Looking To Buy Old House

Mark_75February 27, 2012

We are getting pretty serious about buying an old house built in 1876. I have not went and looked at the inside yet, but we have drove by and viewed the outside. Therefore, I don't really know the condition inside other than some pictures that I have seen on a reality website. I do know that it needs lots of work.

My questions are:

1. What are some main points that I should look at when really checking into this house?

2. What are somethings that are a "must do" when it comes to remodeling a house like this?

3. Can you identify some hidden cost that may escape the average buyer?

The amount of work does not scare me as I can do most of the work myself with no problems at all. I am a builder by trade and what I can't do, my good friend can. So, labor cost is basically $0.00 for this job.

Just off the top of my head I'm thinking all of the windows need to be replaced and the electrical redone. That means redoing the drywall, paint, trim and so on, but that's not a problem. I'm not really familiar with working on an old home like this so I am trying to find all the small (or big) problems that come with it.

Thanks in advance!

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there are some unbelievable resources here in this forum.

well, the first thing about most old homes is that the walls aren't drywall - they are plaster. plaster is an unbelievably great wall material but it does change the tools you'll need to do the electrical work. some people choose to rip it all out if they are doing a "gut" rehab.

also, plenty of crazy souls choose to restore rather than replace all or some of the windows. finally, reusing the old trim maintains much of the old character.

some of this might not apply if it is a remuddled house without the original character.

    Bookmark   February 27, 2012 at 6:07PM
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Concerning plaster walls, how would one go about redoing the electrical if you do not tear it out? Would that include cutting strips out to run wiring and then patching back in?

Whoever the current owners are have done some remodeling to the inside so I am unsure about how far they went.

    Bookmark   February 27, 2012 at 6:12PM
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Rewiring is usually done by 'fishing' the wires through stud bays--fish tapes are fairly cheap, get two! The problem areas are the joins between ceiling and walls--you make a small hole in each to grab the new wire from one end, and use the tape to grab onto it once you've got it past the joint...check a video on it, or read some online articles. To go between different floors, find a 'chase', where chimneys or ductwork go from the bottom to the top of the house--there is almost always space to feed wire to each floor. And, for what it's worth, for lighting circuits only, you can leave any old k&t in place--just replace it going to the switches from the circuit breakers. For outlets, you can run entirely new wire, or I think, put a gfci in the line, and it protects all the later outlets as well?
Please, do NOT look at the job as remodelling--your goal is to increase the value of the house, not make it look like every other house built since 1990. It is original details, like windows, trim and such which most attract buyers. Even windows in bad shape, if original, can be repaired and with storms, be as good or better than any replacement window made--that is why they call them replacements in the first place--they cannot be repaired and will last maybe a decade or two at most.
Below is a link for doing fishing--just one of dozens.

Here is a link that might be useful: Fishing

    Bookmark   February 27, 2012 at 8:12PM
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I would say that the condition of the foundation and sills is the most important thing to check thoroughly. Foundation repair and/or sill replacement nearly always requires excavation and jacking. These are not really DIY projects as they require specialized equipment and a lot of experience, not to mention money. The process can also lead to structural damage in walls, floors, chimneys, etc. if not done very carefully.

Next would be the condition of the floor joists for the same reasons as above.

Nearly anything else in an old house can be repaired given time, energy, and the skills you already have.

I would not replace the windows unless they are completely unsalvagable. The windows in an 1876 house are very likely much better than anything you could buy today. Don't fall for the misleading claims for replacement windows. Repair the existing ones.

    Bookmark   February 28, 2012 at 5:01AM
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I have a different (more purist) way of looking at old houses:
How much of the original fabric survives? Like if the original details and plaster have been ripped out, that's seen as a negative by me and other aficionados.
How well done have subsequent improvement been accomplished? Were mechanical systems upgraded well and appropriately? Big clumsy duct chases in principal rooms will spoil the setting. Neither am I a fan of replacement windows. The original wood windows are at the top of the list for details that make an old house what it is.
I more appreciate a blank slate, unspoilt kind of old house over one that's been extensively redone.
As far as wiring issues; your 1870's house did not start life with wiring, therefore some electrician came in later and had to make pathways between floors and walls to run the wires. Therefore, the easiest way to rewire is to find and reopen those pathways. Look for the previously-removed flooring, it can often save a lot of plaster removal if you are going to the same point in the ceiling.
Any room where you want to add a lot of can lights, you will be better off pulling down the old plaster ceilings. But conserve any plaster moldings or medallions, as these are important and valuable details.
If the house hasn't been touched in decades, and all the original details survive, you have a great opportunity to make a fine upgraded home.
Now, all other home inspection pointers still apply, my list is what particulars I'm looking for to make an outstanding rehab project.

    Bookmark   February 28, 2012 at 7:39AM
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If you're looking to renovate the house it can be easy to gut and rebuild. But, hopefully, you appreciate what the house can offer in terms of a solid build and character in the materials.

Restoring an old home is much more difficult and takes longer but the cost/benefit is heavily weighted to it being worth the effort.

When we were looking for an old home we knew we needed a solid structure, dry (ish...it isn't perfectly dry but the damp hasn't affected the structure so we have some time to fix it) basement, good roof line, and solid shingles. We found what we needed and resigned ourselves to a 20 year restoration or winning the lottery. So far we are 7 years in and I love this house. There are days I would prefer something completely finished but when I walk into other homes in our price range the use of plastics and low grade materials makes me respect and fall in love with our solid home again.

If you go for the older home and want to restore the home expect it to take longer and cost more than you think, be aware of structural issues and items where the cost can skyrocket for repairs, and make sure you love the home as it is (or what you see it becoming) or you may end up frustrated and resentful over the time and energy it will take.

Post photos when you go see it!

    Bookmark   February 28, 2012 at 8:26AM
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Thanks for all the advice. I just went out to see it (another drive by without a realtor) and notice that whomever had the house last worked on remodeling it (not necessarily restoring it). BUT, it doesn't have too much of the new look. As far as the outside goes, I have deemed it well worth the investment. The window are all boarded up (doors as well) so I can't really see inside except for a couple of windows. I did see that the "old floors" are still there and look great! Still doing some research but should be going to really look into it soon.

Not sure how to post photos.

    Bookmark   February 28, 2012 at 12:31PM
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"old house built in 1876."

Not a lot of building codes back then.

Inspect carefully for sagging floors, ceilings, and even the roof.

A few joist repairs is one thing, but a massive amount starts calling into the entire structure.

While unlikely, it could be post & beam construction, but balloon framing is more likely (platform framing would be very rare).

Correctly done balloon framing is structurally fine, it is the tall stud bays from bottom to top of the exterior walls that are a significant fire hazard.
Once a fire gets into them it spreads very quickly and compromises the structure in a short time.

Just be sure you understand what you are getting into.

Much very old work is actually very good.

It is all the intervening work that is more often the problem.

    Bookmark   February 28, 2012 at 5:04PM
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The absolute cheapest thing about an old home is it's purchase price. You will spend that at least twice over in restoration work by the time you're done with the project. You need to factor in the cost of all new wiring, plumbing, HVAC, insulation (a BIGGIE), roofing, flashing, gutters, paint, siding replacement and repair, chimney reconstruction, and potentially structural repairs as well as the cosmetic issues of replacement moldings and replacement flooring for what's been too damaged to restore.

    Bookmark   February 28, 2012 at 6:07PM
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My first question would be where is it located...south, north, etc. as things are different dependent on where the house is built. It also depends on you..we are all willing to put up with different things. Then I agree with the comment about foundation and joists. Everything else can be fixed with labor, time and $ (as can the foundation/joists with $). As to sheetrock, in the south lathe walls were often covered with sheetrock from 40s on. We have a 100yr old american foursquare in Texas with orig. old pine lathe walls and paper that has been covered throughout with sheetrock and painted. The home had 2 owners prior to us. It still has knob/tube wiring, orig windows/interior french doors, old phone lines, bois d'arc stump foundation (common here and greatly desired), old growth pine floors, no insulation, etc but is in awesome condition.

    Bookmark   February 29, 2012 at 2:40PM
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Also be prepared for things not being exactly the standard sizes that stores carry in stock. I have a home built in 1915, stucco exterior made of terra cotta block, sort of a Craftsman/Victorian. I needed to replace all the windows (they were that far gone due to the prior owner neglecting them for over 30 years) and 3 of the doors which had pretty much deteriorated by the time I took possession. All the windows were odd sizes, as were the doors. 3 doors, turned out to be over $9000 alone because of having to be done custom (and they weren't even that "fancy") and all the masonry repairs that went along with it. Unbelievable. This wasn't even the front door! It was for my side garage door, side door and a French door in a bedroom (that one, the threshold was ruined, causing leaks into my living room).

I still have 2 more doors to go but they weren't as pressing and I'm waiting until I feel I can fit it into the budget; front door and a door in the living room that goes to a port cochere. The front door will be ok once it's sanded down a bit and painted, the other one is just a hot mess and I haven't found an appropriate door I like enough. Those two, will be another $4K at least. *cringes*

I had to rewire substantially in order to be able to have an updated kitchen and laundry facilities. Knob and tube was everywhere. I'll have to do the same once we get around to renovating the main bathroom. Not looking forward to how much that will cost.

The "unknowns" are what will ruin your budget completely. Things that just can't necessarily be seen on your inspection. I purchased my home for $225K. I've now put in just under $200K in upgrades and I'm still not finished. And my neighborhood is not the kind which will get me back that money at this point in time if I decided to sell.

    Bookmark   March 3, 2012 at 10:09AM
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Sophie Wheeler

To own an older home, you need to be a bit of a masochist. You need to take pleasure from the pain. You need to enjoy spending money on ephemeral stuff behind walls that no one else will ever see or appreciate. You need to enjoy small victories and keep those small victories in mind when the major whap up side the head comes and you've got a major setback. As in, "Wooohooo! I managed to get all of the paint removed (safely) from the gorgeous mahogany fireplace mantle, but now that the chimney sweep has inspected the chimney, I will need to spend 25K to be able to have a real fire in the fireplace." Or "The architectural salvage store had tiles that match the upstairs bath perfectly. Now I can replace those broken ones! Oops, I can't replace the broken tiles until I tear everything out and find the blasted water leak that just showed up on the dining room ceiling!"

It's the old joke: How do you end up a millionaire and own an old home at the same time? Answer: You start as a two millionare.

    Bookmark   March 3, 2012 at 6:13PM
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Thanks for all the info so far. We are getting a realtor to take us out and look at the home tomorrow - hopefully.

    Bookmark   March 5, 2012 at 9:24PM
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