Jodie and Matt thought they had found their dream house; a beautiful Cape Cod two-story built around the late 1920’s and nestled on a bit of acreage overlooking Lake Huron.
However, what they quickly discovered once the deeds were signed was a structure whose hidden neglects over the decades were now threatening to send all their dreams for the future through the proverbial roof of debt or quite possibly on a collision course with the wrecking ball to begin anew. Dry wrought in several of the wooden support beams, black mold in the basement, a fragile dormer upstairs, and dangerous wiring throughout. Jodie and Matt’s dream house had suddenly become their worst nightmare and quite obviously a money pit.
On the plus side, an older home has what is collectively lumped together as ‘character’; coved ceilings, carved paneling and real wood in banisters, doors, detailing, etc. It also has a history. Finding out who lived there before you, what the land it sits on was originally used for, and other historical data can really instill a sense of pride in living there. But a lot of first-time buyers of these heritage buildings, like Jodie and Matt, often look upon the venture through such rose-colored glasses without first recognizing the pitfalls – or worse, simply believing the previous owners have applied due diligence when maintaining the property up to their arrival on the scene. Not everything that is old is ‘golden’ or is deserving of having the ‘heritage’ moniker applied to it, as Jodie and Matt quickly discovered. The good news is that there is a lot of damage control that can be applied prior to signing on the dotted line, sure to eliminate a lifetime’s worth of headaches, heartaches and disillusionment after the fact.
For starters, get two inspections on the intended property.
Inspections are not cheap. And while you might think one should be sufficient, lest we forget inspectors are only human and can miss stuff, or simply be unaware of a pre-existing condition. If tomorrow you were diagnosed out of the blue with a rare form of cancer you would want a second opinion before proceeding on a course of medical care. Give the place you are considering to make your home over the next ten to thirty years this same critical assessment. You will save yourself a lot of grief down the road. This advice equally applies even to ‘new home’ construction. But with older homes you may want to consider getting a traditional inspector, structural engineer and a bug inspector.
Also, do not be ashamed to thoroughly cross-examine the previous occupants and realtor selling the property. Often, especially first-time buyers, believe anything beyond a nod of approval is somehow prying or being disloyal and insulting either to the occupants or, if a new home, the builder’s integrity. Bottom line: it never hurts to have well-formulated inquiries. If no one has anything to hide, your questions should be met with prompt, at arm’s length, answers. If you encounter someone’s displeasure for asking basic questions, consider this your first ‘red flag’ your dream house might be a money pit in disguise. If the query is met with a noncommittal reply, or an “I just don’t know” ask the seller if they wouldn’t mind you looking into it a little further before making them an offer. Remember, only a fool enters into an arrangement without first establishing the rules. If you are not satisfied with any of the responses you have received – move on. No matter how much you have fallen immediately in love at first sight with any property, remember it’s not the only house for sale!
Do not overlook any problem you are not willing to deal with right away.
Jodie and Matt knew the house they were buying had a crucial structural infraction; the unstable upstairs dormer somehow repeatedly overlooked during inspection. But they chose to ignore it, perhaps deluding themselves it was not as bad as it seemed, or hoping it would not require their attention for a few years.
Self-delusion is a mistake when buying a new home. Do not be naïve!
Be honest with yourself. If the house you love desperately needs a new roof right off the bat and you are unwilling or unable to spend more to fix it, do not hope you can squeeze a few more seasons out of the existing one until you’ve fattened your bank account. General maintenance challenges are an ongoing issue with any property. But problems will not take care of themselves or go away. Address each problem as it arises. Do not let them pile up!
Also, consider the cost of heating an older home; then consider how much it will cost to strip out the old insulation, replacing it with a more modern derivative. You’ll also want to reassess an older home’s plumbing, electrical and heating concerns. Yes, there are still homes out there whose primary source of heating is oil. And while oil bills are not cheap, neither is ripping out and replacing the duct work and installing a brand new furnace.
If the house has been around for a long time you may want to consider you are not the only one living there. No, I’m not talking about ghosts from the past, but a wide assortment of critters since plausibly found a way to make your house theirs too. Check attics and crawl spaces for signs of bat, raccoon, squirrel, rat, or other creature infestations. Even bird’s and wasp’s nests need to be addressed. It is prudent to hire an exterminator. Do not attempt to get rid of a raccoon by yourself! Particularly with wood construction, fumigate and check for various wood-burrowing insects like termites, ants, etc.
Know that if you are buying an older home it likely has a few layers of lead paint covering its walls. It may also be insulated with asbestos or be made of other questionable materials that have since been recognized by the Builder’s Association as dangerous to your health. Again, these issues do require your immediate attention, as does mold build-up.
Any house with a basement is susceptible to mold. Black mold is the most obvious transgressor and the most dangerous, but even marginal mold infestation in nooks and crannies can lead to all sorts of health issues: respiratory infections, difficulty breathing, migraines and other allergic reactions. Alleviate mild mold issues by first disinfecting with a proper mold-resistant cleanser, then, by applying a protective tar-like sealant to the affected walls. Use a dehumidifier, properly maintained, to consistently manage chronically damp spaces.
Older homes may still have their original sills and panes of glass. And while, architecturally they lend ambiance to the original design elements, pragmatically, they sorely lack the proper insulation to guard against drafts, moisture build up between the panes and may also be going rotten inside their wooden frames. New windows have come a very long way; double paned, well-fitted and vinyl or aluminum-framed for the utmost in protection against the elements. Windows are a costly investment, but again, a necessary one. And today there are a number of manufacturers designing new window to mimic older designs mimicking the esthetic being replaced.
Bottom line: keeping the elements at bay from the inside out will be your best fortification against having to endure repeat offenders threatening the health and safety of your domicile. Your home should be your castle. So, treat it with such reverence and it will provide you with years of comfort and protection. Consider this article as your partial ‘check list’ when house-hunting for a vintage home. You may also want to consider it your wake-up call.