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What to Look for When Buying an Older Home

Anyone who has visited San Francisco or Cape May, New Jersey knows how beautiful historic architecture can be. In San Francisco, they've even named their stately, restored Victorian homes "Painted Ladies."

But, are these older homes good buys? Considering that most of a home's components deteriorate with age, you may be not only buying a vintage home, but vintage problems as well.

Here's a quick look at some of the more common problems with older homes.

Foundation

It would seem that an old house has done all the settling it's going to do, right? Wrong, according to Page Engineering in Missouri. The rate at which the house settles diminishes over time, but it never completely stops – especially if the house has never been "piered."

Piers are long steel shafts that are driven through the soil and into the bedrock below. This process takes the weight of the home off unstable soil, and the home is less prone to settlement. It's a big job, though, and quite pricey.

Look for cracks in the walls, bulging floors and doors that won't close. These are all signs of possible foundation damage. Not all cracks, however, indicate a problem, so don't be alarmed – let a professional diagnose the situation.

The engineers with Page suggest taking a 4-foot bubble level with you when you visit an older home you're interested in purchasing. Use the level to check the floors and walls. If any of them are out of level, have the house checked by a structural engineer.

Electrical System

A home's electrical wiring system has a life expectancy of about 40 years, according to Mike McClintock, home repair writer with the Chicago Tribune. Safety risks increase when the system ages beyond this limit, he warns.

If the home was built between 1920 and 1950 and has never been remodeled, it may still have knob-and-tube wiring, which is considered incapable of handling today's electrical loads.

Some home insurers won't cover a home with this type of wiring and will insist that it is replaced before insuring the home.

Your home inspector should be able to determine what type of wiring the home contains and its condition, at least in visible areas.

Plumbing

Old houses typically have old pipes. If the house you have your eye on was built before 1960, the pipes may be made of steel or cast-iron. These materials corrode, decay and rust over time. Cast iron pipes are notorious for becoming clogged with mineral build up.

Determining the type of pipes in the home is challenging because so much of the system is behind walls. A plumbing contractor inspection is your best bet, and even then you may not learn about all of the pipes in the house.

"Replacing old pipes in a 1,500-square foot, two-bathroom home costs $4,000 to $10,000, and requires cutting open walls and floors," claims Joe Bousquin at HouseLogic.

Roof

The last thing most homebuyers look at when they drive up to a home for sale is the roof. It's easy to be distracted by charming landscaping and attractive paint colors, but it's imperative that you take a good, long look at the home's roof.

Sagging is a sign that a roof is holding too much weight. This can happen when new roofing is installed over old roofing or from prolonged contact with a significant layer of snow.

If you know you'll be looking at older homes, take along a pair of binoculars. Before entering the home, look at the roof from the curb and determine whether the chimney and rooflines are straight.

Next, check the shingles. If they aren't flat and instead curled or cupped, they may need to be replaced.

Ask the homeowner the age of the roof. Although the lifespan of a roof depends on several factors, if it is wood, tile or asbestos and over 15 years old, you may need to replace it in a few years.

Since a new roof may cost upwards of $8,000, it's important to have the home's roof inspected before obligating yourself to purchase the home.

While it's highly doubtful that a home built in the mid-1800s still retains original components, you'll need to inquire as to the last time these elements were replaced.

Other problems you may find in an older home include:

Lack of storage

Lack of natural light

Inadequate insulation (thus higher heating and cooling costs)

Small kitchen

While all of these items can be rectified, the cost to do so should be factored into the price of the home.

That the craftsmanship and materials of an older home have stood the test of time is a testament to its quality. But few things last forever, and a home inspection, using the appropriate contractors, is a must when considering the purchase of an older home.