Buying an Old House? – Common Problems, Hidden Costs & Benefits


America has lots of old houses. According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average owner-occupied structure is about 40 years old in 2016. For reference, that’s higher than the U.S. median age of 38.8.

In some parts of the country, the housing stock is far older. On average, owner-occupied housing in New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania is more than 50 years old. Though there are exceptions to the rule, homes tend to be older throughout the Northeast and Midwest and in urban cores across the country.

By contrast, newer homes and bona fide new construction homes are more common in Southern and Western cities in general, and in suburban and exurban communities across the country. For example, the median age of owner-occupied homes in Nevada is barely 20 years old.

What Counts As an Older Home?

As a general rule of thumb, homes built after 1990 are considered newer, and homes built before 1940 are considered old or antique. But housing age is a subjective condition that turns on numerous factors, including construction style and quality, local climate and geology, and work done over the life of the home.

The most important factors include:

  • Construction style and quality. Prefabricated and mobile homes are generally constructed to lower quality standards than solidly built Tudors, Craftsmans, or Colonials. Mass-produced houses, which tend to be newer, can have quality issues as well. However, custom-built new homes may be constructed even more solidly and durably than older homes. Ultimately, construction quality comes down to the quality of the materials used and the skill and diligence of the builders.
  • Climate and geology. Climate — particularly humidity, temperature extremes, and storms — accelerate the aging process. Homes in the eastern half of the U.S. are more likely to experience problems attributable to these issues, such as roof damage and basement or foundation moisture, than homes in coastal California cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles. Geological factors that can accelerate the aging process include seismic activity, sinkholes and limestone geology, and high water tables.
  • Renovations. In some cases, antique homes are updated so dramatically that it’s difficult to define their age any longer. For instance, my wife’s parents owned a farmhouse built in the 1880s. But successive owners thoroughly updated, modernized, and expanded the house over the years. In fact, the only original components were an old cinder block foundation and basement (now completely encased by a newer, expanded foundation and basement) and a few structural supports rising above the original footprint. Most other components dated from the 1970s or later. So is it really fair to say the house was an original 1880s farmhouse?

Common Older Home Problems & Potential Solutions

Even well-maintained older homes can present problems that owners of newer homes simply don’t need to deal with. These include health hazards such as asbestos and mold, serious pest problems that can lead to structural issues, and issues with utility systems like wiring and plumbing.

1. Lead and Asbestos

Lead and asbestos are two hazardous materials that were used in residential applications until relatively recently.

Lead is a neurotoxic metal that’s particularly harmful to children. It’s commonly found in exterior and interior paint made before 1978. It’s also found in substantial quantities in pre-World War II plumbing systems and in smaller quantities in water pipes installed before the mid-1980s.

Asbestos is a naturally occurring fibrous material that causes a serious form of lung cancer and other respiratory problems. It was a ubiquitous insulation and fireproofing material until the mid-1970s. Successive EPA actions banned most asbestos applications by the late 1980s, but the agency never required building owners to remove existing asbestos products. Accordingly, many older crawlspaces, walls, and pipes still contain asbestos insulation.

If you determine that you need professional help to deal with either of these environmental issues, use a resource like HomeAdvisor to find reputable, pre-vetted contractors in your area.

Possible Solutions: Lead Paint

When you buy a home built before 1978, you’re usually required to affirm your understanding that the home may contain lead paint. If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of coexisting with lead paint, invest in professional lead paint removal services.

According to HouseLogic, professional removal of lead paint costs $8 to $15 per square foot, or about $10,000 for a typical whole-house project. The medical literature isn’t conclusive on the matter, and some housing experts say it’s fine to leave lead in place as long as it’s not disturbed. But removal is recommended for homeowners with small children.

Possible Solutions: Lead Plumbing

If your home’s plumbing system is very old, it could still contain measurable quantities of lead. The most cost-effective way to deal with this is a water filtration system, either for the entire house ($1,000 to $3,000, depending on house size and system quality) or the kitchen tap ($200 to $1,000, depending on brand and quality).

Replacing the home’s entire piping system is the only way to ensure totally lead-free water, but doing so can cost upwards of $10,000.

If your home is older but has had significant plumbing upgrades — plastic-looking or shiny copper pipes being giveaways — then the only remaining lead elements could be in the service line branching out from the water main under your street. That bad news is that replacing a service line means digging up your front yard or sidewalk (or both) at significant expense: anywhere from $3,000 to $5,000 for a short line to $15,000 or more for a longer line.

Fortunately, more and more states and cities subsidize lead service line replacement costs, so check with your local water department or state health department before paying out of pocket.

Possible Solutions: Asbestos

Though direct, prolonged exposure to asbestos is a serious health hazard, insulation tucked away in inaccessible walls is not likely to pose a direct risk. However, removal is recommended if you plan on knocking down walls, expanding your home’s footprint, or attempting other expansive projects likely to uncover asbestos-laden material.

Asbestos removal costs vary greatly by project size and location. The general range is $5 to $20 per square or linear foot, which doesn’t really narrow it down. Think of it this way: a single pipe or wall runs in the high three- or low four-figure range, while a whole-house project costs $10,000 to $30,000, depending how extensive the asbestos is.


2. Termite Damage

Over time, termites can devastate homes’ wooden and wood-like components, including floors, structural supports, and drywall. The problem is particularly acute in the southern half of the country, where termites are active for most or all of the year. Older homes are more likely to have active termite infestations or preexisting termite damage due to compromised foundations or drywall.

Depending on the length and severity of the infestation, termite damage repairs can range from cosmetic fixes (such as replacing damaged floorboards) that cost a few hundred dollars to structural remediation projects that can cost $10,000 or more.

Signs of termite damage include:

  • Sagging or buckling floors
  • Pinpoint holes in drywall
  • Hollow-sounding wood supports or floorboards
  • Bubbling or peeling paint

Possible Solutions: Prevention

Prevention is the cheapest and least invasive termite solution:

  • Remove all loose wood vectors — including shrubbery, mulch, building materials, and stacked firewood — from contact with the lowermost portion of your house.
  • Prevent water from pooling near or against your home’s foundation by filling in low ground or installing a surface drainage system.
  • Use treated lumber (toxic to termites) for decks and other wooden structures attached to your house.
  • Remove dead stumps and root systems from areas near the house.
  • Seal visible foundation cracks, which provide ready entry for termites.

Your prevention costs depend on what’s necessary. They range from basically free (if you don’t account for the value of your time) for removing shrubbery and mulch, to a few thousand dollars for termite-proof decks or elaborate drainage systems.

Possible Solutions: Ongoing Infestations

For infestations in progress, hire a pest control professional to shrink or eliminate the colony. Exterminators typically charge $3 to $20 per linear foot (as measured around the home’s perimeter), according to HomeAdvisor. The average home’s perimeter ranges from 150 to 200 feet, so expect comprehensive treatment to cost anywhere from $450 to $3,200.

Bear in mind that your actual all-in cost will depend on the foundation type, the infestation’s severity, and the treatment type used. Chemical, tenting, and bait treatments tend to be cheaper than heat or fumigation.

If you catch the problem before you buy, perhaps during a professional home inspection (which costs $200 to $500 and is highly advisable before you purchase a home anyway), get a repair estimate from a general contractor. Then negotiate with the seller to cover part or all of the repair costs, as well as the cost of professional pest control services if the infestation is still in progress.


3. Mold and Mildew Damage

Over time, homes exposed to excessive moisture often develop mold and mildew problems. Though particularly common in basements and bathrooms of wet-climate homes, moisture-related microorganism growth can occur anywhere. The problem is more likely to occur in old homes because moisture more readily seeps through cracked foundations and leaky pipes. However, since infestations can start inside walls, it’s possible to walk through a mold-infested older home for sale without realizing there’s a problem.

While small amounts of indoor mold growth are permissible and even expected, uncontrolled growth can worsen allergies and other respiratory problems (such as asthma) even in healthy children and adults. More serious infections can develop in the very young, the very old, and those with compromised immune systems.

Also, mold eats away at its host surfaces, particularly wood, drywall, grout, and other porous or semiporous substances. Unchecked mold infestations can cause structural problems and render a home temporarily or permanently uninhabitable.

Possible Solutions

Your mold and mildew solution will depend on the severity of the problem:

  • Prevention: As with termite infestations, the best solution to mold and mildew is prevention. Buying a dehumidifier (anywhere from $100 to $500 new, plus $30 to $100 in annual electricity costs) for your basement or crawlspace can work wonders. Ensuring proper ventilation through a combination of floor or ceiling fans and open windows during dry, mild weather can help on higher floors.
  • Minor Infestations: You can treat small mold infestations, such as on an isolated area of a basement or bathroom wall, with store-bought mold spray, abrasive sponges or brushes, kitchen gloves, and lots of elbow grease.
  • Major Infestations.: For larger infestations, the spray-and-scrub approach is impractical. According to HGTV, whole-home mold remediation can cost as much as $5,000 and possibly more if the infestation affects hard-to-reach areas like the attic, basement crawl spaces, or inside the walls. To reduce remediation costs, make sure your homeowners insurance policy covers mold cleanup before you buy an older home, and consider switching policies (using a comparison engine like PolicyGenius to save time) if your policy doesn’t.

4. Plumbing Problems

The biggest danger of an old or substandard plumbing system is the possibility of a pipe failure that floods the home or causes major water damage in the walls and floors. A serious failure can temporarily render the home uninhabitable and cost tens of thousands of dollars to clean up, though the damage is often covered by homeowners insurance. It can also cause longer-term problems, such as mold infestations.

Before purchasing an older home, ask the seller how old the plumbing system is and about the material used in supply (fresh water) and drainage pipes. Whereas brass and copper pipes typically last 50 years or more, steel pipes can wear out after as little as 20, according to HouseLogic. Pipes made from PEX, an increasingly common plastic material in fresh water piping, typically last 40 or 50 years.

Special care is warranted if your drainage pipes are made of polybutylene, a grayish, flexible plastic material used from the 1970s to the 1990s. Chlorine, which is found in bleach and other household cleaners, corrodes polybutylene pipes over time and can lead to spontaneous failure.

Root damage is another old home plumbing issue that’s particularly common in heavily vegetated neighborhoods — which also tend to be older and thus have more old houses. Over time, tree roots work their way into older drainage pipes under or outside the home’s foundation, busting through pipe joints and tapping the year-round supply of nutrient-rich water flowing within.

Without proper maintenance, this leads to clogs and backups that can interrupt washing routines and cause water damage in low-lying parts of the house. Remember that tree roots can travel a long way underground. There may be no obvious culprit near your main drain outlet, but that mature tree across the street or around the side of your house could be responsible.

Possible Solutions: Pipes

If you’re eying a home with polybutylene pipes, ask the seller to install (and pay for) new pipes or knock the replacement costs off the purchase price. If they refuse, consider whether you can put up with the inconvenience and cost of replacing the pipes yourself, which you should do as soon as your budget allows to minimize failure risk.

For other common pipe materials, you simply need to ascertain the system’s age and target a date several years before the end of its life expectancy. If you plan on still owning the house when that date arrives, begin saving for a full system replacement now, keeping in mind the effects of inflation.

In a 1,500 square-foot house with two bathrooms, whole-house pipe replacement costs range from $4,000 to $10,000, according to HouseLogic. The exact amount depends on the pipe material and number of water fixtures. Larger homes and homes with more bathrooms cost more than $10,000, so budget accordingly.

Possible Solutions: Root Damage

Root damage fixes can be even costlier. Replacing a root-infested main drain pipe typically requires excavation, a notorious cost multiplier. Expect to pay up to $25,000 if the repair crew needs to dig under the slab or dig a trench in your front yard. Other factors include the length of the pipe and required depth of excavation.

Root-and-line jobs, which remove existing roots and install impermeable liners that prevent further intrusion, are nearly as expensive: $5,000 to $15,000, on average.

Periodic root removals are much easier on the wallet: anywhere from a couple hundred bucks to around $1,000, depending on the severity of the problem. But they need to be repeated every couple years, and even then, the problem slowly worsens over time.


5. Foundation or Structural Problems

Over time, nature catches up with even the most solidly built homes. Older homes are prone to a variety of foundation and structural problems, such as:

  • Major cracks or unevenness in the slab or perimeter foundation wall
  • Corrosion, dry rot, or moisture damage in pilings or concrete foundation supports
  • Damaged piers (support footings)
  • Dry rot or moisture damage in above-ground studs

These issues are particularly common, and tend to occur sooner, in regions with abundant soil moisture, unstable bedrock, seismic activity, and other perils. Though alert homeowners generally catch structural problems before they render homes uninhabitable, remediation is costly and inconvenient.

Signs of foundation or structural problems include:

  • Doors that jam or fail to latch (though this can be a sign of localized moisture damage too)
  • Visible diagonal wall cracks that grow over time
  • Visible cracks wider than 1/8″ in basement or crawlspace walls
  • Cracked tile or concrete floors
  • Persistently stuck windows (also a possible sign of localized moisture damage)
  • Floors that are bowed or have a clear slope in one direction
  • Unexplained water in your basement or sealed crawlspace, especially after heavy rain or snowmelt

Possible Solutions

Any apparent foundation or structural issue requires an expert opinion from a structural engineer ($500, on average). Addressing a modest foundation issue, such as a crack in the perimeter wall, can cost a few hundred dollars. More serious problems, such as uneven soil that requires support piers underneath the foundation, can cost $10,000 or more. And in seismically active areas, foundation anchor bolts are required or recommended — at a cost of at least $1,500 apiece. Many homeowners insurance policies don’t cover these costs.

If the foundation requires extensive repair or wholesale replacement, costs can quickly escalate. Expect to pay a minimum of $25,000 and as much as $100,000 to raise your home and replace the foundation, per HomeAdvisor. Again, homeowners insurance often doesn’t cover these costs. If you’re seriously thinking about buying an older home with obvious foundation damage, factor repair costs into your offer price or ask the seller to address the problems before closing.

Also, note that the cost of repairing secondary issues related to foundation damage (such as damaged upper-level flooring, walls, and doors) varies greatly and can add thousands or tens of thousands of dollars to your project. So the total bill to make your home “like new” after a full foundation replacement — assuming that’s even possible — could well exceed $100,000.


6. Radon

Radon is a radioactive gas that occurs naturally in certain types of bedrock. An Environmental Protection Agency shows elevated radon potential across broad swathes of the Northeast, Midsouth, Midwest, and Intermountain West, but it can occur anywhere.

Radon enters homes through cracks in the foundation perimeter and basement walls, which are more common in older homes. The gas then circulates throughout poorly ventilated houses over time. Though it’s not acutely toxic and has little impacton health when encountered intermittently and in small doses, radon is the leading cause of lung cancer for nonsmokers. Exposure over the generally accepted safe concentration is not recommended for long periods.

Possible Solutions

Radon mitigation typically involves capturing gas in the soil or rock surrounding the foundation and piping it up to a rooftop vent, then sealing foundation cracks to prevent further leakage. It can also involve installing one or more depressurization vents outside the house (venting radon before it reaches the foundation), as well as negative-pressure fans that essentially blow radon from the basement or lowest level back into the soil.

According to Kansas State University, the average cost of a radon mitigation system is about $1,200. But the actual cost can vary between a few hundred dollars to more than $3,000, depending on the home’s size, foundation type, and the problem’s severity.

Amazon sells radon testing kits for less than $20, though you may need to pay to ship the kit to a certified lab for analysis. Still, your all-in cost should be under $50, making for an inexpensive way to see if you need to call in the professionals.


7. Roof Problems

Older homes tend to have older, possibly deteriorating roofs. This presents numerous problems, including pest infestations, interior water damage, and less-effective insulation. Problems stemming from a compromised roof, particularly once interior leaks begin occurring regularly, can cost tens of thousands of dollars to fix and may not be covered by homeowners insurance.

Warning signs of potential roof issues include:

  • Missing or damaged shingles
  • Crumbling roof cement
  • Bowed or sagging gutters
  • Persistent moisture in the attic
  • Evidence of water damage in the upper floors
  • Critters in the attic or upper crawlspaces

Possible Solutions

Before you buy an older home, assess the roof’s age and condition to the best of your ability. Unless the seller put the roof on, they might not be aware of when it was installed, so consider hiring a roof inspector ($100 to $800) if there are obvious signs of wear.

Next, consider the likely lifespan of your current roof and its potential replacement:

  • Shingles. On sloping roofs, asphalt shingles typically remain in good shape for 15 to 20 years. Treated wood shingles last 20 to 30 years.
  • Metal. Metal roofs are typically warranted for 20 to 40 years, though they often last longer and require little maintenance.
  • Tile and stone. Tile and stone roofs can last up to 100 years with proper installation and maintenance.

Within these categories, construction quality matters. For example, on sloping shingle roofs, a rubber or thermoplastic coating layer can mean the difference between a roof that goes bust at 15 years and one that keeps on chugging well beyond that. Of course, no matter the material, a roof’s actual lifespan depends on installation quality, prior maintenance record, roof slope, and local climate.

Replacement costs vary greatly by material, but you can expect to spend anywhere from $5,000 to more than $15,000 to replace an entire asphalt shingle roof. Slate (stone) roofs cost $20,000 to $40,000 to replace, on average. In both cases, inflation has done a number on project budgets due to surging material costs.

If the roof’s problems are confined to a small area and the roof isn’t near the end of its predicted lifespan, you can save money by replacing or repairing only the damaged section. If the roof is older or widely damaged, it makes long-term financial sense to replace the entire thing, or at least one whole side.


8. Inefficient Windows

Old homes are more likely to have older, inefficient windows. The primary downside of inefficient windows is higher electricity bills because the home’s climate control system has to work harder to compensate for leaks.

According to the Federal Government’s ENERGY STAR program, installing the most efficient class of windows in your entire home can reduce your annual electric bill by as much as $600, depending on the size of your home and where you live. You may also be eligible to claim federal tax credits under the Inflation Reduction Act, up to $1,200 per project. This credit must be shared with other types of projects, such as wall and attic insulation, if you’re doing more than one in a single tax year).

Possible Solutions

Address inefficient windows temporarily with passive heating and cooling methods, such as shutting windows and blinds on hot days and opening them at night, and by using plastic film ($10 to $20, on average) to seal leaks during the winter. Sealing cracks around your windows and reinforcing your home’s insulation, a more permanent solution, can cost upward of $1,000.

The ultimate leaky-windows solution is simply to replace old windows with more efficient ones. While judicious window replacement is often cited as one of the top home improvement projects to reduce long-term homeownership costs, bear in mind that super-efficient windows are costly. Installing them in your entire house could set you back $10,000 or more, meaning you might never earn back your investment even after accounting for the tax credits and energy savings.


9. Inadequate or Unsafe Electrical Systems

Electrical problems fall into two categories: convenience and safety.

First, convenience: Unless their electrical systems have been updated, older homes lack sufficient numbers of electrical outlets to address our collective addiction to electronic devices. They might also not have enough power supply to handle energy-hungry modern appliances, such as whole-house heat pumps, induction stoves, and electric vehicle chargers.

Second, and even more importantly, safety: The lifespan of electrical wiring itself is limited by the lifespan of the wire’s insulation. Wiring installed before 1960 lasts roughly 70 years, while newer wiring is estimated to last at least 100 years. Once the insulation deteriorates to the point that the actual wire is exposed, the risk of electrical fire, shocks, short circuits, and localized (single- or multiroom) power failures increases dramatically. Don’t let your home’s wiring reach that point.

Electrical service panels and circuit breakers are also prone to deterioration. Service panels last 60 or 70 years, while breakers last 30 or 40. Failing panels and breakers can cause shock, power failure, fire, and other dangers.

Note that water damage, fire, pest infestation, and other unusual events can harm some or all of an electrical system’s components, necessitating repair or replacement long before they reach their life expectancy.

Possible Solutions

Electrical work is dangerous and confusing for novices, so avoid taking the DIY route with your electrical project. Instead, hire a licensed electrician.

A qualified electrician typically takes 30 to 60 minutes to install a single outlet, at a cost of anywhere from about $100 to about $500, but the average cost is on the lower side of this range. If a new circuit is required, the cost will be higher, though not excessively so.

A new service panel starts at about $900, but a higher-amp option (which may be required for high-power appliances) costs more: up to $2,500 for new 200-amp service and up to $4,000 for new 400-amp service.


10. Failing or Inefficient Mechanicals and Appliances

Old homes are more likely to have old mechanical equipment, such as water heaters, furnaces, and air conditioning units, as well as older household appliances. Mechanical and appliance lifespan varies by item, brand, and workload. On average, expect major mechanical equipment and appliances to age as follows:

  • Water heater: 10 to 15 years
  • Furnace: 15 to 30 years
  • Central air conditioning system: 15 to 25 years
  • Refrigerator: 15 to 20 years
  • Washers and dryer: 10 to 15 years

Equipment near the end of its useful life is more prone to failure, raising the possibility of an inconvenient or dangerous situation — such as the heat going out in the dead of winter or an electrical fire — that needs to be addressed immediately. Moreover, older equipment is usually less energy-efficient, resulting in ballooning utility costs.

Possible Solutions

Older homes with recently updated mechanical equipment and appliances typically fetch a premium. If you’re fine with buying older mechanicals and appliances, research each unit and determine about how much longer it can be expected to last. Draw up a replacement schedule commensurate with your time horizon and begin saving for the most pressing projects. If your furnace has 15 years left and you plan on selling in five, replacement isn’t necessary.

Mechanical and appliance replacement costs vary by item and brand.

Natural gas furnaces cost about $3,000 to $7,000, on average, with existing ductwork. Heat pumps may cost less if they can be tied into existing ductwork. Ductless heat pumps typically cost $5,000 or more per zone, though you may get a deal on systems with three or more zones. Heat pumps have lower operating costs because they’re much more efficient than either gas or traditional electric heaters, however.

Efficient tankless water heaters can cost as much as $6,000, though the average installation cost (per Fixr) is closer to $3,000. Traditional gas or electric tank heaters cost even less, in the $1,000 to $2,500 range. A heat pump water heater costs $2,000 to $5,000, but the lifetime operating costs are lower than gas or traditional electric.

Thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act, your heat pump purchase may qualify for an impressive federal tax credit — up to $2,000 or 30% of the total project cost. State tax credits and utility rebates may stack on top of this incentive, saving you up to $8,000 in some places. So even if the out of pocket cost is a bit higher, your net cost is likely to be lower than a conventional appliance.

If you plan ahead to replace your old water heater or laundry machine, finding room in your household budget won’t be an impossible task. Set up an interest-bearing, FDIC-insured savings or money market account earmarked specifically for the project.

But an unexpected replacement can really set you back, particularly if there’s damage involved. A family friend recently had to replace his old dryer after a massive electrical fire was sparked by faulty wiring and exacerbated by a clogged dryer vent. Including cleanup, the bill came to more than $20,000, though his homeowners insurance policy covered most of the cost.


11. Unhelpful, Unfinished, or Outdated Updates

Older homes typically have more than one previous resident, and sometimes a lot more. All those past homeowners had license to do what they wished with the property.

While many older homes retain the charm and function of their original construction, others have a host of unhelpful or anachronistic updates that detract from the homeowner’s experience and potentially add to the cost of ownership. Particularly costly updates that may need to be rectified shortly after moving in include:

  • Poorly designed, inadequate, or simply tasteless kitchens
  • Illegal basement bedrooms (lacking egress windows, for instance)
  • Incomplete projects, such as a partially finished basement or partially laid patio

Before we bought our current house, my wife and I went to an open house at a 100-year-old home with a half-finished basement, half-finished screen porch, and a literally transparent exterior paint job. The home had been purchased just a few months earlier for far less than the current asking price, suggesting the current owner had attempted to flip the house and had become overwhelmed. Our real estate agent remarked, “It looks like this guy ran out of money and bailed.”

Possible Solutions

As long as they’re not unsafe, you can live with unhelpful or outdated features until you have room in your budget to fix them. The cost of said fixes varies widely. A full kitchen update typically runs north of $20,000, while replacing outdated moldings or rectifying a hideous interior paint job might cost only a few hundred.

Half-finished add-ons, such as the porch at the abandoned flip mentioned above, are another matter. They can be unsafe, particularly for small children, and may provide access points for insects and rodents. Think twice about buying an older home with too many wonky updates or haphazard design touches, as they often disguise bigger problems.

For instance, we found out later that the abandoned flip had serious foundation problems that would cost tens of thousands of dollars to fix. The scale of the foundation issue likely compelled the flipper to walk away from the property before completing the job.


12. Substandard or Unsafe Features

Older homes sometimes have too much charm. Depending on the style, location, and history of a particular house, some original features may be obsolete, not up to current building codes, or actually unsafe. Examples include:

  • Old laundry chutes
  • Servants’ staircases
  • Staircases leading nowhere (commonplace in houses that were once divided into multiple dwelling units)
  • Steep staircases
  • Low ceilings
  • Blocked-off chimneys
  • Nonworking fireplaces

Our current home is by far the nicest place we’ve ever lived, but it nevertheless has a steep, winding staircase we’d feel uncomfortable allowing a toddler to traverse, as well as an obsolete chimney that’s showing early signs of deterioration.

Possible Solutions

Many jurisdictions are lenient about substandard or against-code features in owner-occupied residences, relative to rental or commercial properties. Accordingly, you likely won’t be required to fix such issues after taking possession of your older home unless they threaten other properties (for example, by directing excessive storm runoff toward neighboring foundations). However, fixing these issues can preserve or increase your home’s value, not to mention enhance the safety and comfort of its occupants.

Some problems have straightforward, affordable solutions. For example, childproofing our steep staircase simply involves installing a latching door or child gate at the entrance. Others, such as a crumbling chimney, require regular upkeep (repairing flashing and any damaged roof materials) that can cost a few hundred dollars per year.


Potential Benefits of Owning an Older Home

You wouldn’t guess it from the litany of potential problems owners of old houses can face, but old-home ownership has its benefits too. Older homes are often conveniently located in established, amenity-rich neighborhoods; inside, they offer abundant charm and equity-building opportunities.

1. Convenient Location

Because most cities grow outward over time, older homes tend to be located closer to employer- and amenity-rich downtown cores. A convenient location offers many time-saving and healthful benefits, such as shorter commutes (and the opportunity to use public transit or commute by bike) and easier shopping trips.

By contrast, newer owner-occupied homes tend to be built where land is cheapest, often on the edges of existing towns and cities. Such places aren’t always convenient.

However, these rules aren’t universal. Big cities have plenty of newly built condos downtown or close by, and many rural homes are quite old.

2. Hard-to-Duplicate Original Features

Though some older homes lack character, many showcase charming, period-specific features that are pleasing to the eye and may increase resale value. For instance, the built-in storage and display cabinets in our older home’s dining room definitely influenced our purchasing decision because it was both aesthetically pleasing and practical. In our region, the only new homes that contain such built-in furnishings were well out of our price range and preferred neighborhood.

3. More Established Neighborhood

In towns and cities, older homes are often located in established neighborhoods with long-term homeowners who care about the area and community, mature landscaping and tree cover, and a general sense of community. Such areas are also more likely to be connected to municipal infrastructure, such as sewer and water systems.

By contrast, less-established neighborhoods tend to have less community engagement, particularly if the homes are very new and most residents are busy professionals without the time to engage their neighbors. Plus, newer subdivisions look bleak until newly planted trees and shrubs fill out.

4. Potential for Better Construction Quality

Depending on the building style and location, an older home may be constructed more solidly and durably than newer homes. This is particularly true for budget-friendly new homes in recent subdivisions, which are typically built by big companies with the ability to cheaply mass-produce the structures.

Then again, some of America’s original suburbs were mass-produced housing tracts built shortly after World War II. When considering any home built to standardized specifications, learn as much as possible about the materials, methods, and labor used by the construction company.

5. More Opportunities to Build Equity

Creative, enterprising, diligent homeowners see opportunity in older homes’ shortcomings. Every poorly designed kitchen, unfinished basement, or non-landscaped yard is a project in waiting. A well-chosen, well-executed renovation or update can boost a home’s appraised value, and its eventual resale value, by more than the project’s cost.

Your budget is likely to limit the scope of your vision, particularly right after you move in. But equity-building projects become more manageable when they’re planned and budgeted for well ahead of time. My wife and I are already kicking around ideas (and saving) for a finished basement and brand-new detached garage, even though we won’t start on either project anytime soon.


Final Word

Even a charming, beautifully staged older home in a convenient, tight-knit neighborhood is likely to have some of the drawbacks mentioned above. If you choose to fix most or all issues as they arise, you’ll likely end up spending tens of thousands of dollars during your time in the home.

Alternatively, if you choose to ignore serious issues or do only the bare minimum to fix them, you’ll likely have to accept a lower sales price or cover the cost of major repairs just before selling. Either way, you could limit or negate the overall return on your real estate investment by purchasing an older home.

That’s not to say that newer homes don’t require major repair and upkeep investments over time. And new homes often come with additional expenses that owners of older homes aren’t likely to face, such as homeowners association fees. Ultimately, it’s more important to choose the home that feels right to you and your family than to obsess over what could go wrong with your new abode.



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