On one side you have the old house lovers who will tell you, with complete confidence, that old houses are built better than any new house today. And on the other side you have the new house people who think buying an old house is the height of insanity because just like Tom Hanks and Shelley Long you’re just asking for a wallet draining, marriage killing, money pit to throw your savings into. Who’s right?
In this post, I’ll try to layout the facts on both sides to settle the argument (hopefully) once and for all. Read on and tell me if I’ve convinced you of anything or now you’re just dug in on your side even more than before.
Pros of Old Houses
There are some good reasons why old houses deserve the title. Here’s three reasons I believe old houses are built better, but I’m sure you can add more.
With just a little bit of research it’s easy to discover that old houses were built with materials that we simply don’t have access to today. Things like old-growth wood which can be 2-3 times are stronger, more stable, and more rot-resistant than the lumber used in new houses today combined with traditional lime plaster that is stronger, provides better sound and energy insulation, and pulls CO2 from the air, and the old houses folks can laugh all the way to bank knowing that their homes are made of stuff new house owners can only dream of affording.
Home construction has changed a lot over the last century. Many old houses that were built poorly have failed or been torn down so we are left with a bit of survivor bias when it comes to old houses. Only the strongest have survived.
That means if you have a very old house the chances are excellent that you have one of the best old houses. It has stood the test of time and proven its resilience for the decades or centuries, and so there stands an excellent chance it will continue to do so for centuries longer.
In an age where there weren’t major publicly traded corporations building homes, but rather a local army of individual builders, the homes built prior to WWII were far more unique and varied than homes today.
Neighborhoods were planned, but the builders in those neighborhoods were so varied that they left a neighborhood with very few similar houses in most cases. That variety means each old house is far more unique than any new house, other than perhaps the custom high end homes only the ultra-wealthy can afford.
Cons of Old Houses
Living in an old house is not always rainbows and butterflies. They have their issues and before we move on to new houses we have to address some of those issues here.
This one gets thrown around a lot and it makes sense. If you have an old house that has been throughly “remuddled” it can leave a bad impression, but abuse doesn’t rule out proper use.
Is it really the fault of an old house that is has been abused and neglected by previous owners? Wouldn’t the same be true for a new house in 40-50 years. So, I think we can check this one off the list.
Outdated Technologies & Materials
While old houses do have premium building materials like I mentioned earlier not everything is amazing and many of these are outdated. Things like cloth wiring and knob & tube wiring can be dangerous. Lead paint and asbestos are also not on my Christmas list, but are a reality in almost any house built before 1978.
I think it’s fair to say that these things, while they come in varying quantities, are a big drawback of old houses. Of course, you can have almost all of these items resolved through renovations if you care to.
Too Many Unknowns
If your house was built before there was a local building code in your town then there is a good chance the builder just did whatever he wanted to. The houses built by bad builders likely fell down or rotted away, but the good builders (or the lucky ones) left us houses that have stood the test of time.
But what’s inside those walls? God only knows. What’s the load rating for that roof? No idea. Is the wiring up to code everywhere? Ummmm. While these old houses have lasted for a long time there are a lot of unknowns that can bust a budget when it comes to old houses and that deserves accounting for.
Pros of New Houses
New houses certainly have their share of benefits that can’t go unaccounted for. So, let’s dive in and see where things shake out.
Yes, new houses are built to much stricter energy standards than old houses. There is a major focus on indoor air quality, U-factors, SHGC, and wealth of other measures that have been tested and adopted since the 1970s. So, new houses get the advantage here. Well played new houses, well played.
It’s not just energy effciency that wins on new houses but also the technologies that make the houses safer for its occupants. No more lead paint or asbestos. Grounded wiring with less chance of burning your house down or electrocuting you. Ventilation systems that are just a tad better than simply opening a window. Attic insulation that isn’t corn cobs? Yum!
New houses may not win on building materials but for technologies this is a clear win. But again, a lot of these technologies that come standard with a new house can be retrofit onto old houses without too much drama.
Old houses were built with a specific layout in mind that worked for the people who originally lived in them. There were dived into rooms with specific purposes like the parlor or living room.
Today, society craves an open floor plan where the kitchen and living areas are all one space. People in the 1920s would have had a conniption fit if guests saw their kitchen, today we expect to hang out there. This one is a win for new houses if you like an open floor plan, but actually a negative if you like the old floorplan so this could go either way depending on the person.
Cons of New Houses
Running a mobile wood rot business I can tell you that I do far more wood rot repair on homes built after 1970 than on homes built before that time. While materials have improved in the last 20 years it is widely agreed that the worst period for home building in terms of lowest quality of building materials was from the 1950s through the 1980s.
Many new homes have major failures in just a few years because of poor workmanship and poor materials. Instead of building a house for generations like with old houses, new houses are built as starter homes that should last just fine for a couple decades before they start wearing out.
Cookie Cutter Design
Suburban sprawl is a real thing and when you see neighborhoods with hundreds of homes and only 4-6 different designs the monotony is almost unbearable.
When an industry changes from custom building to assembly line style manufacturing you are guaranteed to loose the uniqueness it once had and that has clearly happened with new homes and neighborhoods today.
Lack of Repairability
You can fix almost anything on an old house, but on a new house? Rarely can something be repaired. Windows fog and need to be replaced. Vinyl siding breaks (or melts!) and needs replacement. In the replacement generation you have simply lost the ability to repair things yourself even if you wanted to and that is major cost issue for owners of new houses versus old house owners who have the option to repair.
The Final Outcome
So, who wins? Are old houses built better? There is no precise score here, but I can give you my thoughts and you can argue with me in the comments if you want to. I think the old houses take it.
They have proven their supremacy over decades or centuries and most of their issues can be resolved with a renovation by a caring homeowner. Their repairability and uniqueness can’t be understated because those are baked into the cake and no new house can win that argument. So do you agree or disagree?
Founder & Editor-in-Chief
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.