One of the services we offer is walk-throughs for clients who are house shopping. We’ve been through a lot of old houses and have developed this guide to help us evaluate renovation costs and potential.
Print this out and take it with you when you go house shopping (we’ve even included a link at the bottom where you can download a PDF that’s formatted for print — easy peasy!). Buying an old house can be an intimidating experience. It helps to have a few clues about what to look for!
This guide covers:
Zoning & Set backs
Historic & HOA Guidelines
Leak Protection: Roof, Gutters, & Grading
It’s not uncommon to find a joist or beam that needs repair in an old home. But, all in all, a house that’s been standing for 100 years is very likely to continue doing so. Slightly uneven floors are not usually cause for concern. However, if there is deflection in a floor or noticeable hills and valleys, a structural fix may be required. Other indicators are severely crooked window and door trim.
The best thing to do is take a mental note of where the problem area lies, then head to the basement to see if the framing is visible. The most common culprits are rotten beams or floor joists, joists that have been cut to run plumbing through, or insufficient column footings and foundations. You’re generally looking for obvious damage and rot. If you think there’s a problem and can’t find the reason in the basement, you should make sure to point it out to the inspector when the time comes.
So how big of a problem is compromised structure? We once designed a master suite where we discovered a section of missing foundation below the walls. Providing block foundations cost under $2,000. On the other end, we worked on a house with numerous structural issues including a chimney that was poorly removed, a bay window with no foundation, and an addition on a concrete slab that was putting pressure on the basement walls of the original house. The fixes there came close to $15,000.
Zoning & Setbacks
Most municipalities have a website or city department where you can look up zoning. Zoning affects things like whether you can add a separate apartment for an aging parent or whether you can run a business from your house. It also establishes rules such as setbacks and lot coverage guidelines. In historic neighborhoods, houses often sit back 15-20’ from the street and 5-10’ from each side property line. If you wanted to build an addition that encroached on this limit or increased the footprint of the house beyond the allowed lot coverage, you’d need to file for a variance. This can be a lengthy process, so you’ll want to check into it before you buy. You can find a lot of this information on your municipality’s Geographic Information System, which is commonly hosted online. Do a web search for the name of your city and “GIS” and, if one exists, it will likely come up.
Historic & HOA Guidelines
Many neighborhoods have guidelines that affect the appearance of your house. These can be especially positive in historic neighborhoods where one-of-a-kind architecture needs protection from demolition or irreversible renovation. Personally, we’re fans of historic guidelines because they work well in our own neighborhood, but it’s definitely something you want to be aware of before you buy. In some areas, even paint colors need to be approved by a homeowner’s association or other group. This is just as common, if not more, in new neighborhoods as opposed to historic ones. Other changes that may require approval include moving and replacing doors and windows, installing satellite dishes, repairing siding, expanding porches, and installing fencing.
I’d like to tell you your realtor will know if an area is subject to these types of regulations, but we’ve often found that not to be the case. As with the zoning topic, you can often look this information up on the city’s website. Ask your realtor first, but, if they say no, don’t assume they are correct.
If you’re planning to renovate, a standing height basement is a big help. If you move plumbing, electrical, or ductwork, a standing-height basement makes life a LOT easier. And will generally help minimize costs associated with moving utilities.
Another thing to look for in basements is moisture. Most people are alarmed by basement moisture, but it’s not always a major problem. A little bit of water when it rains not a huge issue, especially if you notice a dehumidifier and sump pump. However, if you smell stale, basement air upstairs, that can be an indication that the water is causing mold growth or that there’s a problem with the way the HVAC is configured. This is another good question for your inspector.
Heating and air conditioning are some of the priciest systems in your home. Always check the age of the system before you buy so you’ll know whether to plan for replacement. Also, if you plan to add on, check the capacity of the system so you’ll know whether you need another unit for the new addition.
Insulation & Air Infiltration
A hundred years ago, home insulation was not a big thing. You can often find well-insulated older homes if a previous owner took on the task. But it’s not uncommon for old houses to be lacking. The most important insulation to have is around ductwork, and in the floor and ceiling (attic). Wall insulation is an added bonus, but doesn’t have nearly as much effect as floor and ceiling insulation.
Even more important than insulation is making sure air gaps are sealed throughout the house. Any place a wall is penetrated (windows, doors, outlets), there could be airflow. Local utility districts sometimes offer a “blower door test” which can help you identify these holes. Wherever they’re found, seal them up!
A common misconception about old houses is that original wood windows should be replaced. This is simply not true. A historic wood window, properly repaired and fitted with a storm window, is comparable in thermal performance to a new window and is much more sustainable. Old windows can be repaired one part at a time. If something breaks, you can replace that part and the window stays in tact. If a new window part breaks (beyond simple glass or cosmetic repair), you often have to replace the entire unit because most of the operable mechanisms of the window are buried in the jamb and inaccessible. By contrast, old windows have trap doors and access panels that reveal their inner workings and make them repairable.
That’s not to say window repair is cheap, but it’s generally less expensive than replacement and the end result is better. If the windows in the house look bad, have a contractor assess what’s needed. If not, then leave those old windows alone. For more on this often controversial topic, check out this link:
A few things to note about chimneys. If you notice a chimney on the interior of the house, but it doesn’t appear above the roof, that means someone cut it off; usually for the sake of an upstairs renovation. This generally isn’t a problem (unless you wanted to use a downstairs fireplace, in which case you’re out of luck). Sometimes old chimneys are in need of structural repair. If you notice one leaning or if the mortar appears to be chipping out, you’ll want to plan some money for that.
Painting a house, old or new, is a big expense a lot of home buyers don’t prepare for. This is usually a $5,000-$10,000 budget item, but can expand to $20,000+ if extensive repairs are needed. A good paint job can last up to 10 years with proper maintenance. The good thing about paint is that , if work is needed, it’s apparent to the naked eye. Whatever you do, don’t skimp on the paint job. The better you do it now, the longer it will last and the less it will cost when you need touch-up coats.
From an architectural perspective, here are some potential roadblocks you’ll find in older homes.
Kitchens: This is the most often renovated room in older homes and the trickiest. One of the biggest roadblocks is window sill height. Check whether the kitchen windows are lower than 3’ above the floor (counter height). If so, you’ll need to plan your cabinetry carefully so it dodges those areas. Islands and peninsulas are often helpful in older kitchens where the walls are covered in doors and large, low windows.
Master Suites: This is the #2 requested room in older homes. If you plan to add a master suite, be sure there’s an extra room (guest room, office, nursery), you can claim for the suite. Master bathrooms and closets take up a LOT of space. So if your aim is to have a 3 bedroom house, one of which is a master suite, you should likely shop for a 4 bedroom house.
Leak Protection: Roof, Gutters, & Grading
Roofs are another big-ticket item that are usually in the same ballpark as painting ($5,000-$20,000). If the roof looks obviously worn, you’ll want to budget for repair. If the roof appears to be in good condition, but you notice water spots on the ceilings indoors, it could just be a nail hole or other small area in need of repair. This is best checked by your inspector or a contractor.
Gutters are tricky. They need to be appropriately sized and sloped, which can really only be verified by a contractor or professional installer. But if you notice dirty water marks on the side of the house below messy gutters, you can bet there are repairs needed. Often whoever repairs your roof will take care of gutters, too.
Many people fail to notice grading problems in the yard. If the ground slopes toward the house at any point instead of away from it, check for evidence of water issues. Lots of mud on the side of the house, worn paths where water is regularly flowing – these can be indicators that the yard is draining in a way that threatens the house. Slope towards the house is not necessarily a problem if there are drains in place and the 1-2’ of grass immediately adjacent to the house are sloped away. But look for signs of improper water flow.
As the name implies, there’s not much we can advise you about unforeseen conditions – because you won’t be able to see them! But we wanted to add this bullet because, regardless of how well you inspect your home prior to purchase, there will always be a surprise. The best things to look out for are corners, closets, or “bump-outs” in the walls where you have no idea why it’s closed off, but it’s definitely thicker than just studs and dry wall. Usually, these are things like ducts and chases. But sometimes they’re just empty. Either way, there are bound to be a few unknowns in any house.
While not exhaustive by any means, we hope this guide helps you better navigate your old home buying experience. Good luck!
Happy Renovating,| Sara & Sean
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