To buy or not to buy.

peacockladyAugust 13, 2012

We are looking for an old house in the Ann Arbor, MI area. Saw one we like, cir.1880. Basement looks ok, roof is being replaced by seller. Kitchen needs complete reno, and baths need some work. Wiring and plumbing are working, but no upgrades in at least 40 years. Good neighborhood, short walk to great elementary and middle schools. Nice floor plan, downstairs parlors all connect with dining room, more open than most old houses. Kitchen is old but very large.

So, if we could get a good price, would it save money if we did kitchen and bath renos and electric/plumbing upgrades all at once? That way any damage to walls during electric/plumbing work would be repaired before new stuff goes in?

We found a really thorough inspector who kept us from buying a home where the cement block foundation was caving in. So we will have him inspect. Should we have two contractors give us estimates for the whole reno? How much should we add to the estimate for "unexpected" problems?

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Okay, I see you think that just because something is old, it shouild be replaced? Why are you wanting an old house then?

Looking at the pictures in your other thread, I can see cosmetic changes like wallpaper and such, but why do you want to replace the baths and kitchen without living with them first? Are they broken? Are they truly hideously decorated in 70s formica or metallic wallpaper? Trendy modern kitchens and baths are just that--short-lived fads which will be out of style by the end of the decade if not before. If you are wanting to do a kitchen/bath more in keeping with the period of the house, well and good--don't go the route of tear it out because it isn't the current fad. Already, granite is becoming overdone and many don't want it now.

As for your wiring and plumbing, let the inspector give his ideas--you are talking fairly modern wiring if it is no more than forty or so years may just need to replace a fuse box with breakers, and run a new circuit or two. My 1908 house has had new wiring for a breaker box, but most wiring between switches and lights is still the old stuff, which is fine in those places. A good 3/4 of my outlets are set in the floor, and those that aren't are newer wall-mold as one bedroom had no electricity at all originally. My house originally had gas/electric combos, one of which is still in the attic.

If you plan on modernizing the house to make it into a glossy magazine type, then I beg you to go buy a newer house, and let this one go to a true old house lover who will respect it and let it keep its personality.

    Bookmark   August 14, 2012 at 12:19AM
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Buying an old house and trying to "respect" the integrity of the house while still making it livable for the 21st century is an expensive and delicate game. Believe me--I'm right in the middle of it!

If you like the floorplan and details, but just would like a new kitchen and bathrooms, I would say go for it! Our kitchen renovation was MUCH more expensive than I had planned because I wanted some old world features--I would have had the "Something's Gotta Give" kitchen if I had 100K to spend on a kitchen, but I had to scrimp and change plans to make it a 45K kitchen instead--and that was more than the 25K I thought would be enough to remodel it. That being said, I would not have take the old kitchen for anything--a terrible renovation in the 1950's had made it just horrendous and disgusting with more 70's and 80's touches added in for good measure--blue formica counters, rolled pink/blue vinyl flooring, knotty pine paneling, drop ceiling, brass/white ceiling fan...the list goes on and on.

I guess you have to see what exactly drew you to this home rather than a newer one--hopefully, not cost! If it's cheaper now, it won't be after you're done with it! Old homes really are money-pits unless you are a contractor/electrician/plumber yourself (or have one in the family.)

With that being said, I wouldn't trade our old 19th century beast for anything--this thing is solid, warm, inviting, and you can actually "feel" the history of families being raised in it since the 1870's or so...

It is hard for me never being "done" with the house--if you are one of those people that needs the whole thing to be "finished" in one fell swoop, an old house might not be the best choice for you unless you are independently wealthy. We work project to project, so there's always a list of things that we slowly tick through year after year.

Best of luck to you! Post pics, please!

    Bookmark   August 16, 2012 at 9:34AM
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You might be a little ahead of yourselves. I agree that because the service is 40 years old hardly means it needs to be upgraded.

I think first you're going to need a new kitchen and bath design. Once you have those, then you will know if you need any new circuits or plumbing, or if either have to be relocated. And once you know THAT, then a contractor can look at the work involved in doing so and advise on the most cost effective manner of going about it.

    Bookmark   August 16, 2012 at 11:14AM
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I noticed you have posted twice about old homes. This post gives me more perspective on your choice. Like others, it seems that you want this house to be something it is not.

I agree with whoever said, unless you are independently wealthy or are looking at a house far below your price range, the things you are about doing are going to be extremely costly.

40 year old plumbing and electrical are nothing, really. I'm not sure why you think that is a problem, unless the inspector has told you there is a direct hazard involved. These are all good things to eventually upgrade - but later.

I am totally of the opinion that you need to live in an old house if at all possible before you renovate it. You currently have no idea what type of kitchen to put in, unless you just want a kitchen that looks like every other kitchen out there today. If that is the case, why not find another old home that already has that, or buy a newer home?

If the bathrooms are not completely hideous, please don't gut them right away. You learn so much about a space by living in it. It's very hard to know what would be best at the outset.

From a stranger on the internet, it sounds like you want perfection in your home, which means that I'm not sure an old (and somewhat old-fashioned) home is the right fit for you. Are there any old homes on the market that are more upgraded?

    Bookmark   August 18, 2012 at 9:03AM
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Thanks to all for the helpful comments. Janieful, I really thought about what you had to say. I think house hunting can make you a little overly critical. I love 90% of this house as is. And you made me realize I need to live with the other 10% for a while before we decide what to do. Our inspector did make us promise to install smoke detectors before we sleep there if we don't do the wiring right away.

Inspection was interesting, our inspector is merciless. His final comment to us was, "if you are crazy enough to buy a Victorian house, then you should probably buy this one".

    Bookmark   September 3, 2012 at 3:10PM
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Gee, it sounds like your inspector really doesn't know about old homes. Old plumbing and wiring are not necessarily a problem. It would be good for you not to start on these projects until you have spoken to contractors that REALLY know old houses - and get references from them from owners of old houses. The advice to wait to remove what is already there until you have spent some time in the house (at least a year) is solid advice. You will have a much better appreciation of how the house works and hopefully you will come to like some of the its quirks.

"Complete reno" declarations make alarms go off for those of us who love the character of old houses. Usually that means the potential owner is not interested in preserving the original details of the house and one more old house will be stripped of its personality.

If you decide to buy this house, I hope you will be gentle, and respect its age.

    Bookmark   September 4, 2012 at 2:50PM
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Old houses have systems that do not meet modern building codes, assuming they are still sound and still safe. For example, have you checked the basement and external foundation walls for cracking or settlement? How are the walls and ceilings--plumb and horizontal?

You can be assured that the electrical wiring (knob and tube, most likey, if it hasn't been modernized) and service capacity will likely be required to be replaced if you do any remodeling and need a building permit.

The heating/cooling (depending on age) is likely to be inefficient and past its lifespan. How is the roofing and drainage? Speaking of drainage, have you had the soil lines/sewer connection scoped to see if they are intact and sound?

This is not to discourage you; simply to make you think about the major building systems and the "whoops" that are going to be there when you start any remodeling. All of these issues are normal with older houses and are fixable, given the needed time and money. Good luck!

    Bookmark   September 12, 2012 at 9:40PM
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