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Century homes | A home inspector’s thoughts

Living in a century home is a romantic proposition: The high ceilings, hardwood trim, large fireplaces, plaster walls, and decorative ceilings are all features that are rare in a more modern home.  Anyone who appreciates antiques or old cars knows that there is something special about the old designs. These homes are also commonly located near downtowns and are in very established neighborhoods with large trees and expansive parks. Who wouldn’t want to live in an old home? Century homes certainly have their charm, but it is not all roses owning one. Before you purchase a century home it is important to have the right expectations.

Common Deficiencies

Older homes come with older mechanical systems, much of which will be at its end of life. 100+ year old plumbing and electrical have served its time and may need to be updated. These types of projects are potentially expensive and invasive in order to retrofit an older home to modern standards. If the electrical and plumbing has already been updated, was it completed by a qualified professional, or was it done by an unskilled homeowner. It is common for home inspectors to find that the electrical and plumbing was only partially or poorly updated, and the more costly undertakings are not completed.

It is also normal for older masonry walls and rubble foundations to need some repairs.  Masonry, like all building materials, needs maintenance and is commonly ignored as it does not typically affect the homeowners’ daily routine. The mortar is the glue that holds the structure together and ignoring it too long can weaken the building and result in more expensive repairs.

A large percentage of century home basements leak. There was no foundation damp proofing, no drainage membrane, or weeping tiles when it was built. They relied on being built on high ground which may have changed over time.  Many of the homes have damp musty basements and in some circumstances the structure has wood rot if the moisture problems were ignored over long periods of time. Controlling the dampness can be as simple as fixing grading and installing a dehumidifier or as complicated as damp proofing the foundation.

Rotted wood sills, lintels, windows, and structure can be found in particularly poorly maintained century homes. Wood rot can be problematic as you will not be able to understand the full scope and cost of the repairs until everything is pulled apart.

Living in a century home is not always as comfortable as a modern home. In the past 50 years there have been great advancements in energy efficiency. For older homes this means significantly higher heating and cooling costs. For example, it is typical for century homes to lack a second floor furnace return as it was not necessary before air conditioners were invented.  This can create an awfully warm second floor in the summer.

Are older homes better built?

It is common to hear someone profess ‘they don’t build them like they use too’.  While there is a kernel of truth in this statement, it is mostly based on nostalgia. Some century homes are very well built and have stood the test of time, while others were poorly built by unskilled homeowners. Remember, there was no building code a 100 years ago, anyone could build what they could afford.  Typically the nicer more solidly built century homes were in affluent neighborhoods.

Insurance Challenges

It has become increasingly difficult to find insurance companies that will cover homes with knob & tube wiring, fuse panels, 60 amp electrical service, galvanized plumbing etc. Many people are surprised to find out they will be required to make repairs or replace systems on their insurance companies timeline to obtain coverage.

Insurance on century homes can be more expensive than a modern home due to the increased costs in repairs and higher risk. It is highly recommended to consult with your insurance provider prior to looking at century homes and then again after your home inspection to assure you can obtain the coverage you need.

Environmental Concerns

There are a number of building materials in older homes which are known to have health concerns. Most notably is asbestos. The likelihood of a century home containing asbestos is fairly high as it was potentially used in almost all materials that are not metal, glass, or wood. Some of these materials are considered low risk if left undisturbed. It is important to note since most home improvements involve some demolition, additional costs may be incurred where asbestos containing materials are suspected due to the necessary remediation.

Lead pipe was used in many houses up to the 1950s as the water service line from the street. Lead was also a component of solder for copper pipes until the 1980s. To a lesser extent, lead can also be found in some plumbing fixtures.

For the typical homeowner, the highest risk of exposure to lead is from paint. Lead was used extensively for pigmentation and as a drying agent in oil-based paints until the early 1950s.

It is important to understand the potential concerns with these materials prior to buying a century home. BothHealth Canada and the Environmental Protection Agency have good articles on the subject.

First time home buyers

The underlying concern for first time homeowners is that they are not financially prepared for the additional costs associated with owning a century home. It is normal for a first time homeowner to sink all of their savings into the down payment. If the home inspection uncovers one or two major repairs, there isn’t the reserve funds to cover the costs. You should have substantial emergency funds in addition to your down payment to consider purchasing a century home. If you are still set on purchasing a old home I highly recommend using an online calculator to determine if the costs of ownership are within your budget.  Remember that the cost of repairs, heating & cooling, and insurance are all higher in an older home.

After reading this you may think that I dislike century homes. In fact, I love old homes! Inspecting a 100 year old building is like a walk through history. Each one telling its own story. While it is important to have the right expectations when considering a century home, they can be a joy to live in for the right owner.

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