Published On: Wed, Sep 17th, 2014

5 Things to Look Out for When Buying an Older Home

Marketers and MTV may think youth is where it’s at, but often, old is in. And arguably, that’s never been truer than when it comes to houses.

Buying an Older Home

“Every house has problems, but sometimes the older they are, the better built they are,” says Kristi Hughes, a public relations executive who, with her husband, purchased a 300-year-old, two-story Georgian Colonial house in the suburbs of Philadelphia about two years ago from her parents. Hughes says despite the home being in the family for about three decades, they knew the home needed major renovations and did about $150,000 worth, mostly gutting rooms to replace electric wires. Hughes says there were no surprises when they opened up the walls and ceilings.

But it doesn’t always go so smoothly.

If you are buying a home that’s getting up there in years, whether it’s 300 or merely 30, you can stumble into problems. “The 1950s, 60s and even 70s houses can be deceiving,” says Rob Anzalone, co-founder of Fenwick Keats Real Estate in New York City, who owns a home that was built in 1956. “They share many of the same problems [as really old homes] but just appear to be newer.”

Here are some common problems with older homes that you’ll want to be on the lookout for.

Termites and other bugs. Termites, known for chewing through wood, flooring and even wallpaper, are certainly a problem for owners of older homes. According to the National Pest Management Association, termites cause approximately $5 billion in property damage every year.

Termites like munching on soft wood, so if your prospective home has had a lot of leaks over the years, you may want to hire a professional termite inspector, who is more likely to discover any problems than a conventional home inspector.

Of course, older homes can be ravaged by other insects, too. Brenda Greene, a communications professional in Providence, Rhode Island, recently discovered a house she wanted to buy had a problem with powderpost beetles, which can literally reduce wood to a pile of powder. The house was built in 1842, and Greene and her husband had gone as far as getting a purchase and sales agreement. But then they found that the home had significant damage from the wood-boring insect.

“Our mortgage couldn’t go through unless the seller could prove it had been treated. She wouldn’t do that,” says Greene, who ultimately walked away.

Lead paint. If your home was built before 1978, when lead paint was banned, your home may have lead paint in it. But that doesn’t mean you’re doomed if your house was built in 1977. For decades before the ban, the country was coming around to the realization that living with lead paint was deadly. Even if you’re eyeing a house built in the 1940s, it’s possible that it never had a drop of lead paint in it.

Lead poisoning can hurt adults – enough exposure can lead to cardiac arrest – but it really does a number on a young child’s brain development, and it can cause a pregnant woman to miscarry. Usually, you find lead paint around the windows, doors, trim and on painted floors. But actually finding it isn’t easy. You can buy lead paint detection kits for generally under $100, but they aren’t simple to use correctly. If you fear lead paint, your best bet may be to pay a few hundred dollars for a certified lead inspector to look at your home. You can find more information at www2.epa.gov/lead.

Prices vary on what it can cost to remove lead paint, but according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average lead paint removal project costs $10,000. And do-it-yourselfers should be cautious when dealing with lead paint because you can expose yourself to lead poisoning if it begins to flake and turn into dust – something that may well happen if you remove it on your own.