A check list for people thinking about buying an old house

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Not too long ago, I was driving to get an estimate to install a new muffler on my truck. It was just after sunrise and a large sewer project forced me to detour across a street I’d never been on before. As luck would have it, I happened upon an old Victorian house that had seen far better days just as the early-morning sun was giving her a tender morning kiss. It brought back vivid memories of the first old house I ever bought and renovated.

Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” I can speak to the validity of this — and, fortunately, I didn’t know much at all when I bought that wonderful, quaint three-bedroom home at an FHA auction in the spring of 1975 for $8,000.

If I had known then what I know now after all these years of working in old homes for paying customers, I don’t know if I would have bought it. To be sure, visions of grandeur were dancing in my head — and in my new bride’s as well — much as they did in Mr. Blandings’s head in the old Cary Grant movie.

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I had all sorts of support from my father-in-law, who, although he was a medical doctor, had a passion for real estate investing. But what I lacked was a comprehensive checklist that would have helped me identify possible trouble spots and definite dealbreakers.

The good news for anybody embarking on a fixer-upper adventure today is that a really good old-house renovation checklist exists — and I compiled it. It’s quite thorough and helpful, a product of the hard-won knowledge I have accumulated over my career as a builder.

Here are a few things that you should think about if you’re about to go all-in on an old house as I did back on that warm spring day:

First and foremost, make sure the house has a great foundation. Just recently, my son was thinking of buying an old house, and he sent me a photo of a diagonal crack extending from the corner of a basement window down to the floor. The house was almost 100 years old. The crack was less than 1/16 inch wide, there was no evidence of water seepage and the concrete was not offset.

My wife thought this was a major defect. I pointed out that it’s normal for concrete to shrink as it cures and that cracks at window-opening corners are as common as flies at a summer picnic. The fact there was no water seepage and the concrete was still in the same plane suggested to me that there was nothing to worry about. After all, this crack had been there for probably 99 years!

It’s also important that the house’s framing, or bones, are in great shape with no cracks, wood rot or insect damage. The carpenters of old knew how to keep wood in great shape, and most made prudent use of simple tar paper to keep the structure dry for decades.

Next, carefully assess the mechanical systems. The presence of cast-iron plumbing stacks needn’t worry you, especially if you can see the cast letters XH on the pipe. These letters indicate that the pipe is extra heavy and might last for hundreds of years so long as the previous homeowners didn’t put liquid drain cleaners down the pipes.

If you do see cast-iron plumbing vertical pipes, it almost certainly means you’ll have smaller horizontal galvanized pipes that drain sinks, showers and possibly tubs. These pipes will almost always be in poor shape and require replacement.

Old electric wires and cables found in most houses built in the early 1900s simply were not designed for today’s modern appliances. You can count on having to install lots of new cables to kitchens, bathrooms, laundry rooms and other rooms where you might have appliances that consume lots of power.

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Don’t underestimate the cost to retrofit your heating and cooling system. Many very old houses simply don’t have the supply and return air registers in the correct locations. My first house had all the supply vents on the inside of the house. Decades ago, HVAC pros discovered that it is best to flood exterior walls with either heated air in the winter or cool air in the summer. That means the return air registers must be across the room on inside walls. I doubt you’ll see this setup on a house built in 1905!

If the house was built long before 1967, you can be sure it has lead paint inside and outside. You don’t have to get rid of it, but you most definitely need to understand how to work with it so you don’t get poisoned or poison a loved one. Even scraping exterior lead paint is an issue, as you can contaminate soil you may use for a vegetable garden. Never, ever sand lead paint.

Recognize that you can match both interior and exterior wood trim if you have a big budget. Old-fashioned lumberyards in your area might have their own mills, or they may know of a local one that can cut new knives that will create matching profiles for all the fancy woodwork inside or outside your home.

I offer a very helpful checklist that can save you hundreds of dollars on a professional home inspector. It points out many of the dealbreakers. Once you find a house that gets a good rating from my checklist, hire an inspector who is a member of the American Society of Home Inspectors. Here’s where to procure my checklist. Be sure to type the word GO in the url:


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