I wanted to write this post as a community service to old house lovers and those people who are considering buying an old house. I’m going to talk real, and let you know what I wish someone told us before we bought an old house. I think if you’re like us, buying an old house is exciting because we love the character that old houses have, and we are the people to save them. All old homes need maintenance and up keep. Here’s the thing: I’ve chatted with people that don’t have an old house and they have many of the same issues. The items listed below are not specific to only old homes, but things I wish I would have looked out for. Some items are just old house problems.
I wouldn’t change buying our house for the world. But during your first year of home ownership you want to keep the surprises to a minimum and your pocket book in check.
1. Get two inspections
This is the number one thing I wish we would have done. Our inspector caught a lot of important items, but also had a few big misses that added up to some serious dollars the first year we owned the home. I know when you are buying a home, spending another $600 or so on an inspection is not what your idea of well spent money, but trust me, it is very well spent. Inspectors are human beings, and can make mistakes. Also, if your inspection shows anything structural, get an engineer in there before you buy. This can have some serious dollars attached down the road, and it’s better to know up front. We used a traditional inspector, structural engineer and bug inspector.
2. Check for water filtration systems, especially if you are on well water
Yeah, so us city slickers bought a house with well water. It smelled like the most horrible rotten eggs you ever did smell. It was sulfur in the water, and our area had high sulfur. We washed our dishes in it and us. The smell was so strong we could barely stand it. I would never in a million years have guests over, the smell was gag worthy. Sulfer isn’t bad for you, but whoo-hoo, does it stink like all kinds of rotten. So, really good water filtration systems cost several thousands of dollars. You need one if you have well water, period. Ask what the yearly maintenance costs are when selecting a system.
3. Ask how long the house has been empty
We had a lot of issues because the house sat empty. The extreme sulfur smell, the bats in the attic (see item 4) and mold in the basement. I’m not saying these wouldn’t have happened if the house wasn’t empty, but I think it contributed in a big way to some of the issues we encountered. When a house is not used and systems just sit there, like no water circulation and no air circulation, and no human intervention for critters, problems start cropping up.
4. Rodent and bat infestations
HOLY &%$*!!!! We had 200 bats in our attic and they had been calling Stony Ford their home for YEARS. Normally, we think oh, no big deal, just kick them out or kill them. Wrong, wrong, wrong. We talked to so many people who asked us that and if you have bats, you have a big problem. They are an endangered species, so you can’t kill them. And you can only kick them out two times a year when they can relocate and don’t have any young. So, if you’re like us and find out you have 200 bats in the attic in the middle of the summer, you have to live with them, until the end of the summer when they can be kicked out. Then we had to pay for the clean up of the bat poop, which if disturbed, is toxic. Men is white suits climbed into our attic to hepa vac the bat poop. This was missed during the inspections, and I was pretty upset about it. It costs us thousands to remediate. Look for bat poop, it looks like mouse poop, only a bit longer. If you see evidence of it, check carefully.
5. Lead paint
Understand if you buy and old home you will probably be dealing with lead paint. If you have children this could, or couldn’t be a big deal. We have a lot of lead paint and have done a lot of research on remediation. It’s a long haul, and most of the work can be done by hardcore DIYers. You have to check your window casings and door frames carefully for chipping paint, or rubbing paint. I won’t go into a lot of detail, but if you see cracked paint or chipping flaking paint, ask some questions and have your inspector test it. I still buy a house if it had of lead paint, but I would want to know what kind of remediation project I’m getting into.
I get really bad migraines around mold and I knew the basement had mold when we first looked at the house. I was down there for 5 minutes and had a mind blowing headache. Again, the house sitting empty and not having good circulation, this can happen in living quarters or basements and attics. Mold remediation can be very expensive, but technology has come a long way. We didn’t have the option to remove materials since the mold was all over the beams and pipes. We had the mold heat treated so the treatment would get in every nook and cranny, plus a new air exchanger and dehumidifier installed. I don’t mess with my health and this was a must as soon as we moved in. Again, thousands of dollars.
7. Roof leaks and the ‘M’ word
So we had a roof leak and had to have a part of the roof replaced. Get two opinions if you have roof issues. Every person who looks at our roof has a different opinion. Then there is the ‘M’ word. Moisture. If you see signs of moisture, or mold: run. Ask questions, and the inspector should have a handy gadget he can use to test for the M word. Also if you have plaster walls and you see evidence of staining or moisture, ask where the source is located. I didn’t know it at the time but moisture, will make some paint peel, and we have this one area of the house where we’ve had gutter problems and leaking inside. If we had looked closely at the walls, we could have known to ask a lot more questions about the drainage and how much to repair it. The M word can lead to the other M word, mold, which again is expensive to remediate.
8. Storm windows and screens
One area we were really fortunate is our windows. We have all the original windows, and the couple that lived here before us made screens and storm windows. We’re adding weather stripping to those storm windows, and wow, what a great thing. I can’t imagine having a winter with out them. If the house you’re looking at doesn’t have these, get a cost for having them made. It’s expensive but so worth it. Some people asked us why not just get new windows. Cause our windows are beautiful and historic! I’d never take the character out of our house and change the windows! About 90% of our windows have the original wavy glass that’s really old!
9. Overall insulation
So heating a big old house is expensive. When we lived in Manhattan, and you told me the price of a martini was $22, I’d shrug. The rest of America would ask what’s wrong with me! My mind was programmed to look at the world through Manhattan prices. When I found out how much oil costs to heat a house I said WHAT?!?!?!? HOW MUCH?!?! I seriously couldn’t get over how much oil is cause I lived in an apartment and never had to pay an oil bill. Our house has no insulation, like none. After the bats in the attic, all the insulation had to be removed cause it was covered with bat poop. True story. If you have no insulation and live in a colder climate, plan on spending your life savings on it, cause you’ll love yourself later. And so will your oil bill.
10. Condition of walls and floors
This is where I get the ‘idiot’ stamp. Our house ‘looked’ nice when we walked through, a new coat of paint and it was livable, unlike other serious renovation projects we looked at. That’s until we saw the wall paper. Under the paint. Yes, that’s right. Painted over wall paper, sometimes two layers. We started painting a room that should have taken us two days and it took us two months cause we had to remove the wall paper and then skim coat all the walls. Oh yes, it took forever. And the whole house is like this. So it’s not a matter of throwing up a simple coat of paint. Same thing with the floors, they all need refinishing. Look at these things when you walk through the house. We are serious DIYers, but I even feel like I’m in over my head with this one.
If you’re an experienced old home owner, leave additional items in the comments so people will see them later! It’s great to have as a resource.