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6 Myths About Old Houses

6 myths about old houses

Old houses get a bad wrap. There are dozens of myths about old houses and I think it’s time we set the record straight.

In a technology driven world, our culture is in love with the newest gadget. This makes sense because a 10-year old computer is largely useless by todays standards and something 20 years old is a forgotten relic that can barely boot up.

This relentless drive for the newest and best products has spread across the landscape of all our buying habits including housing. This has resulted in a lot of misconceptions and myths about old houses that I would like to clear up.

First, just because something is old doesn’t make it bad. In fact, when it comes to most things other than technology and bananas, older items are better. It’s not good because it’s old, it’s old because it’s good. That’s what we’ll discuss in the these 6 myths about old houses.

1. Old Houses Have Drafty Windows

Those cursed drafty windows will make you shiver in the winter and throw hundreds of dollars out the window trying to heat your house right? Wrong. Age is not a determination of a drafty window. A drafty window is a drafty window no matter what the age of the house.

Most historic windows I come across have been caulked and painted shut for decades, yet people tell me all the time that their windows are drafty. Not when it’s hermetically sealed with decades of caulk and paint it isn’t.

Maybe you are one of those that actually have drafty windows in your old house. If that’s the case, you can fix those drafty windows with simple and inexpensive options like installing weatherstripping or a storm window (see the video below to build your own DIY storms easily). These upgrades can up the efficiency of your window to exceed the current energy codes. Don’t believe me read this article about testing of air tightness on historic windows.

All this to say that having an old house doesn’t mean you have drafty windows, and if you do there are very inexpensive and simple ways to resolve that issue without breaking the bank.

2. Old Houses Have More Issues With Rot

The thinking on this myth goes like this: old houses are made of wood and wood rots; therefore old houses have more issues with rot. While it is true that old houses are more often made of wood in America, though there are plenty of brick and stone examples, the wood they are made with is some of the most rot-resistant wood on the planet.

Houses built before the 1940s are largely built with old-growth lumber from the vast virgin forests that covered the continent. This old-growth lumber is exponentially harder, more rot-resistant, more stable, and stronger than anything available at the lumberyard today.

That means that if you stack a wood house from 1900 up against a wood house from 2000, the new house will rot and be eaten by wood destroying organisms like termites long before the old house suffers even a trace of damage.

3. Old Houses Have Dangerous Lead Paint

If your house was built before 1978 then you have the chance of lead paint being present. This doesn’t mean it is dangerous. Living in Florida I like to compare lead paint to alligators. Sure it is there and it is a potential danger, but if you don’t mess with it then it usually won’t bother you.

How To: Test for Lead Paint
A positive test for lead paint

Lead paint buried beneath layers of non-lead paint is only an issue if you are doing a renovation and plan to disturb the lead paint doing things like demo, sanding, scraping, cutting, etc. If you don’t disturb the paint and it is in good repair then it poses little hazard.

The most common areas to have lead paint are around windows, doors, and other painted woodwork. If the paint is peeling or chipping it should be dealt with using the practices outlined in my previous post How To: Lead Safe Work Practices. If it’s not peeling or in disrepair let sleeping dogs lie.

4. Old Houses Are Not Energy Efficient

This myth is a bit deceptive because although it is true by today’s standards it is not comparing things apples to apples. It’s like saying a Porsche is faster than a pick up truck, therefore the Porsche is better. Faster maybe, but not better necessarily.

Old houses were built with a different energy efficiency in mind and depending on the climate you live in that may take many different forms. Before the Thermostat Age houses had to be built with clever passive cooling and heating techniques in mind that most people don’t use anymore even though they are still extremely effective.

Our laziness to just turn the thermostat down another degree rather than use some of these free passive ways to cool or heat your house doesn’t mean the house is an energy hog. It means you’re not taking advantage of old fashioned systems that can still work today.

I detail a bunch of these passive cooling systems in my post 9 Ways Houses Kept Cool Before AC but I’ll share a couple examples here.

awnings on house
Awnings keep houses cooler in the summer.

Awnings were installed on windows left and right back before AC. The awning kept the high summer sun out of the window keeping things much cooler, but let the lower winter sun in to warm things. So simple and it is a completely passive system.

How about keeping warm in the winter? Large central fireplaces were designed in houses not so you could light a fire for your Christmas party decor but to warm the whole house overnight. Light a roaring fire in the evening and then extinguish it before going to sleep and the brick of the chimney act like a large thermal mass in the center of the house radiating the retained heat throughout the night keeping you warm without the furnace having to do as much work.

The truth is that there are ways to do make your house energy efficiency if you care to. Apathy does not create an excuse to say that old houses are inefficient, but action can make that old house one of the most energy efficient houses on the block and help to dispel yet another of the myths about old houses.

Your old house was designed to be efficient with systems that are largely passive rather than to be efficient with the mechanical heating and cooling popular today.

5. Old Houses are Expensive to Maintain

This myth is another slight of hand. It’s true that maintenance bills can be big on old houses, but the reason is not because the house is old, it’s because of deferred maintenance.

Many times we neglect to do the proper maintenance on our houses, and if you compound this over decades or centuries it can cause costly repairs. An old house that has been restored with it’s mechanicals updated actually costs surprisingly little in maintenance on an annual basis compared to a newer house. I know that’s a bold claim, but let me lay it out for you below.

Let’s use windows as an example. The lifespan of a historic wood windows goes centuries rather than a couple decades like a replacement window. Every year that historic window will need some maintenance. That newer vinyl window won’t need this annual maintenance so that’s cheaper, right? Wrong.

Let’s say you spend $15 per year (this is what my company charges for this service) for 20 years maintaining that wood window which comes to $300. In 20 years that double-pane vinyl window will likely need replacement after it fogs up and the seals fail so you’ll spend, on the low side, $600 per window to replace it. Let’s keep going and see what that looks like over the course of 100 years and see which window is more expensive to maintain.

YearsWoodVinyl
20$300$600
40$300$600
60$1,000$600
80$300$600
100$300$600
Totals$2,200$3,000
Cost of maintaining wood windows vs. replacement windows

Even with a more expensive and thorough restoration of the wood window every 60 years it’s still cheaper to own an old wood window than a new vinyl window.

In the end, it’s true that catching up on deferred maintenance is expensive, but once things have been caught back up to where they should be on any house it’s just another one of the myths about old houses that they are more expensive to maintain.

6. Old Houses Have Too Many Restrictions

This one really depends on your individual house. For example, houses listed on the National Register of Historic Places have absolutely no restrictions placed on them contrary to popular beliefs. You can paint it any color you want, remodel it however you want, or even tear it down with no recourse.

Local historic districts usually place most restrictions on an old house and even those depend on where the house is located. If your old house falls within a local historic district or is a local landmark then there will be restrictions on what you can do with the house. If it is outside one of these districts then there won’t be any restrictions.

In fact, old houses within local historic districts have similar restrictions on things like exterior additions and paint colors to most suburban HOAs. Keep that mind so we’re comparing fairly here.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the level of restrictions on historic districts varies wildly. Just because you had a bad experience with one district doesn’t mean the next one will be the same.

In the Central Florida area where I work on old houses there are districts that regulate paints colors and some that don’t care what color you choose. One district will let you replace historic windows for any reason, another will make you put the historic windows back if you replaced without permission no matter how burdensome the cost to you. One district regulates all sides of the house and another only cares about what is visible from the street.

If you are buying an old house check out the local restrictions that may or may not affect your house, don’t just assume it will be a burden.

One other little tidbit to know is that I have yet to find a historic district that regulates what you do inside the house. They only care what happens on the outside of the house so don’t let another one of these myths about old houses scare you away from owning an old house.

So, now that you’ve seen my top 6 myths about old houses and heard my explanations do you still believe any of them? If you have other myths or disagree with my conclusions please let me know in the comments below. I’d love hear your thoughts!

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1 thought on “6 Myths About Old Houses

  1. We owned an old wood/stucco building in San Clemente for 30 years. The building was built in 1929. My thoughts on these “Myths”.

    1. Windows were a major problem for us. South facing windows and a lot of other windows had been replaced in about 1975. The replacement windows were poorly built. The original mortise and tenon windows were built much better. No matter what modern windows would have been more reliable, they would have sealed much better and they would have been double paned. From our perspective #1 was not a myth but maybe under some circumstances you are right. But if you buy an old building with poorly built windows you’re not going to see it as a myth.
    2. Rot. We had a lot of problems with rot in the area of showers. We ended up replacing all the showers that had already been replaced poorly by previous workers. We had a lot of problems with rafter tail rot. A great deal of the problem here was a drip edge had not been installed. I don’t believe they existed in 1929 for roofs. I understand that sometimes in modern houses rot can be a problem when the insulation leads to moisture problems because the walls don’t breath correctly. Maybe #2 is a wash.
    3. Lead Paint. I agree completely here. I don’t think it’s a good idea to put lead in paint but the threat is massively exaggerated. Most of the excess lead in children came from lead that was put in gasoline. However lead in old pipes is bad. Even lead used in the solder before 1978 is not good IMO.
    4. Energy efficiency
    Old houses are much worse unless major upgrades have been done. In California, particularly in areas near the ocean the climate is mild enough that this isn’t a very big deal. I would see it as a major comfort and money issue in colder or hotter climates.
    5. Old houses are expensive to maintain
    This is at least partially true. ABS drain pipes are vastly more reliable than cast iron. PEX or copper are vastly more reliable than galvanized iron pipe. Modern electrical techniques are more reliable than older techniques. Older houses can have older systems that need extra work to replace because the older systems are no longer available. It is also true that older houses are farther into the maintenance cycle. When you buy a new house everything is new so presumably no major repair for at least 15 years. Eventually though, you get into a mode where every year there is something that needs repair regardless of how old the building is.
    6. Planning restrictions
    Our building was in an historic district and doing work on the outside cost more because of that, but there were advantages. I liked maintaining the integrity of the old building and the planning department helped with suggestions and motivation to allow me to do that.

    Overall thoughts
    Buying an old building is more risky than buying a new one. I had no idea about all the issues we would face when we bought ours. Building inspections are almost useless on older building since they mostly don’t warn you about major problematic areas. They are limited to telling you about stuff that needs immediate fixing which can be minor compared to major work that can be needed within the next few years. The key is what I call the three S’s structure, systems and surfaces. Structure is the most important, look for sagging floors, out of code work, cracked walls, land that drains back into the house, etc. Systems. Heating, hot water, cooling, water, drain, gas, electric, etc. Understand what technologies were used and when they were upgraded. Surfaces. Do what you can to not be too worried about this. They can be in bad shape but problems with them are easy to see and you can easily use problems with surfaces as a bargaining point when you buy the building.

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