Buying an Old House: Common Problems, Costs, & Benefits


old house

One of the things I like most is doing home inspections in old houses. When buying an old house, there are typical problems and several unique ones too. Not only do the houses have a lot of architectural character, but there’s also always a good chance you’ll see something you’ve never seen before.

When thinking about buying an older home, it’s important to have a thorough home inspection. Buying an old house comes with many advantages and can be an excellent investment with the right information. A thorough home inspection can provide you with a wealth of knowledge about potential problems to help you make an informed buying decision.

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Hiring an experienced home inspector can help you avoid some of the common problems plaguing older homes and better prepare you for old house ownership. Below are some of the common issues you’ll likely see while out house hunting. Recognizing potential home inspection deal breakers ahead of time can save you time and money. Home inspections of older homes usually uncover some of the following issues:

  1. Hazardous Building Materials – such as lead paint and asbestos
  2. Foundation and Structural Problems – such as foundation, termite, and water damage
  3. Electrical Problems – old electrical systems and subpar work
  4. Roofing Problems – old, patched roofs with evidence of prior roof leaks
  5. Mechanical Equipment Problems – old heating and cooling systems and water heaters
  6. Plumbing Problems – old supply and waste piping and plumbing fixtures.
  7. Mold / Mildew Problems – mold and mildew from water intrusion problems
  8. Old Windows and Doors – old, inefficient windows and doors
  9. Subpar Contractor Work – unlicensed amateur workmanship for repairs
  10. Energy Efficiency Problems – lack of insulation and other energy efficiencies measures
  11. Other Unique Oddities – unique items like laundry chutes, steep staircases, etc.

In 2002, I began my home inspection journey working as an independent contractor, where I was inspecting large homes to help insurance companies calculate replacement costs for the client’s insurance policies.

While some of the homes were modern constructed homes, most homes inspected were 100 years old or older. I took many trips to historic cities like Miami, Charleston, and Washington, DC, to inspect houses built in the 1800s to early 1900s.

What is an Old House?

Homes are generally classified as old if they are built pre-1978, but historic pre-1920 is a good baseline. Pre-1978 is when many hazardous materials like lead paint, asbestos, etc., were phased out of use in the United States.

Many newer homes are constructed from pre-fabricated materials and “cookie-cutter” floor plans, which lack the originality and craftsmanship that once existed. Older homes were built on-site by hand with more durable materials and attention to every detail. Building materials were often harvested from the building site or purchased from local sawmills.

Nearly every new construction home is now constructed from softer pine materials pre-engineered in factories into floor and roof trusses. Materials are delivered to the construction site on a flatbed truck. Houses built this way can be framed in a matter of days.

Most of the knowledge that created the craftsmen of old is starting to fade away with time. Only a few contractors (and even fewer sub-contractors) possess the desire to build this way any more.

In years past, builders were on-site working their craft daily. However, builders today are more like managers and rarely, if ever, do any physical work. They spend their time managing a group of sub-contractors spread out over a variety of projects.

To construct a custom home with similar craftsmanship today would take a very specialized builder. It’s not hard to see how the cost to build a house of that quality today could easily be 4 or 5 times higher than the pre-fabricated new building construction used today. That’s assuming you can even find the building materials to build it.

Common Problems Plaguing Old Houses

old house

Ambitious home buyers that are looking to purchase an old house to restore or one that has been already restored want to preserve a piece of history. It’s critical to find a home inspector with the experience and training needed to inspect old houses.

However, during the pre-offer phase, when just looking around, having a DIY home inspection checklist can help you narrow your search and minimize problems.

Let’s look closer at some of the common home inspection findings in old houses:

Insider’s Tip: When looking for a home inspector to inspect an old house, I recommend choosing a Certified Master Inspector (CMI). Certified Master Inspectors are thoroughly vetted, have been in business for a minimum of 3 years, have performed over 1000 paid inspections, and adhere to the highest industry standards. Find a Certified Master Inspector

Hazardous Building Materials Found in Old Houses

Old houses will likely contain either asbestos, lead paint, or both unless the property has been previously remediated.

Lead-based Paint Problems

Lead is a neurotoxic metal that is harmful to people, particularly young children. Lead paint was used in interior and exterior paint before 1978. Lead was also used in plumbing pipes until the mid-1980s. Ingestion of lead either through the mouth or nose, could result in heavy metal poisoning.

The EPA banned the use of lead in paint because of the potential for children to chew on furniture and toys containing lead. Adults are vulnerable to lead through the risk of sanding wall surfaces with lead paint and breathing in the dust particles.

The EPA has strict guidelines that contractors must follow when working with materials containing lead. When doing any renovation work in an old house, make sure to ask your contractor if he is lead-based paint certified by the EPA.

Insider’s Tip: Lead paint can be sealed and painted over, provided the surface is smooth. All underlying flaking or chipped paint needs to be removed to create a flat surface to receive new paint. The prep process is where most homeowners who elect to do it themselves trip up and don’t do a thorough job. Look closely for signs of bumps and bubbles in painted wood and plaster surfaces.

Asbestos in Building Materials

Asbestos is a fibrous material that causes lung cancer and other respiratory problems. Asbestos was commonly used in many building materials such as:

  • Cement Fiberboard Siding
  • Vermiculite and Batt Insulation
  • Roof Felt and Shingles
  • Window Putty
  • Vinyl Tile Floor Coverings
  • Sprayed Ceiling Texture and Textured Paint
  • Insulation around Ducts and Heating Sources
  • Fuse Boxes, Wiring Insulation, and Outlets
  • Fireplace Logs

While the EPA has banned most asbestos-based products, a full ban has been unsuccessful. While the EPA banned building products from being used in the mid-1970s, no action could be taken to require homeowners to remove existing asbestos-based products. However, during renovations on old homes, an EPA certified contractor must remediate any known asbestos.

Many building contractors will opt to bypass and leave materials such as pipes, wiring, and insulation in place if they are concealed in wall cavities during renovations dealing with lead and asbestos-based products. Therefore, many old houses today still contain some lead and asbestos.

Insider’s Tip: The biggest concern with asbestos is making sure the material isn’t airborne. Sometimes removal may not be an option. Unless you plan on hiring a licensed contractor to remove it, covering the material is the best option.

Foundation and Structural Problems

old house

Age catches up with even the best-built houses. As the house ages, settlement and deterioration can take a toll on a home. Settlement occurs naturally and happens to every house. Unevenness in the floors and cracks in the exterior and interior walls result from either excessive foundation settlement, deterioration of the masonry piers, or damage to the wood structure.

This is almost always caused by excessive moisture caused by improper drainage around the house and groundwater issues. Signs of foundation and structure damage includes:

  • Unevenness in floors
  • Exterior and interior wall cracks
  • Sagging roof structure
  • Doors and windows that don’t operate properly

Foundation issues and structural problems can be repaired if caught early. However, one of the things typically noted in a home inspection is repair work that wasn’t done using good building practices.

You’ll often find that a homeowner (may not be the current homeowner) had a repair made a licensed contractor didn’t complete that. This is usually obvious due to the quality of the workmanship like improperly constructed piers, lack of foundation footers, wood-soil contact, etc.

Termite and Other Wood Destroying Insect Damage

Termites and other wood-destroying insects like carpenter ants or borer beetle activity are common in old houses. In certain parts of the world, this activity isn’t a question of if, but when. Termites feed on wood inside crawl spaces, walls, and ceilings. Termites can quietly destroy a house if you’re not careful.

Signs of termite activity include mud tubes on piers and foundation walls, buckling floors, bouncy floors, water damage, and peeling paint. Look for excrement along the windows, baseboards, and other wood trim resembling sawdust. This is a sign that the house may have an active termite problem.

Prevention is your best course of action. Have a pest control inspector check the house annually. Pest control companies often services where they will pre-treat your home on a maintenance schedule and provide a bond against termite activity.

Other things you can do is keep wood and other debris off the ground in the crawl space and around the house, store firewood away from the foundation, keep vegetation trimmed back, and remove dead stumps as these can attract termites who set up colonies.

Electrical System Problems

old house electrical

Electrical issues generally scare home buyers more so than any other issue. The majority of electrical repairs center around safety concerns. Electrical wiring has a limited lifespan of approximately 70 years. You’ll often hear home inspectors and contractors toss around the term “grandfathered into code” when talking about wiring.

For more information on the lifespan of electrical wiring, see our article, How Long Does Electrical Wiring Last in a Home? for more in-depth details.

This means that you are not required to update the electrical wiring unless you open up the wall. However, if the electrical wiring is between 60-70 years old or older, being proactive about electrical updates should be a top priority due to the high risk of electrical fire and shock hazards.

If the house has a fuse panel present, you should plan for an electrical panel upgrade. Breaker panels also have limitations. Breaker panels have a lifespan of 60-70 years. However, many of these breaker panels are severely undersized and should be upgraded.

Common electrical problems include:

  • Undersized Electrical Service – Many older homes were built with 60 amp service. While this is rare today, it can still found in rural parts of the world.
  • Out of date breaker panels – Undersized breaker panels should be updated. Other panels, such as Federal Pacific Stab-Lok Breaker Panels, are an inherent fire hazard and should be replaced.
  • Out of date electrical wiring – Knob and tube wiring and electrical wiring over 60 years old need to be replaced.
  • Ungrounded electrical outlets – 2-prong ungrounded outlets need to be updated for several reasons. Ungrounded outlets will be connected with old wiring that is likely over 60 years old. Ungrounded outlets provide no grounding protection for modern electronic devices.
  • Subpar Electrical Work – include improper electrical updates where modern grounded electrical wiring is improperly connected with old ungrounded electrical wiring. This can be particularly dangerous and deceptive for homebuyers who see a new 200amp panel and new electrical wiring, only to discover that the electrical wiring was not done correctly.

Roofing Problems

Home inspections on older homes tend to reveal roofing problems like deteriorated roof coverings. Depending on the house’s age, some roofs like slate and metal may still be original to the year built. I recently inspected a home built in 1910 that had an original metal roof sealed numerous times.

Many of the roofs on older homes have leaked multiple times over their lifespan. Many of the roofs may be expensive to repair. Beware of roofs with excessive patching, and multiple layers of shingles can indicate a persistent problem that was not corrected.

Roofs with rusted metal, broken shingles, mismatched shingles, multiple layers of shingles, and damaged roof sheathing should be replaced. Roof replacement cost will depend on the roof covering materials and roof sheathing that requires replacement.

Other cost factors include the height of the roof from the ground and your local market. Many 2 and 3 stories older houses have steeply pitched roofs that require specialized equipment to do the replacement. Not every roofing contractor can replace a roof on an old house. If a roofing contractor has to come from out of town, this will increase costs.

Mechanical Equipment Problems

Many older homes routinely have old heating and cooling systems and water heaters.

Heating and cooling systems have a typical lifespan of 20-25 years on average. In coastal climates, many heating and cooling systems last less than 10-15 years. Annual maintenance is important to get the most out of a heating and cooling system.

Some older heating and cooling systems may still be functional; however, you can expect high maintenance costs and risk for sudden breakdown. The problem with older systems is parts may be challenging to come by.

Old heating and cooling system ductwork can cause a system to overwork and wear out faster. Old ductwork is generally prone to air leaks, which lead to higher energy costs and potential problems from condensation, mold, and mildew around leaking joints in the ductwork.

Water heaters have a typical lifespan of 10-15 years. I’ve seen countless water heaters in older houses that were over 30 years in age. Water heaters over 15 years of age should be replaced even if they are functional due to energy efficiency advancements.

Old equipment will likely prove to be expensive to use and maintain. As systems near the end of their lifespan, they become prone to failure and could quit without warning or worse yet cause a fire.

Older water heaters also lack safety features that modern water heaters have, such as pressure relief valves. Old water heaters without pressure relief valves have been known to fail and become ticking time bombs that have exploded, causing massive damage to the structure.

Plumbing Problems

old house plumbing

Plumbing issues with pipes in older homes can be dangerous and costly to repair. As we mentioned earlier, many older homes had lead supply pipes, which could pose hazards to consuming water output. Other piping, such as galvanized piping, corrodes on the inside, reducing water flow and pressure. This can cause pipes to rupture or leaks to develop around fittings.

Galvanized Piping

Galvanized water piping was commonly used in older homes. We still see galvanized water piping in use today. Galvanized piping deteriorates from the inside out, causing the piping’s interior diameter to decrease over time. This will reduce water pressure to the plumbing fixtures.

As the galvanized piping corrodes, rust and other contaminants get absorbed into the water, causing rust on tubs, sinks, toilets, and other fixtures. This can also shorten the lifespan of your water heater. Lastly, contaminated water from galvanized piping can cause heavy metal poisoning when consumed over a long period of time.

Polybutylene Piping

Other dangerous piping includes polybutylene (PB) piping. Polybutylene piping is grayish piping used from the 1970s to the 1990s. Polybutylene piping corrodes over time in contact with chlorine found in municipal water supply and many household cleaners.

Polybutylene is a defective product that has been a part of a class-action lawsuit with the manufacturer. Polybutylene piping has been known to fail without warning. For more information on polybutylene piping failures, visit Inspectpedia.com

Cast Iron Piping

Waste piping such as old steel and cast iron piping is also prone to failure due to age. While cast iron is a good quality material for drainage, it is difficult to work with and expensive to repair.

Cast iron pipe failure is generally removed when a failure occurs. Most plumbers will simply remove the old pieces of cast iron pipe and replace it with PVC piping.

ABS Waste Piping

ABS black waste piping is also a defective product that is prone to leakage in old houses. ABS piping has also been apart of a class-action lawsuit about the risk of sudden failure. For more information on ABS piping failure, visit Inspectapedia.com

Mold / Mildew Problems

Mold and mildew are a common problem in older houses. Millions of mold spores are found all around us. These spores are generally not a big concern in a dry environment; however, introduce water from a plumbing leak, roof leak, or high indoor humidity and mold can spread like wildfire.

As we will discuss later, older homes will are very drafty and poorly insulated. This makes the home’s interior humidity levels challenging to regulate. Plumbing leaks inside walls can spark a mold outbreak that is difficult to remedy.

Mold infested homes will make it difficult to breathe and can cause skin and eye irritations. Severe cases can lead to death related to respiratory problems. This is why it’s crucial to be proactive in replacing old building components before becoming a problem.

Old Windows and Doors

old windows

Part of the charm that attracts buyers to older homes is the windows. Old windows tend to be oversized, allowing a lot of light into rooms. However, the windows are not single-paned and not energy efficient.

The downside is that many old windows are no longer operating due to broken sash cords, allowing a lot of air loss, and often condensate on the interior side, causing mold and mildew to form on the window sills, walls, and window treatments.

Many people think they need replacement windows to increase the value of their homes and to improve efficiency. This simply is not true. While installing replacement windows would improve energy efficiency, most buyers of old houses don’t want to do that because they’ll lose part of the house’s architectural charm.

You can improve old windows, such as replacing the tracks and gaskets on the wood sashes to prevent airflow around the windows. A skilled carpenter will need to remove the sashes to make some custom cuts with a router to allow the windows to accept the tracks and gaskets.

You can also replace the single pane glass with safety glass, which has a higher insulating value. Install wood storm windows on the outside over the original windows, which will add to the insulating value making them comparable or better in some cases than replacement windows.

Subpar Contractor Work

Often during a home inspection of an old house, we will find at least some subpar contractor work. We see with older houses that have had several previous owners that repair work tends to be subpar. Owners who aren’t fully vested in a home won’t spend the money needed to do the job right.

And if the home has had renters, you can almost guarantee the work is not up to par. We’ve seen many old houses with painted over water damage, improperly repaired plaster cracks, incorrectly repaired foundation support piers, improper plumbing under sinks, and even painted bathtubs, to name a few.

Old Houses are not Energy Efficient

old house

Houses that are 60 years of age or older are not typically well insulated. Unless the house has had extensive renovations that included improving the insulation and the walls, floors, and ceiling and updated windows and doors, you should expect it will be expensive to heat and cool. Many old houses have no insulation at all in the exterior walls.

The lack of insulation, particularly to the exterior walls and ceilings, is the most significant contributing factor. It’s a massive undertaking to insulate the exterior walls of an older house. Methods of adding exterior wall insulation will vary depending on the age, style, and size of the house.

Adding attic insulation improvements will be somewhat easier provided there if enough height clearances inside the attic. Many older houses have attics you can stand up in while some have height restrictions of 4 feet or less.

Crawl space insulation isn’t as important and could cause more harm than good. Insulation in crawl spaces can help if the crawl space has adequate ground clearance and a plastic vapor barrier over the ground.

Insider’s Tip: When purchasing an old house that is occupied, ask the owner to provide a copy of the last 12 months of utility bills. This can provide an estimate of what you can expect to pay each month if your family is of comparable size.

Other Oddities Found in Old Houses

Old homes are full of oddities that newer houses just don’t have. Many of these are unsafe and would not pass today’s building standards. Some of these include laundry chutes, servant staircases, staircases leading to nowhere, root cellars, low ceiling heights (a common find in second-floor spaces that were once attics), and nonfunctional chimneys.

You won’t have to correct these issues to purchase and move in. However, if you plan to renovate an older house, you need to keep in mind that subpar work or other oddities like this will likely require rectifying to pass building code inspection.

Other Costs and Benefits to Consider About Old Houses

old house

It takes a particular type of person to own an older house. They take a lot of care and maintenance. I often tell people who are considering purchasing one that they are a real labor of love. Often, it seems the projects are never-ending. But there are some great benefits to owning an older home.

High Homeowner Insurance Costs

Homeowners insurance is used to replace the structure in the event of a cataphoric loss. Homeowners insurance is usually more expensive on older homes due to condition and replacement cost.

Replacement cost is usually calculated based on the price to rebuild a property in the same condition, regardless of depreciation. This is hard to do as houses get older as much workmanship and detail simply can’t be duplicated.

Some insurers will use market value, which replaces only up to the house’s market value in its present state. With older homes, this amount will not likely cover the full cost to rebuild.

Like the condition and age of the systems, other factors play a significant role in insurance costs. Insurance is all about risk calculation.

Insurers will often request a Four Point Inspection on homes older than 40 years. Four-point inspections tell insurers when the roof, electrical, plumbing, and mechanicals were updated last. This information helps insurance carriers to calculate the risk they will suffer a loss on the policy.

In some cases, if the roof or other systems are beyond their useful age, insurance companies will either demand upgrades be made, decide not to extend coverage, or rate the premium in a risky price tier.

Unique Character Features

The original features of old houses are appealing to many buyers. Charming period-specific features that simply can not be duplicated in today’s modern construction help drive demand. Older homes tend to have built-in features like custom cabinetry and grand staircases that wow buyers.

Potential for Superior Construction Quality

Older houses may be constructed with better building materials than modern homes. The “bones” are often of a much higher quality than the pre-fabricated materials used to build newer homes.

One of the biggest factors to consider is how well the structure has been maintained against wood-destroying insects, moisture, and mold. Second is has the house’s electrical and plumbing systems updated over time as these tend to be the most costly updates that tend to be overlooked.

Prime Real Estate Locations

old house

Many older homes are located closest to the center of established cities. As cities expand outwardly into suburbs, the proximity to bustling downtown areas for shopping, dining, and employment opportunities is appealing, particularly to young career-minded adults.

This is also one factor that makes these homes pricey due to the steady demand for real estate. But not all locations meet these criteria. Many small towns have many old houses that are in distressed condition.

However, purchase for the sake of renovation with a quick sale may not yield the return you’re looking for. Towns with low median incomes and limited employment opportunities may not justify the investment.

However, in more recent years, dilapidated older homes that have been condemned or seized for past due taxes have been taken over by cities and torn down. The land is then sold to developers to build more modern structures such as condos, shopping centers, or commercial office buildings.

The Potential to Build Equity Fast

old house

Another attraction of old homes is the opportunity to snatch up prime real estate that is in a distressed condition and turn it into gold. But beware, if you do not plan correctly, older homes can be a real money pit. Be sure to do your homework.

Ask your agent what similar homes have sold for in pristine condition with modern amenities and then consult a licensed contractor for a bid on the work that is both needed and desired.

When buying an older house, it would be wise to have both a licensed home inspector, a pest control specialist, and a structural engineer to examine the house. This may seem excessive, but not when you consider the amount of money you’re spending on the purchase and renovation project; it’s money well spent.

When dealing with older homes, there will always be unknowns. Whatever dollar amount your contractor bid for renovations comes in, you should add 15% for unknowns such as undetected termite or water damage inside walls, hazardous material removal, etc.

Insider’s Tip: The FHA 203k loan program is a residential renovation loan program that helps homeowners fix their properties. Homebuyers can also purchase houses that need repair. The 203k loan program is a great way to finance the renovation costs in an older home.

Historic Home Renovation Restrictions

If the home you are buying is on the historic registry in the city, you’ll likely have to apply to a local historical society board to do any work that alters the house’s appearance.

Some cities and towns have renovation restrictions on historic homes. Everything from choosing paint colors, roof covering, windows, and exterior doors requires the homeowner to apply to the local historical board before any work can be done.

While this may seem to be a headache due to the added layer of red tape, it’s restrictions like this that help preserve history and property values for the city.

Final Thoughts

In closing, it’s important to remember that all houses age. Home maintenance and upkeep are just a part of homeownership, and how much of it you do (or don’t do) will go along way in determining what you get out of the property when it comes time to sell down the road.

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Hubert Miles

I've been conducting home inspections for 17 years. I'm a licensed Home Inspector, Certified Master Inspector (CMI), and FHA 203k Consultant. I started HomeInspectionInsider.com to help people better understand the home inspection process and answer questions about homeownership and home maintenance.

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