1930's Colonial.... advice

sharknrgFebruary 3, 2010


I am looking at buying my first house, sounds exciting doesn't it.... I thought so too. I have been doing a lot of research about home buying, especially old houses, because I love their craftsmanship and details. I am looking at a box colonial built in 1930, a very nice home that has newer baseboard heat throughout, new electrical wiring and replacement windows. I am a do it yourself kind of person so when I do buy a house I'm looking forward to replacing light fixtures, painting rooms, changing the bathroom vanity, stripping wallpaper, ect... So my question is this... I have been reading some "bad press" about 1930's wall plaster and asbestos issues. There are no textured surfaces in this house, just smooth plaster walls and ceilings, but none the less I have read horror stories about high concentrations of asbestos in plaster of this vintage and abatement costs of up to $40,000 to have it all removed. One article I read talked about the state condemning a house because of plaster walls. Now here in Portland, ME there are 1000's of historic homes with plaster walls and so I have to ask, how much of this is just exaggerated anxiety and how much is truth? Should I avoid homes with plaster walls altogether? Is patching a crack in the wall or ceiling taking my life in my hands? What are your thoughts?

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You know, before you buy you can ask to have the plaster tested for asbestos content (and any other parts of the house that you think may be suspect). It is not that expensive to get the tests done. That way, if there is asbestos in the plaster you can consider what's next. If it is not asbestos laden plaster, your mind will rest easy.

    Bookmark   February 3, 2010 at 6:38PM
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The hype around asbestos is just that - hype. It is only dangerous if it is airborne. If it is structurally sound, painted etc there is no real risk. For decades, it was in just about everything. The only people who got sick were those that had to work with the stuff and were exposed to lots and lots of airborne fibers.

However, if you have ever had to take down a plaster wall, you are familiar with the giant cloud of dust the inevitably results. You would definitely want a professional to handle that type of work and yes, it would be expensive.

    Bookmark   February 4, 2010 at 9:50AM
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All you need to do is take a one" by one" chip of the plaster and send it off to and EPA-approved lab for testing. It should cost about $20 and the lab will email you back with the results. The lab we used has a 24 hour turn around.

Here is the link for the EPA site: http://www.epa.gov/asbestos/pubs/help.html

I do have to add this: Old houses are not for everyone; they have specific issues that you have to accept along with the house. If you are considering gutting rooms, replacing everything old, then don't buy an old house. So if your real question is whether or not you should buy the house, from what you wrote, I would say "No."


    Bookmark   February 4, 2010 at 12:36PM
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From the original post it doesn't sound like he's out to gut the house, just interested to know if fixing cracking plaster is going to kill him. Or perhaps, whether or not he is (for some regulatory reason) going to be forced to replace all of the plaster. Again, get the inexpensive asbestos test and make decisions from there as to whether or not to buy.

[And, I'm assuming the light fixtures he wants to replace are not original 1930s ones. :-) ]

    Bookmark   February 4, 2010 at 6:54PM
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Shark, your best bet would be to ask local contractors or the county building permit office. That type of problem is usually local. I'm in Virginia, and it has not been an issue here. We live in a house that was built in 1938. If there was a chance that asbestos was in the plaster, the contractors who repaired the plaster would have charged more (or turned down the job).

Good luck!

    Bookmark   February 4, 2010 at 8:41PM
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My understanding of the plaster question is this: prior to 1900, lime plaster was by far the most common type. Horse or other animal hair was used as a binder. After 1900, gypsum plaster became the standard. The gypsum itself became the binder material. It is, I suppose, possible that minute amounts of asbestos could have been in the sand or gypsum for both types of plaster, but I think it's pretty unlikely. In some rare cases, the fibrous asbestos may have been used as a binder, but I've never heard of it being found anywhere in Maine.

Where I would be cautious is in any areas that have been patched. Various patching compounds, including drywall mud, did contain some asbestos in the past.

A test would be inexpensive peace of mind, and as another poster noted, asbestos if sealed and not disturbed presents no real danger.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2010 at 5:29AM
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I believe asbestos was used in fire-resistant plaster and patching plaster.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2010 at 7:53AM
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How do we know the op is a he? Sharknrg...could be a boy or girl. I would not discourage shark from an old house purchase; he (or she) said "especially old houses, because I love their craftsmanship and details."

Sounds like a good candidate for old home ownership for me!

Welcome to the forum, shark! Hope you keep us apprised of how your old home ownership adventure unfolds.

    Bookmark   February 9, 2010 at 1:28PM
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Oops, sorry! Color me embarrassed... I did use the masculine pronoun without consideration! And I'll add my welcome to slate's...

    Bookmark   February 9, 2010 at 3:36PM
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