Owning an Old House: Charming Love Affair or Expensive Money Pit?

Old house
Nearly 14 percent of homes in the U.S. were built before 1940, which means they are closing in on the century mark. Knowing what to watch for can be key to owning an old house. Paul Brennan/Needpix

From a 1920s bungalow or stately three-story Victorian to a rustic stone farmhouse, a lot of us love old houses for their sturdiness, quirky charm and connection to history. And fortunately, there are a lot of venerable old homes still standing all over the world. Nearly 14 percent of the roughly 137 million homes in the U.S. were built before 1940, according to the U.S. Census American Housing Survey. In places such as Somerville, Massachusetts, and Buffalo, New York, more than 60 percent of the housing stock dates back to Franklin D. Roosevelt's second term or earlier.

But old houses also have a potentially significant downside, especially for unwary first-time homeowners, in that expensive problems are often tucked away inside the walls or under the floors. We don't mean just the predictable maintenance issues, such as replacing the roof shingles every 20 years or the electric or gas water heater once a decade. (Here's a still-useful 2007 report on the average life expectancy of various home components, from the National Association of Home Builders.)


What we're talking about are those time bombs — such as an ancient drainage pipe, crumbling chimney, or obsolete wiring that isn't up to the demands of today's uses — that can catch old house owners off guard and sometimes severely stress their household finances with four or even five-figure repair bills. While you can't always avoid these problems, it's wise to learn as much as you can about the risks — and possibly even budget for renovations and upgrades to head off trouble before it turns into an emergency.

How Old Is Old?

When it comes to houses, "old" can mean something different in various parts of the country, explains Reuben Saltzman, the owner and president of Structure Tech, a home inspection company in the Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, area that specializes in older homes. He's also a past regional chapter president of the American Society of Home Inspectors, and a blogger on home maintenance problems for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

In his part of Minnesota, "we have old houses built back in the late 1800s," he explains. "But in Virginia, my friends say, 'You call that an old house?'" Generally, though, the dividing line between old and not-so-old seems to be the mid-20th century.


If you're worried about a house falling down simply because it's old, though, such fears probably are unwarranted. To the contrary, houses built 80 or 100 years ago or longer actually tend to be more sturdily constructed than ones built more recently, according to Saltzman. "Really old houses were generally overbuilt," Saltzman explains. "They used a lot more wood in old houses that are still standing today. They were typically overengineered and a lot stronger than they needed to be."

Older houses' relative draftiness — which can lead to hefty utility bills — also helps explain their longevity. "New homes are tight, and don't cost as much in terms of energy efficiency, but they're far less durable," Saltzman explains. "There's a higher cost of extra energy expense in an old home. But when we have to replace rotted walls [eventually], that is going to be more expensive. In new homes walls don't let moisture leave, so they don't have the same drying potential. Old houses would leak a lot of air through the walls to dry them out."

But other components of old houses often simply wear out after many years of use or are no longer acceptable by today's safety standards.


Chimneys Are Vulnerable

"Just about every older house is going to have a masonry chimney, and there are two things that happen," Saltzman says. "One is the structure itself. When water gets in, the mortar and bricks deteriorate." That problem is visible from the outside during a routine house inspection before a sale closing, but what's going on inside the chimney may be just as problematic.

The interior lining may have deteriorated as well, and the vast majority of old chimney interiors don't meet modern safety requirements, if you're going to use a home's fireplace or fireplaces. Detecting problems inside a chimney requires what's known as a level 2 inspection, in which a fiber-optic camera is run down through the structure.


"If you're buying a home, it's a good idea to have that done," Saltzman says.

Fixing a chimney can cost you as little as $1,000, if all you need are some external repairs, Saltzman says. But if the chimney is really crumbling, you may have to rebuild it — a project that can cost $20,000 for an outside chimney on a three-story home. (A caveat: Actual prices across the nation, of course, will vary.)


Plumbing Catastrophes

One common problem is that galvanized steel drains inside the house eventually corrode and can no longer be cleaned but replacing them often means breaking into finished spaces in the house, such as under basement floors, according to Saltzman. "If you've got a house built in the 1920s and the pipes date back to then, I would consider [the pipe] at the end of its life by today," he says. Digging out a decrepit pipe that dates back to Prohibition and replacing it with a modern pipe can cost several thousand dollars.

"The other thing, which can happen to a home of any age, but is more likely in older ones, is having an issue with the drain line going out to the city sewer," Saltzman says. "That drain line going out to the street is owned by the homeowner. A lot of people aren't aware of that. Fixing one can involve a yard dig or tearing up a street. It's definitely a four-figure expense."


A home inspector will look for evidence of problematic galvanized steel drains, but he isn't going to probe the line that goes out to the sewer. As with chimney interiors, you have to hire a specialist to do that with a fiber-optic camera.

In addition to drain pipes, you can run into problems with the supply line coming into the home and the distribution system, since those pipes also corrode and deteriorate over time. "Where the diameter gets smaller and smaller over time, you end up with smaller water flow," Saltzman says. Supply line repairs usually are a four-figure job, but can sometimes get into five figures, especially if there's a problem getting to the pipes.


Electrical Nightmares

If you've got old-fashioned knob and tube wiring — the sort that is seldom, if ever, seen in homes built after 1940, according to Salzman — you could have big problems. As this article from Realtor.com describes, the technology dates back to the 1880s, and consists of ceramic knobs and tubes that encase copper wiring. Unlike today's electrical wiring, knob and tube systems lack a ground wire, so that an overloaded circuit can heat up and cause a fire. Some vintage wire in knob and tube systems also utilizes asphalt-saturated cotton cloth or rubber, both of which deteriorate over the years.

Old house
Knob and tube wiring in a 1930s home, looking upwards at upper wall stud bays and nearby ceiling joists.
Wikimedia Commons (CC By-SA 3.0)

To make things worse, there's a possibility that one of an old house's previous owners played amateur electrician and modified the wiring to make it more dangerous. Knob and tube wiring "worked very well as long as nobody messed with it, and the original installation was intact," Saltzman says. "However, in every old home, somebody has probably messed with it and tried to use today's wiring methods with the knob and tube wiring."


"The big one is just covering it with insulation," Saltzman explains. "This [wiring] was meant to be installed in open air, to be able to dissipate heat. When you bury it in walls, it can't dissipate heat the way it should."

Inept amateurs also can push the wiring beyond its limit. "You cannot bring that type of wire directly into a modern light fixture," Saltzman says. "Those fixtures are rated for 194 degrees F (90 degrees C), but the knob and tube wiring was rated for only 140 degrees F (60 degrees C)." A professional electrician, in contrast, would splice the old wiring into a junction box, and then bring new wiring to the fixture so it wouldn't exceed the old wiring's capacity.


Environmental Hazards

Old houses may also have lead water supply lines, which present a health hazard and replacing them can get expensive. And insulation containing asbestos, which releases fibers that can cause lung disease, is common as well. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends having your home inspected for asbestos by a specially trained asbestos professional, and then independently hiring a second contractor to actually remove the stuff. Asbestos removal can be expensive and the price can vary according to region.

Another risk is the possibility of having an old, forgotten fuel tank buried in your yard, which eventually may contaminate your soil or even get into groundwater. Saltzman says he's found dozens of such tanks over the years, and that it typically costs a couple of thousand dollars to remove them.


Budgeting and the Bottom Line

Though the cost of fixing some of these problems can seem daunting, it can be more manageable if you budget for home maintenance and repairs. One approach is to put aside about 1 percent of a house's cost each year for such costs. For a $500,000 home, for example, you would budget $5,000 each year for maintenance. Another approach is to budget $1 per square foot (0.092 square meters) every year. For really big repairs, you also may be able to obtain a home equity loan to finance costs.

You also can get leads on future problems by carefully studying the home inspector's report that you get before you close on a house. "Some flaws are more important to fix than others," Saltzman says. "The report should show the critical stuff."