A wrap-around porch with intricate craftsmanship, the evening sun glinting through a stained glass window, random width floor boards, original beams from the 1700s, that immense walk-in fireplace, pocket doors — there’s a vast amount of beautiful features to be found in older homes, any number of reasons why so many people fall in love with them, and just as many potential nightmares to encounter on the journey of owning one of these lasting gems of history.
But First, Why Should You Buy an Older House?
“They’re filthy, drafty, inefficient, and there’s always something wrong with them.” Ever heard that one? Yeah, me too. I have various versions of my rebuttal, but, at the end of the day, it all boils down to this: they are worth more in terms of beauty and quality of construction than most modern builds.
The attractions of buying an old house are prolific. Found a fixer-upper on the cheap? They can be a great way to start out in the housing market if your budget is on the lower end. Old homes in need of TLC provide plenty of flexibility in the finance area, so long as you are willing to put up with some quirky living spaces as restoration and renovation evolve over the months or years.
They can also be useful, long-term investments. There will always be a market for a well-appointed old house that is fully outfitted with modern conveniences, married to its intact original features in a tasteful fashion. And if you are anything like me, the unique beauty of an old home, once beheld, will make you cringe at the thought of calling a new, cookie-cutter cardboard box your place of abode (even when it means bypassing all that dust and dirt and hard labor which might be involved).
Before you buy, though, here are 10 questions you should ask.
10. When Was the Last Inspection Report?
So, you’ve just found the pot of gold. A gorgeous house, a stunning yard, looks immaculate…and the price is just as stunning. No matter how much you may want it to be true, it probably isn’t without a catch.
Check out the area for price comparisons. Know the market. If you become serious, ask to see all the paperwork and study the inspection report(s).
There are several major issues to investigate when working with a budget that doesn’t have much leeway. If any one of these areas is compromised after sale, and you are not insured for them, it can set you and your grand plan back for years (and years more), or force you into selling at a loss.
If the inspection is not recent (within the year) or you have reason to believe it is not thorough enough, contract one yourself, or ask individual specialists to inspect the various areas. If something is amiss, get estimates for the repairs. It may be possible to subtract some of that from the sale price of the property, depending on negotiations.
9. How’s the Roof?
One of the aspects of a house you will likely notice upon first glance is the outer state of the roof. Slate, thatch, and wood shingles are very pricey to replace. In some areas and countries, depending on the kind of house, it may be protected by a grade listing indicating its historical value, and you will need to follow strict regulations for restoration — as in using original materials, which can grow into a huge expense.
The roof needs to be investigated from the inside as well. Access to the attic is a necessity. I have seen some houses with the door to the attic completely covered and plastered over (warning bells to walk — no, run — away).
In my personal experience, the inspection report that came with our house was worthless in regards to the roof. It was listed as newly tiled within one year; the former owner had bragged about completing this task himself. What we found a year later when I ripped out the bedroom ceilings was a leaky roof, with only half the amount of tiles used (as the roofing professional told us), and plastic kitty litter bags placed underneath. Apparently the inspector used for the report was either bribed or no expert in roofing.
8. How Are the Septic Systems?
This, unlike the roof, is often easily overlooked and can be one of the most disastrous pitfalls if not thoroughly investigated before signing a sale contract. Not every old home uses a septic tank, obviously, but if there is one, do not trust it is in perfect working order because you flushed all the toilets five times. It might take 20 flushes before something erupts.
One of the easiest dead giveaways is if the grass is distinctly more lush over the tank area. Find out as much information about how the system operates from the owner and/or realtor, and get a professional independent inspector if you want to be as certain as possible that all is well.
7. Is the Structure Stable?
Years ago, in a little town in the east of the Netherlands, one Zwartsluis, I saw a brick village row home that literally teetered to one side much like the Tower of Pisa. Inside, it was distinctly worse. The upstairs bedroom floors were so crooked that whoever slept in the bed was very much in danger of falling out of it due to mere gravity (more warning bells to run — rapidly — away).
Some old homes will be very wonky, and that’s often no biggie. If in doubt about the lack of level flooring, doorways, and windowsills, or if you see a lot of cracking walls all throughout the house, once again, get it inspected by an expert, even if the current report says it is sound. If there is core structural damage in the basement or the floor joists, rafters, bearing walls, etc, it can be a hazardous house to occupy, not to mention a mammoth expense to repair.
6. Are There Any Problems with Damp or Mold?
Damp or moldy walls can often be indicative of a leaking roof or a flooding basement. If all the walls in the house are covered over with wallpaper, wood wainscoting, and so on, it may be very difficult to detect a damp problem. Sometimes your best bet is to feel the temperature of the walls in various areas of the house to see if there is a significant difference.
If the walls are damp, you will need to take the plaster and/or drywall completely off, down to the bare bones of the walls, and refinish them with new material after they have been aired out. It is not recommended to embark on this endeavor until certain that there is no leakage from the roof and basement, which, if not treated, will just reinstate another mold infestation into the new walls.
5. Is There Any Evidence of Wood Rot or Termites?
Wood rot evinces itself through a display of dark or light or yellowish discoloration, the wood crumbling or breaking down like a bad cheese in the sun. Since rot is brought about by fungus, it is a potentially serious issue that needs to be addressed.
Termites leave behind a different type of destruction to the wooden structures of homes. Check the foundation to make sure no wood is making direct contact with the ground (at least 4 inches of space should be present). Look for “mud tubes” which termites construct from the ground to reach the wood.
If there has been an infestation, it is easy to detect by the trademark holes, wood shavings, and general disintegration. A pest-control professional is recommended to assess whether the termites are still resident.
4. Does the Home Have Asbestos?
If asbestos is not mentioned in the inspection report, bring it up. During restoration work, it can suddenly appear behind a wall covering or under a laminate floor and take you by surprise. Many people don’t even recognize it when they see it. The safest way to treat asbestos is to call in a certified specialist to detect if/where it is located, and remove it if necessary. When asbestos becomes airborne, it can prove a serious hazard to your lungs. If the building catches on fire, it is dangerous for the entire locality.
3. How Old Are the Heating, Plumbing, and Electrical Systems?
These areas are usually easier for a general inspector to assess than some of the earlier mentioned topics. In most cases, it will be simple to determine from the inspection report if the systems are outdated and how soon they should be replaced. Very old (lead) pipes, wiring, and ancient boilers will need replacing right away or on the shorter term. Make sure to keep these possible expenses in mind when considering your budget before buying, as these essentials are primary (unless, of course, you are up for the adventure of using candles, an outhouse, and pumping water from the outdoor well — and don’t laugh, some of us have done it!).
2. Are There Any Local Planning Laws to Consider?
Don’t forget to check with the local authorities before buying a house if you intend to do any of the following to the property in the future: Additions to the house, outbuildings, fencing, dramatic alterations to the floor plan, or a change in the type of property (commercial use, for instance). Some areas will not allow planning permission for various projects or let you run a B&B from your home. If your house is a listed building, you may have to work together with the authorities down to the tiniest finishing details before you can gain approval for your restoration plans.
1. Are You Budgeting and Planning for All Restoration Scenarios?
If you decide to join the world of home restoration, first of all, go easy on yourself with expectations. Even professionals often find that it takes them almost twice the estimated time to complete a task. With years of experience, there’s often no telling what might be revealed when peeling back the layers of an old home.
On the other hand, try to avoid the trap of not setting up a basic framework for budget and time scale for the work. It often leads to overspending and projects unfinished or done wrong. I have worked with several sets of lists simultaneously.
- Itemize all the major jobs (kitchen, bathroom, roof, flooring, heating, plumbing, electric, etc.) with the estimated costs attached for materials and labor.
- List the order in which each will be tackled and how long they should take to complete.
- Detail the specifics for each project, including cosmetics, right down to the paint colours, type of trim, and door knobs. If this is meticulously done after extensive research and planning, it can be close to indicative of the financial expenditure. As I already mentioned, time-wise you must always budget over and beyond first expectations.
How Do You Know if This Home is for You?
Finding the right house is a lot like finding the right mate: Until you spend a lot of time together, it’s difficult to know, unless it’s love at first sight and the rest is totally irrelevant.
Take the many variables into consideration before starting your house hunt. What is your total budget for buying and repairs? Are you willing to live in restoration upheaval for any length of time? Do you have skills to do some of the work yourself to save money?
What is most important to you? In the housing market, compromise is almost always necessary. Consider making several lists of what you would like, what you really want, and then what you absolutely need.
And at the end of the day, follow your heart! If you love something enough, whatever comes will be worth it all the way.
All photos are courtesy of the author.