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.
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!
Founder & Senior Editor
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.