As long as there have been homes, there have been home repairs. If you know the age of your home, however, problems common to homes built in that era that can be avoided.
While home construction has changed quite dramatically over the years, every era of home construction had its strengths and weaknesses. For example, old homes offer character and charm that is rarely reproduced in modern construction. But, old homes are also drafty and leaky. Newer homes might offer energy efficiency but they go up so quickly that workmanship often falls by the wayside. Any way you look at it, the home repairs add up.
Before hosting The Money Pit, I spent 20 years as a professional home inspector. In that job, I developed an uncanny ability to predict what might be wrong with a home and what home repairs were needed without even setting foot in the door. This wasn’t a parlor trick but the result of having done thousands of home inspections and seeing the same home repair problems over and over again. Once you know the age of a home, the construction shortcomings and needed home repairs are fairly consistent.
Here’s how to know what home repairs might be needed by house age:
Home Repairs: 1900 – 1940
Green Lumber: Ever wonder why old houses have so many unusual twists and turns? Much of this is the result of green lumber, wood that was never kiln dried. Between 1900 and 1920, it was common to use lumber that came right from the saw mill as the kiln drying process had not yet been developed. As a result, this lumber shrank, twisted and turned, resulting is some pretty interesting wall and floor shapes. The good news is this home repair is mostly a cosmetic defect. Think of it as house personality!
Knob and Tube Wiring: Around 1920, it became standard practice to install electrical wiring in homes. This wiring was called Knob & Tube because it was strung alongside wooden framing on ceramic knobs and run through lumber via ceramic tubes. If you spot this in your home, get rid of it. Knob & Tube wiring is unsafe for a bunch of reasons and should be completely replaced.
Steel Plumbing Pipes: Used from 1900 until around 1940, steel plumbing pipes worked well for the first 20 years or so, then they began to rust shut, much like a clogged artery. If the reduced water pressure doesn’t force you to change them, the bursting pipes will. If you spot steel pipes in your house, you might notice white spots on the outside. Don’t touch them. The white stuff is a mineral salt deposit that got left behind by the leak, which you’ll soon rediscover once the mineral scab falls away!
Balloon Framed Walls: Old homes were commonly built with studs that were two stories. This was known as balloon framing. The downside is fire. In a balloon framed wall, fire can rush up through two stories in no time. A common home repair for this problem is to install fire blocks, short pieces of two by four lumber installed horizontally between wall studs. This slows the fire and buys precious time to get out.
Uninsulated Walls: Before 1940, insulated exterior walls were a rarity. Insulating the attics wasn’t much better. If you had any insulation at all, it was usually just an inch or two. Today, blown-in insulation is a good option. Drilling a small hole in each wall cavity and having a pro blow in insulation that fills the space can warm your home.
Unlined Chimneys: Between 1900 and 1920, chimneys were commonly made of brick and had no terracotta clay liners. If you look up your old house chimney and see just brick, it might be very dangerous to use it to burn wood and it might even be unsafe to use to vent your gas or oil furnace. The home repair solution is to get it relined or build a new one.
Plaster on Wood Lath: Plaster walls, constructed by attaching thin pieces of wood to wall studs and then covering them with several layers of wet plaster, were the standard up until around 1935 and are in frequent need of home repairs. The problem with these walls today is that they are weak and usually badly cracked. The solution is to either completely remove or replace the plaster with drywall, or to skin them by nailing new drywall over the old walls.
Asbestos Heating Duct and Pipe Insulation: Unfortunately, asbestos was the insulation of choice for heating systems up until the 1940s. On hot water or steam heating systems, a version that looks much like corrugated cardboard was wrapped around straight pipes and a wet, plaster-like concoction was packed around the elbows. This stuff can be downright dangerous. If you still have asbestos on your old heating pipes, contact a pro to get it removed, then reinsulate with a non-toxic product. Whatever you do, don’t do it yourself! Asbestos fibers are so fine, you could easily contaminate your entire house with these cancer causing fibers.
Home Repairs: 1940 – 1960
Undersized Electrical Systems: Although the wiring of the 1940s was a bit safer than knob & tube wiring of the 1920s, it was still plagued by lots of problems. Have you ever wondered why your old house wiring dims the lights from time to time? It’s because back then, it was common to put all the electrical needs of one room or even a couple of rooms on the same circuit. With kitchens, for example, this would cause the lights to dim every time the compressor in the refrigerator kicked on. Small electrical systems of less than 100 amps were also common, as were two-prong ungrounded outlets. If you have some of this wiring still running parts of your home, add upgrades to your to-do list of home repairs and call your local electrician.
Drafty Windows: Inefficient steel and aluminum windows were common in this era. While seen at the time as a modern upgrade to iron-weighted wood windows that swelled and rotted, time has proven these windows to be just as problematic. Steel windows rust badly and unless they have rusted shut, are probably very drafty. If you are still nursing some of these antiques, they should be replaced, as I can guarantee you they won’t become more valuable over time!
Asbestos Ceiling Tile and Textured Ceilings: Remember those old 12 x 12 ceiling tiles that you may have grown up with? Chances are they contained asbestos. The same goes for textured ceilings that were from this same period. If you still see these in your house today, it’s a good idea to have them tested by a lab to make sure they are asbestos free before removing them.
Vermiculite Insulation: Vermiculite is a lightweight brownish-gold mineral that was used as insulation in attics. While it seemed like a good idea at the time, it is also loaded with asbestos. Allow such home repairs to be done by a pro.
Home Repairs: 1960 – 1980
Decorating’s Dark Era: The 1960s was certainly an odd decade for decorating trends. Wall paneling, dark kitchen cabinets, carpet in kitchens and bathrooms and poor lighting were all the norm. Remember the Early American trend? It was popular in my house growing up and I swear if I saw just one more badly drawn picture of a bald eagle I would just choke! If some of these decorating archives adorn your walls, the best home repair is to get out the paintbrush or crowbar and start swinging!
Aluminum Wiring: In 1962, a new era of electrical code made homes a lot safer than they had ever been before, with one single lapse in judgment. This same code allowed for aluminum branch circuit wiring. Used between 1964 and 1973, this wiring had the nasty little habit of catching on fire and took many a home down before it was pulled out of service. If your home was built in these years, have an electrician check to determine if you have any aluminum branch circuits. If so, home repairs may be needed. The best repair is a modification that was approved by the Consumer Product Safety Commission called Copalum that can make the wiring safe.
Fire-Retardant Plywood: Millions of condominiums were constructed from the late ’70s on that used a material in their roofs known as fire-retardant plywood. In principle, this stuff was supposed to slow the spread of fire between adjoining units. Unfortunately, it had design flaws that caused the wood to disintegrate. Most has already been replaced but if you ever look up in the attic of your condo or townhouse and notice that the wood nearest the next unit looks more like shredded wheat, you might still have major home repairs on your hands.
Poor Roof Ventilation: In the 1960s and through to the mid ’70s, attics typically did not have enough ventilation. As a result, moisture buildup over all those years caused the roof sheathing to eventually rot away. If you own a home that was built in this era, your best home repair is to add more ventilation. Continuous ridge and soffit venting works best. This system will flush warm or moist air out of the attic 24/7, leaving the structure in good shape while keeping both heating and cooling costs in check.
Fogged Window and Door Glass: Insulated glass was becoming the norm as energy prices rose in the ’70s. Unfortunately, manufacturers didn’t quite have it down right just yet and as a result, the seals between the glass failed, leaving windows and doors fogged. If you spot old windows around your home that have bad seals, replace them to restore energy efficiency.
Composite Siding: For some silly reason, a bunch of manufacturers thought hardboard would make a fine siding product. For those of you that don’t know what this is, it’s compressed PAPER! During the years I spent as a professional home inspector, I would tell my clients that they shouldn’t expect a single problem with their hardboard siding — as long as they painted it every day before going to work! There is not much chance you still have this on your home now as most of it has melted away, and taken some wall structures with it!
Speed-Built Homes: If you really want to draw a line to mark when homes began to be built poorly, my vote would be to set that mark at around 1970. When the Vietnam War and government spending stimulated high inflation, President Nixon instituted price controls that really hurt builders. Costs were going up; interest rates were sky high and the only thing that helped builders recoup was getting homes built as fast as possible. Around this time, builders also stopped paying employees hourly for work and began paying by the task. The faster the kitchen was installed or the deck got built, the more that particular contractor would make for his day’s wage. As a result, workmanship really took a nosedive, which resulted in more home repairs for you.
Tight Houses: As energy costs rose in the ’70s, homes began to be constructed more tightly than ever. But, tight homes are a good thing, right? Not necessarily. Homes that are overly tight don’t breathe and, as a result, suffer from indoor air pollution and, worse, toxic mold. If you suspect your home might not be ventilated properly, install an air-to-air heat exchanger. During cold winters, this device brings fresh air into your home without wasting heat.
Home Repairs: 1980 – Present
Old Appliances: Many house components have life cycles that run from 15 to 20 years. These include appliances like furnaces, water heaters, washers, dryers and dishwashers. By plotting the age of your appliances, you’ll have a good idea when the home repairs should be expected.
Cathedral Ceilings: Over-sized cathedral ceilings that did not heat or cool well were common in this era. If you have one that looks good but wreaks havoc on your heating or cooling bills, you may be able to install ceiling fans to blow hot air down in the summer and pull cold air up in the winter.
Fiberglass Roof Shingles: Around 1980 or so, roofing manufacturers began changing the way they made roof shingles by replacing the organic mat that held the asphalt with a fiberglass mat. Originally, this seemed like good idea, but once many of these fiberglass shingles got to be 5 to 10 years old, they began to crack, rip and tear and needed to be replaced. If you have a home with fiberglass shingles, have it periodically inspected. The best way to tackle this home repair is via a ladder at the roof edge, as the cracks are hard to spot from the ground.
Synthetic Stucco: One of the more modern construction goofs in my opinion is synthetic stucco. Technically known as Exterior Insulated Finish System, or EIFS, this material creates an attractive finish to home exteriors that looks very much like a masonry stucco. There is only one problem — it leaks. And, it can leak very, very badly, causing water to get behind it and rot away the exterior wall structure. Manufacturers claim the most recent applications have improved it by adding draining channels, but as a home inspector friend of mine once said, this stuff was leaking on the drawing board. If your home has EIFS, you’d better watch it carefully for leaks and keep a caulking gun ready for those home repairs.
Determining How Old Your House Is
If you’re concerned your house may have one or more of these home repair problems, but don’t have a clue to its age, here is a little home inspector’s trick of the trade that can help. If your home has its original toilet, remove the lid and look at the underside. Toilets are almost always date-stamped by the manufacturer as they roll off the assembly line. The date is typically expressed as a 4 digit number, like, say, 1954, but it might also be preceded by a letter and have just the last two digits — for example, M54. Other plumbing fixtures like sinks also have the dates stamped somewhere in their castings, but the toilet’s stamp is often the easiest to find. Spot a date on your toilet and you can bet your home was constructed within a few months or a year of that date.
Yes — they don’t build them like they used to. But if you know when your house was built, this will give you a good idea of what home repairs you might need to do.