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5 Risks of Buying an Older Home
From temper tantrums resulting from hammered thumbs, to fire-starting dodgy wiring, to a comically collapsing staircase, the old house begins to fall apart around them, each structural failing increasing the pressure on the couple’s wallets, nerves, and marriage.
Yes, The Money Pit is hilariously hyperbolic, but as with all the best comedy, it is grounded in truth. Don’t get us wrong – we do love older homes and the character they can offer, but it’s important to remember that, while the idea of taking an older home with classic style and renovating to put your stamp on it can be persuasively romantic, the realities can be a little harsher.
Before you commit to that century-old country house with its rustic (or, should that be rusting) charm, consider these risks of buying an older home and why it could be an investment that returns nothing but trouble. Here are 5 reasons not to buy an older home.
1. Resident Health Hazards
You can move into a new home fairly confident that it adheres to modern-day health and safety standards, but back in the day, such standards were lacking, or completely nonexistent. Even if an old home has undergone cosmetic renovations and refurbishments, that’s not to say what’s in or on the walls has been updated.
It may surprise you to learn that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) only banned the use of asbestos in homes in 1989. In Canada, the manufacture of most asbestos-containing materials was banned in 1979, but asbestos products can still be found in buildings constructed into the early 1990s.
Today we know that, when airborne, the barbed fibres of asbestos can be inhaled and lodge themselves in the lining of the lungs, eventually leading to a deadly form of cancer. But before the health risks of asbestos became widely understood, the material was commonly used in home construction projects like your older house, favoured for its insulating and noise canceling characteristics, coupled with its exceptional flame retardant qualities.
In many cases, a previous occupant of an older home will have had any asbestos removed and replaced with a safer alternative, but that’s not always the case and caution should be taken. First thing to look for when buying an older home is if there is any asbestos present. If you find out there is, next to consider is the cost of removal which, as Tom Hanks could likely tell you, can be expensive.
Asbestos was commonly used as wrapping for pipes and insulation behind ceilings and walls in older houses, but it can hide in less conspicuous places as well. For instance, what you dismiss as age-weathered linoleum underfoot could in fact be asbestos-based tiling which, if worn and cracked, could release dangerous asbestos fibres into the air. Never assume – use caution and be sure to get an expert opinion.
Asbestos aside, is there any other potentially poisonous substance lurking in that charming older home? Well, just as concerning (and, these days, equally illegal) is lead-based paint. While the use of lead has gone the way of the dodo, it did used to be a pretty common component of paints used in home decoration. So if your old home’s paint job hasn’t been updated in decades, you’re going to need to be on the lookout for lead on them there walls, particularly if you are bringing children into the home. (Lead poses particular problems for growing children, but its health dangers extend to adults, too.)
“Hey,” you may be thinking, “lead paint may be an issue for someone buying a gothic mansion, but surely I don’t have to worry about it lurking in the pastels of my ‘80s Malibu beach house?” Well, actually, you do. Older homes built before 1978 could have lead paint, and painting over it doesn’t remove the threat. Again, diligence – and potential unwanted effort and expense – may be involved in removing the tainted paint.
2. Structural Integrity
Does the habitable apple of your eye have an endearing tilt? Whether obvious or not, age-related structural damage can be a serious and costly issue. Much like people, houses can gain a certain mature allure over time…it’s just that the hips and knees may not be what they once were.
In the case of an older home, those hips and knees are the structure and foundations. Cracks can appear in the perimeter foundation wall; corrosion, dry rot, or moisture damage may occur in pilings or concrete foundation supports; and dry rot or moisture damage can also be found in above-ground studs.
Meanwhile, damage to the sill plate – which the entire building rests on – is not uncommon with older homes. Over time, sills can become susceptible to water, insects and other external elements. Sill problems are particularly common when buying an antique home and rectifying such issues is rarely a quick or inexpensive fix; often requiring jacking up the home, which in itself carries the risk of further damage, such as cracking.
What to look for when buying an older home are signs of foundation or structural problems. Doors jamming or failing to latch, visible wall cracks that grow over time, cracked tiles or concrete floors, windows that are hard to open or stuck in place, and visibly uneven floors are some of the telltale signs your home on the hill may just be over it.
Of course, the crusty, musty old abode may just be keeping its issues a secret, waiting to reveal them after the deed is signed. That’s just one of the risks of buying an older home.
And what’s going on up above? When looking to put a roof over your head, probably best it’s not been there since roofs were invented.
Since it’s all the way up there, it can be easy to ignore the state of an old house’s roof, but unless you want to risk (deep breath) possible pest infestations, interior water damage, compromised insulation, falling shingles, crumbling roof cement, sagging gutters, moisture in your attic, and critters in your crawlspaces (phewf!) you better get on top of what’s going on atop your would-be home.
Look for telltale signs like moss and missing or patched-over shingles, but you’ll need expert inspection to give you the real down-low on your up-above. That will cost you, but not half as much as you’ll shell out if interior leaks start occurring on the regular. Water damage from persistent leaks can cost you tens of thousands of dollars to remedy and may not be covered by homeowners insurance. Heavens above!
Speaking of water, it’s not just the wet stuff falling from the skies you’ll need to think about when venturing into the deep waters of buying an older home– you’ll also need to think about that which is cascading from your faucets.
Well, well, well. Does your old home have one? Was it ever updated, or is it as old as the house it comes with? If you have a shallow-dug well, contaminants could be leeching into your drinking water. In fact, they could have been getting in there for a while. Not something to be taken lightly.
Then, there’s the plumbing. Just one pipe failure can be catastrophic for an old home, potentially flooding and ruining your most precious belongings, not to mention causing water damage to walls and floors that could run you a small fortune to remedy. In fact, such an event could put you out of the home altogether, creating a space that is simply uninhabitable. And the danger doesn’t end once the clean-up is done, with the threat of mold infestations remaining well into the future.
Before buying prime real estate in Atlantis, you’ll want to ask the seller how old the plumbing system is and get familiar with the materials used. Steel pipes can wear out in as little as 20 years, and while brass or copper pipes are typically good for 50 years or more, PEX – a flexible plastic tubing – is the preferred modern choice for its relative cost effectiveness and ease of installation, along with its superior resistance to freeze-related breakage.
One last word on water: Get to the root of the issue…literally. If the neighbourhood is home to a lot of mature trees, their roots can work their way over time into older drainage pipes underneath or next to the home’s foundation, bursting pipes and suckling on the nutrient-rich water within. Clogs, backups, and water damage to low-lying parts of the home can result. And remember: tree roots can grow real long underground, so that branched beast way across the street could be the culprit!
Read the blog post: Renovation Vs. Building New
3. Electrical Shocks
If your would-be old home was built in the age of oil lamps and candlelight, you could be in for some electrical angst. Old homes are lousy with half-baked, inconsistent electrical work and weren’t always wired with the myriad demands of today’s modern appliances and gizmos in mind.
HVAC systems, computers, mobile devices, dishwashers, clothes washers and dryers – these are all ways in which we depend upon electricity in the home today that were nonexistent years ago. When buying an older home, you’re going to need to make sure it can withstand the electrical demands you’ll be putting on it as a modern homeowner.
What to look for when buying an older home – especially if it’s more than 70 years old – is knob and tube wiring. Especially prevalent from the 1890s to the 1930s, this kind of wiring is a big concern for the modern homeowner, as it was never designed to withstand the capacity demands of modern power usage. Consisting of single-insulated copper conductors run through walls and ceilings, wiring of this type passed through drill-holes in studs and joists via porcelain insulating tubes (hence ‘tube’) and was supported on porcelain knob insulators (hence ‘knob’).
Knob and tube wiring became especially dangerous when homeowners began to replace blown fuses with fuses rated for higher currents, risking heat damage or fire. It is also fragile and easily damaged during renovations, or by pesky rodents having a chew on the wiring.
The biggest problem with knob and tube wiring? As long as it’s in your beloved older home, no insurer is gonna show you any love. Some will minimally ask that an electrician certifies it as safe, but most will insist that it be completely replaced and updated to modern-day standards. Yes, that means more money out of your pocket. You may even have trouble getting a mortgage when buying an older home with knob and tube wiring, so, again, buyer beware.
Another thing to look out for if you want to avoid an electrical shock (literal or monetary): Do your outlets have three holes, or just the two? If the answer is two, that just won’t do. It means the outlets are ungrounded and, quite apart from being dangerous, they won’t accommodate modern devices like computers and flat-screen TVs. If you’re not put off by all these electrical risks of buying an older home, better put an electrician on speed dial…and keep your pocketbook open.
Speaking of keeping your pocketbook open, if you’re buying an older home, maybe you’d be just as well handing the whole thing over, along with your life savings, vacation plans, and retirement aspirations. Older homes are not typically efficient homes, so be prepared to pony up for new insulation and windows, or continue paying the price for the rest of your days.
Single pane windows put the pain in energy efficiency. Frankly, they aren’t. Your AC and heating are going to need to work overtime to keep the temperature in your old house just right if your windows are underperforming, and an upgrade ain’t gonna come cheap.
Oh, and here’s one risk of buying an older home you may not have considered: Your modern appliances might not fit into the place! Common household items tended to be smaller in ye olden days, meaning your hulking great 4-door stainless-steel mega-fridge may not even fit through the front door, let alone nestle comfortably between countertops. Big sectional couch? 60-inch TV? You may have to set those up on the front lawn, dear, unless you want to pay to widen all those doorways (and stretch that pocketbook even further!)
4. Unwanted Houseguests
Oh, rats! No, seriously, rats! Or mice. Not forgetting, bugs. These critters just love an old home to hang out in and getting rid of them can be harder than ousting the in-laws on a long weekend! Some of these little rogues are no more than a pain to live with, while others bring about the more sinister threats of disease and decay.
If you have termites, then you have a houseguest that is eating you out of house and home…literally! It’s much more common to find termites and other insects in older homes, and the damage they cause can run much deeper than is revealed at first glance, making thorough inspection a must. Woodboring powderpost beetles are another pest that can cause a lot of damage to an old home over time.
That covers nuisances of the scuttling and scurrying kind, but the stagnant scourge of mould and mildew can be just as worrisome. Where does mold and mildew like to grow? Where excessive moisture occurs over time. Where does excessive moisture often occur over time? In that older home you’re about to bankrupt yourself with.
While most common in the basements and bathrooms of wet-climate homes, moisture-related microorganisms can grow anywhere. Most worryingly, a lot of this growth can occur inside walls, meaning you could walk through an entire old home and sign on the dotted line without even realizing the place is infested with the stuff.
Meh – a little mold or mildew can’t do much harm, right? Sure, a small amount of growth is to be expected, but it can quickly get out of control and then, look out. Allergies and respiratory problems can be exacerbated in kids and grown-ups alike. For wee babies and older folks, the danger can be life-threatening, resulting in serious infections.
What you might not know is that mold also has a destructive impact on its host surface, eating away at wood, drywall, grout and other substances. Uninhibited mold growth can cause structural issues and render an old house uninhabitable.
5. Insane Insurance Costs
Insurance: Can’t live without it, and, if you’re buying an old home, you may not be able to live with what it is going to cost you. One thing’s for sure – if you’re going down the garden path that leads to an older home, you’ll want to factor the cost of homeowners insurance into the overall financial bucket you’re jumping into. (Kind of like an ice bucket, perhaps?)
It’s really insurance 101: the greater the risk, the higher the premium. Savvy insurers (are there any other kind?) know only too well the risks of buying an older home, and that they carry with them a greater chance of an event that will necessitate an insurance pay-out. The fire hazards that come with aged wiring; the possibility of decades-old piping giving way and gushing water through the property; crumbling concrete, rotting wood, and pricey structural problems…This all adds up to more risk for the insurer, which means higher premiums for the would-be homeowner.
Read the blog post: Is Building A Home A Good Investment?
Same Old Conclusion
While the risks of buying an old house are many, the attraction is understandable. Factors like character, charm, location, and plain old personal taste can’t be accounted for and may trump even the most convincing argument for buying new or building your own home. But what doesn’t seem to be in doubt is that, when looking at your home – the largest purchase most people will make in their lives – from an investment standpoint, it’s hard to make a case for an older home with its many potential problems.
When Tom and Shelley’s new old home began crumbling around them in The Money Pit, they tried to stay positive, roll up their sleeves, and do the dirty work to make their older house a home. Ultimately, you’ll need to ask yourself, ‘Am I really ready to give up all that spare time and put the work in?’ Or, ‘Am I really ready to give up all that money that I could be spending on other things?’
DIY and home renovations may have been glamourized by reality TV shows, but in actual reality, they are costly, time consuming, and involve hard manual labour – not to mention the kinds of skills to do certain things right that you just aren’t going to be able to learn on YouTube. What you may visualize as a fun way to strengthen your relationship and build something together could in fact have the opposite effect, causing frustration, financial strain, and possible resentment.
Consider the above things to look for when buying an older home before crossing that threshold. Be thorough with your inspections, get expert advice, do your research, and make sure you really understand all the risks of buying an older home. Oh, and be sure to factor in the costs that lie ahead (as best you can predict them) when agreeing on a price for this old house.
The pitfalls of buying an older home: Hilarious until they happen to you! Watch 'The Money Pit' on Netflix.
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