What to consider when buying an older house (built before 1960)
Homes built before 1960 can be more expensive to modernize than homes built more recently. Typically these homes have have a mix of fully upgraded, partially upgraded and original components. Although the year 1960 is somewhat arbitrary (as some materials, methods and styles overlapped over decades) the year does provide a good approximation of a transition to more modern practices.
Older homes- Electrical
Homes built today are typically provided with 200 amp electrical service which can accommodate all the larger electrical loads of modern appliances. Modern homes have 3 wires (hot/neutral/equipment ground) installed to each outlet that are protected by modern circuit breakers with additional protective features such as GFCIs and AFCIs. Modern electrical panels typically have clearly labeled and separated circuits that can accommodate all the electrical services of the home.
Homes built before 1960 were typically provided with 60 amp electrical service (thinner cable from the street) and only 2 wires were installed to each outlet (no equipment ground). No GFCI outlets were installed near water to protect from possible electrocution and no AFCI outlets were installed to prevent arc-faults. Most homes built before 1940 have knob and tube wiring. Knob and tube wiring is air-cooled and therefore should not be covered by insulation- this is a fire hazard. It is common to find active knob and tube wiring covered by insulation in the attic in pre-1940 homes. It is also common to see crowded, undersized, under-protected, improperly labeled, and improperly wired panels in homes built before 1960.
Unless the electrical system has already been fully upgraded, buyers of homes before 1960 should budget to upgrade the service from the power company, main panel, and for selective replacement and repair of the wiring, switches and outlets to ensure safe and reliable electrical service.
Older homes – Windows
Original windows in homes built before 1960 were single pane and lacked other energy seals which is why older homes can be drafty during cold Winter events.
In homes built before 1960 with original windows it is common to find cracked panes, window sashes that do not open, damaged/missing sash cord systems, brittle glazing, decayed sills and mullions, and missing or damaged hardware.
Unless the windows have been fully upgraded, buyers of homes before 1960 should budget for full replacement, full renovation, or selective repairs to ensure safe and reliable service, ventilation and egress.
Older homes – Heating and Cooling Systems
Considering most heating/cooling equipment has a 15-25 year life expectancy it will be rare to find a furnace in a house built before 1960 however it is more common to see original distribution systems or duct work. Duct work before 1960 was designed for heat only and therefore was not insulated. Introducing cooling to un-insulated or under-insulated duct work can cause condensation, mold and in some cases decay over the long-term. Most of the duct work installed before 1960 was sealed with asbestos tape which is a health concern and the duct work should be removed by a contractor trained in presumed asbestos containing material removal.
Boiler/radiator systems were often used before 1960 and they often used galvanized pipes to distribute the hot water throughout the home– these pipes tend to corrode over time and if they are still in place, are likely beyond their expected service life.
Unless the distribution system (ductwork) has been fully upgraded, buyers of homes before 1960 should budget for full replacement or selective repairs to ensure uniform heating/cooling in the home and to prevent potential condensation and air quality issues. In some cases buyers of older homes may consider abandoning the older ducted systems for a ‘ductless’ mini-split system.
Older homes – Chimneys and flues
Many chimneys built before 1940 do not have any flue liner at all which is a fire hazard. Clay liners were generally used from the 40s onward however clay liners installed before 1960 are probably cracked and deteriorated (fire hazard) unless they have been replaced or upgraded. Coal fireplaces are typically too shallow to replace with anything except for gas or electric fireplaces (no wood-burning).
Modern flues are typically stainless steel which are resistant to corrosion and cheaper to install and maintain than other options. The iconic brick chimney is not needed in this case and would be decorative only. Modern fireplaces are typically insulated ‘inserts’ with a blower that are designed to keep warm air in and to direct exhaust away from the living areas. The older ‘open’ wood fireplaces, unfortunately, are not an energy efficient way to heat the home.
Unless the chimneys and flues have been upgraded the buyers of homes before 1960 should budget for full replacement or selective repairs to ensure safe and reliable service and to prevent energy loss. In some cases buyers may consider abandoning or removing chimneys and fireplaces entirely.
Older Homes – Environmental considerations
Many older homes have presumed asbestos containing material (PACM) such as asbestos siding, floor tiles, insulation, seal tape and more. The risks increase when the materials are disturbed or made air-borne. Floor tiles and siding can often be safely covered by new materials but in some cases, especially during renovations, it is better to have the materials safely removed.
Homes built before 1978 are assumed to have lead paint. The health concern is more serious when there is loose or flaking paint observed, especially at the inside of the house and when there are children living in the home. If loose or flaking paint is observed the buyer should budget for the extra costs associated with safely mitigating the materials.
Unless the environmental concerns have already been mitigated, the buyers of homes before 1960 should budget for some mitigation or replacement of areas affected by lead or asbestos containing materials to prevent health concerns.
Older homes – Plumbing
Galvanized water supply and distribution pipes
Galvanized steel pipes have an average life expectancy of 30 to 60 years– over time they tend to corrode from the inside and cause corrosion, sediment, reduced pressure, clogging, leaks and failure. Galvanized pipes present in homes built before 1960 are now well beyond their expected service life and should have been replaced. Buyers of homes with active galvanized pipes should budget for replacement within a few years. Buried galvanized water supply or service pipes from the house to the street can be an expensive project as it is necessary to trench to the municipal water line. In some cases it is necessary to trench through hard surfaces (concrete/asphalt/pavers) and under decks, porches and detached structures which will add cost.
Galvanized distribution pipes, or pipes within the home, are generally easier to replace however it can be challenging to replace sections hidden in walls/ceilings or in low crawl spaces.
Copper water supply
Copper is a more reliable material for water supply plumbing and is still in use today however copper plumbing in homes built before 1960 are now over 80 years old. Thinner or poorer quality copper pipes likely have experienced some corrosion and may need to be replaced.
Older waste lines – galvanized, lead, copper, cast-iron and Orangeburg
In homes built before 1960 it is not uncommon to see lead, galvanized, copper and cast-iron pipes. Lead resists corrosion very well but needs to be handled carefully because of its toxicity and requires special tools and skills to work. Galvanized and copper waste lines likely have experienced corrosion (because of the acidity of the sewage) and may need to be replaced. Cast-iron waste lines hold up over time better than most materials however after 80 years they have likely experienced some settling and corrosion as well. Orangeburg is an infamous material known to fail catastrophically that was made out of wood pitch and tar– most of this material has been replaced by now but we occasionally still find it in older homes.
Missing or outdated plumbing traps and vents
It is not uncommon to find missing vents and traps under sinks in older homes. Some older homes still utilize outdated ‘drum’ traps which will need to be replaced. A properly functioning trap will prevent the escape of sewer gases into the home and allow the sewage to drain efficiently.
Main Shut off and Pressure Reducing Valve
Every home on city water should have an easily accessible ball valve water shut off and a pressure reducing valve to maintain city water pressure below 80 psi. The water shut off should not be a ‘butterfly’ or gate valve, it should not be corroded or leaking. The PRV or pressure reducing valve should have been replaced within the last 5 years (according to most manufacturer specifications).
Recommend sewer scope inspection for homes built before 1960
The ‘sewer lateral’ is the buried waste pipe that extends from the house to the municipal sewer line (typically found at the street but sometimes in back or side yards). The home owner is responsible for repairing or replacing their own sewer lateral when there are issues. The sewer lateral for houses built before 1960 should have already been replaced, or if not, may be overdue for replacement. Many older sewer laterals are partially replaced or repaired. It is recommended to hire a licensed plumber for a sewer scope evaluation of the sewer lateral for older homes which can help discover damage from corrosion, tree roots, etc… A ‘clean out’ or access hole to the waste line is needed to perform a sewer scope inspection– they are often missing in older homes. In some cases a clean out may need to be installed before performing the sewer scope inspection.
Unless the plumbing has already been fully upgraded, buyers of homes built before 1960 should budget for full replacement or selective replacement and repairs of the water supply lines, sewage waste lines, main shut off and pressure reducing valve.
In our area buried or above ground oil tanks are very common in older homes. Oil tanks have a 25 year life expectancy and there are environmental concerns related to leaking oil tanks. Whenever an oil tank is suspected the seller should be asked for more information (documentation, age of the tank, which oil company serves it, if it is abandoned or in use, and if it was abandoned how it was abandoned and which company performed the abandonment). If there are further questions or concerns a licensed geologist that specializes in oil tanks should be consulted for location services, evaluation and possible repair/removal.
Unless the plumbing has already been upgraded, the buyers of homes before 1960 should budget for full replacement or selective repairs to ensure reliable service and to prevent leaks and water damage.
Older Homes – Energy efficiency
Many homes built before 1960 did not have any insulation installed in the walls or floors and the attic was minimally insulated if at all. Exterior doors were solid but not insulated. Windows were single paned. Doors and windows did not have energy seals. Heat is often lost at fireplaces, attic and basement doors as well.
With older homes buyers should consider super-insulating the attic area which provides the best return on investment — air cooled knob and tube wiring should be removed or abandoned before-hand.
Unless the energy efficiency of the home has already been upgraded the buyers of homes before 1960 should budget for replacement or upgrades to the insulation, doors, windows, and energy seals to ensure uniform heating and cooling throughout the home and to prevent energy loss.
Older Homes – Framing
Floor joists in older homes were typically fastened with nails only and did not benefit from any additional support such as a 2×2 ledger or joist hangers. It is very common to find improperly supported beams and joists in older homes that are exhibiting signs of settling or sagging especially at chimneys, stairs and other framing transition areas. Improperly supported joists and beams cause the sloped floors that are typical in older homes. It is common to see temporary posts added under the floors in crawl spaces, basements and attics in an attempt to prevent further settling. Most homes have experienced some framing damage from plumbing or roof leaks (chimneys) over the years.
Unless the framing has already been upgraded the buyers of homes before 1960 should budget for selective repairs to prevent further settling.
Older Homes – Basements and crawl spaces
Most homes built before 1960 have experienced longer periods of neglect or insufficient maintenance, especially when it comes to grading and gutters/downspouts. Below grade areas like basements and crawl spaces likely have experienced active water penetration, inadequate ventilation and the associated damages of wood destroying fungus (decay) and wood destroying insects. In some cases Structural Engineers will need to be consulted for further evaluation of the structure and to determine a repair plan before a general contractor can give an estimate of needed repairs. Protecting the basement and crawl space environments is one of the most important things a homeowner can do to protect their long-term investment.
Unless the grading/drainage, ventilation and structural issues have already been repaired buyers of homes before 1960 should budget for repairs to prevent further damages.
Older Homes – Time itself
Older homes have likely experienced a number of events, repairs, upgrades, additions and renovations over the decades– some of this work was likely performed by noble craftsman that took pride in their work and other repairs were likely performed lazily or by the inexperienced home owners themselves. Buyers of older homes are usually inheriting a mixed bag– some components have been fully upgraded, others are aging, and others still are fully original and are long overdue for replacement or repair.
Buyers of older homes should anticipate, and budget for, hidden or latent issues caused by neglect over time that inspectors and contractors cannot find or anticipate.
Asheville Older Home Inspectors
Builder Buddy is your resource for Older Home Inspections in the Asheville area. We also provide Older Home Radon Testing, Older Home Mold Testing, Older Home Water Testing, Older Home Well Inspections, Older Home Septic Inspections, Older Home HVAC Evaluations, and Older Home Wood Destroying Insect Inspections.