Older homes come with so much charm but they can come with a lot of challenges as well. It’s important to know what you are getting into before buying an older home.
I love vintage homes, especially ones from the 1930s-early 1960s. I spent part of my childhood in a home built in the 1940s and it was a beautiful home. And a few years ago my husband and I bought a home built in 1963.
There are added challenges with older homes though. If you are considering buying one you need to do a lot of research and be prepared for these challenges.
After doing a lot of research myself we decided to not look at homes built pre-1955. That helped reduce some of the risks I’m going to talk about. Depending on your knowledge level, stage of life, and how much work you are willing to do you may be willing to look at older homes or you may want to stick to even newer homes.
These challenges are some of the things you should consider when deciding if you want to buy an older home. Don’t let this blog post be your last research, this is just a good starting point.
Things You Need to Know Before Buying an Older Home
1. You need inspection or maybe two.
You always want to get an inspection before buying a home, it’s often required to get a mortgage. However, with an older home, this can be even more important.
When we were considering buying the home we currently own I did research and created a checklist to do my own mini-inspection. Things like checking under every sink looking for signs of past leaks, checking the windows and looking for water damage, seeing if doors stick, etc… It was a long list and a list that stopped us from considering another home we looked at before the one we ended up buying.
I also had my dad inspect the home, he even looked in the attic. He has worked on a lot of houses and is very handy so he knew a lot of things to look for.
Even with all of this we still had an official inspection done by a recommended inspector. I also went to the house to watch the inspection and beforehand researched what an inspector should be looking at to make sure everything was being covered.
This may seem like a lot but being very careful with inspections can save you a lot of money in the future. Some people even choose to pay for two inspections.
If your inspection turns up anything questionable you may want to have another expert check it out to find out how much a fix would likely cost. That way you know what you are in for if the seller doesn’t want to fix it before you buy.
2. It’s important to find out how long the home has been empty.
The longer a house sits empty the more likely you will find problems. Leaks can go unnoticed and can cause mold issues, pest and rodents can be more of an issue and a host of other issues.
This may not be enough to not buy the house but you will know to inspect the house even closer if it’s been empty for an extended period of time.
3. There is a good chance there is lead.
One big reason we choose not to look at homes that were built before 1955 is because of the lead risks. Lead paint wasn’t banned in homes until 1978. And even homes newer than that may have lead because people could have still had lead paint around that they used.
The reason we felt okay with looking at homes built after 1955 is that the industry adopted a voluntary standard limiting lead in paint. There was a big decrease in lead paint in homes after that point. Homes built before 1940 have an 87% chance of containing lead, 1940-1959 is a 69% chance and 1960-1977 drops to 24%.
We also don’t have children and I did look for signs of lead paint. There was no chipping paint, the windows are aluminum and not painted, the doors had not been painted until recently, and the whole house had been textured and painted recently.
I have a whole post on lead and buying older homes that will give you more info on the risks and how to be safe if you do choose to buy an older home. Read Protecting Your Family from Lead for more information.
Be aware it’s not just the paint that is an issue, tile, pipes and more can contain lead. This is an even bigger issue if you plan to remodel because that puts more lead dust into your environment and is the bigger risk for lead poisoning.
4. There can be asbestos.
Asbestos is very flame retardant, which is part of why it was commonly used in older homes. The only problem is when airborne the fibers can be inhaled and can lead to cancer.
Asbestos was banned in 1989 and many homes had it removed but not all. Good home inspectors can point out what looks like asbestos but you will need to have it tested to know for sure.
Another place you may find asbestos in older homes is in flooring. If it’s in good shape and you don’t plan to take it up it doesn’t pose a risk but it’s something to keep in mind if you are wanting to remodel.
Additional Resource: Asbestos Floor Tiles 101
5. Insurance costs may be higher.
If the electrical or plumbing systems haven’t been updated it may make homeowners insurance more expensive and some policies won’t cover damage caused by these old systems.
Consider getting quotes before you get too far into the process to make sure you are willing to pay that much or if you may want to do updates to the home to get the costs down.
6. You may have increased energy costs.
Most older homes are lacking in insulation and have leaky windows and doors. This can mean increased heating and cooling costs.
Many updates are low costs like adding weather stripping to windows and doors, even adding insulating isn’t a huge expense. If you really want to increase efficiency new double pane windows make a big difference but that is a large expense.
If you do buy an older home consider getting an energy audit to find out the best things you can do to make the home more energy efficient. Energy companies will sometimes do them for free.
7. You may need a water filtration system.
Older homes likely still have old plumbing systems and they can contain lead and other contaminants. And if the home has a well there can be other issues.
Many issues can be fixed with a good filtration system though you may also consider having the water tested to see what contaminants are in the water so you know the best way to deal with it.
8. Pests may be a big problem.
Older homes aren’t sealed as well as new homes and have had longer for pests to move in. This issue is even more likely if the home has sat empty for an extended period of time.
You want to be sure to get a pest inspection when considering an older home. This is not something covered in your home inspection but can be equally important.
Some pests do minimal to no damage and are easy to deal with but others like termites can do extensive damage that can cost you a lot of money in repairs. It’s good to know what you are getting into ahead of time.
9. You may need to update the electrical system.
Older homes didn’t need to power nearly as much as they do now and sometimes the old electrical system just can’t keep up with everything.
This is something you want to be sure the inspector is looking at. Sometimes it’s a safety issue but others it’s just an issue of how much you can run at once. For our home, we can’t run too many things that are on the same breaker at once. It took some time to figure out what that meant but now it’s not a big deal.
You also may need to fix outlets that are ungrounded and only two-pronged. Many things now need grounded outlets so this could be an issue when you go to plug in your TV or computer.
It’s pretty easy to fix ungrounded outlets so this is not likely a reason to not buy a home but it is something to take into consideration.
10. Look for hidden problems.
When looking at homes look closely. Sometimes your first walk through everything looks great but you may find more when you look closer.
We were seriously considering one house and really loved it our first time looking. We decided to go back for a second look and this time I brought my inspection list.
We found somethings inspectors would have found like signs of a hot water tank leak, a window that clearly had leaked, and things like that. We also found some cosmetic issues that an inspection wouldn’t catch.
Another house we looked at we noticed a lot of issues because the couple clearly was into DIY but wasn’t very good at it yet. The tile in the kitchen wasn’t straight and they hadn’t used spacers for the grout so it was different widths, and other details like that. The house was nice and the price was pretty good but we decided we didn’t want to spend the time or money fixing all of their DIY mistakes.
I’ve also heard of people finding wallpaper under the paint. And I’ve seen paint peeling off of trim and doors because they didn’t sand and prime before painting. So you have to look very closely.
None of this means you should only buy new homes but they are all things to keep in mind. The best way to not end up with extra expenses or even regretting your purchase is to be aware of these things.
I also recommend always hiring a real estate agent. I can not tell you how much I appreciated ours when we were house hunting. She helped us make sure we didn’t miss any steps and helped guide us through the whole process. Other than the home inspection I’d say that is the most important thing you can do when buying any home.