Real estate buyers cannot seem to get enough good quality Century Homes. Anytime I am inspecting a fairly well maintained century home it seems that the buyers were just about always in a bidding war with someone else who also wanted the property. Considering the work and expense usually involved in fixing up one of these older homes, I find it amazing the lure these older homes have on people. Century homes can be a money pit or a beautiful piece of history, and sometimes it is hard for the novice home owner to recognize the difference. Any home that has been around this long has most likely had many renovations over the years and at least some of them were do it yourself type improvements. It takes a trained eye to spot the differences in workmanship but the end result could be thousands of dollars in repairs if home buyer is not aware of some of the common pitfalls involved in buying a century home.
There are some basic items that usually are an issue in century homes and if the previous owners have not properly dealt with them the home buyers will most likely be shocked to find the amount of work and expense they may be facing. Common items are structural, asbestos, knob and tube wiring, 60 amp service and galvanized plumbing.
Every foundation on a century home is different. There were no strict building codes a hundred years ago and everyone built their homes a little different although the concept was basically the same. Most structures are supported on rock and cement walls. These old walls will still be standing after we are long gone and are usually in pretty good shape. Water problems can affect the mortar between stones and if you have any movement you may have to bring in a structural engineer for advice. If your mortar is deteriorating you can remove loose bits and re-point the stones and even give it a coat of white wash for more appealing look. If your wall is bowing or showing other signs of significant movement there may be an issue with expansive soils causing pressure on your foundation wall. This will require the services of a an experienced foundation contractor and will most likely be an expensive repair. Some foundations may require a sister wall to be poured to strengthen the existing foundation, this also is a job for an experienced contractor. Many older homes have a concrete base poured around the existing foundation to add to stability and prevent movement.
Asbestos was used as an insulator for heating equipment and plumbing wrap in older homes. Although it is un-common to still find asbestos still in place in older homes there are areas where it may have been installed and very difficult to remove, so has been left in place. Service areas between floors is a common place to find left behind asbestos and can be very difficult to remove without replacing piping. Attics in century homes are common places to find vermiculite insulation. Any vermiculite manufactured in the Libby Montana mines is contaminated with asbestos. Asbestos cannot be visually detected in vermiculite and samples have to be sent out to labs for testing. Depending on amount and size of asbestos presence the cost of removal can be very expensive. Large amounts require encapsulated workers to have a completed sealed off work area and a decontamination area plus a clean zone. All asbestos must be properly bagged, tagged and disposed of in specific locations.
Many century homes had galvanized plumbing installed at one time in their past. This is a steel pipe which has been covered with a protective coating of zinc. One of the problems with galvanized pipe is that the minerals in the water react with galvanized material and cause scale build up. Life expectancy of most galvanized pipe is generally considered to be from 50 to 70 years, which becomes a problem if it is still in place in your potential new home. Some insurance companies will refuse to cover a home containing galvanized plumbing. Again many people will replace the accessible galvanized plumbing but may leave areas between floors and walls which are hard to access.
Knob and tube wiring is still in use in many older homes and many home owners don’t even know it is in their home. This is electrical wiring which is run between exposed porcelain insulators and looks a little like a train track as there are two conductors running beside each other. Most insurance companies will not ensure a home with knob and tube wiring and you will have to get an electrical contractor to replace any found in the home. Attics are common places where knob and tube was left and even connected to the newer type of Romex cable by either lazy electricians or un-educated home owners.
Many older homes can have a 100 amp panel installed and the listing may even list the property as having a 100 amp service, but this may not always be true. There are many times where the property owner has installed a 100 amp panel but has not upgraded the service. Always check the main switch where the service enters the building to ensure that it is not a 50 or 60 amp service that has just had a newer panel board installed. In Ontario most insurance companies will not insure a home with a 60 amp service and you will be required to upgrade service and sometimes the mast also may require an upgrade.
There are many other issues that potential buyers of century homes may encounter and some maybe very expensive to repair. Protect yourself and your investment with a professional home inspection which can prevent expensive surprises and allow you to objectively evaluate the property prior to purchase.