Concerned about winter in an old house

paperkiteSeptember 15, 2012

Once in college I lived in an old house cut into apartment units. It had big, beautiful, bay windows and brick walls. It was a stunning apartment. Unfortunately, when winter came I noticed that those beautiful features leaked so much air that I had to pull all my furniture away from the outer walls and live huddled up to the center, interior wall. My gas heating bill was extreme. To this day, I think I lost a few years off my lifespan because I was sooo cold, down deep to my bones, that winter.

So, now my husband and I want to buy a house in an older neighborhood. We fell in love with a tudor home from 1930. It even has it's original wavy glass, leaded windows that open like shutters! They are really beautiful and I would never replace them. The owners have put an interior, vinyl storm window over them to help make them more insulating. However, as our realtor showed us the home, he shook his head in sorrow and said that we'd freeze during the winter with windows like this and that they must be replaced (he meant the leaded glass windows not the storm windows). He said he'd never live in a house with original windows.

Then, we went to the big, scary basement which has recently been water proofed but still smells moldy, and this is where we learned that the house has radiator heat complete with a boiler. Our realtor said that it's not the oldest boiler he'd ever seen but it's still an antique. Now, I'm doubly concerned. I've never lived with radiator heat with units under the windows like in this house. Will we freeze? Does anyone have any experience with this?

The house is cooled from the top down -meaning that the duct work is in the ceiling on the top floor and the bottom floor does not have any AC vents. So, we can't simply install a furnace and use the duct work from the AC to heat the home. If we wanted an HVAC unit to heat the lower floors, we'd have to put in duct work for it, too.

And finally, I asked about insulation. That attic is full of new, good stuff (I think R-38). But the rest of the house is all original plaster and stone. No insulation has been blown in. I like this because I've read horror stories of blown in insulation (from Bob Yapp's blog) but, again, I'm concerned about freezing in the winter.

What do you think? Will we freeze?

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Hot water cast iron radiators (with steam as a second choice) are fabulous. I often wish I had them! They are far preferable to a forced hot air system, which is unpleasant to live with, IMO. Old boilers or furnaces can be replaced with modern very energy-efficient models.

Ask to see the utility bills for the last TWO years; last year was a ringer and very mild. Look at the quantity used as the prices of fuels (especially gas) were also lower than normal last year.

There are interior storms that function extremely well. They are not made of vinyl, however.

Living in a cool old house does take some getting used to, but it will not "take years off" your life. I think it's much healthier.

I live in northern NY in an uninsulated 19th c house w/o central heat. We heat with wood stoves. Our house is usually much cooler than most houses: 60's in the main living spaces and 40's in the bedrooms. Of course, we have pockets of warmth close to the stoves so it's not uniform, and we migrate towards the stoves when it gets colder than we like.

We always wear sweaters in the house in the cold months, and warm socks. If I am sitting immobilized at my desk or watching TV, I often pull an throw over my lap. My DH who works long hours at his computer has one of those sceretary's desk heaters under his desk. The cats sleep in covered baskets. We sleep under thick down comforters. In my bedroom it's even colder as I keep one of my windows open year round. The bathroom has extra heating.

If your idea of indoor clothing is shorts and T with bare feet during the winter, I wouldn't buy any old house in a cold climate.

You didn't say where the house is located; for omparison I'm in horticultural zone 5; my outside low temps regularly get down to 20F below zero.

One of the keys to living happily in a cooler-than-is-usual house is to make sure you are otherwise quite active, particularly outdoors. This is a farm and even though we don't keep large animals there's always stuff needing to be done outdoors. If you've been outside, walking, skiing, skating, pruning, processing wood, etc., in temps in the 20F - 30F range, then coming into wam house in the 60's feels balmy. But if you sit indoors barely moving around most of the day it will feel chilly, I think. And certainly 45F bedrooms are the same temp as many peoples' fridges. We don't spend much time in the bedrooms, except for sleep. If we are planning to spend a good deal time in an unheated room upstairs (working in my sewing room, for example), I will add a space heater for the duration.

Maybe an old house is not for you, however?



    Bookmark   September 15, 2012 at 11:36AM
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I second the statement that radiators are great heating units--and wish I had them in my house! Your realtor sounds like one who has no liking or sympathy for old houses--just in it for the commission--don't listen to him.

The boiler can be updated without needing to do the rest of the piping...and you will save money doing so, as long as you can get gas--fuel oil is going to disappear some day.

I'd replace the interior storms as well--those can make a big difference. As for the walls, caulk around window trim and door trim, and baseboards--that will help with air infiltration--and do look at the utility bills, bearing in mind that better storms, caulking and a new boiler will bring them down.

Sounds like a very 'cool' place--I'd love it myself! You might find a better realtor, or just ignore this one's opinions and rely on inspections--but don't let the realtor pick one since he has no liking for old houses and will probably find one to agree with him.

    Bookmark   September 15, 2012 at 2:41PM
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Here is a link for weatherstripping for metal casement windows (not unusual in the twenties/thirties):
And wooden casements:
This can help immensely, but adding permanent storm panels to the inside of the windows is a great investment, too.

    Bookmark   September 15, 2012 at 3:09PM
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Here's a third on the superiority of radiant heat. I've had forced air and a heat pump in other houses in warmer climates and now have water radiators - by far the best.

If the house is stone and plaster you probably have good insulation. I'm no engineer but I used to be married to one who also taught college thermodynamics (def.: the relationships and conversions between heat and other forms of energy.) He worked with someone who build super-insulated passive solar houses that could be built in cold climates and be warm without a furnace. That's for authority. What they said was that sealed air is a great insulator - think of those modern, double paned windows - air is the insulator in them. If you eliminate air infiltration (weather stripping and caulking) the air sealed between your exterior and interior masonry is an effective insulation. (I believe that what pink insulation does is hold air. Foam does that and also seals leaks.)

Classic, old-fashioned storm windows, again, properly sealed, create a bigger air trap between panes of glass, therefore provide better insulation than double-paned replacement windows. I have several experiences with neighbors who have replaced their windows, comparing to my old (and not perfectly maintained) windows that confirm what I'm saying. My windows are holding up well at 100 years. The neighbors have traded that in for new windows with a 25 year warranty (at "top of the line") that feel colder than my 100 year old ones. (You may not plan to be in your house for 100 years but durability signifies quality to me.)

Interior storms don't have a consistent size air trap but are better than nothing. They may be ugly but vinyl frames can be painted to blend into their surroundings, I guess.

I live in USDA zone 4 - winter temps to -25, transitioning from zone 3 - temps to -30. I keep the (stucco & plaster) house at 55 when I'm not home or sleeping (my bedroom is cooler,) 65 when I am home and active. Now that I'm old I sometimes have to turn it up to 68 when I'm inactive. I have friends who keep their modern houses so warm that the kids can sleep without covers all winter and I find that miserable. Wearing t-shirts and shorts during the winter and heating the house to allow that feels ... dare I say it ... immoral to me. At least very wrong.

There's a lot of information in this forum about this subject with links to more. (Historic Homeworks) Check it out. Your realtor doesn't sound like a very good source of information.

Obviously, feelings run high on this subject!

    Bookmark   September 15, 2012 at 3:39PM
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Fire your real estate agent. I suspect this house is not listed by his agency and he's trying to steer you to one that is.

We lived in a 1927 house with its original furnace, radiators, and metal leaded-glass windows (with storms). It was fine. We were not cold in the winter and heating bills were not astronomical. This was near Detroit.

    Bookmark   September 15, 2012 at 5:51PM
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I am with the radiant heat folks. Having said that however, the critical factor is really whether the radiators are sized correctly for the rooms, and the boiler for the radiators. In Victorian times folks believed that many diseases where bred in bad or stale air, so it was common practice to leave windows open, even in winter. Heating systems for the time were designed to accommodate this. If the house were later to be insulated and the windows left closed, the heating system would be over-sized and not as efficient as it could be. This is not uncommon. But an under-sized heating system would be uncommon. This is because no contractor from any era wanted to be called back because the heating system was inadequate. Thus they always go a little bigger.

The real question isn't whether you will freeze, but what your heating costs would be.

I agree that if you like to run around in bare feet and a T-shirt in the winter then you should steer clear of old houses!

    Bookmark   September 16, 2012 at 3:53AM
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Thanks for all the replies and the encouragement that radiator heat is not a deal breaker. I have learned that it is steam heat so we will have to research more about steam generating boilers.

Also, thanks for the links about how to weatherize metal casement windows.

It is very useful to learn what exactly qualifies as too cold for indoor temperatures to each of you. My husband and I are tender foots comparatively. I grew up in South Carolina and he grew up in northern Michigan. We now live in northern Kentucky, right on the border between zone 6 and 7. 68F is as cold as I ever want it inside. For me, this is sweater and socks temperature and anything colder than this requires that I wear a my ski coat, hat and a blanket if I'm sitting quietly and reading. My husband is fine down to 63F.

It is an interesting point about the size of the radiator units to the size of the rooms. Thanks for that tip, also! When we are next in the house, I will measure such things as well as taking photos.

Thanks again for all the replies.

    Bookmark   September 16, 2012 at 6:58PM
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'i would never live in a house with original windows'

funny, cause i wouldn't live in an old house withOUT them (not entirely true, but i'm saying it for effect). way to display your ignorance there, mr(s) realtor!

geeez. the interior storms make a dramatic difference in terms of drafts. in terms of comfort they are superior to exterior storms. of course, they don't protect your windows as well from the elements (are there exterior storms?) you should be relatively cozy.

my 1915 house has original windows with newish exterior storms. there are drafts, sure, and some windows need repair, but i wouldn't trade them for new vinyl windows if someone offered to do it for free.

i'm curious about the condition of the original windows. nicely functioning old windows with some type of modern storms are generally more sought after than replacement windows, at least among old house types.

    Bookmark   September 17, 2012 at 1:57PM
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I think you can not generalize about ANY house old or new. I grew up in MA, in an old house with steam radiators. They do a very good job, they did a much better job once my dad had the attic insulated properly.

My husband and I pulled 2 years previous record for a forced air townhouse built in 1980 in the city before we decided to rent 10 years ago. Attached row home, 3 stories, only 1400 square foot. It looked like it was a normal heating bill, we moved in during the fall. I have never been so cold in my entire life. The way the "modern" space was laid out, open plan 3 floor loft type, the heat all immediately rose from our first floor living area (living room, kitchen, dining) to our 3rd floor bedroom. So it was literally 30 outside, 50 on the first floor 75 on the 2nd floor, and 95 on the 3rd. Miserable.

You never know how drafts and leaks are going to effect your heat. Hubby and I also like being warm, while I would not say we are t shirts and shorts people, I don't mind clothing in winter, I don't like my fingers to be freezing in my own house.

Do you have a chimney somewhere downstairs you could cut into to add a wood or coal stove to? That would give a lot of extra heat during winter and keep things nice and cozy.

    Bookmark   September 17, 2012 at 3:32PM
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paperkite, if you do this, it's important to make a point of learning how to maintain your heating system for greatest efficiency. It would be worth it even to hire someone to come in to get it ready for your first winter and teach you what regular maintenance you can and should do. Good luck and enjoy!

    Bookmark   September 17, 2012 at 3:36PM
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Columbusguy...i don't know who told you that heating oil is going to disappear but you can tell them they are nuts..

No2 heating oil is the same product as No2 diesel fuel and so long as our world is supplied by 18 wheelers and railroad engines that have diesel engines you can be certain the fuel will be available.

    Bookmark   September 17, 2012 at 6:51PM
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My husband and I are new to the market of old houses. We are learning that there are lots of things to consider -like plumbing, electrical, mold, lead, leaks, gutter systems, foundation cracks, fireplace inserts, am I leaving anything out? But I think that there are lots of new construction homes that are so poorly made, they are just as much in danger of being "money pits" as the older homes.

Our realtor has advised us to get a contractor as well as an inspector out to look over the home before we buy. I think he wants us to understand how expensive it will be to repair things (and/or gut the house, as he seems to think we should do).

We will visit the house again this weekend, I will take pictures and post them here. :) It's really a lovely looking home with some... worrisome areas.


I, too, think the modern day vinyl windows are a shame and that everyone is making a tragic design mistake by gutting these windows out and replacing wood (or metal) with plastic.

The conditions of the windows on this house are hit and miss. There are no exterior storms. The glass panes are good and a few have been replaced because of a hail storm recently. They are metal casement windows and the mechanism to open and close them is rusty and old is most of the windows with the exception in the upstairs master bedroom. In this room, the windows are an unusually large size and there is no interior storm (perhaps because of the nonstandard size?). But we can always have an interior storm specially made if we like. This window works well and seems to be opened and closed regularly.

Kali: "I don't mind clothing in winter, I don't like my fingers to be freezing in my own house. " Nicely said. Me, too.

There is a functioning gas fireplace downstairs in the living room. I have not thought about the need for an insert. Will it be necessary?

Dirt_cred: If we make an offer and it is accepted, we intend to get a couple of extra things done (like check for dangerous molds in the basement, lead paint and a special boiler guy to come look at the existing boiler). We can ask the boiler mechanic to talk to us about these issues. Thanks for the suggestion. :)

    Bookmark   September 18, 2012 at 11:21AM
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I am not sure how much heat a gas stove throws off or if it is just for the ambiance of it. I honestly know nothing about that.

The wood or coal stove was only a suggestion for extra heat. It is a great way to have extra heat in an old home especially a large one where you don't want to pay to heat the entire place. My parents home growing up was small, so no, we didn't need a wood stove. I have friends with large old homes where heating them because they are drafty would be quite costly, they have wood stoves they use to heat during the coldest months of winter.

We actually have a base burner coal stove, which because of the age of our home (almost 300 years) is currently our ONLY source of heat until our renovation is done. I can't wait to get something as simple as duct work running through this place. We will still use our coal stove, just not when it gets mildly cold, only when it gets really cold!

Something that is inset in your fireplace will loose most of your heat up your chimney, something like a wood stove that sits out from the chimney radiates the heat out into the room and then up to the upstairs through the ceiling. Our coal stove can heat our entire house (only 1900 square feet) to the point of needing to open windows in the middle of Jan. (yes, at that point we are shorts and tank top people and my kids are in diapers only but more out of necessity not because we are crazy heat hogs) We do have a large stove, not just one for "extra" heat.

    Bookmark   September 18, 2012 at 11:55AM
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Classic, old-fashioned storm windows, again, properly sealed, create a bigger air trap between panes of glass, therefore provide better insulation than double-paned replacement windows

that isn't so. igu insulated glass units in new windows
are sealed glass units with a specific sized air gap
between panes that hold air at rest.
widen the gap and the air sets up convective currents
between the window and the storm window. then condensation

expect old windows to condensate to warm side. just
what happens with single pane windows.

I love old houses, but find that if you test the
house with a blower door and find the leaks that
the most cost effective way to add comfort is
air sealing. you'd be amazed at what backer rods
and a few cases of caulk can do for air leakage.

best of luck.

    Bookmark   September 18, 2012 at 8:22PM
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Don't buy an old house if you don't really want the charm etc that comes with them, problems included.
That said I will add don't listen to your realtor. Replace window, gut house etc. Clearly he either doesn't like them, shouldn't show them or he wants you to buy one of his own listings. If it is his office listing he sure isn't looking out for the office clients interest.

    Bookmark   September 19, 2012 at 8:08AM
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"For me, this is sweater and socks temperature and anything colder than this requires that I wear a my ski coat, hat and a blanket if I'm sitting quietly and reading. My husband is fine down to 63F."

Forget the ski jacket! A bit of wisdom that I learned long ago during my days of open ocean sailing: Layering, beginning with top quality long underwear. You'll find great offerings from LL Bean & Patagonia. You might think it's expensive, but compared to heating costs, hardly. And the gear really works. If you decide, for instance, on a cold lazy day to suddenly get up and start moving around with some activity, you'll find you'll have to remove the Long Johns because you'll be over heated (so efficient are they at trapping body heat). For us, 1st class Long Johns are a must, comfortable, and worn all winter. And it sure saves a lot of money.

    Bookmark   September 19, 2012 at 6:52PM
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If you do invest in two cases of caulk, deploy them on the warm side (in) not the cold side (out). Sealing around the baseboards and inside window casings is the way to go, otherwise the worst-case is going to happen: the warm moist air finds it's way inside the walls through the indoor seams/cracks, and stops when it hits the cold outside wall plane, condensing the water under the siding where it causes rot.

    Bookmark   September 19, 2012 at 10:18PM
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note where spiders build thier webs.
this is a sign of air infiltration.

plumbing this case where
the pipes come thru the walls under sinks..
are usually too large and too difficult
to caulk. I use something called Thumb Gum.
I get it from hvac supply. it is a rope caulking
that you pull appart and apply.
larger plumbing the huge hole
under tub drain require cutting flashing to fit
screwing and caulking in place.

best of luck.

    Bookmark   September 20, 2012 at 11:11AM
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Ditto re: "fire your agent." He is obviously ignorant about old houses.

Re: the leaded glass, you can get storm window PANELS that fit on the outside, like a regular storm except its a fixed glass panel, no screens. You can get storms in e-glass for much less cost than a whole new replacement window.

I live in a concrete block house with no insulation in the walls and it can indeed get chilly in there in the winter but eliminating air leaks in basement, attic, & door/window openings is 9/10ths of the battle. Also, my life style changes have included keeping the thermostat LOW but adding a little bit of extra heat only the room I'm in and/or wearing fleece, down vest & down booties. The only time it gets REALLY cold is mid January-February when the temps are minus zero AND strong winds come out of the north. That's when you move to the center of the house and avoid the outer walls! If temps are more moderate or there isnt much wind it's comfy enough.

Also got a latex bed which holds body heat and a down comforter - money well spent!

    Bookmark   September 20, 2012 at 12:53PM
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The house we just moved from was a 1926 house, with original wooden windows (some casement, some double-hun), and hot air heat.

The 'new' house is from the 1950s, has newer windows, and radiators.

First off--radiators are SO much more comfortable and SO much cleaner than hot air heat. If you're lucky enough to own a house with them, never consider changing them. You won't get the same comfort, and all that air blowing around makes the house a lot dirtier, anyway.

As to old houses and old windows? That really depends upon condition. Well-maintained, proper-fitting wooden windows with well-maintained properfitting wooden storm windows are the best. Wood IS the best insulation, and 3" of dead air space is always going to trump 1/8-1/4". If you read non-biased reports on windows, you'll find the Wooden windows win every time. But the snag there is "well-fitting, well-maintained". Our windows in the old house were in perfect condition--due to DH's diligence, so we had no problem at all with drafts coming in from the outside (just the ones generated by the hot air heat--LOL). The new house, with it's newer windows doesn't keep the cold out as well--thank goodness we have those comfy, cozey, quiet radiators.

I really think it sounds as if this agent has an agenda. Try to do your own research, have your own experts check out the windows, if you're truly interested. You may not be in bad shape here.

Oh, and as to the heater? When we bought the 1920's house? the heater was over 10 years old. We lived there 39 years without more than maybe 2 minor repairs being needed. However, with a 50 year old heater, we did decide to replace it before putting the house on hte market this past year. But ONLY because we knew it would be a great selling point--that old dinosauer was still doing a great job keeping us warm all winter long. So age alone isn't going to tell you whether or not the heater is on it's last legs.

    Bookmark   September 22, 2012 at 6:41PM
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"3' of dead air space is always going to trump 1/8-1/4'."

the fact is that adding a storm window to an existing
window doesn't ensure that you achieve 3" of dead air space.

the space is too wide to keep air at rest which is what IGU windows do. with heat on one side and cold on the other the air between reacts and sets up convective currents. it is simple thermodynamics.

with wood at R-1 per inch, it is hardly "the best insulation". it is a poor conductor of heat and cold..
which makes it an excellent thing to surround glass with, but you can get the same thing with metal clad exterior with wood interior. or vinyl or fiberglass.
I'm not pimping windows here..just giving unbiased information.

if you want to learn about windows then go to a site like this is an independent company that rates all windows on real factual stuff like solar heat gain coefficients, u-factors, air tightness & condensation.

there are lots of ways to make existing single glass
windows more air tight. adding storms will help, but
you will not achieve what you would with a new efficient
window. in older homes, you just have to pick what stays
and improve the rest.
tighten the windows so they don't leak air.
improve the envelope of the building. air seal

best of luck

    Bookmark   September 22, 2012 at 7:12PM
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Thanks to everyone for your anecdotes, information and insight.

We got a list of their of electric and gas bills for the previous year. We asked for the full bill for the past two years but we only got a list of dates and prices for the previous year.

**They began moving out of the house in waves in July 2012. So, the house was partial unoccupied for the months of July-Sept 2012.

Here is the list:
09/12/2012 $111.74 **
08/09/2012 $120.33 **
07/12/2012 $147.59 **
06/12/2012 $115.17
05/11/2012 $111.92
04/11/2012 $132.74
03/12/2012 $207.81
02/10/2012 $271.21
01/12/2012 $326.95
12/08/2011 $210.86
11/09/2011 $137.04
10/12/2011 $109.43
09/12/2011 $120.59

I promised some photos and here they are. As you can see the windows have been painted shut and there are vinyl/plexiglass storm windows on some but not all of the windows. They don't fit the windows very well in most cases and have gaps. I think this is because the square opening of the window is not perfectly square.

Here is what the seller's realtor said about the AC cooling system they have (remember the AC ducts are in attic space and only cool the top floor).

"Fyi Glanz provides service to the boiler and will confirm it is a very solid and special system that will likely outlast most of us.

... Also, fyi, Seller was told when she purchased this home that one of the many reasons the AC system upstairs works so beautifully in this home is because it was designed by an architect who made walls exceptionally thick and of course did other things way before it was common (like putting bathroom inside the master bedroom). "

In our current 1978 home, this January we had a $125 electric bill. Does $330 seem like an extreme increase to you or would this be the kind of increase we could expect from any older home?

Also, how much reduction in price could we expect after weatherizing the interior storms? Or would you recommend replacing the storms altogether... or even replacing the windows with custom, expensive, newly made replications?

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   October 5, 2012 at 8:26AM
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Oops! I did not post the correct link.

Below is the correct link:

Here is a link that might be useful: Correct Link

    Bookmark   October 5, 2012 at 8:30AM
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First of all, you may wish to take the second link down as it shows not only pictures of the house but others you may consider more personal. The fastest fix is to make your whole album private, and deal with getting the pics separated into a public album later if you can't do it right away.

Now as to the utility bills: I believe you are in upstate NY right? Last winter (2011-2012) was extremely, freakishly mild. I am somewhat north of Albany and last winter we used only about 55-60% of the fuel we normally use. Also for the fuels that most people use (except for home heating oil) prices were affected by the mild winter as well, with both electricity and gas (natural and propane) being unusually low, so the dollar amounts on the bills may be lower than normal for the same amount of power in other years. (Residential electricity is returning to norms -i.e. rising - now.)

So those factors may be the reason that the previous years' bills were not forthcoming, as the sellers may be reluctant to let you see the normal costs. Or not; they simply may have already discarded their bills in prepartion for moving- though they can probably request duplicates if pressed hard enough. And even if you can't get the bills you may be able to get info about comparative heating degree days between last winter's mildness and normal, and more typical rates and work the numbers out for yourselves.

Anyway I would assume that last January's $320 cost would normally be in the mid/high $400's to low $500-ish range in years when temperatures and prices are closer to norms.

Amendments or improvements to storm windows will improve your comfort but probably not make the house temps warmer, unless you are talking about solid (opaque)covers like blinds or well-fitted insulating curtains. Certain types of insulation projects may help depending on what you find there. But it may already be maxed out for space possible.

The bills don't seem excessive to me if they include all of the lighting, water heating, heat, and in summer, A/C. (I have no A/C so I may be wrong about that.) We heat entirely with solid fuel (wood), but our power bills for hot water, lights and small amount of electric space heatng in Jan-March are about $250-350/mo during the coldest months. We use lectricty to heat H/W for the washing machines, but rarely use any for drying as I hang out 12 months of the year. Mostly I cook with propane, with a small amoaunt of electricity for MW and induction. I don't use a DW.



    Bookmark   October 5, 2012 at 1:38PM
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Comparing the bills from your current house to those of the prospective one won't tell you much...they are two entirely different animals. You have to take into consideration the size of the house, the temperatures they were heated to, and the efficiency of the heating units as well as their type. And then, you can start to figure in the weather factor.

All I can say for sure is this: blown-in insulation in my house cut the heating gas bills by more than half. Alas my city doesn't offer a discount program for city electric--at least until I am eight years older. :)

    Bookmark   October 5, 2012 at 1:57PM
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