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Buying a first old house

Posted by tricia560 (My Page) on
Fri, Apr 16, 10 at 10:41

We've decided to take the plunge into home ownership, and we want an old house; one with quirks and character, but not a show place and not requiring too much work. We think we've found it at a reasonable price and made an offer, but I wondered what we should look out for during the inspection that the official inspector might miss?

The house was supposedly built sometime between 1870 and 1890. It's your basic farmhouse, with a newer addition on back for a family room and laundry. At some point a PO added cinderblock walls in the original basement, and some wood support beams perched on top of steel supports to shore up sagging floors--it looks sturdy, but maze like.

There are hardwood floors through most of the downstairs, but in three rooms they've been painted--and in pretty ugly colors. The trim is painted to match, and the walls papered. So I know there will be cosmetic changes to be made, but I want to try to avoid big budget nightmares...

Any advice would be so appreciated! I'm nervous, but I'm in love.


Follow-Up Postings:

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RE: Buying a first old house

"We've decided to take the plunge into home ownership, and we want an old house; one with quirks and character, but not a show place and not requiring too much work. "

Not to be rude, but this made me laugh. You want an 1870's farmhouse that doesn't require much work? Sure......... Old houses are a labor of love. You just need to come to terms with that. Maintaining it is going to cost way more time and way more money than you are likely anticipating. I think the effort is worth it, but it is work.

As for avoiding pitfalls - there are some with big dollars attached. Heating/Cooling. Plumbing. Electrical. Foundation. Roof. Water damage. Insect damage. Your inspector will probably not be qualified to diagnose any of those except the roof age.


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RE: Buying a first old house

Old houses are not for the faint of heart! It takes alot of work to keep a old gal looking good and a fair amount of dollars too.
In old houses NOTHING is standard issued. Nothing is ever square, you can't run to Home Depot or Lowes and expect to find what you need to repair your old house AND have it look right for it's age and style. It's alot of special ordering, fudging and creative genius that gets a project done, not to mention TIME and lots of it.


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RE: Buying a first old house

Depends on how much work the previous owner had done. There is a difference from an old home that been taken care off and and an old home that everything needs updating. For example you have to look at electricity and plumbing even if everything seems working. It is different to just have to add a few plugs and update a room or two than to have to update the whole house with a new panel and rewiring. Same as plumbing. Are the pipes lead, brass? I think there is a list of priority somewhere. First structural then systems then walls and floors or something like that. Good luck. In my city the big majority of houses are old and often one has not a choice of buying a new home. We all seem to manage fine but on the other hand most of the houses are also well kept.


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RE: Buying a first old house

"big budget nightmares"...
Just from our own experience, the biggest budget items were:
*WWI sewer pipe from house to city line collapsed
*New roof and sheathing; had to rip off 4 layers of old shingles
*all new wiring
*all new plumbing
*asbestos removal
*new gas forced air furnace

As for "cosmetics"... (some of these were even more expensive than the essential items above)
*gut and remodeled kitchen
*gut and remodeled bath
*gut (poorly finished 1950s) upstairs and add new bath
*patch and skim coat all plaster walls
*refinish wood floors

That's what we've tackled (aside from "small" projects too numerous to name) over 18 years.

Other things to look for... condition of foundation, sills and timbers. Condition of windows. Lead paint... Insulation?

The list can go on...

Obviously there is a lot you can "live with" for years. Pay attention to the structural condition and the "systems". Best of luck to you. I hope you do find an old house where the big budget nightmares have already been fixed!


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Thanks guys--we are trying to be realistic about this, really we are; the home we're looking at (inspection on Wednesday!) is supposed to have newish plumbing and electrical (within the last 15 or so), roof done in the last 10 years, forced air and central ac. We like the kitchen and baths as is, even if they aren't the latest thing. We know we'll have to deal with lead paint on some level--in a house this old, it's in there somewhere.

Hadn't thought about the sewer line, and someone at work warned about the root systems of all the big old trees that I love. Hadn't thought about the insulation either--just assumed it's there! Doh.

If ya'll had it to do over, would you still buy an old house?


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RE: Buying a first old house

If ya'll had it to do over, would you still buy an old house?
YES! :-) You'll find you either love them or you don't once you live in one.

On the "newish" electrical and plumbing... have someone take a close look at those anyway. Sometimes only part of those systems get replaced, or a new electrical service added to the existing system. You want to look (or have an inspector look) closely; in attics, in floor joists in the basement or crawl space, under the covers of light fixtures, inside outlet covers, just to be sure.


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RE: Buying a first old house

I used to take my Daddy with me when I looked at old houses. He not only could do most any kind of work needing done in one, he knew the strengths and pitfalls, and had seen every possible way a house could be cobbled up by an owner. He was born in 1912, and had seen it all. Now, when I run into something I am not sure about, I have to pick brains of many people and hope somebody knows what they're talking about. But, find someone who has lived in an old home to talk to. When issues come up, they'll know what can wait another fifty years and what can't......what to sweat and what not to.

This is the second old farm house I've lived in (not counting one in Europe, but that's another ballgame). But, I've lived in many old city dwellings from the Victorian/Edwardian eras. I can tell you one thing, and that's farmers had a different set of priorities when it comes to houses and maintaining them. LOL. The house we presently lived in was built by a very prosperous farmer/mercantiler and for its day was pretty lavish but it's still extremely plain and rugged compared to those of a city dweller.

I suspect that there isn't a system or aspect of this house we haven't touched with money and work since it's purchase. I know I have been living here twenty five years and just as I finished working on the last room, the first one had to be started on all over again.

As said, it depends on the care given it by all the owners who lived there between you and the person who built it, and how much time/money they've invested in maintaining it.

Good luck on your inspection and purchase. If the house spoke to you, you're probably one of us. LOL. Just remember to keep an account handy for a surprise and that everything doesn't have to be done at once. It can be a very rewarding and fun adventure or your worst nightmare and just as much of it is attitude and patience as physical issues. Enjoy the journey.


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RE: Buying a first old house

You're so cute...and obviously so sick :oP Welcome to old house land...you are showing the first symptoms of a serious disease (which you'll occasionally regret but in the end the good will overcome the bad).

Our home had new electrical and plumbing, but it's still 120 years old so many pieces are additions to the old, odd modifications done by the original restorer and then by various handymen (I am beginning to be able to tell each period's work by it's quality). We only need cosmetic stuff...so we bought it.

Oh did I mention gardens that need several full time staff? That the windows need to be reglazed and rebuilt in some areas? The "new furnace" isn't really "that" new...we'll be replacing it soon. I have six hot water heaters....no wait maybe seven, several need to be cut off and rerouted....take the wallpaper down and you'll find plaster "issues" to deal with...carpet came out, floors missing.....and really, this is considered the "nicest" house in town by far!!!

Would I do it again? Sure I would :) We love the place, warts and all! But it's not for the faint of budget! The only people I know who really regretted an old house were people who went into it thinking it was a money saving idea....which is NEVER right.

Did I mention we need a new roof????? :oP Welcome to the community.


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RE: Buying a first old house

I love old houses with all their challenges. They have so much more character and quality than new construction.

For example, new construction issues in the news lately is all about the dangerous sheetrock made in China that is making people ill. You won't have that problem with an old house, but you may find old linoleum floors that contain asbestos. Still, its only a problem if you break it up.

Ditto to what others have already said...the biggest things to watch for is any work that was done as an upgrade. I hired two inspectors to go through my house and they both missed the bad electrical job that was done. My brother (who knows everything and can do anything pertaining to home repairs) found it years later. The PO had claimed that an electrical upgrade was done, but actually just pigtailed new wires to old on each end - which made it 'appear' that the entire house was rewired. In reality, cloth covered wires ran all the walls and ceilings.

Also, you won't find 'every' problem before you buy the house. I'm re-plastering all the walls in my house too due to a calcimine issue (you should read up on that problem....).

Get used to spending vacation time doing home repair projects rather than laying on the beach...LOL...

Oh, and your friends', who don't own an old house, eyes will glaze over when you start talking about yet another repair project that you are excited about doing to your house - which is WHY we all come out here to post and discuss. ;-)


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I second kimkitchy's list. We bought our 1920 house 5 years ago and have run into many of those issues. The most expensive potential problem we have (so far) is the sewer line. We had a crack and luckily we were able to have a section replaced instead of the whole thing. However, the quotes we got to replace the whole line started at $20,000! Eeeeek. As you mentioned, root growth is a problem. We use a root kill product that we flush down the toilet once every other month. We have had no issues since then. But if you are on city sewer, you may want to have your inspector run a camera down the line to see if there are any disasters waiting to happen!

And of course all the noted issues - electricity, plumbing, insulation (of which we had virtually none), paint, etc. etc.Please make sure and get quotes for things like plumbing, electric, roof and exterior painting prior to purchase. You may be suprised at the cost of these items! Especially paint with the new lead paint regulations. We think it's all worth it and are content to gradually get things done, but it is a big commitment!


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RE: Buying a first old house

Yes do have a sewer scope done. We were able to negotiate a new sewer and water line from the previous owners of our house during our inspection period. For reference, I'm in Portland OR & I believe the ultimate cost of that work was about $4,500, higher than the original estimates that came in but quite a bit less than the 20K the previous poster mentioned above. So thankful they took care of that! There were many other repairs-big and little-that we wrote up on the inspection report, about 15K worth. (We only got them to do the sewer/water line and credit us some of the closing costs.)

Our agent suggested we be aggressive, but not hopeful in asking for the repair addendum. ;) It's easy to make a case both ways for repairs-you are expecting that the home-however old-has been maintained appropriately and the sellers can (fairly) say, "hey, it's an old house, this is what you're in for!" Still, you never know what the seller's may agree to take care of.

RE: multiple layers on a roof. Our roofing contractor indicated that every layer of old roofing reduces your roof's life expectancy by ~5 years. So beware if like us the sellers give you the warranty information for the "30 year roof" that they had put on top of 2 other layers. (If you've got 3 layers, in reality you have more like a 15 year roof.) Our roof is really at the end of it's useful life, but they could show us the "warranty" in black and white. LOL.

Hope that helps, and good luck!


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Unless your foundation work was done a lot better than it sounds, I'd suggest you get a foundation contractor (whatever that would be in the yellow pages) to asses it. Might be worth getting an estimate for having the house raised and put on a new foundation before buying it.

All the advice from above posts is good, but you need to be alert to what you see in front of you in addition to being armed with horror stories. That's where the answer to your question lies.

After 17 years in our house, I have begun to understand ownership of these heritage houses as a sequential, or tag team, type of thing. Our job, as owner # whatever, is restoring the woodwork, tree replacement, main floor modernization ... a previous owner took care of insulation, for example, an addition on the back, and the porch foundation and the new connection to the city sewer. A future owner will have to deal with perimeter drainage and other stuff I don't know about yet. So you look at this house and say, in the segment of this house's life span that I will own it, what will it be my turn to do?

Of course you could do everything the house needs and make it perfect. In that case, I envy the next owners :-)

KarinL


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RE: Buying a first old house

Well, the inspection was yesterday and went pretty well. Our inspector has worked as a contractor, including on old homes, and was pretty thorough (5+ hours), although the points about getting some specialists in are well taken, thanks. We're also going to need a good arborist.

We found evidence of past problems--some water damage in ceilings and basement, but also evidence that the owners addressed the issues correctly, except for in the detached garage. That's going to need a new roof. They've also let the landscaping go, so there's a lot of work needed there. Except for the garage roof, the tree removal, and possibly the chimney, all the issues we found are ones we can address ourselves.

Frankly, we're in love, and it would take a lot of bad news to talk us out of it now...


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RE: Buying a first old house

Good news then Tricia! Our house was in much the same shape, but with a sinking front porch, which we fixed. We have done a lot of work on our house in the last 3 years, but haven't spent much money so far. I realize that old house owners want to prepare you for the worst so that you can plan for things that come up. However, we've spent about the same amount of time, and a lot less money on our 100 year old house than we did on our previous (new) house. Home ownership always comes with maintenance issues and unexpected costs. That is my story and I am sticking to it.
Diane


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RE: Buying a first old house

"Frankly, we're in love, and it would take a lot of bad news to talk us out of it now..."

When that happens, the purpose of the inspection is to help make it work, not to dissuade you. You've done well on that front.

"That is my story and I am sticking to it." *grin*

A warning about arborists. Most go into the field because they love trees, and often they think they are working for the tree in a keep/cut down discussion, and end up not working for the humans involved. Figure out yourself whether you want a tree cut down or not, and then hire the arborist to do that AND to advise on replacement tree selection and placement, that way they might not get too attached to the tree. If your tree is iffy, it will come down eventually by the hand of you, mother nature, a future owner, or a neighbour via the courts, so you may as well bite the bullet. 5 years one way or the other doesn't matter much to the tree but can totally eat your quality of life if you delay. (leaves, sewer blockage, pruning... been there!) By the time you look up from your renovations the new tree will be fabulous and you'll be glad you did it.

KarinL


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RE: Buying a first old house

Diane--yeah, new homes can definitely have issues too; my parents have had 3 homes built so far, and Mom has to watch the construction crews like a hawk to avoid some crazy stuff. One that slipped by her--they finished wood stairs without cleaning them first, so there were boot prints all the way up...and at least that was only cosmetic.

Karin-thanks for the warning. I don't think they'll be able to argue that these trees are still worth saving; they're pretty sad and possibly a danger to the house. Fortunately, taking out the 2-3 ones that need it still leaves 3-4 nice big trees and several small flowering ones. There are also some shrubs that were planted waaay too close to the house that will have to come out, and ivy that's impinging on the AC unit.


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RE: Buying a first old house

Welcome to the old house club! I LOVE old houses, and have a very much hate/love/hate relationship with my own. I'd still do it again, though I'd make sure I LOVED the house I bought, not just found one that fit our needs (sometimes you have to compromise though). Sounds like you found love! Good luck with your future surprises, we'll all be here for support, commiseration, and celebration with you :)


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RE: Buying a first old house

Well, congrats on the positive inspection.

"When that happens, the purpose of the inspection is to help make it work, not to dissuade you." Karenl put that very well. Your inspection is a tool to use as you move forth.

It's OK to be goal oriented, but don't be so wrapped up in the finished product that you forget to enjoy the present along the way.


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RE: Buying a first old house

" I can tell you one thing, and that's farmers had a different set of priorities when it comes to houses and maintaining them." ouch - sounds like the "farmers" are taking a hit on that comment -

I have learned to love our old house. One philosophy I've adopted is: Anyone can build a new house but a house with hundreds of years of history is unique and worth the investment of time and money for those that have an interest in preserving them.

Best of luck with your ventures into home ownership of an old home!


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RE: Buying a first old house

Your house is about the same age as mine. I hope that your home inspector is better than mine was - he missed a lot of problems (such as serious foundation problems) that should have been obvious to him and will be very expensive for me to fix.

Take an especially good look at the electrical system. Even though it's not required to meet current code, the closer it comes, the better off you'll be. Inventory every outlet in the entire house. Do you have sufficient outlets to avoid using extension cords (which can be dangerous)? Roughly speaking, there should be an outlet for every six feet of wall. I had to have several outlets installed to make my house livable. Test the outlets with an inexpensive tester that you can get at any hardware store to see if they are wired properly. Are there switched outlets or lights in every room? None of my four bedrooms had light switches. Are the stairs well-lit? Mine had a light at the bottom, but none at the top, so I had one installed in the upstairs hall and installed a 3-way circuit so I could turn the hall lights on and off from both upstairs and downstairs. (This was an important safety upgrade.) I could go on for hours about all the electrical problems I discovered and fixed (and which my inspector didn't notice) -- outlets that just didn't work at all, outlets that were flaky, outlets with reverse polarity, outlets that weren't grounded (but which had 3-prong receptacles), outlets that should have been GFCI (kitchen, laundry room, bathrooms, basement, and deck) but weren't, 20AMP receptacles with 15AMP wiring, 3-way circuits that were wired incorrectly, three (!) outlets in different parts of the house that worked only if the light was on, etc. All this and more in a not-so-big house!!! It all adds up, believe me. Fortunately, I found a good electrician to straighten things out, but even that was difficult - a lot of electricians refuse to work on old houses (new construction is so much easier).

Get a book on building codes and read up so you'll know what to watch out for. (The International Building Code was updated in 2009, so look for a book that's recent.)

Here is a link that might be useful: Building Codes Illustrated


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My husband and I just bought a house built in 1900. I have lived in Old houses before, grew up in one and there are pluses and minuses both, but the pluses to me out weigh the minuses. One thing to be aware of is if there is any places that the paint is peeling anywhere on your house or property you will get into a major testing of how much you want that house. There is now a huge Lead Paint issue going on with all Lenders. It is a very costly ordeal. Also you may want to have an certified licensed electrician to inspect your electrical work even after your inspector does it. Our inspector was very good, but we wanted to get more specifics and I am sure glad we did. If your house has an attic have them look up there as well as the electric breaker boxes. I hope that you have breaker boxes and it is still not on the fuse system. If for any reason the electric system has been messed with or "updated" in anyway the grandfather clauses on the electricity has already been broken. If you do still have fuses you definitely want an electrician who is familiar with that way of doing things to tell you the exact shape of your electric situation. If it is still fuses and it is in good shape then you can probably wait to work on that because the grandfather clause has not been broken, but if you have breaker boxes then it has and you had better make sure that it is taken care of expediently. Best of Luck. We are just beginning, but do have some knowledge of what we are in for.


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Good luck. Yes, I would do again.


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RE: Buying a first old house

No Country Smile, I wasn't laying a hit on farmers. I have earned my living in agriculture now for a quarter century and both my kids are or have been farmers. Farmhouses of the 1800s and early 1900s were not usually the fine showy homes of the merchants and city dwellers, who even then had main gas and water, often electric or gaslight, often servants, and went home every night after working their trades or mercantiles and wanted a home to reflect their status.

Farmhouses, even those of more prosperous farmers (like the one I own) were more function over form. Repairs were usually done by the farmer himself, and it was within my lifetime when electric came to most of them, or indoor plumbing. I have used more than one privy and our current loo is part of the old parlour and was probably installed sometime in the late 1950s or early sixties. IOW most had to be retrofitted with modern amenities. Building materials came from the land. My beams holding up the floor are logs with the bark still on them, hewn on site. The house was built with bricks made on site and the roof was covered with wooden shingles cut on site.

I was also married to a farm boy at one time and very little was bought or contracted from off the land. They are the original do it your selfers. The bones of my house walls/foundation/floors/plaster are 200 years old and sturdy, but the 'quality' ends there and the rest was what was handy.


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RE: Buying a first old house

Congrats on the good home inspection! Also a huge congratulations on getting the old home loving bug. It's wonderful to have. I would happily buy my home again work and all. Although it's been a lot of work, it's been worth every moment.

My only caution would be to echo what others have said, remember that when something is over 100 years old, things will break. However also remember that if they are repaired correctly, they can last another 100 years. Those new homes you are seeing will most likely need lots more in another 20 years. Along with that, try to repair and keep everything you can. Old windows last much longer than replacement windows and you are better off putting in cheaper storms. Although your roof is new, a slate roof can be repaired and last forever. Thinks build now a days are not built to last.

Please keep us posted, and when you can, give us photos to look at! I'd love to see this home I'm routing for! Good luck


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Thanks for the advice and support :-) We're waiting for the appraisal now; we're so nervous! The first house we made an offer for fell through on the appraisal - they're going to have to do a short sale or come up with cash but weren't ready to face facts. Not the house I've talked about here...it was just as old, but had been lovingly renovated in the 90's then sold for a mint to the current owners when prices were high.--so, even though we know this house is the one, and that it should appraise for what we offered, we're still fidgety. Appraisal is due by Friday.

Hope that even makes sense...lol.

I'll post pictures once we close-I don't like most of the pictures on the listing. We almost didn't go look at the house due to them. But I've linked the street view; hope it works.

Here is a link that might be useful: The House


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That's a lovely setting. But, the house lovingly restored...that's the one you said fell through? Who's going to have to do a short sale? The first house or this one?

I suspect this one has been added on to over the years. Is there cellar/basement under all of it or just a partial?


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Calliope--the house in the picture is the one we're buying. It was "updated" in the 1980s, but they didn't do too bad a job. They did the electric, plumbing, kitchen and baths, but kept the wood work, clawfoot tub and most of the wood floors. Prior to that, they added on a family room (1960s maybe?). We're not sure if the kitchen wing is newer than the rest--it may well be, but it's hard to tell from the basement as it extends under most of the house (except the family room) and looks to be the same age. I think our big initial projects will be the carriage house roof, big dead trees, and a sorry lack of electrical outlets where we want them.

The one that fell through was "lovingly restored"--they kept the period feel and documented the heck out of what they had done. They added a two story addition to the front, and you couldn't tell until you saw the "before" photos. The PO that did the restoration sold at a tidy profit. Unfortunately, the current owners are underwater and weren't willing to lower the price to the appraised value (which was fair based on what I've seen in the area). I can understand not wanting to take a loss, but I'm not sure who they think they'll find willing to buy on their terms in this economy.

Today's the day the appraisal is due on the one in the picture. Keep your fingers crossed for us :-D


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So I just thought I'd come update you all--we're finally closing tomorrow! Our walk through is tonight. I'm beside myself with excitement and just hoping it doesn't rain.

We have a few months left on our lease, so we plan to take it slow and do a little work on our "new" house before we move in--don't worry, nothing crazy. The wood floors in the back part of the house are painted 3 different colors (and the woodwork is painted to match) so we're either repainting or stripping them. There's also some wallpaper we want to take down, we want to replace the stove, and we need to add more electrical outlets in the bedroom. Oh, and add extra support to the garage stairs.

I want to leave the kitchen as it is right now (except the wall paper border and new stove) and live with it awhile. The cabinets are a cheery blue color that I think will grow on me once the walls are freshened up and I put up some new curtains--maybe gingham.


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RE: Buying a first old house

T, I hope the closing went well and you are now ready to show us some pictures!!!
Diane


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RE: Buying a first old house

Tricia,
Many congratulations on your new home. We closed on our old home...1920's..a couple of months ago. While all of our systems are updated, there is always something to do or fix around here...and we love every minute of it! We fall more and more in love with our home everyday. I know you will do the same...Enjoy!


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RE: Buying a first old house

thanks for the well wishes :-)

Closing went great, and we're in the process of cleaning and painting and packing. I have LOTS of pictures, which I've been sharing with everyone who will stand still long enough.

Here is a link that might be useful: Our


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RE: Buying a first old house

Tricia,

Nice looking house. I love the tall windows. Speaking of them, was the current kitchen an addition? I ask that because the windows are shorter, and when I look at the layout, the current DR is whispering 'entry hall, entry hall' to me :-)

I'm an old house lover too...trying to figure out which project to start on my 'new' 1925 farmhouse.

Good luck!


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I am so jealous! Your new home is amazing and beautiful. I can't believe what a gem you got. I can see why you have reservations about the blue. I would probably want to paint it an antique white. My mom would be in heaven though. She loves blue, especially in her kitchen. It looks like the PO's did a lot of work on the home. Enjoy, take your time and live with it for a while. It will tell you what changes to make. I have found that all homes speak to you, some louder than others.

Enjoy your home and relish in the new home feeling so when something does come up and you need to do the work, it will be a work of love.


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RE: Buying a first old house

Thanks for the well wishes!

We're not sure which part of the house is newer, but we think it's the two story wing that's new; partly because of the way the stairs are, and some tell-tell signs in the wood floors. Looking at the floors, the one story wing has skinny boards all running parallel to the front. The two story wing has wider, lighter floor boards running perpendicular.

It also looks like what is now the family room was once at least two smaller rooms-there's a dip in the flooring that runs across the room where it looks like an internal wall might have been removed.

So far we've found a gap in the foundation that's letting in a bit of water, and the cabinet under the kitchen sink has water damage. And there's a ground hog living under our deck. Oh, and our queen box spring won't fit up the stairs, so we had to buy a split one.

On the plus side, the robin family that lives on the front porch has grown up and flown off (they were so cute!). And the wall paper in our his/hers offices is coming off easily, and the plaster behind it is in good shape. And the geraniums have bloomed.


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