PROS AND CONS OF BUYING AN OLDER HOME
Published Date 4/5/2018
Some people just adore antiques and will do anything to own a piece of history, whether its a Victorian settee, a grandfather clock that came over on a ship from Europe, or in this case, and entire house oozing the past.
What you may see as a tear-down someone else may see as a dwelling full of charm—a piece of yesteryear that can’t be duplicated. Apart from the nostalgia factor, an old house can be a smart purchase for the sake of your wallet, since realistic sellers often discount the asking prices knowing potential buyers need the financial room to renovate. But there are also reasons to keep both eyes wide open when making an investment in the old and experienced. Let’s look at a few pros and cons of buying an old house.
The argument has been made that older homes have better-quality construction, but if you are an HGTV watcher, you may also have discovered that older isn’t always better. The saying “they don’t build ’em like they used to” can also be a double-edged sword. While established houses may have been built to last, older homes were never built for energy efficiency. A This Old House online thread reveals a frustrated parent talking about this: “My son’s 1100 square foot 2-story home in western PA was built in the mid-1940’s and is heated with a gas boiler and hot water radiator. He keeps the temperature setting at 60 degrees and still gets $500.00 gas bills.” A thrill that the gas boiler still works, but a virtual nightmare to the housing budget.
Then there are construction methods. While older homes might be built with wood made from old-growth trees (trees that attained great age by not being significantly disturbed), making them more resistant to rot and warping, building codes back in the time the house was built may have been fairly lax. That means fewer requirements to place joists close enough to prevent floor sagging, warping, and squeaking. Picture placing a tennis ball on the floor and watching it roll on its own. All of this is correctable — at a cost, of course. If walking downhill to your master bedroom doesn’t bother you, it may not be a problem, however.
Walls in an older home were usually built with plaster and lathe, making them structurally stronger than the drywall construction of modern homes. These older materials provide a good sound barrier and insulation. A traditional 3-coat plaster is typically 7/8 inch thick, and when you add in the 1/4 inch wood lath that supports the plaster wall, you have a wall that is more than 1 inch thick. Compared to today’s most common drywall thickness of only 1/2 inch, that is a difference worth noting. Today, the cost of a full 3-coat plaster wall can be prohibitively expensive and timely to install. All too often, historic houses are gutted to the studs to install new drywall to replace the “outdated” plaster. Sometimes the plaster has been neglected past the point of no return, but most times it can be repaired. Usually, it’s torn out in the name of insulating the wall cavities.
Location is something you can’t take away from older home communities. Many were built within walking distance of markets, downtowns and services, offering now-mature trees and a stately streetscape. This is a huge attractant to today’s younger families who are drawn to the energy of the city while trying to establish new households. If you’re looking at an older home not far from the city core, however, it’s important to weigh a number of factors—including the school district and crime rate, as many families once fled urban areas to escape the impending encroachment from some undesirable trends.
You also can’t take away charm unless you tear it out. It’s usually unwise to do so in an older home unless it’s the kind of charm that gets in your way. We’re talking maintaining the amenities that are characteristic of the era the home was built in—for example, original crown molding, herringbone-patterned hardwood floors, pocket doors, stained glass, and built-ins. But if a non-working fireplace was placed on the only wall in the room against which you can place furniture, you may have to consider demolishing it. Of course, older homes were strangers to open concept living. Back when the kitchen was Mom’s “she-room,” kids spent time outdoors falling out of trees, rolling down hills in car tires, or building soapbox derby cars. So having “sight lines” to watch kids safely play indoors was simply not an issue. To remodel an older home to open up parts of its interior is costly, often requiring extended-length steel beams to replace load-bearing walls as well as repairing flooring to look seamless between rooms.
On the outside, things aren’t as remarkable but they can make a difference. According to data from Corelogic, except in inner-cities, where homes may have been crammed together in rows, newer homes tend to have a larger houses on smaller lots. “The median size of a new home increased from 1,938 square feet in 1990 to 2,300 square feet in 2016, but lot sizes during this same period decreased from 8,250 square feet to 6,970 square feet.” Rising land prices meant smaller home sites, and that trend won’t change. So if a bigger backyard is on your list of non-negotiable needs, you’re most likely to find that in an older home.