Floor squeaks break the cool night air. Gently rolling floors crest blindly under your favorite table creating a persistent wobble. Lights dim romantically each time the refrigerator comes on. Ahhhh...the pleasures of owning and maintaining and older house!
Those in the real estate business often refer to these personality traits by their technical term - charm. But charm or not, old house maintenance home comes with special duties and responsibilities not realized by those used to buildings that have not surpassed adolescence.
Here are some tips to keep in mind if you own or are thinking of buying an older home:
Old homes are well built: If it made it this far, its probably not going anywhere. Older homes are usually very well built. There are some good reasons for this. Years ago, it was easier to get better quality lumber. Today's lumber doesn't hold a candle to what you could buy in say..1930. The sloping floors and walls associated with these buildings are usually the result of settlement which is seldom harmful. Also, years ago labor was cheap compared to materials and builders could afford to take a lot more time to construct buildings. This old-fashioned workmanship is almost impossible to replace today.
Old home? Clear your calendar! If you own an older home, don't make plans for the weekend. The character these buildings display is a result of the tremendous attention to detail paid by the original craftsmen. One thing about details though, they take a lot of time to maintain. Hand-crafted wood siding will need repair to the occasional rotted board. Re-painting one side a year should be your regular summer project. Remember, the term "maintenance free" was not even in the dictionary when older homes were built.
Old homes are full of surprises. If you don't like surprises, don't buy an older house. Old plumbing, heating and electrical systems deteriorate over time and will usually fail on New Years Day, just before the family is due in for the big dinner. Yep - there's nothing like waking up and finding that new built-in pool that used to be known as your basement, supplied courtesy of a leaking water heater.
If you own an old home, budget for unexpected repairs and schedule major improvements, like replacement of an old boiler, before they become emergencies. Common mechanical repairs or upgrades needed in older homes include:
- Old Plumbing: Replace steel plumbing pipes. These clog up from internal rusting. They will eventually burst or reduce water pressure to unacceptable levels.
- Old Heating Systems: Heating system efficiency wasn't an issue when the original boiler was installed. Replacement with a modern, efficient boiler will usually reap a rapid return in energy savings. Also, most older homes are heated by hot water pipes wrapped with asbestos insulation. This material can cause health problems if it gets deteriorated. Have it removed professionally. Don't do the job yourself. Although it looks easy, you can contaminate the house with asbestos fibers and place yourself at great risk from breathing the stuff.
- Cooling: Most old houses don't have central cooling systems. However, they are usually large enough to make use of a large ventilation fan known as a whole-house fan. This device, larger than an attic fan, gets installed in the second floor ceiling and can pull a breeze through every room in the house. It is a great alternative to central air conditioning systems and costs a lot less, usually around $500 installed.
- Old Electrical Wiring: Knob and Tube wiring is the most common type of old-house wiring. This wiring is easily identified since it is strung between ceramic knobs which are attached to the beams in the house. The problem with this wiring is that it is potentially unsafe. The system is not grounded, which means you can get a shock from it. Also, the insulation on the wires is rubber which dries out and deteriorates after many years. If you have knob and tube wiring, have it replaced with a modern system. Make sure the replacement includes both a new electric panel and new house wiring.
Despite the work needed to stay on top of old house maintenance, the rewards can be well worth it. The comfort, stature and charm of older homes can never be duplicated. It's hard to imagine a modern building will ever feel quite the same way.