your Options" by Kirsten Conover

Maybe it has something to do with a childhood home we fondly remember. Many of us long for old homes built with solid construction, quality craftsmanship and beautiful details. We crave the hand carvings, plaster walls and eyebrow dormers of homes we’ve known. On the other hand, how do the old homes we admire compare with newly minted models—and what should we consider before deciding which to buy?

Location. Typically, old homes sit on generous plots of land in or near town. The neighborhoods are established and usually more central to schools and shopping. Mature trees and plantings provide shade and beautify the property and neighborhood streets. New homes are generally found in new developments outside of  town and homeowners who buy into an early phase can expect to contend with dust and construction sights and sounds as the remaining phases are being built. Landscaping may be skimpy or nonexistent, but a buyer has the opportunity to design the décor from scratch.

Layout. New homes tend to have a more spacious functional layout with higher ceilings, bigger windows, family kitchens, walk-in closets, and family rooms. Some even have media rooms and come pre-wired for cable and computers. On the other hand, older homes were designed for a more formal lifestyle, which is reflected in the formal dining and living areas and many cozy rooms, including small bedrooms, closets and bathrooms. 

Energy efficiency.
Those beautiful eight-over-eight single pane wood windows add character to an old home, but they’re not as energy efficient as modern dual-glazed or thermal windows. While most old homes lacked insulation in outside walls and attics, (though those plaster walls are certainly great sound barriers) homes built today insulate against high heating and cooling costs--although the bigger windows, higher ceilings and larger rooms common in new homes, can also also cause high utility bills.

Maintenance.  With older homes, upkeep could be more expensive, with some out of date items needing to be replaced. A turn of the century home may have outdated wiring, and even a recently built home may have an inadequate fuse box-style panel that falls short of the energy demands of 21st century families.  New homes generally come with warranties that will cover the cost for most major problems.   When it comes to quality of construction; however, an older home may surpass some newer homes; after all, if a home has been around for 50-100+  years and is still holding up, it must have been put together rather well.

  Older homes are usually less expensive per square foot. In addition, the tax structure is more predictable because the neighborhood is already established with amenities that newer neighborhoods are still in the process of gaining, such as schools, police and fire services, and infrastructures (roads, sidewalks, etc.). However, with restoration costs a possibility for older homes, your dollars may very well be spent on the back-end rather than upfront.

If the charm and beauty of an old home wins your heart, hire an inspector to evaluate the home for lead paint, insect and water damage, lead and/or galvanized pipes, outdated wiring, foundation problems and energy efficiency, including windows as well as heating/cooling systems and insulation.   Then, go sit out on your big front porch and enjoy the view!



This informative article is by John A. LaRocca. John is an Inspector Member of the California Real Estate Inspection Association (CREIA) and a licensed general contractor.

“They don’t build them like they used to” is a common phrase and there is a lot of truth in it. For example older homes have full thick 2 inch by 4 inch sized lumber in the walls, not like the thinner lumber used today. And they used thick, hand applied plaster instead of the current thinner sheets of drywall. And there is the attention to details such as ornate trim and walls that curve where they meet the ceiling.

All that is true and it’s what we all admire and love about the older construction. However, if you look a bit closer you will find that the engineering and the dynamics of yesteryear are very low tech. Newer structures are built to much higher construction standards in ways less obvious.

I liken it to the differences in a car built in the 1930’s as compared to a car built today. The 1930’s car had graceful styling and thick steel fenders that were hard to bend. The newer cars are less elegant and with much lighter metal bodies that bend much easier. But, look beyond that and you find that newer cars have much improved suspension and brakes for better maneuverability and safer stops making it less likely to hit something to bend its fender. And, if it does hit something, the occupants are often unharmed because of many other mandatory safety features.

Similarly, newer homes utilize high-tech materials and engineering that make is a very safe, low maintenance and durable structure. Yet, in spite of those differences, many of us are still drawn to the obvious charm and detailing of the older homes that is usually absent in more modern construction.

However, when actually buying an older home, there are unique factors that need to be considered. First of all, all things deteriorate with use and age. To complicate that a bit further, a building’s different systems have different materials which are exposed to different factors which cause them to deteriorate at different rates.

Old Spanish tile roofs are unique in that the tile on the surface can look perfectly fine while the roofing paper under the tile can be brittle and completely worn out.

There are unique factors with old plumbing systems. There are three main types of water pipe systems, galvanized steel, copper or some combination of the two. Galvanized steel as well as copper pipes are expected to last about 40 to 60 years on average. But as in all systems, this depends mainly on the quality of the material, the expertness of the installation and exposure to the elements.

The vast majority of older homes were plumbed with galvanized steel water pipes. There are some quality homes built before 1940 with steel pipes still in good condition and functioning well. Conversely, there are many homes built in the 1950’s and later with rusted, leaking and worn out steel pipes. The main difference is the quality of the galvanizing. In this case, the phrase “they don’t build them like they used to” applies well.

Before the Second World War the U.S. (Pittsburg mainly) was the dominant manufacturer of steel and it turned out steel pipes with very thick galvanizing. (If water comes in direct contact with steel it will rust and deteriorate. Galvanizing is a zinc coating that keeps the water from coming in direct contact with the steel. The thicker the zinc coating the longer the pipes will last without rusting). A short time after WW II the U.S. began importing a lot of cheaper steel piping from other countries to keep up with the huge building boom. The foreign made materials had less strict quality controls and thinner galvanizing. Consequently those pipes rusted and leaked fairly quickly.

Another part of the plumbing is the drain system with its own unique factors. Drain lines generally tend to last longer than water lines but prevalent in older homes are sewer pipe blockages. When a home is first built, typically young trees are planted. As the trees grow the roots move out and can find the moisture from even the slightest leak from an underground pipe. The small young roots work there way into the opening in the pipe to get at the water, grow larger and eventually clog the pipe.

When buying an older home it is a good idea to ask the owner if the drain lines ever had to be snaked out and if so, how often and what were the circumstances. It’s common now to have these pipes inspected with a camera that is sent down the pipes to assess their condition. Especially since these repairs can be very costly and home protection plans do not cover any pipes that extend beyond the exterior walls of the house.

Electrical systems generally do not wear out but instead have their own set of unique factors because they become out dated by virtue of the change in consumption requirements. For example there were only a few electrical appliances available back in the early part of the 20 th century so a home was built with a minimal supply of electrical circuits and very few wall outlets. As the amount of electrical appliances and gadgets and other things we now wouldn’t live without continues to fill up a home, the demand for electricity far exceeded what was once supplied. Consequently, older homes often have had at least some newer electric work done over the decades. The electricity needs to be evaluated by someone qualified to determine the size and safety of the system because of the obvious consequences of an electrical overload.

Old heating systems have other unique factors such as “frequency of use.” If a heater was hardly ever used it could be dusty and rusty yet hardly worn out. And although these old heating systems might not be very efficient or sophisticated yet many people still love them. But unlike modern heaters, they generally do not have filters to remove the dust that flows through them into the living areas and the old duct systems are often insulated with asbestos which has been deemed a hazardous material.

An older home could have none, one, some or all of the systems updated, modified or replaced at different times over the years. If you intend to continue to use an older system and not update or replace it, be certain to understand its condition by evaluating that system on its own merits.

Old homes are charming and a joy to behold but like everything else, need care and maintenance to survive the test of time. If built well and maintained properly, most structures could last indefinitely. There are many homes that were built by the early settlers that are still used today and there are many more buildings still operating and enjoyed in other parts of the world that certainly far predate that.

In every purchase, the rule is always investigate a property thoroughly to be certain to have a good idea of what to expect once you’ve been handed the front door keys.