Common Concerns with Older Homes Revealed During a Home Inspection
When gathering information from a client about the home they would like inspected, one of the first questions is “how large is the home in square feet?” and “how old is it?” Size is straightforward: Larger homes physically have more to inspect, taking more time and increasing the cost of the inspection. How much extra time the inspection will take is easier to quantify, so we charge a certain rate per square foot over a certain baseline (which changes based on the age).
Age of a home is different. With age comes wear and tear due to occupancy, deterioration due to exposure to the elements, obsolete methods of construction and deficient materials failing or causing problems, and importantly, the possibility of remodel work. That last part is a big one: I’ve seen older homes that are in relatively good condition, including some that look like they haven’t been updated in 50 years. I’ve also seen homes that were originally 1000 square feet be morphed and mutated into a 2300 square foot monstrosity where an additional bathroom or bedroom was added on every decade, each time by different contractors and every one of those contractors had no business contracting.
What Do I Consider Old Though?
Fair question. I consider anything built in the 20th century old. That said, there is a difference between homes built in the 80’s and 90’s and homes built before then. Lots of changes occurred in the construction world in the construction world in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and a few important but potentially hazardous materials were discontinued by 1980. The dangers of lead-based paint and asbestos were well known by that time period and as such were mostly outlawed or discontinued by that point in the US. That does not mean that there is no possibility that those materials weren’t used in homes from the early 80’s or later, but that there is a significantly reduced chance that they were used.
The 90’s and 80’s is old, but home building hasn’t changed that much from then to now, so I just consider those “old”. Homes built in the 70’s and 60’s have considerably more problems than those built 20 years later; I call those homes “old old”. Homes built in the 50’s and earlier: all bets are off and I never know what I might find. Those homes are “oooooooollllllllllllllldddddddddd”. I hope you can appreciate my very scientifically correct and objective naming scheme.
7 Common (Potential) Problems with Old Homes
Obsolete Electrical Cabinets
Federal Pacific, Sylvania / Zinsco, Bulldog I-T-C. These are all the names of notoriously defunct and deficient electrical cabinets that for one reason or another are no longer produced. Common problems included circuit breakers that did not lock into place or could become loose over time, causing arcing, which caused the circuit breakers to melt and even catch fire. Many of these panels have been replaced over time, but there are still deficient electrical panels lurking in older homes, and when found by a home inspector will almost always be recommended to be further evaluated by a licensed electrician (who will recommend replacement).
Before there were deficient electrical cabinets like those above, there were fuse boxes. We typically find these in homes built in the 40’s or before and most of them have been replaced, but they still exist and yet again garner an immediate “get this checked out” response from a home owner. Fuse boxes almost never have grounding wires present and create a situation where even if the box is “safe”, when a fuse blows, you can’t just reset it: it needs to be replaced. Because of this, we commonly see the wrong-size of fuse inserted into these boxes, as well as double-tapping wires and more.
Lack of Grounding Wires / Grounding Electrode (Rod)
I don’t know exactly when it became required for homes to start using grounding wires but I typically see this deficiency in homes built before the mid-50’s. Grounding wires are the bare-copper wire that is run alongside the energized “hot” wire as well as the un-energized (but still potentially energized) “neutral / common” wire and serves to provide the termination point with an easy route to the earth. This easy route to the earth should help prevent electrical shock: electricity is both lazy and desperate to get to the earth, and if it can travel along a copper wire instead of your body to get to the ground it will do so (usually). This is a pain in the rear to correct because running an extra wire to each electrical receptacle / switch would usually require removing drywall or interior finishes. Other corrections exist that may make the wiring safer, but you’ll need to contact a licensed electrician to determine the means of best correction.
You knew this was coming; we’ve written about this elsewhere. When copper became too expensive in the 50’s, builders started experimenting with cheaper materials, including aluminum wiring. It didn’t take too long for them to figure out that this was a bad idea, but until they did, thousands of homes were built with aluminum wiring and it is still present in many of them. Any time a trace of aluminum is found on branch circuit wiring, we are going to recommend further evaluation by an electrician. Common means of correction may include updating and replacing the main electrical cabinet or sub panel, as well as replacing switches and receptacles throughout the home with fixtures that can accommodate the aluminum wiring.
Poor Electrical Work in General
Electrical systems are probably the biggest concern with older homes because deficiencies can be life-safety issues. Absence of GFCI’s in required areas, ground wires not in place, bonding absent, old circuit breakers. The list goes on. Expect to see a recommendation to get your electrical system further evaluated if it hasn’t been recently updated.
Before the 1980’s, cast-iron was used as the primary material for drain systems in the ground. As you can imagine, metal drains sitting in the earth with water running through them for a minimum of 40 or more years have almost certainly experienced deterioration. Shifting or settlement of the drains causes “bellies” or low spots in the drain system where water / debris accumulates, contributing to blockages. These drains were not sealed with anything more than rubber gaskets, gaskets which have certainly deteriorated. This makes penetration of the drains via root systems very likely if trees are in the near vicinity (and it’s possible even if they aren’t). Our general recommendation when inspecting homes built before the 80’s is that if we can’t see evidence of prior repair such as PVC cleanouts or the seller can’t provide documentation indicating replacement, contact a licensed plumber and ask them to perform a sewer-camera inspection of the main trunk line to determine how much deterioration has taken place and what options you have to correct them.
Galvanized-Metal Water Supply Piping
In the 60’s and before, zinc-coated steel was used as water supply piping in many homes. The problem with galvanized water pipe is 1) its steel, so rust and corrosion are likely to deteriorate the pipe over time and 2) the buildup of minerals on the interior of the pipe. The first problem is obvious; your water pipe begins to leak to due to corrosion which can then damage other materials. The second is more deceptive; it typically causes high water pressure at fixtures while also reducing the flow of the water. This makes just using your fixtures like the kitchen faucet and shower difficult because you can’t get enough water through the lines. In both cases, the only solution is to replace the plumbing (a “re-pipe), which gets expensive quickly. When galvanized water piping is observed, which isn’t always easy in slab-foundation homes as the piping is in the ground, we typically recommend further evaluation of the piping by a plumber to give you an idea of what it would cost if you did need to replace it.
These aren’t all the problems buying an old home in San Antonio entails, but they are some common ones. Our final recommendation: buy a home built in the last 20-years if you can.
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Home Inspector Kyle D. Scott
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