buying an older home (1919)

ramazzSeptember 12, 2012

Hi, this is my first post on this forum. I usually hang out on the gardening side. We have a contract on an older home in Virginia - it is part of an historic neighborhood. The home inspection is on Friday. The house has some cracking in the plaster walls and the ceilings. Some of the ceilings have been sprayed with the 'popcorn' texturing, possibly to help hide the cracking. Having looked at other homes in this neighborhood, I quickly realized that all of them had cracks, and this one is certainly no worse than the others we saw. Is it normal for an older house to have cracks in the walls AND ceilings if there isn't something structurally wrong? And how do we choose a reputable individual or contractor to do the repairs? This is assuming the inspector doesn't find anything horrible.

Thanks for any information you can offer.


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Cracks in plaster come with the territory...but in most cases they are nothiing to worry about, and something you can repair yourself.

Let's hope your inspector is familiar with old houses--not all of them are. The cracks are probably due to settling, and 90% of the time, the house has long finished moving. The inspection should point up any issues with the foundation, but chances are it's okay.

To fix the cracks, you widen them just a bit, making it wider at the bottom of the crack, and fill with joint compound and paper tape--with a bit of practice, you will get the hang of it, and save lots of money by avoiding a professional...start in an obscure spot, but it really isn't that hard. You will need to coat the tape with another layer of compound, feathering it out toward the edges, then paint once it is dry.

In some cases, I've heard you can remove the 'popcorn' with a misting of water and a putty knife--I've never had to do that myself as my plaster is untouched.

You might post a few pictures once you close, so we can actually see the cracks. If you are worried they are still 'moving', you can draw a line across them at several spots, and check every few months to see if the marks still line up--if so, then you have no worries.

Since you are in a historic district, they might supply you with a list of contractors, but if not, check with neighbors who have had work done and see who they recommend.

    Bookmark   September 12, 2012 at 3:51PM
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My real estate agent assures me the inspector is an expert in older homes. I have done some wall repairs in other houses, but they all had drywall, not plaster. I will certainly post some pictures and come back for some suggestions! We will have about a month after we close to work on the empty house. I want to get the ceilings and walls taken care of before doing anything to the floors. The floors actually look pretty good, but need refinishing in some rooms.

Thanks, I feel better already.

    Bookmark   September 12, 2012 at 4:02PM
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Well, we did have that 5.8 earthquake here last summer, and that opened up some new plaster cracks and made existing ones worse.
But yes, some ceiling cracks are par for the course, unless the ceilings have been redone with an overlay of mesh and new plaster, or (god forbid) drywalled.

    Bookmark   September 12, 2012 at 8:37PM
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The place to begin when investigating wall and ceiling cracks is with the foundation. Start by looking in your basement and outside at the foundation walls. Do you see cracks there? If so then there may have been (or still have) some movement there. That's a major issue, if present. One of the major causes is for water to have been allowed to stand and/or run up against the foundation wall for a prolonged period, causing expansion and contraction of the soils and heaving of the foundation. This situation is easily remedied by ensuring positive drainage away from the house. If this has been present and caused damage, however, a structural engineer may be needed for remedial action. So begin by checking your foundations and basement.

If there are no signs of cracking there, then in all likelihood the cracking is a result of differential drying and normal movement of wood, plaster, and other materials (and/or poor workmanship). In this case, the cracks should be able to be patched and servicable for a long time. After all the house was built in 1919!

If your foundations are sound, the house is sound! Good luck!

    Bookmark   September 12, 2012 at 9:23PM
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Thanks for everyone's comments. Yes, we did have the earthquake last year - I work in a university library, and we certainly felt it, and had some damage as well. After all, the Washington Monument developed some structural cracks.

I will find out tomorrow what state the foundation, the ceilings, and the walls are in. Hopefully everything is cosmetic rather than structural. Some of the ceilings have been popcorned, but you can still see cracks. If we do buy the house, the popcorn will get scraped off and the cracks patched. I don't want to attempt the ceiling, but the walls are a possibility, based on columbusguy's comments here and in other posts.

I will take pictures and post, assuming the inspector gives us a good report. If not, well, I will just leave a sad note.


    Bookmark   September 13, 2012 at 12:47PM
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We are in the process of buying an older home. Your inspector needs to be your best friend. Our realtor recommended ours, and we checked hi out on Angie's list. He kept us from buying a really beautiful house that was completely falling apart underneath. Now we have a completed purchase agreement on an 1880's farmhouse.

The biggest thing is definitely the foundation. Since you are probably already done with inspection, you should make sure that you get a very completely report. Don't underestimate things like radon levels, foundation issues, etc.

Good luck.

    Bookmark   September 14, 2012 at 7:34AM
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Well, peacocklady, you are certainly correct about the inspector being your best friend. This house has more problems than we could have figured out on our own. The cracks in the walls and ceilings upstairs are due to missing slate on the roof combined with heavy rain over the summer, causing water to seep into the ceilings and walls. The house has been empty for a while and the roof has not been properly maintained. In fact, the house itself has not been properly maintained, and there are additional significant issues, all of them fixable, but we are going to look at some other houses in the same area and hopefully find one that has received the TLC these homes deserve.

I will start a new post if/when we find another house we are interested in.

Thanks for all of the comments and support!

    Bookmark   September 15, 2012 at 8:29AM
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Our sympathies, but a better house will be out there. We are so glad that we let two lesser houses go. Interior water damage is a serious deal.

Good luck.

    Bookmark   September 15, 2012 at 8:40AM
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It's interesting to read about interior water damage. We are shopping for a home in a very old neighborhood and almost all of them come with leaky, moldy basements that have either recently been waterproofed or are still waiting for repair.

    Bookmark   September 18, 2012 at 11:48AM
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The house we looked at had both water in the basement and missing slate on the roof. The roof problem is what caused the damage to the ceilings and walls on the second floor, obviously. The water in the basement turned out to be easily solvable, but had caused corrosion to the natural gas connections to the water heater and heating unit. This was primarily a situation where the previous owner didn't maintain the house properly.

On a positive note, we now have a contract on a 'newer' house (built 1938) a couple of blocks away from the other one. We haven't had the inspection yet, but this house has been well-maintained. The owner passed away, and the heirs have painted, refinished the floors, and put down new carpet. We are pretty confident about this one! It doesn't have some of the charm the other one had, but we decided to make a safer choice this time.


    Bookmark   September 18, 2012 at 12:00PM
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"We are shopping for a home in a very old neighborhood and almost all of them come with leaky, moldy basements that have either recently been waterproofed or are still waiting for repair."

Sounds like good ammunition to knock down the price.

    Bookmark   September 19, 2012 at 10:02AM
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