Written by Melissa Arndt, Principal Broker for Simplicity Real Estate Solutions.
There’s no doubt about it, old/historic homes have a lot of character, charm, and personality. They are fascinating to look at, delightful to visit, but owning and living in them is definitely not for everyone. Before you sign an offer on an old/historic home, it is important that you understand some of the quirks/pitfalls of these homes.
The foundations on old homes can be an issue due to being uneven from the start or from settling/movement due to water intrusion over the years. Depending upon the age of the house, you may also see that the original foundation was stacked stones, which over time can lose structural integrity and require extensive repairs. It is important to have a structural engineer look at the foundation prior to purchase to ensure you are both informed about the current condition and prepare for possible future issues. Even without issues that will require a significant financial output, old homes typically will have some unevenness in the floors and issues with doors and windows sticking or not opening. If you are the type of person who will be greatly bothered by sloping floors, hard to open windows, or the need to re-plane/re-hang doors, an old home may not be the choice for you.
Original windows on old homes are beautiful and unique, but oftentimes those windows are single paned and make the house drafty and hard to heat or cool. Unfortunately, changing out windows in an old home is not usually an easy process since the windows are rarely a standard size, which means you will either have to special order windows or you will have to adjust the opening to fit a standard window. You will find many of these same issues with the doors (both exterior and interior) on an old home. Additionally, if a historic home is on the national or state registry or if it is within a historic district there may be restrictions on what windows or doors can be replaced and what materials/styles the new windows or doors must be.
Some of the largest concerns with old homes comes with what is contained between the walls and under the floors: the plumbing and electrical systems. Older electrical systems that have reached the end of their expected life (approximately 60-70 years for homes built before 1960) can contain deteriorated wiring, breakers, and panels that can cause shocks, power failures, and fires. If a home has not been rewired or had the panel and breakers replaced for decades, you can anticipate that would need to be done and that it will have a high price tag. Even if a home has had the electrical system updated old homes typically contain fewer outlets and light fixtures than is desired for modern living and not always is it possible (physically or financially) to do the necessary expansion. Before buying an old home, have a licensed electrician evaluate the safety and usability of the electrical system and speak with them about any large appliances or devices you would be adding to the house to ensure it will meet your needs. Older plumbing systems that have exceeded their life expectancy may lead to failure of pipes, clogs, and backups, which can all result in water damage and expensive repairs. Steel pipes can have a life expectancy of as little as 20 years, while brass, copper, and PEX can last up to 50 years, so knowing the age and type of system installed is important since replacement of the plumbing system is a costly and inconvenient process. Drain pipes in old homes are also very susceptible to damage from root systems of trees on the property, and replacing a main drain from a home is not only expensive, but also very invasive. Periodic root removal can reduce the risk, but make sure you are willing and financially able to take on that additional expense.
Old homes are notorious for being drafty and cold in the winter and hard to heat in the summer and the reasons for this are numerous, including: inefficient HVAC zoning due to retro-fitted systems; lack of insulation in the walls, floors, and attic; single paned windows; ill-fitting doors; and gaps in siding. As you can see, several issues lead to this problem, but even when addressing all of them you are likely to still have a house that has pockets of cold in the winter and heat in the summer. You also will find you have to take more care during a hard freeze in an old house to ensure pipes do not freeze and burst. If your plans for beating the winter chill is a fireplace in the old house of your dreams, ensure you have it evaluated by a chimney expert before using to verify it is safe.
Hazardous materials can be a concern in old homes with lead-based paints, asbestos building materials, mold, mildew, and radon. While lead-based paints and asbestos may not be a concern for you living in the home (check with an expert about your particular circumstances to be sure), they will become a concern if you decide to remodel in the future. You may be required to hire a professional remediator to remove these materials, which can make even a small renovation costly. Mold, mildew, and radon are more of a concern in older homes and it is highly advised you have a professional inspect for these substances prior to purchasing to ensure you are not moving into a home that could be hazardous to your health.
As mentioned a few times previously, there are many things that often will cause renovations/remodels in an old or historic home to be higher than with a new home. Since most of these old and historic homes were built prior to modern building codes and didn’t require inspections, you may find construction elements that are substandard or unsafe when you demo that necessitate repairs to areas you didn’t anticipate. Old homes can contain unsafe elements that your local government may require to be brought up to code if you remodel an area, so you need to anticipate that any remodeling you are dreaming of may cost much more than you think. If you purchase a historic home that is on the national or state registry or within a historic district you may have regulations regarding what types of renovations you can do, what materials must be used, and other concerns which can add significant costs to your project. Roofs are a particular concern when replacing on an old home since you will often find old shingle layers under the current roof, leading to a higher cost for replacement.
One of the most interesting quirks of an old home is the sounds it makes, which can be unnerving the first few nights in your new home. Whether it is the wind howling through the attic from gaps and openings, doorways creaking from expansion and contraction of temperatures changes, pops from occasional settling, or the whole house groaning in a combination of all, old houses are seldom silent. Add into that the pitter patter of little feet from the small critters on your roof or in your attic, you may want to invest in a sound machine for sleeping.
If all of these quirks and pitfalls are not a deal-breaker for you, you may be ready to take on an old/historic home! Make sure you keep some extra funds in a rainy day account for unexpected repairs, buy some additional quilts for the beds in wintertime, put on your fuzzy slippers, and enjoy the symphony that is old home living!