6 Questions to Ask When Buying an Old House

By Scott Sidler • May 27, 2013

Photo Courtesy: www.janrutaelectric.com
Photo Courtesy: www.janrutaelectric.com

Buying a house is a big decision. It’s likely the largest purchase you’ll make in your lifetime. And while there are plenty of questions you should ask about any new home purchase, buying an old house requires a different set of questions.

No one wants to buy a lemon, so before you fall too deeply in love, you need to do your due diligence. Here are six big things you need to ask before signing on the dotted line.

 

Question #1 How old is the plumbing?

If you’re buying a house from the early 20th-century, you have a good chance of finding the original plumbing, and it’s likely ready for retirement. Even the finest plumbing can’t last much more than 80-100 years before needing to be replaced. If it is the original copper, galvanized steel, cast iron or other similar material, don’t panic.

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Re-piping a house is a fairly straight forward job for any plumber. The price can vary widely depending on the size of the house and your location, but expect to pay somewhere between $3,000 and $6,000 for the average sized old house. If that is within your budget then there’s no red flag here.

Question #2 What is the electrical like?

Old house electrical systems can often be a rat’s nest of wires and splices as the occupant’s electrical needs have grown over the years. Depending on the age of your old house, electricity may have even been a later addition.

You may have several generations of electrical components that aren’t as compatible as you would like. Or someone may have come along and completely upgraded the electrical system within the last decade. The point is, you need to know what’s hiding in the walls.

 

Question #3 Is there asbestos?

While asbestos is a dangerous element to have in your home, the real danger comes from asbestos that is old and worn out. Crumbling pipe and duct insulation, worn out asbestos roofing or siding that is in disrepair, chipping vinyl tiles (some of which may contain asbestos) are all something to watch out for. But if you’re looking at an old house with asbestos shingle siding that is painted and in great shape I wouldn’t worry one bit.

If asbestos is in good shape, it’s not a hazard. Only when it is disturbed by renovating, cutting, sanding, etc. and the dust is released is there a significant threat.

Asbestos remediation is expensive and can be a major pain. If you have a suspicion about asbestos in the house, have a sample sent to a local lab for testing.

 

Question #4 What about termites?

Termites love wood. Most old houses are made of…wood. Termites are a big problem here in the warm south, but they are an issue to consider anywhere in the country. So are carpenter ants and any other wood destroying organism.

Most of the time, it takes years for termites to do any significant damage. But since an old house has been around for decades, they’ve had plenty of time to eat through major portions of the house if they have been left unchecked.

Have a thorough inspection done prior to closing and get a termite bond with the exterminator to protect yourself in the future.

Question #5 What condition is the HVAC in?

Heating, ventilation, air-conditioning is the most expensive mechanical component of your home. Most homes today run on electricity, natural gas or heating oil, but old homes may have some very old and very unique systems in place.

You may not even have air-conditioning in that old house. Learning how old and efficient your heater is can determine if your utility bills will be $80 a month or $600. Check out the stats on this major piece of the puzzle first.

 

Question #6 Do I have a cash reserve?

Even when you do your due diligence, there will inevitably be something unexpected that comes up. A new roof, a broken heater in the coldest winter on record (that’s what happened to me!) or a water heater that blows.

Murphy happens to the best of us and the only way to make sure he stays at bay is by having a cash reserve or emergency fund of several thousand dollars.

Old houses break and need repair. Some more than others. So, before you sign up for the absolutely amazing journey that it is to own one of these pieces of history, make sure you are ready.

Do your homework before you purchase. Even if all of these issues show up in some form with your potential purchase, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy. Old houses need brave folks willing to fix them up and bring them back to life. You never know, that old house might be waiting for someone just like you!

 

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14 thoughts on “6 Questions to Ask When Buying an Old House”

  1. I will never trust an inspection report again. Bring in a plumber, electrician, HVAC, roofer, etc. It does not mean the plumbing is okay just because it is working. Inspection reports in NJ, at least, are superficial. By bringing in professionals in each domain, you will at least have a ballpark figure and a more knowledgeable opinion to allow a more realistic negotiation.

  2. Hi Scott, I’m in the process of buying a craftsman home 1916. I’ve had inspections done and there were several items noted that need repairs. Termites, roof work, some asbestos ducts, pool work, minor electrical, potential lead, but the house is absolutely beautiful. I would love to send you a copy of the inspection report for you to take a quick glance at the summarized potion to get your feedback. Can I email you a copy? Thanks in advance.

  3. Hello I came across your blog doing some research on purchasing a redone home from 1906. The electrical is all brand new same with sewage line also hvac and hot water heater are brand new.

    We have a few concerns though u can see where water is leaking through the foundation and there are some puddles on the basement floor, how concerned should we be. Its the original foundation. The home is locaTed in wv
    also the floor is not flat and the ceiling in some places are not level.

    Are these issues things that are red flags to stay away from this home or normal with the age of the home. We are first time home buyers any advice would be very appreciated. Thank you

    1. Amanda, to me those sounds like potential issues. Water through a foundation is never a good sign. The other two issues are something to look into as well. Before going forward I would get a good home inspector to look the place over thoroughly and maybe have a couple contractors who specialize in older homes in your area come give you their opinion. That what I would do if I was in your shoes.

    2. Amanda, contact a company that specialized in basement waterproofing and remediation. They will usually give you an inspection and quote for no charge. I’m in SW PA and used Keystone Basement Systems to remediate leakage from a cracked foundation wall that used to create a small river from the wall to the floor drain in the basement of my 1930 Craftsman bungalow. For under $4000 they installed 40′ of French drains along the inside wall, a sump pump with automated discharge to the yard plus vinyl “weep wall” over the entire front basement wall. Job took them only a day and now my basement is completely dry. If you are in northern WV, near the PA border, they may cover your area. Get a couple of quotes.

      In terms of level floors and ceilings, that is common in older homes due to settling over time (all of my houses have been pre-1931). It’s only a problem if you see serious cracks in the plaster or cracked, broken or missing framing in the basement. A structural engineer who specializes in homes could give you the best assessment — you would need to pay for that. Sometimes homes with slight sagging can be leveled using adjustable steel columns under the main beams, with gradual jacking over time.

      Many things that scare people off from older homes can actually be remediated relatively inexpensively. In fact one of the reasons I prefer older homes is that the old growth lumber that was used to build them is denser, stronger and usually dimensionally larger than the modern plantation grown soft pine that is used for newer construction.

  4. Hi Scott, we are in the process of buying a 1906 home also (In Washington state) and although I enjoy fixing things up and have a desire to get this house back in shape, my wife and I are pretty inexperienced in home remodels. So, I’ll likely be spending many more hours reading your posts and watching your youtube channel.

    One quick question: If the knob and tube is not in bad shape, do we really need to replace it right away? And how important is it that about 6 or 8 outlets on the first floor aren’t grounded? I hear mixed things from electricians, contractors, and inspectors.

    Thank you so much for creating this website!

    1. Joel, glad to have you as a new reader! There’s lots of help for you here. As for the knob and tube, it may not look in bad shape, but the danger may still be there. More than an inspector I would have a licensed electrician check it out and make sure it is safe.
      As for ungrounded outlets, it’s not the end of the world. I have some in my own house. Grounded are safer, but as long as the wire insulation and everything else is in good shape I wouldn’t worry too much about the grounded outlets until you’re ready to redo the electric in the house.

  5. I have a question about my 1930 bungalow. I have never seen anything like this, but the bathroom leads through it to the second floor. There is a door! Have you ever seen a floor plan like this before? I do think the upstairs bedrooms were to be expandables, but they are also walk throughs w/o closets. Almost a finished attic! My bathroom has a claw bathtub, nice one too.

    1. Jan, never seen that one but I have come across the stairs to the basement going through the bathroom. It’s possible the bathroom was added later, but it wouldn’t be unheard of to have a bathroom with stairs to the upstairs bedrooms in it. Gotta love the interesting things you can find in an old house!

  6. I found your blog a few nights ago when I was looking into replacing or restoring old windows. Your blog is superb! My husband and I are in the process of buying a 1906 home in Oregon and I’ve already read so many of your posts. Thank you for the wealth of information and I look forward to more! 🙂

    Toni

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