At Stonyford

10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Buying an Old House

No regrets. Old houses are amazing and unique, however here's what I wish I knew before we signed the contract.

// October 16, 2014

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.

6. Mold

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.

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  • Reply Anthony November 26, 2015 at 10:12 pm

    I really appreciated your List of Things to check. You were more in-depth than so many other web sites.

    Thank you

  • Reply Junaid December 17, 2015 at 10:22 pm

    It would have been nice if you uploaded some pictures 🙂

  • Reply Laurel Bern January 10, 2016 at 4:02 pm

    Terrific article and told in an engaging way. I guess so many of us love the charm of old homes. So many things cannot be replicated, but these are wonderful points to investigate before getting into something unmanageable! BTW, yes, I found you on OKL. It works. Love your instagram! Gorgeous photography!

  • Reply Zafar February 2, 2016 at 12:59 am

    ‘2 inspections…’ I was thinking of getting 2 inspections for an older house & your article validated my rationale.
    Great article.

  • Reply Brad Brinson February 3, 2016 at 4:52 pm

    I was surprised to see another Brinson!
    We are looking at an old house presently.
    Thanks for the tips!

  • Reply Mary March 17, 2016 at 3:17 pm

    This was excellent and very informative. I am looking at an old house in Mobile, Al and I am glad I read this.

  • Reply teresia April 6, 2016 at 3:35 am

    Good one.. Really helpful..

  • Reply SB & SC April 22, 2016 at 10:13 pm

    Thanks, we’re going to see a property tomorrow and this is useful. Agree, it would’ve been great to see some photos.

  • Reply Kristen April 23, 2016 at 1:03 pm

    Thank you, this article was way better than every other article I read on this subject. We’re looking at a 100-year-old home in De Soto, KS, and a 60-year-old home in Olathe, KS, today, and I made a whole checklist based off your post. Sorry about the bat problem. Doesn’t sound fun. We’ll watch out for signs of bats.

  • Reply Holley April 28, 2016 at 8:32 pm

    ShoooWeeee! I’m in Georgia and the humidity here is like living in a wet wool sock for about 6 months of the year. I’m going to take look at a 10 bedroom Victorian next week after about 5 days of predicted storms. It appears someone has done a lot of the stripping already and no refinishing. Don’t know if they got in over their heads or if they discovered something awful. I figure after that many days of relentless rain there’s no way to disguise any potential large scale leaks. Thank you for your list it was most helpful.

  • Reply Mrs. Mac Loud May 28, 2016 at 4:13 pm

    Very helpful post! Thank you!

  • Reply Michele July 21, 2016 at 3:21 am

    Another critical look out is the electrical. Not only should ALL of the wiring be inspected for integrity (rodents can reek havoc on old wires and new ones), but electrical boxes from the 1920s – or even the 1970s – are not designed to handle modern electrical demands. Blowing a fuse every time you vacuum a rug with a lamp on or the heater running sucks.
    Another thing to look out for are the trees around the house. Large, beautiful, old trees are a delight to look at and their shade is valuable in the summer, but dead branches or invasive roots can cost a small fortune when storm comes along and leaves a hole in your roof or blows a hole in the floor from a lightening strike.

    • Reply Susan Brinson July 21, 2016 at 1:39 pm

      Those are really good to look out for too. Especially if you have to replace electrical. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  • Reply Owen August 12, 2016 at 3:46 pm

    A couple other things to look at would be the septic system, they are out of sight out of mind but still need maintenance, and if there was anything done to the house in the 1960s and 70s you likely have asbestos.

    • Reply Catherine November 21, 2016 at 11:27 pm

      You peaked my interest at septic system as I had bought an old home and while the owner pleasantly promised all was well, it was not! Well went dry on the summer and septic eventually backed up onto my newly renovated bedroom and ensuite! Argh!
      I am now looking ay another home that was recently renovated (log) and I simply can’t get a straight answer 🙁
      I’d rather know up front if I have to fix something rather than find out the hard way…

  • Reply Richard September 21, 2016 at 12:42 pm

    Why daughter is in the process of buying a 90 year old home in Columbus, Ohio (German Village). We found old knob and tube wiring in the basement and attic, but the inspector said they were not energized. He could not guarantee there was not more behind the walls. Need to have an electrician look at the electrical panel to verify nomex wiring coming out and VERIFY your insurance is ok for coverage. Also, termites inspection.

  • Reply Sandi Weston September 30, 2016 at 3:49 am

    What do you mean by skim coating..We found our plaster walls ..wallpaper.and a few layers of paint too..

    • Reply Susan Brinson October 11, 2016 at 1:48 pm

      That’s awesome you found the original plaster! Skim coating is just applying a thin layer of new plaster to repair any cracks or imperfections. We normally have some pretty large cracks and will get the washers (I think they are officially called plaster anchors) and remove any loose plaster and secure cracked plaster. Then we’ll skim coat over that section of the wall. We make sure to apply 3 or 4 very thin coats of plaster and sand in between. This gives a nice smooth finish on the new plaster. Good luck! It’s a pretty easy fix that gives a few more decades to the existing plaster.

  • Reply Tina September 30, 2016 at 2:49 pm

    Thanks for the info… We are currently looking at a home in New England built in 1760.
    The first thing we noticed when we looked at the property was woodpeckers… wholes in the front
    columns and in the barn walls. Also, I think we are going to schedule a second viewing after a day and a half of rain that is expected this weekend. Will keep you posted.

    • Reply Susan Brinson October 11, 2016 at 1:39 pm

      Woodpeckers?! I’ve heard about this in wooden houses though never seen it. We have chipmunks from time to time. Curious to know how to get rid of those wood peckers. Good luck!

      • Reply Dan January 8, 2017 at 11:57 pm

        My guess not wood peckers but wood bees.

  • Reply Sheri November 24, 2016 at 4:09 pm

    Awesome list! I’m looking to by a 1920’s house in Northern California so this is very helpful. I would also add Termites to your critter list! They can do quite a bit of damage to the structure so a good inspection and tenting if necessary is critical.

  • Reply Sara December 12, 2016 at 3:48 pm

    We’re getting ready to buy a house built in 1870 and it’s sure to be an adventure! We did go with just one inspection but along with that my husband and father-in- law are in the construction industry and also have done several walk through (my husband went through with the inspector and actually found a few things that he missed lol). Well/septic inspection is required (county ordinance), by the local health inspector and we just got that back this past weekend and everything passed with flying colors-we were nervous about that so very relieved!

    Going into it we know we need to do roof and wood siding repairs, and then things like a new furnace/water heater. Those things will keep us busy over the next few months and then the fun stuff comes-like knocking out walls and gutting out bathrooms 🙂

    And I had to laugh about the paint over wallpaper-first thing we noticed when we walked into the bedrooms is that they wallpapered the CEILINGS and then painted them over-seriously who does that?! My father-in-law actually climbed up on a piece of furniture and chipped some away to see what was going on (we neglected to tell the owner we did this lol). We’re probably going to have to rip most of the ceilings out anyways, so not too big of a deal but what were they thinking?! lol.

    • Reply Susan Brinson December 12, 2016 at 4:38 pm

      This sounds super exciting! That’s awesome you have family members in the construction industry. So you’ve caught my design nerdiness with the wall paper ceilings. Depending on when they were wall papered, do you suspect that’s the original Victorian wall paper? Or something crazy from the 1960s/70s? There is this guy, Christopher Dresser, who wrote a book called Studies in Design (1875) and he had a lot of wall papered ceilings in his designs. The whole book is an interesting read. Dresser was quite radical for Victorian times, designing modernist items before the Bauhaus. When you take the ceilings down, see if you can get a look at the wall paper. You’ll know if you had a radical Victorian or 60s/70s on your hands. 🙂 Have fun! Curious to know what you find!!!

  • Reply Gina-Lee Glass January 3, 2017 at 2:28 pm

    About a year and a half ago, we purchased a Colonial Revival that was built by the town’s founder’s direct descendent (follow?), in the very early 1900s. Well, at least part of the house and there’s the rub with an old home. The house is connected to Long Island history and the horse society of an earlier age (we had polo grounds…before remainder we of the 50 aces were parceled off in the 1980s), and yet can be a beast to research with any accuracy. My husband recently retired from 30 years in the Navy and having zero connection to New York, we simply fell in love with this old house and dove in with faith. Her bad kitchen. Her peeling wallpaper. Her old servants’ wing. Her three floors. We thought a project would be great ( because five daughters, including a two year old and a puppy weren’t enough). End game? Love, yes, but also a colossal money pit. Do get a second inspection. We regret this point. You WILL grab your aching chest when you start to pay for the oil bill to heat and the electrical bill for all of those lovely box air conditioners. We are in the middle of an enormous kitchen gut. Most of the work is being done by us and even then, the budget will be doubled. It was an act of God that the kitchen walls held up the second floor for all the rot. We took down THREE layers of ceiling, two of walls, and two of floor(or was it three?). Respect the home’s period without turning it into a museum.This isn’t a place for full-on trends. My point is made and I am in utter agreement with you. Susan. These homes can be a dream come true but buyer beware. It’s simply not for the faint of heart. Mad commitment and a crazed tool arsenal is required.
    Susan. Love your reads and your style and your sense of humor. I feel as though these homes require a sense of humor-especially a sense of humor!

    • Reply Susan Brinson January 3, 2017 at 3:55 pm

      Gina! Thanks so much for sharing your story! I love hearing about your house and the challenges. Keeps me motivated when we are having a hard time. I’ll just think: well, Gina did this with 5 kids and a puppy, we must power through! 🙂 We take on projects like that and honestly ask our selves what the heck we were thinking when we agreed to do them! And yes, these homes are not for the faint of heart. You have to really love living in a unique home and dealing with the challenges of the home having multiple owners and renovation styles.

      Thanks for reading! And best of luck with your home!

  • Reply Christina Carroll January 8, 2017 at 3:57 pm

    Oh my goodness, thank you for the original post, and all the added comments. Very insightful and extremely helpful!! I’m so glad I googled a simple question!! I never thought I’d get a wealth of information.
    After a decade of renting we are looking at purchasing another home. So now comes the huge undertaking and emotional rollercoaster. I’m excited, and nervous. We are looking at our first house, built in 1910, next week and I want to go as prepared as possible. We aren’t moving far (from NH to ME) but being a minimum of a 3 hour ride, I want to have my thoughts organized with pen and paper in hand.
    Thank you again.

    • Reply Susan Brinson January 8, 2017 at 5:52 pm

      Congrats on looking at old homes Christina! The comments are the gold here – they discuss so many scenarios. Good luck on finding your perfectly imperfect new-old home. 🙂

  • Reply Dalyn Jenkins March 7, 2017 at 12:35 am

    Inspection on a beautiful house in Sanford around tbe turn of the century. The inspector had me come outside when I had arrived to go over the inspection. He told me the minor things..all the windows were painted shut, there were no smoke detectors, the electrical had been updated… horribly, no plugs were grounded, all wires were exposed (no conduit) things that shouldn’t be hard wired were, and best of all tbe left the old knob and tube wiring….active and in the active had blown in insulation over part of it. Just a tinderbox ready to set fire…. i decided to stay far away.

  • Reply Lynne Woods March 8, 2017 at 4:17 pm

    It’s hard not to fall in love with some of these old homes I find on the east coast when I’m searching the realty sites. I’m a city girl from the west, and I know absolutely nuthin’ about wells, septic tanks, knob & tube wiring or really cold weather. I do know about painted over wallpaper though! It’s kind of like childbirth. Once you’re finished, you forget the bad stuff. But seriously, thanks for a great starting point. Not sure if this is just a pipe dream, but it’s good to know what you’re up against.

  • Reply Jennie March 10, 2017 at 4:11 am

    Great list! I disagree about the well water, though–I grew up on well water, and it’s city water I can’t stand!

  • Reply Pam March 27, 2017 at 2:53 pm

    I’d have to agree with Jennie about the well water. Not all well water is high sulphur, hard or bad tasting. It can depend on many things like location, what type of geological formation your well is drilled into or even sometimes what type of well you have. So a filtration system isn’t always required. Just get your water tested and bring a cup with you when viewing houses hahaha that’s what I’m doing!

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  • Reply Brooke April 7, 2017 at 1:31 pm

    Sewer! My 100 year old house needed the sewer line replaced 5 weeks after I moved in. The home inspector did not run the water non-stop during the inspection. Had he done that, I could have had the line scoped and would have seen it needed to be replaced, saving me $4K. Also, if you want something done and your realtor gives you crap about it – stand your ground or move on to another realtor. Mine didn’t order the sewer line scope I asked for…

  • Reply Jaime April 18, 2017 at 11:36 pm

    This list is spot on! I only wish I had read it before buying my 120 year old house that has 2 other 120 year old houses on the property ?
    I have a toddler and a 5 month old and just moved in 6 months ago. We are not handy and in over our heads. I hope it’s worth it one day.

  • Reply Taylor P. April 25, 2017 at 10:28 pm

    Love this list- such a great idea!
    I will add this- ask your realtor if the house you’re considering is in the local “historic district”- we thought this was just a quaint distinction when we bought our house. but it turned out there is a robust list of town regulations on renovating any part of the house visible from the street. We are required to present all plans from our contractors to the historic district committee for approval, which requires application fees and reservations on the monthly agendas plus in-person attendance from homeowner and contractor.
    There are stiff penalties for those who ignore these rules. Caveat emptor!

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  • Reply Jon O'Connell June 11, 2017 at 2:41 am

    Thanks for explaining some of the details involved with buying an old home, I’m sure people would find very useful information from this blog.

  • Reply vanessa June 16, 2017 at 1:31 pm

    I am living this right now, my dream of buying a vintage home in the historic area of my town came true. But its a nightmare our inspector didn’t find anything to bad, the owners agreed to fix everything he found. Well we should have also done a water line inspection and a mold inspection. After moving in and gutting a bathroom that had been remodeled in the 80’s. Our contractor found a bunch of stuff and now the AC went out and its summer. I am not sure if It will ever stop. So my recommendations are 2 inspections, Have a contractor also walk the house you will not believe what they find that the inspector did not even notice, Septic inspection, mold inspection, and roof.

    • Reply William Brinson June 17, 2017 at 8:31 am

      We hear you. We are about 3 1/2 years in and it does get better. Just take it one step at a time and remember everything you do is making it more and more your home. And look at the great crazy stories you’ll have as well 😉

  • Reply Cecelia June 16, 2017 at 1:38 pm

    Yes, Susan, your wrote so vividly. It’s like I was right there with you. Thank you. One definitely needs a second opinion, especially when it comes to the roof. Trained eyes are able to see what a regular home-owner cannot. It, therefore, cannot be over-emphasized the importance of a second opinion. I would like to add another point about viewing. Weird as it may sound, it’s also good to get a night view of the property, like just after dusk or just after a shower of rain. You are more likely to see baths, rats and other pesky creatures that you may not want to become a part of your family and whether the trees or vegetation affects the amount of moonlight/street lights/outdoor lights that the grounds get. Rainfall will not only show leaks and dampness but how much will come in through window and door crevices, how much comes in on porches and balconies and how much stays on walkways to or around the house.

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