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Replace Electrical Wiring in an Older Home

  • Transcript

    LESLIE: Next up, we have Fred, calling from Washington, who’s got a wiring issue.

    Fred, how can we help?

    FRED: Well, my wife and I are buying a house in Eastern Washington that was built in 1926 and it’s got the old knob-and-tube wiring in it and the lath and plaster walls are still in it. We really like the character of the house but I was kind of wanting to know what to look out for – we want to find somebody to replace this – but what you guys might be able to suggest as far as that goes.

    TOM: Yeah, knob-and-tube wiring is not a good thing. It’s one of the negative features of an older house. An older house has a lot of positive features but knob-and-tube wiring is not one of them. Let me tell you why.

    First of all, it’s an ungrounded system. And so if you were to plug in, say, a lamp or something like that and it had a short in it, you would bear all of the brunt of that electricity. The second problem is it’s designed to be air cooled, which is kind of interesting. In the old days, when you had no insulation to worry about, air cooling wasn’t a problem. But now we take these older houses and we insulate them; so those knob-and-tube circuits, for example, that go across the ceiling joists in the attic – well, what do we do in the attic? We put insulation over them and therefore they can overheat and they can become unsafe. And then the third problem with them is that the insulation is rubbery, and so it breaks up and falls off. And for all those reasons and a bunch more, it is a good idea to remove knob-and-tube wiring from your house and you replace it with standard, modern wiring.

    Now, to make it a little less expensive, you don’t want to actually pull out the knob-and-tube wiring; you just want to de-energize it and then run new circuits to feed the rest of the home. It is an improvement that should be done. It’s going to cost you a few bucks but it is one that I would recommend for those reasons.

    LESLIE: Now Tom, in your home inspection business, have you ever seen a case where someone’s in the process of buying the house, they haven’t quite gone to closing yet; you come in there, you notice the knob-and-tube? Does the prospective buyer have any sort of recourse to say, “Hey, this is a hazard. Is there any way we can talk about repricing or paying part of the cost to replace this?”

    TOM: Yeah, absolutely, and that’s a great question. Because in a real estate contract – at least in the part of the northeast where I work – there was something called The Working Order Clause that says that the mechanical systems have to be in working order condition on or about the date of closing. And I don’t consider a home that has knob-and-tube wiring to have wiring that’s in working order condition because it’s just so darn unsafe. So absolutely, if something like that comes up and you’re made aware of it early enough in the transaction, it is definitely fair game for you to go back to the seller and try to renegotiate the purchase price because of this defect.

    Now, are they going to pay for all of the new wiring to be installed? Well, probably not. That probably wouldn’t be totally reasonable.

    LESLIE: Well, it depends on how savvy you are. (chuckles)

    TOM: Well, that’s true, that’s true. Now if you were negotiating against Leslie Segrete, you’d be in big trouble. (chuckles)

    LESLIE: Heh-heh-heh.

    TOM: But I think it’s certainly reasonable to ask them to contribute or certainly knock something off the price.

    You know, the other issue here that comes to mind is it could impact your insurance cost because homeowners insurance companies these days usually send out an inspector and one of the things they look at right away is your wiring system and if your wiring system is antiquated, they may not want to insure your house or they may want to insure it at a higher price.

    LESLIE: And you need that certificate before you go to closing, so this is something you need to sort of square away before you’ve even closed on the house.

    FRED: Right. Right, exactly. Well, we’ve already taken care of the insurance deal. Actually, we ran into a little bit of a dilemma with that, that there’s very few insurance companies that will even insure a house with any kind of knob-and-tube wiring whatsoever in it.

    TOM: So you ran across that.

    FRED: But I guess another part of my question was is with the lath and plaster walls, do they have to tear into those to put the new wiring in?

    TOM: Strategically, yes. But I say “strategically,” which means you don’t go in there and rip them all down with a sledgehammer. Usually they have ways – a good electrician will have a way of snaking wiring through the house and he’s going to study the house or she’s going to study the house and try to figure out the best way to get the circuits where they need to be.

    The good news about a house that’s knob-and-tube wired is it’s usually also a home that’s balloon-framed, which means that the stud bays are fairly open, even up two stories, and you can usually get wiring around it with doing a minimal amount of disturbance.

    FRED: OK, well I think that pretty much takes care of it for me.

    TOM: Well, you’re very welcome. Thanks so much for calling us at 1-888-MONEY-PIT, 888-666-3974.

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