“Every house has problems, but sometimes the older they are, the better built they are,” says Kristi Hughes, a public relations executive who, with her husband, purchased a 300-year-old, two-story Georgian Colonial house in the suburbs of Philadelphia about two years ago from her parents. Hughes says despite the home being in the family for about three decades, they knew the home needed major renovations and did about $150,000 worth, mostly gutting rooms to replace electric wires. Hughes says there were no surprises when they opened up the walls and ceilings.
But it doesn’t always go so smoothly.
If you are buying a home that’s getting up there in years, whether it’s 300 or merely 30, you can stumble into problems. “The 1950s, 60s and even 70s houses can be deceiving,” says Rob Anzalone, co-founder of Fenwick Keats Real Estate in New York City, who owns a home that was built in 1956. “They share many of the same problems [as really old homes] but just appear to be newer.”
Termites and other bugs. Termites, known for chewing through wood, flooring and even wallpaper, are certainly a problem for owners of older homes. According to the National Pest Management Association, termites cause approximately $5 billion in property damage every year.
Termites like munching on soft wood, so if your prospective home has had a lot of leaks over the years, you may want to hire a professional termite inspector, who is more likely to discover any problems than a conventional home inspector.
Of course, older homes can be ravaged by other insects, too. Brenda Greene, a communications professional in Providence, Rhode Island, recently discovered a house she wanted to buy had a problem with powderpost beetles, which can literally reduce wood to a pile of powder. The house was built in 1842, and Greene and her husband had gone as far as getting a purchase and sales agreement. But then they found that the home had significant damage from the wood-boring insect.
“Our mortgage couldn’t go through unless the seller could prove it had been treated. She wouldn’t do that,” says Greene, who ultimately walked away.
Lead paint. If your home was built before 1978, when lead paint was banned, your home may have lead paint in it. But that doesn’t mean you’re doomed if your house was built in 1977. For decades before the ban, the country was coming around to the realization that living with lead paint was deadly. Even if you’re eyeing a house built in the 1940s, it’s possible that it never had a drop of lead paint in it.
Lead poisoning can hurt adults – enough exposure can lead to cardiac arrest – but it really does a number on a young child’s brain development, and it can cause a pregnant woman to miscarry. Usually, you find lead paint around the windows, doors, trim and on painted floors. But actually finding it isn’t easy. You can buy lead paint detection kits for generally under $100, but they aren’t simple to use correctly. If you fear lead paint, your best bet may be to pay a few hundred dollars for a certified lead inspector to look at your home. You can find more information at www2.epa.gov/lead.
Prices vary on what it can cost to remove lead paint, but according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average lead paint removal project costs $10,000. And do-it-yourselfers should be cautious when dealing with lead paint because you can expose yourself to lead poisoning if it begins to flake and turn into dust – something that may well happen if you remove it on your own.
Inefficient windows. They may not build them like they used to, but that’s not such a great sentiment when it comes to your home’s windows. “Typically, the older windows are single-pane windows,” says Anzalone. “They aren’t energy-efficient and don’t hold in the heat. There are often leaks, and the panes and sills are often rotting.”
If you have an old heating system and old windows, Anzalone says, that can triple your heating bill.
On the other hand, Greene points out that if you’re “preservation and restoration-minded, it’s always a plus if the original windows are still in place.”
She adds, “If you live in New England or another part of the country with cold winters, historic windows won’t do much to cut down on your heating bill, but that’s the trade-off for authenticity.”
Outdated heating systems. This is especially a problem with homes that are 100 years and older, Anzalone says. “Many houses of that age are heated with oil,” he says. “Oil was very inexpensive when these houses were built.”
Today, it’s another story, but even if oil was cheap, many of the older oil burners are simply inefficient, he says.
And if the home’s heating system hasn’t been maintained properly and isn’t in good shape, that’s another red flag and a “serious fire hazard,” Greene says. That was yet another reason she and her husband decided not to buy the home they were considering.
“The house had a central stone fireplace with openings in three rooms, including a large one with a beehive oven in the main living area,” Greene says. She says they also wanted to find out if there were any cracks in the chimney flue before the closing, but the seller wouldn’t let them check.
Foundation and structural issues. The older the home, the more important it is to find “the highest-reviewed home inspectors in your area,” says Leslie Piper, a housing specialist with Realtor.com. (Of course, if you find a problem with the foundation or the structure in any age of house, that’s a good reason to walk away, Anzalone says.)
In addition, Piper says “soil issues surrounding the home are things a buyer should be very precautionary about.” If you’re eyeing an older home in an area prone to landslides, or if there have been “movement issues” with the foundation, she says, fixing that “can be costly, and expenses surrounding those issues don’t necessarily go away.”
But in general, if you’re finding major problems with an older home, don’t get mad at the house. Blame all of the homeowners who came before you.
As Piper says, “The challenges of purchasing an older home depend on how well the specific home was maintained and updated by the previous owners.”