Be Charmed, but Be Prepared
Construction materials and building codes have come a long way over the past few decades, which means that today's houses are more efficient than ever. But to some observers, they can seem a little cookie-cutter in appearance. The houses of yesteryear, on the other hand, were custom crafted and graced with distinctive details, but they lack some of the modern conveniences we've come to expect, and they often have quirky traits that potential buyers should be prepared to contend with.
Property Line Disputes
Property lines in historic neighborhoods are often jumbled, which means that the pretty picket fence you thought was in your yard might not be after all. Mix-ups sometimes have their roots in long-forgotten handshake agreements between neighbors that resulted in a garage situated a few feet over the property line, or a tree that straddles the line. Tread carefully, particularly if you're dealing with a property line irregularity that's been the norm for a long time. Unless you’re prepared to go to court to clear up the confusion, the best option may be to just go with the flow.
When selling a house, sellers have to disclose the presence of asbestos only if they know it’s in the home—they’re not required to have the entire house tested. If the house was built before 1970, however, there’s a good chance it contains asbestos in the form of pipe insulation, flooring tiles, or construction materials, so it’s a good idea to bone up on EPA recommendations for dealing with asbestos.
As with asbestos, home sellers don’t have to test for lead-based paint; they have to disclose only whether they are personally aware of its presence. In homes built before 1978, approach all paint as though it is lead-based. During remodeling, homeowners should follow the EPA's lead-safe guidelines, which include such precautions as limiting the amount of dust generated and painting over painted woodwork rather than trying to remove the old paint.
Low Water Pressure
Because older houses often had only one bathroom and lacked modern, water-hogging conveniences like dishwashers and washing machines, water supply lines—both within the house and in the neighborhood—didn’t have to be as large as today’s water lines. In some historic neighborhoods (and houses), undersized water lines have already been upgraded, but if these improvements haven't yet hit your neighborhood, you should expect low water pressure.
Wood-framed windows with real divided lights, stained-glass sidelights, quirky ovals, quarter-rounds—windows play a large part in an older home's charm. But unlike modern windows, these older models tend to be single-paned and to sit loosely in their frames, making them drafty energy-wasters. If you don’t want to replace the old windows, you can have them restored to improve their looks and performance, or you can install storm windows on the outside to reduce chilly drafts.
Being awakened in the middle of the night by creaks and groans doesn’t mean you bought a haunted house. It just means the builders of yesteryear didn’t take the noise-reducing steps that are common today. Old houses are notorious for making noises—some startlingly loud—as their structures warm up and expand during the day and then cool off and contract at night.
High Utility Bills
Not only are some older homes more spacious than newer homes—meaning there’s more living space to heat and cool—but they’re also often under-insulated, so it takes more energy to maintain a comfortable indoor temperature. You can add blown-in insulation to walls and attics to help your house retain heat, or simply wear an extra sweater in the winter to keep heating costs down.
Slow Drains and Flushes
Modern building codes require a central drain waste vent that connects to every drain line to keep air locks from forming, but plumbing fixtures in older homes weren’t always adequately vented, so air locks and slow drainage could be an issue. In some cases, depending on code, a plumber can install an automatic vent or an air admittance valve on slow-draining or slow-flushing lines, which should solve the problem.
Difficult to Upgrade HVAC
The hiss of a steam radiator can be a cozy, reassuring sound, carrying the promise that heat will soon radiate through the house. The downside is that old houses constructed for steam heat lack the ductwork to easily accommodate a modern central heat or central air-conditioning system. If you're interested in purchasing an older home, accept that extensive renovation may be required to retrofit an upgraded HVAC system. You may also want to look into mini-duct HVAC systems. Either way, you'll need to spend a pretty penny.
Look Carefully at the Roof
Before asphalt shingles became popular in the 1930s, roofs were often constructed by installing wood shingles over purlins (horizontal boards installed over rafters). Older fixer-uppers often have two or more layers of shingles, and when you decide to replace them (a good idea), there may be no roof deck (sheathing) beneath, and you'll need to have a new roof deck built before shingles can be installed.
Related: 7 Signs You Need a New Roof
If your house in on the National Register of Historic Places, you may not be allowed to remodel it the way you’d like. For instance, you may not be able to put on addition or even upgrade the siding. Even if it’s not on the register, if your house is in a designated historic neighborhood, your renovation options may be limited.
Stairways May Not Be Child-Friendly
When you toured the house before making an offer, you probably didn’t notice if the balusters on the stairways were wider than they are in newer homes. Today’s building codes require balusters to be no more than four inches apart to keep infants and toddlers from slipping through, but the builders of a century ago didn’t have to follow those rules, and the old railing could present a hazard to young children.
Older homes were constructed before standard building sizes were introduced. It's possible that when it's time to replace doors in your house, you'll need to order custom sizes, which can be pricey. Depending on the scope of your renovations, it may make sense to have a carpenter remodel the walls and install standard-size frames so you can purchase standard doors.
Never-Ending Layers of Wallpaper
If you purchase an older house that hasn't been renovated, when you go to strip the wallpaper, don’t be surprised if you run into six or seven or even more layers of old wallpaper that are difficult to remove. Owners of older houses often installed new wallpaper over the old, and you’ll have your work cut out for you when you decide to remove it.
Higher Insurance Premiums
Because rebuilding a stately Victorian at today’s construction prices costs more than it does to to rebuild a modern home, insurance companies often charge higher premiums to insure large older homes. You may be able to reduce your insurance costs a bit, however, if you bundle your homeowners policy with your automobile policy.
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