What You Should Know About Owning an Old House:
Tips And Good To Know Considerations
1. History – lots of great memories were made in your new home before you arrived. Someday someone may knock on your door and say they used to live here or their grandparents lived here. Without creating a security situation, you should be as welcoming to the extent you are comfortable. At least ask them about their time in the house and ask for their contact information in the event they have old photos. If you get old photos, make sure to leave them with the house, they are part of the history of the house and may be invaluable to future owners.
2. Inspection process – This should be very complete and you should attend the inspection with your home inspector. Inspectors are generalists and when you in the process make sure that you don’t lose your focus on the big picture, the roof, foundation, electrical and plumbing systems. (For plumbing we recommend you also get a camera inspection of the sewer line by a plumber as part of this process and we are able to perform this work.) If any of these big items are a problem, get the specific trade involved to provide you with a quote for repairs. Should you find several less critical but neglected items make sure to prioritize them with the help of the inspector so that they are documented and that they can be addressed either prior to the sale or after you close escrow. One cautionary tale, if there is anything special about a fixture that you want preserved, you need to be very clear so that it is preserved and not just changed out to address your concern. For special items you may wish to do repairs or maintenance yourself or under your direction so that fixtures that are part of the character are not changed or removed under the guise of completion due to the inspection report.
For example, when we bought our house, there was a short in the living room, original overhead light fixture when we used the switch by the front door. This was noted on the inspection report and to address it the sellers removed the original push button light switch and replaced it with what we considered inappropriate dial type of light switch. When we asked if we could have the old hardware back they had already disposed of it and we were heartbroken. We replaced the dial knob with a reproduction switch but would have much preferred replacing the wiring without changing the push button or the cover plate. While the seller fixed the problem, they created a different one and removed the original hardware which was one of the reasons we wanted the house. Had we been more precise in asking that it be restored but preserved, or just asked for a credit and hired the electrician after the close of escrow.
3. Fireplaces Are the Heart of the Home – Having the fireplace checked to ensure that it is safe to use should be included as part of the inspection. If the fireplace is not functioning find out what it will take to get it back in use. That has to do with the inner workings of the fireplace. If there are cracks in tiles or the bricks need to be cleaned, by all means have them gently cleaned. However, be mindful of the materials If the fireplace is made of brick or old tile, the old materials may have a value that far exceeds anything you would expect to find in the market place now, especially if it is old tile. Do not rush this situation. Do some research on the tile if possible take a photo and reach out to a tile aficionado Resist painting over old brick or tile with the idea of freshening it up. You may forever ruin it despite the latest trend on your favorite makeover home show. If there is a crack in a tile, see if it can be filled in. Don’t be hasty with this as you may do more damage by “over fixing the fireplace”. Home shows may be showing painted brick and other design trends taking out the original fireplace and these methods can be very destructive to an original feature and fixture in your home that adds to its value If you decide to go this route, you should make sure that what you are doing is reversible instead of permanent. If you paint brick it will most likely ruin the brick. See if you can clean it and then enjoy it for what it is instead.
We became all too aware of this as were watching a house in North Park San Diego that was being flipped and it had original Batchelder fireplace tiles. There was a crack on the hearth tile. The contractor had no idea what it was and dumped these original tiles in the trash and put up 12 x 12 bland tiles in their place. We asked about the whereabouts of the original tile as we were interested in the home as a purchase. He told us he threw them away and that load had been hauled to the dump. Had he sold them even after they had been removed, he would have been able to net $25,000 (1999 price) for them. He took beautiful tiles and ruined what was there because a tile was cracked and the new owner would never know what a treasure was lost. He may have learned his lesson but learned it too late.
4. Updates in general: – This pertains to major changes removing or moving walls, changing the location of fixtures and some large-scale material changes such as redoing stucco or siding (stucco over siding is actually never recommended). The changes you may make day one would likely be completely different than if you take some time to live in the home for a while. You will make better decisions and be happier with your decisions if you don’t rush the process. It is recommended to wait a full year to go through all of the seasons before you perform any radical design changes. This will give you time to be thoughtful and certain in the process and prioritize.
Take this time to observe your new neighborhood and notice the properties that have the most original character defining features. They most likely have original windows, original siding and front doors and door hardware. You may also seek out local history or a neighborhood groups that may be familiar with the community and the older houses there or a neighbor who has had family history willing to share. Getting input from the local historian to recommend quality contractors can also be helpful. He or She is not going to profit from your job but will recommend those who have a reputation for good work and this provides you with a worthwhile perspective. Local contractors are also a wealth of information but if they recommend that you take on a large project and don’t preserve the most valuable parts of your old house, then resist their charm and don’t hire them to go ahead. Instead, get someone who has a clear understanding of preserving your homes greatest assets and who will understand how to retain the existing character of the house. It is also important to check their license and get referrals, call the referrals and check the work.
5. Was Your House Flipped? – How long has the last person owned the house? If the answer is two years or less, consider that the house may have been flipped. In that case, get all of the information on new appliances, faucets and fixtures (manuals for all of new items including any warranties that will or will not transfer over to you as the new buyer) Get the name of the contractor who flipped the house. Check the contractor license with your local contractor licensing board. Check to see that the work was permitted. Be aware that many products only provide a warranty to the original purchaser. You may want to check to see what is going to be covered and importantly what will not be covered once you take possession including the work by the contractor. If there are any plans get those also.
6. Is A Home Warranty Included? – If so, don’t be surprised that it may not cover everything under the sun. These warranties are offered to give you some peace of mind if the refrigerator goes out and some home warranty professionals are not always proficient or professional on all systems, have restrictive policies and are not responsive to emergencies. These warranties are a form of insurance and the company is betting that you will not have trouble for the first year or length of the warranty period. Check the fine print to better understand what is excluded. It will be your house and your responsibility.
7. Wood and Other Natural Materials – Materials in and on old houses were often more natural materials. Old growth wood floors, doors, wood windows, lathe in the walls under the plaster was all from glorious old growth lumber. For example, the trees that were used to build the framing, and lathe could be from trees that were hundreds of years old at the time the house was built. Don’t waste that material. It is dense and adds to the feeling in the home. If possible, retain as much original materials in the home as possible as it will be of higher quality than any of the wood materials you can obtain now. If a board needs to be replaced, replace it but don’t replace the whole wall. In this case less is more.Old growth wood sample on the left compared to new wood on the right. There is a feeling because the old growth wood is so dense.
Look at the tightness of the grain of the old growth wood sample on the left compared to the grain in the newer wood that is available today on the right. Consider that old growth wood is not going to be used in any new products and the impact this has on the overall quality of what you have inside your old home. Not just what shows, but even the lathe is dense and provides a feeling that is not present in a newer home.
8. Old Windows – These can be repaired and don’t need to be replaced. Often times the sales pitch from the window companies has to do with energy efficiency but studies have debunked this sales pitch and show that insulating your attic does a much better job with the simple addition of weather stripping and repair of your original windows. Check with your local preservation organization for resources before you get sold on replacement windows. Old wood windows should last approximately 200 years because of that old growth wood but they may need some parts replaced during that time, which is not as invasive or expensive as a replacement window. The best vinyl window will last about 50 years, is not paintable and reduces your property value. If you must replace a window, replace it with another wood window and keep the opening the exact same size. Be aware that the old growth wood is not readily available any longer, so it won’t last as long as the original wood window would.
9. Lead Paint – Depending upon the age of your house (pre-1979) you may have some old layers of paint that included lead. Lead was a stabilizer that helped enhance the color of the paint. If you are sanding paint or your paint is peeling, you may become exposed to lead that is in the dust. This is dangerous for small children and also bad for the rest of us. There are ways to deal with this and there are guides through the Environmental Protection Agency. If you have to sand a certain area and are uncertain consult with your local paint store and get a test kit so that you can get the proper protective gear, so you can isolate the area that needs to be worked on and be mindful on how you dispose of the material. This is for your own safety and the safety of others. Also, the lead paint layer could be simply painted over. It is the sanding that creates an issue. If your house was repainted after 1979 you may not have to worry about this at all.
10. Old Hardware – Old light fixtures, door knockers, window latches, mail slots for example. Some of the hardware from the early 20th century is really beautiful and because of handling over the years has a patina that can’t be replicated. This old hardware is like the jewelry for your house and really adds a lot of character to an old house. If you can keep it do it. If you are missing pieces, check the salvage yards in your area. If you have an old lock, often it can be repaired by a quality lock smith. If you have interior hardware that is broken there may be some reproductions that would suffice but again less reproduction is better when it comes to maintaining the hardware that is always preferred.
Owning an old home is a privilege and a responsibility. Your stewardship and maintenance of the character defining features of the home will enable you and your family and future generations to enjoy it.
About the Author: Janet O’Dea and her husband Allen Hazard live in a 1920 California Craftsman bungalow. Together, they wrote Mission Hills: Images of America published by Arcadia Publishing/The History Press. They were the proponents of the Mission Hills Historic District, a streetcar suburb of San Diego California. They were the prior owners of Powers Plumbing and continue to perform historic designation research for residents in San Diego seeking official landmark status.
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