Rosemaryt - House Question

petra_gwSeptember 24, 2010

Am having a discussion with a friend, re. the shoddy way newer houses are built. F.e., plywood cabinets, thin walls, cheap materials, etc. We were wondering when cheap construction started and since you are an expert, at least when it comes to Sears homes, I was hoping you might know. :o) Hubby and I have owned 3 homes so far, a 1910 Craftsman, a 1994 custom, and a 1982 brick/wood. The one from 1910 definitely had the most solid construction and best materials.

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When I was single and looking to buy a home of my own, I wanted to find a custom built home (non-tract house) that was built between 1949-1963 or 1964.

Houses built during this era had modern amenities (functional kitchen and baths, often with ceramic tiling set in 1" solid concrete), and these homes had copper water lines, brass drain lines (in better homes), traditional copper wiring (no aluminum) and high quality plumbing fixtures that'd last for a long, long time.

Post-WW2 houses also had some (not a lot) insulation in the attic, and were built in accord with uniform statewide building codes.

These post-war houses also had excellent quality building materials (lumber, sheathing and flooring), and there were still craftsmen around then, building each house with care and attention to detail.

By mid-1960s, some materials started getting diverted to the war effort (Vietnam) and the quality of building materials here at home really suffered. It's also the time period during which we slowly went to plywood sheathing, instead of diagonal planking - on both walls and roofs. I'm not a fan of plywood sheathing.

By the mid-1960s, the quality of housing and building material and standard construction techniques had really started a slippery slide downhill.

In a few years, my husband will retire and we're moving to central Virginia to spend the rest of our lives. We'll be buying a 1950s brick ranch with a hip roof. This, IMHO, is one of the best built, easiest-to-maintain, low-maintenance, sturdy houses out there.

As to structural integrity in an old house, I'd put my money on an early 1900s structure. In the early 1900s, the quality of wood that we harvested from America's virgin forests (also known as first-growth forests), where the trees grow slowly and compete for sunlight, nutrients and water, can NOT compare with anything that's harvested today.

Weyerhauser likes to brag that they can have one of their genetically engineered, hybrid, fast-growing trees ready for harvest in 25 years. Have you ever felt the weight difference between an 80-year-old 2x4 and a contemporary 2x4? The old lumber is incredibly heavy. The new lumber feels feather light. The reason is, the old wood grew so slowly that it became very, very dense (and hard). New lumber is the opposite.

Go into the basement of an old house and you'll find that you can NOT drive a nail into the old joists. The nail will twist and bend, because old wood is so hard.

That being said, we abandoned balloon construction and went to platform construction in 1925-1930 in this country, and I think platform construction is a *little* bit safer. My 1925-built Colonial Revival is built with balloon construction. If you went to the attic and dropped a penny down in the vertical wall voids, it'd land in the basement.

The 2x4s that form the exterior walls of the house go from basement to attic. You can't even find 25' 2x4s today, and these early 1900s 2x4s were what we now call, "Dimensional lumber." In other words, the 2x4s were two inches by four inches. Today's 2x4s are almost a half inch shy in all directions.

Balloon construction just means that the house was built with these enormously long framing members, and then the floors were added in later. Firemen hate balloon construction because the fire can spread hidden in the walls, and those vertical wall voids have natural drafts that fuel the flames.

With platform construction, the house is built one floor at a time, creating a "platform" for each story. This is safer (fires spread more slowly) and easier to heat (the vertical wall voids tend to carry heat away to the attic).

So, old houses have plusses and minuses, but IMHO, it's a no-brainer. The strongest, sturdiest, best homes are the pre-WW2 homes. These houses have phenomenal quality lumber and building materials the likes of which we will never ever never again see in this country, but they also have asbestos, lead paint and galvanized plumbing and plenty of maintenance issues.

My house is 85 years old and the walls and floors are still square and straight and true. The framing members are #1 southern yellow pine and the exterior is 100% cypress. There's no wood rot anywhere on this property. It'll be interesting to see what the 1980s and 1990s McMansions look like when they hit their 85th birthday. I suspect many of them aren't going to make it for the long haul.

So, I'd say that the strongest, best-built houses are pre-WW2 and the easiest-to-maintain homes are the post-WW2 custom-built houses that were built between 1949-1963 or 1964.

Is that too much information? :)

I could go on and on...

In conclusion, I'd say that "cheap construction" really took off in the late 1960s, and just keeps getting more and more shoddy. In my neck of the woods, plywood is now only used on corners (for stiffening) and styrofoam panels are used on the walls, top-coated with PVC (plastic) siding, and on the inside, there's 1/2" sheetrock. This creates something we derisively call "Utility knife houses" - which can be "broken into" by slicing through the plastic siding, styrofoam and sheetrock with a utility knife. I wonder about these people with their kajillion dollar alarms on their "utility knife" houses. A false sense of security there.

Other building materials used in contemporary houses are equally unimpressive. One such example is EIFS. It's a slap-happy faux stucco that has caused huge problems with houses. And then there's Chinese drywall, which gives off an odor and a gas that wreaks havoc with plumbing and human lungs.

Old house are more organic. Newer houses are not.


    Bookmark   September 24, 2010 at 5:17PM
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Rosemary, thanks so much for taking the time to answer so thoroughly, I had no idea about most of this. I do know about the wood being so hard because we attempted to hang a shelf on one of the wooden posts in the basement of the 1910 house and, exactly as you wrote, the nails just bent. :o) It also had lovely, thick wood plank floors hidden under the carpets.

Re. 2 x 4's, hubby built 2 smallish decks a few years ago and I helped carry the wood, so I know you are right about the wood being light. I haven't had the opportunity to lift any old wooden planks, but if I do, I will note the weight.

I did read about the Chinese drywall, very scary. Did not know about the ease of cutting through modern houses with a utility knife, that is scary too.

I've admired photos of your house, it is truly gorgeous. We were looking at centenarian houses for sale in Pennsylvania a while back and admired the original pocket doors and wood beams, beautiful staircases and wood paneling, just beautiful. Some of them have had only wiring, pipes, appliances and windows replaced and bathrooms and kitchens updated, and have had nothing else done, yet are in move-in condition.

Thanks again for answering, it is so interesting to learn about these aspects of home building we normally don't even think about.

    Bookmark   September 24, 2010 at 5:41PM
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murraysmom Zone 6 OH

rosemary, that was just fascinating. Thank you so much for such a thorough answer. My house was built in 1947 and I like it because it's very similar to the house I grew up in. It's a cape code and it seems to be very well made. It's not perfect, but being single, it helps to keep the maintenance to a minimum. Your explanation was like a fun history lesson. Thanks for posting it and thanks petra for the good question.

    Bookmark   September 24, 2010 at 8:06PM
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Thanks for reading my long, loquacious response! I love old houses. Love reading about them, thinking about them, and sometimes I like writing about them, too.

Here's my old house:

    Bookmark   September 24, 2010 at 9:12PM
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Rosemary- I love your house!
I have a question for you.What about the insulation in the homes built betweem 1949-1963? Most of the older houses I have seen were very poorly insulated and because of their construction hard to put new insulation in.

    Bookmark   September 24, 2010 at 10:25PM
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I love your house, Rosemary. I can't believe you would ever sell it.

My old house is 100 years old, but the wood in it is older, since it was built out of debris from the 1900 Galveston hurricane. It is framed out of 2 x 6's and the floor joists are 3 inches thick. I wouldn't trade it for the snazziest McMansion that was ever built.

    Bookmark   September 24, 2010 at 11:47PM
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Rosemary, your house is just beautiful.
Marilyn, I hope you'll get a chance to post more pics of your house remodel. It is awesome to see everything taking shape.

    Bookmark   September 25, 2010 at 12:14AM
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Rosemary...I love reading anything you write....from the post above, to tales of the lovely Miss Teddy, to the Sears homes, your own lovely home as you've transformed it over the past few years and the "ugly girl dating" blog.

I thank you for all these things. Next you need a book or magazine article about your Dad.

    Bookmark   September 25, 2010 at 12:28AM
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I grew up in a house built about 1900. It was a tudor house with brick on the first floor, stucco and timbers on the exteriors of the 2nd and attic floor and slate on the roof.

It was one sturdy house. Oak floors, trim, and doors. Huge rooms with extra tall ceilings. The bathrooms needed a remodel, but the big old tub was wonderful, and I laugh to see the pedistal sinks come back into style. The mother of the lady next door accidentally steppped on the gas instead of the brake, and drove her car at full speed into the corner of our house on the day she passed her driving test. It totaled her car, but only a brick or two had a tiny bit flake off. No damage to the wall inside the house or to the exterior.

    Bookmark   September 25, 2010 at 12:39AM
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You're right about the old wood being heavy. My house was built around 1840 and the word is that the brothers who built it cut the chestnut trees down from the 6 acre property. Yeah, I don't have bathrooms the size of a train station and wonderful walk in closets, but I've been in some of these show homes that sell for close to a million and wouldn't trade. What my house lacks in function, it more than makes up with charm and strong structure. . Plus I have a remodeled new/old kitchen only a few years old.

    Bookmark   September 25, 2010 at 2:49AM
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If windows, doors and attics are well insulated in old homes, you've covered 90% of the insulation needs and don't need to bother insulating the plaster walls.

I've owned 3 old homes and with attention to these areas, we've had reasonable utility bills.

Even my husband, who used to believe that new is better, now won't live in a new house.

    Bookmark   September 25, 2010 at 5:03AM
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Our house was built in 1922 and then moved in 1954. The walls are all plaster and it adjusts amazingly well to the season changes. We are fortunate because of the move there is a steel beam foundation and a "new" furnace that was installed. That furnace is still chugging along---they sure don't make them like that anymore.

Rosemary- your response was both informative and intersting, thank you!

    Bookmark   September 25, 2010 at 8:18AM
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murraysmom Zone 6 OH

I love your house, rosemary!!! What a beauty!! You are so lucky, but I guess you know that!! :)

    Bookmark   September 25, 2010 at 8:32AM
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My childhood home was custom built in 1938. Our first 'starter' home was in a development of brick ranches built in the 1950's. We moved into our present custom built home in 2001.

Neither of the first two houses had ANY insulation between the brick and the house -- gas was so cheap that you just cranked up the furnace! The single-pane, wood frame windows on my childhood home shrank in winter and rattled in the wind. The *aluminum frame* windows on the ranch made wonderful heat-exchangers!

Our present house is bright and tight, with superior construction to the two older homes.

'Old' isn't always better. 'New' doesn't have to be junk. 'Good' can be any age!

    Bookmark   September 25, 2010 at 1:29PM
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Since I'm looking for a house, I've been thinking about this sort of thing a lot. But another consideration that comes to my mind is the electrical wiring. I've read that even when updated, there can still be knob and tube wiring hidden in the walls. Partly for this reason I've been avoiding looking at houses older than 1940 or so, and because of the construction and wood quality, I've avoided looking at houses older than 1980. I'm not sure that these are really good reasons or not. Comments?

    Bookmark   October 8, 2010 at 6:19PM
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Rosemary, that is an awesome home !! Just beautiful.... I see homes like that when we go to some older neighborhoods in and around the Nashville and Columbia area... just wonderful places.

If I lived in a home with that much going for it, I don't think you could get me out with a pry bar !!!

And thank you for your wonderful essay on old homes.. a fascinating read..


    Bookmark   October 8, 2010 at 6:38PM
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Thank you for such a wonderful lesson! I enjoyed it so much that I read it to DH--and he also enjoyed it. Your house is beautiful, and I love the posts and pictures you have shared with us.

Have you picked your retirement area yet? We are in a small town in northwestern Virginia, and love it here. Our town was founded in the 1700's, so we have a lot of beautiful old homes here. I often wonder if any of them are Sears homes...

    Bookmark   October 8, 2010 at 7:46PM
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jenes -- Take a look on the "Buying and Selling Homes" forum here. There's a post there now about this electrical situation.

    Bookmark   October 9, 2010 at 2:48PM
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Thanks chisue, I think the relevant comment there for me was, "Not everyone is cut out for the old house experience." They are beautiful, though, in comparison to anything post-1950 or so.

I meant to say in my earlier post that I've avoided looking at houses NEWER than 1980. I'm looking pretty much exclusively at houses built in the 50s 60s and 70s. At least it's before pressed wood took over.

    Bookmark   October 11, 2010 at 5:49AM
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