Charm, Character, and Potential Money Pit: Tips on Buying an Old House
For some buyers, it’s hard not to fall in love with the special charm and character that old houses offer such as gabled roofs, hardwood floors, crown moldings, and more. Old homes can also be attractive as affordable fixer-uppers and charming B&B establishments with their unique architecture and Old World craftsmanship rarely found in newer homes. These homes often feature plastered walls, leaded glass windows, and original (antique) chandeliers and light fixtures. As attractive as the property may be, it’s important to consult the experts and be aware of some common problems. No buyer wants to discover that beneath the surface of their dream home lays a dilapidated wreck!
One of the most important aspects of any home is the foundation. This is even more important in older homes for two reasons. First, a serious problem called “sulphate attack” can occur as a result of a chemical reaction between the soil and the concrete causing the foundation to crack and crumble. Sulphates occur naturally in the soil and may also build up from lawn fertilizer over the years. Modern foundation concrete is formulated to resist sulphate attack. The second concern with older homes is that the centre beam of the home can begin to sink. The result can be a sagging roof, bowed walls and sloping floors. The remedy for both these problems is expensive and would require jacking up the house to replace the foundation and shore up the centre beam. The cost of these renovations can range from several thousand dollars to $50,000 depending on the size of the home.
Taking a tour of an older property after dark can be an illuminating experience! It’s a great way to find out if there are obvious problems with the state of the electrical and lighting system of the home. Do the lights flicker? Is the current steady or do the lights fluctuate between bright and dull? Is there adequate lighting in the home? Any such problems could indicate faulty wiring or an overloaded circuit. Even if you don’t find any problems, it’s important to have the wiring carefully inspected by a qualified home inspector or an electrician.
Many homes built or renovated from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s used aluminum wiring, which was less expensive than copper wire. Unfortunately, many homeowners discovered over time that aluminum wiring posed a serious fire hazard. Ask your inspector to check for aluminum wiring and, if necessary, factor the cost of rewiring into your offer price.
Also consider whether there are enough outlets in the home to suit the needs of a modern household. Ask your home inspector or electrician if it is possible to safely install more outlets and to run a number of devices at once such as a television, computer, stove, etc.
Most insurance companies now refuse to cover water damage caused by leaks in a home with galvanized pipes. These pipes rust out sooner or later.
Lead paint is common in older homes. Lead was used as a white pigment in paint until the mid-1950s. Some paints contained as much as 50 percent lead by weight in the dried paint. In 1976, the federal government passed regulations limiting the amount of lead in interior paint to 0.5 percent by weight (exterior paints may contain more lead). Unfortunately, the affects of this toxic metal on adults and particularly children didn’t end in the 1970s; many old buildings still contain lead paint.
If you are planning to strip the paint in an old home, call in a professional renovation firm or use lead-safe dust masks and goggles. Wear long pants and shirts when working and wash your face and hands thoroughly before eating. Children and pregnant women should not be in the home during renovations. In some cases, new paint has been applied over the old lead paint, in which case, you may not need to remove the old paint.
A home inspector and/or an environmental renovation company should be able to tell you if the paint in a prospective home will be a problem. You can also use home test kits available at many paint, hardware, and home centre stores. To use these kits you would apply a chemical to the paint then look for a colour change, indicating the presence of lead. According to the National Research Council Canada, the most dependable method of detecting lead-based paint is to have a sample analyzed by a commercial testing laboratory. Several samples will have to be taken from different parts of the house. The most reliable laboratories are those certified by the Standards Council of Canada or the Canadian Association for Environmental Analytical Laboratories.
This naturally-occurring mineral makes a very effective fire- and heat-resistant material but unfortunately, in the mid-1970s doctors discovered that asbestos caused lung disease. The tiny particles of this mineral are inhaled deep into the lungs and over a period of years begin to damage the tissues. In old homes, asbestos was used in carpet underlay, textured paints, roofing felt, electrical wiring insulation, acoustic ceiling material, and insulation. Your home inspector can let you know if you have asbestos or you may wish to consult an environmental assessment firm.
Finally, homes are a lot like people—the years eventually take a toll! Things begin to sag and slope. Rather than consulting a contractor, hire a structural engineer to examine your home. They can give you an unbiased assessment of the home’s structure. A structural engineering report is also more detailed than reports by home inspectors. Both types of inspectors should be used when purchasing an old home.
For some buyers, renovations are not a deterrent but a challenge, particularly if they can purchase the property at a good price. To determine the price you are willing to pay, add up the estimated costs to renovate the property based on a thorough assessment of the house. Next, subtract that from the home's anticipated market value after renovation, drawn from comparable real estate prices in the neighbourhood. Your real estate professional can help you determine the market values. Allow for an additional 5 percent for cost overruns and unforeseen problems plus inflation. What’s left should be your offer. If it’s in your price range, you may have the home of your dreams after all.