- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Tom Hanks’ 1986 comedy “The Money Pit” featured the worst-case scenario for a couple buying a quaint old home.

The front door falls off its hinges before Mr. Hanks’ character can take his first step into the house as the new owner, and the situation gets progressively worse from there.

Some home buyers won’t be dissuaded by such cautionary tales, let alone the knowledge that older homes need a lot more love than newer models. These buyers simply can’t do without an older home’s charm, individuality or prestige.

For those willing to call buildings 100 years old or older home, there’s plenty of advice to prevent the “Money Pit” scenario from playing out in real time.

Donna Evers, president and broker with the District realty group Evers & Co., says home buyers cite older homes’ “character and charm” as key reasons why a newer home just won’t do.

Such houses often offer intricate molding, hardwood floors and other aesthetic touches that few modern houses can match. Even creaking floors can lend a house a certain ambience. Older homes feature more light as well, thanks to a generous ratio between window sizes and wall space, as well as higher ceilings, Mrs. Evers says.

The District is loaded with antiquated homes looking for new owners, she says, citing Georgetown, Dupont Circle and Kalorama as the hottest spots. Nearby Chevy Chase also has its fair share.

Some home buyers gravitate toward those homes because of their bracing originality.

“These houses were handmade, essentially. The builders didn’t use [modern] engineering,” Mrs. Evers says, adding that home builders of yore drew upon practical experience more than any construction templates to guide their hands.

No matter how much expertise went into an older home’s construction, it’s still vulnerable to the ravages of age.

“We all get a little shakier when we get older. It happens to a house, too,” Mrs. Evers says.

Homeowners should anticipate spending more money, on average, to repair older homes or set aside money each year for repair emergencies.

“Many of these houses were frame and stucco, so they’re not brick, and they require more maintenance,” Mrs. Evers says, adding that settlement cracks may crop up with more regularity than in newer homes.

Bob Sisson of Boyds, president of Inspections by Bob, says the two basic areas of concern with older homes are the foundation and previous renovations.

The first isn’t hard to understand, but the latter can be complex.

Many home-repair projects are carried out by a friend of a friend, and often those doing the work don’t get permits to proceed with their renovations, Mr. Sisson says. Permits aren’t mandatory for such work, but they can provide a helpful paper trail for the homeowner.

“If the work was done recently, there should be records in permit offices,” Mr. Sisson says. “If a house advertises ‘renovated kitchen,’ I’ll ask, ‘Are there any permits for the house?’ Then the person knew what they were doing.”

Without such papers, a new home buyer is often in the dark about what renovations were completed in the past.

“It can be well-intentioned, well-executed and unsafe,” Mr. Sisson warns.

Worse, “Sometimes real work is put on top of questionable work,” he says. “With a 100-year-old house, we may be looking at two, three or four layers of renovation.”

The potential problem gets worse the farther a home is from an urban area, he says.

A home inspector shouldn’t be hired to quash a potential sale, but to give the would-be buyer enough information to make a smart decision, he says. “You’re paying me to be paranoid,” he adds.

Mr. Sisson notes that downtown Baltimore and Gaithersburg offer a number of antiquated homes.

John Evans, owner of AIM Home Inspection in Bel Air, Md., says a trained eye can spot subtle foundation flaws caused by insects or water exposure.

Even a novice can walk into a home with enough knowledge to spot a potential money pit.

Prospective buyers should examine a home’s doors and windows carefully. If they don’t open and close properly, it could be a sign of a foundation with issues, Mr. Evans says. Those windows and doors also shouldn’t have excessive cracks around them.

Outside, the buyer-to-be can inspect the chimney to make sure it still stands tall and true.

Many older homes were built with heavier, thicker lumber than what’s in modern structures, Mr. Evans says, but he acknowledges that many builders used their own senses rather than any measuring devices to make sure every beam went in properly. Plus, an older home might feature thicker lumber, but the wood might not be spaced as tightly as in a recently built home.

Years ago, “[building] codes were nonexistent,” he says.

Suzanne Goldstein, a District-based Realtor with Long & Foster, says home buyers should do some digging about any older home in their sights.

Ms. Goldstein says people should check to see whether the electrical and plumbing systems have been upgraded in recent years. With plumbing, that could mean swapping out copper piping and replacing it with plastic tubes.

Older homes also could have issues with asbestos or lead-based paint.

“You’re going to find [lead-based paint] in homes built before 1978,” she says, even if it’s under layers of more recent paint.

Don’t be too scared by the occasional crack. It doesn’t mean the house will crumple anytime soon.

“You tend to believe if it’s built 100 years ago, it’ll stand for another 100,” she says.

Mrs. Evers sympathizes with people who insist on older homes because she is one of them.

“I love older homes. … I know just what [my clients] are talking about. You spend a little more, but I think it’s worth it,” she says, adding that she and her husband personally have renovated 23 properties, including one built in the 1840s. “The older they get, the more quirky they get, so be prepared for surprises,” she says.

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