What to ask/know before buying an Old House?

thisishishouseOctober 27, 2013

What sort of important questions should one ask before purchasing an Old House? (ca. 1850s)

We've been house shopping for a while now. Pretty much exhausted what had been our prime candidates. Recently saw a house well outside our search parameters, an updated 1850s Colonial. Great lot, great location.

Before considering the house, we need to address the fact that we don't know what we don't know.

What are the important things to ask, learn, discover when buying an old house? I'm sure everything and anything can go wrong. But what are the most important things to consider, those that would/should be deal breakers? Where's the line between fixable and tear-down or run-away?

Known: From what I see, it's got some important updates already done. Current owners have been there for 8 years. (from family of area builders/developers) Are moving on to their next project. Whole house is foamed. ~10yr old boiler/furnace, new tanks. New baths & kitchen. New windows from prev owners (maybe 80s/90s era vinyls) Barn converted to living space. 3-car gar & rec room added. Floors look okay. Orig plaster walls appear free of cracks.

Unknowns: wiring & plumbing in the walls, well/water quality/quantity, septic condition, field stone foundation, chimneys, ...

I'll also note that it's priced about 25% below the price range we'd been shopping in newer homes in the area, so we think we'd have an okay cushion to address a few things if needed.

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You might want to post this question on the Old House forum, as well.

There are risks in buying any house. The thing to do with an old house is to find an inspector who is experienced with older homes.

All of your concerns--the wiring, the plumbing, the water quality, the condition of the septic system, the foundation, the chimneys--a good house inspector can either check these things, or tell you who can. Water can be sent out for analysis, for example.

One thing to keep in mind is that in older homes, when work is done, it has to meet current code. But that code could be 20 or 30 or more years old. So it's not uncommon for many things on the inspection report to be "not up to code" for the current building codes. Don't freak out about that.

You need to look closely at the report and talk to the inspector to find out what really needs to be brought up to code and why.

I'd be concerned if all the wiring is 70 years old. I wouldn't be if it were 30 years old, for example.

And don't assume that fixes will be very expensive. My current house has a porch on the second floor. The house is 110 years old; the porch railings are way to low to meet current codes. We thought we'd have to install all new railings. But instead, we were able to put up a cable above the railings, screwed into the existing porch columns at the necessary height. You can't really see it from the street, even.

    Bookmark   October 27, 2013 at 9:15AM
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Don't just ask questions, have everything checked out. The seller, agent, etc. can tell you anything. Even if they have paperwork saying such and such. Don't believe anything. Have everything verified. Expect surprises. Note anything that is not current code. If you plan to pull a permit to do anything to the house, they may have you fix things not to code. Don't assume anything will be grandfathered in.

Loving our solid built 1926 house for its character. Hard to find character in most newer homes.

This post was edited by debrak2008 on Sun, Oct 27, 13 at 9:31

    Bookmark   October 27, 2013 at 9:29AM
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I'd be really really concerned about a couple of things here. First is the foam insulation and the unknown state of wiring and plumbing. I'd hope the wiring and plumbing was recently (as in the last 10 years) done before the foam insulation was done. There are a lot of wrong ways to insulate an old house from someone that doesn't know what they're doing.

The second is the vinyl windows. That detracts from the home's appeal and value. It would make me wonder what other original features were eliminated as a concession to "modernization". Older wooden windows can be rehabbed and have storm windows added and be just as efficient as the new vinyl windows that won't last nearly as long as the windows that they ripped out of there would have if just treated correctly.

The third thing that would concern me is that you think that being below market price will take care of any "issues" that come along. That's a false sense of security and doesn't have the mindset needed for someone thinking of an older home. Old homes need constant love and maintenance. You not only should bank that price difference in an account devoted to home maintenance, but you should also bank a similar amount to your home payment every month to deal with the potential issues as they arise. And you should ENJOY DIY repairs and projects. If you don't enjoy DIY, or don't have skills to do it, an old home will suck you dry paying labor to deal with all of the small to large issues that will be a normal part of home ownership.

If you "get" it, there's nothing like owning a piece of history. There's nothing like adding your own personal sweat and effort to maintain that history to be handed down to a future generation. That's why old home lovers love old homes. It's just as much work and expense and adding another child to your family. Yet people jump into that with both feet without knowing a lot about it from the beginning, or knowing what the ultimate costs are from the child needing braces or crashing two cars on their way to driving proficiency. If you view owning an old home as the same labor of love as having a child, you're going into it with the right mindset.

    Bookmark   October 27, 2013 at 10:03AM
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You need to get an inspector who knows and loves old houses, how and why they were built the way they were and/or one whose specialty is historic houses. A good inspector can do more than give you a thumbs up or down, they should be able to provide you with a range of of options for any flaw that comes up or for ideas you might have about improving it, with ball park figures as to cost - and from there you can go out and get more specific quotes. It's hard to say from here what to look for, because houses were all built so much more quirkily (is that a word) in the past and the construction methods used in one era and part of the country won't be what they were in another - so your best bet is to find the expert who can teach YOU about YOUR specific house. It will be money well spent. For the inspection bring along a tape recorder or second person to be a good note taker. You may have to do some looking for this person - ask historical organizations for recommendations.

You also might want to pay this guy to look before you put in the offer, if you are that unsure, or talk to him by phone - he/she may even know the property in question.

    Bookmark   October 27, 2013 at 2:56PM
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One other thing--if you are thinking now, before you buy the house, that you might want to do substantial renovations, like taking out the wall between the kitchen and the dining room*--get an expert contractor in to look at the house.

Taking out load-bearing walls, heck, figuring out which are the load-bearing walls, in an older house can be tricky. And it can get very expensive, very fast.

I like older houses and have always bought only older homes. But I have a cousin who is a contractor who specializes in renovating old houses who always comes along on the second visit to a old house. He spends a lot of time in the basement and attic, just poking around to see what the structure of the house is like. I don't want to tear walls down, but he has enough experience to help me steer clear of a house that would need substantial work just to make it livable.

*Actually, I hope you aren't planning to rip out walls. Trying to create today's open, modern spaces in older homes rarely works well. There's a reason for the flow of the rooms in older homes that reflects a different way of living.

    Bookmark   October 27, 2013 at 8:28PM
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I would consider 80s-90s vinyl windows a liability- they don't have a long life (20 years maybe) and are generally not repairable.

    Bookmark   October 27, 2013 at 8:38PM
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Check for easements.

We looked at a house on 5 acres. We wouldn't have been able to build a garage, because there were two easements. One was a 50ft gas easement that ran along the driveway.

    Bookmark   October 27, 2013 at 9:50PM
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"*Actually, I hope you aren't planning to rip out walls. Trying to create today's open, modern spaces in older homes rarely works well."

And don't buy an older home with period specific unique features that you can't stand to live with either. Sure, once you own it, you can do anything you want with it within reason, but why not just buy something else in the first place? Removing the stained glass transoms, or painting the heart pine floors white or something else equally irreverent to the home's bones should NEVER EVER be afflicted on an old home full of original details.

    Bookmark   October 28, 2013 at 10:12AM
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Check with the city/county building department to make sure permits, if needed were pulled to do any work done and how long ago it was done. Also you can find out what would be need now, and how much you are talking about. Ask the department if they do occupancy inspections and how much that is. In Los Angeles county these are done by the certified building inspectors.

    Bookmark   October 29, 2013 at 3:56PM
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I would very very wary of the previous owners from a family of builders/developers and the quality of the work that's been done. Do not assume that because they are in the business, that they do quality work. As marie says, check out the permit history.

Our previous owners own a lumberyard. They couldn't have done more low quality/half-a$$ed work on this house if they had tried.

    Bookmark   October 30, 2013 at 5:22AM
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Rather than a contractor to look at the structure, hire a structural engineer for an hour. He/she can tell you if there are any issues and exactly how to fix them if there are issues. Do not rely on a home inspector for this kind of analysis either. Our home inspector was supposed to specialize in older homes - he presented us with a very cool report generated on the spot - but he missed a lot of items that he should have caught.

We leased our house for 18 months and then made an offer. By then we knew exactly what had to be done to the house.

    Bookmark   November 5, 2013 at 6:03PM
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I know this may sound a little nitpicky but measure the doors.LOL I bought an old house and found while moving in that a 32" couch wil not fit through a 28" door no matter how you twist it.

    Bookmark   November 10, 2013 at 8:22PM
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