Ask the Expert: What Should I Pay Attention to when Buying an Older Home?

Today’s “Ask the Expert” column features Jay Gregg, the Director of Marketing with Pillar To Post Home Inspectors.

Q: What are some of the most common defects to be mindful of when buying an older home? And what should be considered when preparing an older home for inspection?

A: There’s something about older buildings that makes them so appealing. Maybe it’s the greater emphasis architects once placed on ornate, decorative aesthetics. Maybe it’s the fact that older houses predate the mass-produced, cookie-cutter look that’s so prevalent in modern homes. Maybe it’s the knowledge that houses were once built to a much higher standard of quality compared to those built today. Regardless of why you prefer older homes, it’s important to be aware of the potential issues that may plague them. Here are a few of the more common defects to be mindful of when purchasing an older home—or to consider when preparing your own older home for an inspector.

Depending on how old your home is, it might predate important safety standards. According to the EPA, homes built prior to 1978 may have lead-based paint, which could result in a number of negative health defects after extended exposure. Likewise, homes built from the early 1940s to the 1970s often have equally dangerous asbestos as insulation for pipes. Further, wiring that predates the 1950s was often made with a rubber compound that becomes brittle over time, which can pose a fire hazard. Figuring out when your house was built is an important first step in determining the potential safety issues you’ll have to consider.

Wear and tear will show its ugly head. Like a well-worn sweater, signs of aging are inevitable regardless of the quality of the materials and workmanship put into a home. Cracks, leaks and other seemingly superficial defects may lead to further trouble down the road. Thus, it’s important to be aware of the toll time has taken on the house, along with the potential damage that may eventually result if they aren’t dealt with. One small leak today may be one large pool tomorrow.

Insulation may leave you cold. Asbestos use is not the only issue that may plague the insulation of older homes. Houses that hail from an era before energy efficiency was prevalent might lack the kind of insulation found in homes today. Beyond replacing existing insulation, you can stem the tide of heat loss by searching for and sealing air leaks and drafts like those found around electrical outlets, the foundation, siding and doors/windows. And a little caulk goes a long way. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a homeowner may save anywhere from 5 – 30 percent per year on energy costs by plugging leaks.

Oil tanks are expensive to remove. In many older homes, heating was facilitated through the use of oil, necessitating oil tanks either above or below ground. Not only do oil tanks take up space, they can also leak and produce an unpleasant smell. In extreme cases, it can cost as much as $60,000 to remove an old buried tank that’s leaking and to clean up any mess it left.

Insurance may be an issue. Many of the aforementioned issues may make insuring an older home very expensive, if not impossible. Insurers may demand that an outdated electrical system be upgraded before they’re willing to insure it. Likewise, the potential environmental impact of a leaking oil tanker makes most insurers leery of insuring a home with an oil tank more than 20 years old.

Buying an older house can be tremendously rewarding, but it’s important to be aware of the potential drawbacks common to aged dwellings. By being mindful of issues that can mar an older house, you stand to save a lot of time, money and effort, all of which could be better spent making your house a home.

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Reprinted with permission from RISMedia. ©2014. All rights reserved.

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