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Cover story: Old houses tell their stories in unexpected ways
Question of the Day
Still, there are some hard realities associated with owning an older home, including dealing with water damage and wood rot, creaky floors and leaky basements. Often, older buildings were constructed before building codes and regulations, so a quick fix may turn out to be not so quick after all.
If you are in the market for an older home, there are a few things you should look out for as you make your way through. A good home inspector, particularly one who specializes in older properties, can help you narrow your choices. And whether you are contemplating Richardson Romanesque or midcentury modern, here are some basics to keep in mind, no matter how much you are charmed by the home’s other virtues.
- Water. A stone foundation practically guarantees a leaky basement, so you will want to ensure that some sort of barrier is there to keep out the moisture. Check to make sure old wooden beams and sills are free from moisture from below.
- Maintenance. Just like newer homes, how well the home has been maintained improves its life for generations yet to come. Mr. Showalter notes that 150 to 250 years of work done in an age before codes and permits can create dangerous conditions down the road.
- Termites and other critters. Termites and powder-post beetles can do a number on an older home.
- Pipes. A few older homes still boast the old galvanized piping, which can present homeowners with a host of unexpected problems. Mr. Showalter noted that older cast-iron pipes can fail from the inside out, and that kind of damage doesn’t always show up on a home inspection.
- Paint, etc. Over time, lead-based exterior paints oxidize, leaving a lead powder on the surface that eventually could wash into the soil. This accumulation can pose a health risk to children and pets. Heating systems and exhaust ducts may contain asbestos or asbestoslike materials, which also were used in vinyl flooring and roofing tiles.
- Electrical. Many older homes contain electrical components from multiple eras; they are practically a historic encyclopedia in themselves. But be careful. Mr. Showalter notes that they’re beautiful but fully capable of electrocuting someone.
- Structural. Be sure to look at the foundation because foundation failure or repairs can be quite expensive. Diagonal cracks in walls emanating from the corners of doors and windows may indicate soil or foundation movement.
Of course, all of the above can be fixed, even for those with limited budgets. In the end, the challenges of owning an older home are all about the person, and the family, willing to take them on.
“It’s a special type of person with a special kind of mindset that buys an old house,” Ms. Holt said. “You’re not there to impose, you really are the steward of the past.”
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