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What to Look for in Homes of Different Ages

Older homes are wonderful. They’re chock-full of character, and they typically cost less than a comparable brand-new build. But we’ve all heard horror stories from people who bought an older home only to shortly thereafter have to replace all of the plumbing or the electrical wiring. And sometimes new homes have horror stories, too.

If you have a good inspector, he or she should catch these issues. But it’s always smart to be aware of potential issues before you hire an inspector. This may prevent you from having to pay an inspector because you lose interest in the house beforehand. Or, if you decide to move forward, it will help you know what to ask the inspector about.

Here’s what you should be looking for in a home in Portland no matter how old it is.

Homes Around 70 to 100 Years Old

Portland homes that are around 70 to 100 years old are often stunningly beautiful homes. They were usually built with local, old-growth timber, and they were often built by highly skilled craftsman. You’ll see beautiful wood and masonry work throughout Portland’s old homes. Homes this old can truly be wonderful places to live.

However, homes from this era also have a unique set of potential problems that you should watch out for.

Electrical Wiring

If you’re buying a home that’s around a century old, the good news is that the electrical wiring has probably been replaced. If it hasn’t been, it probably isn’t working very well and will need to be replaced very soon.

Homes from this time period often had knob and tube wiring, a type of old-fashioned wiring that was very prevalent here in Portland from the 1890s through the 1930s. It had exposed wires running through tubes and around knobs, and if you think it sounds dangerous, you’re right. You may not be able to even get home insurance on a home with this type of wiring, forcing you to get it replaced.

Also, you may need to upgrade the home’s electrical panel. Old homes usually had panels that could handle around 60 amps, while new homes have panels that can handle 200 amps. We use a lot more electricity than our ancestors did.

Plumbing

Portland-area homes often had galvanized or cast-iron water pipes, which are especially prone to deteriorating and leaking. Lead pipes were also common, and they’re a safety hazard. Pipes of these materials will likely need to be replaced.

You may also want to check the sewer line from your home, which could have been made of clay, cast iron, or even tarpaper. These pipes disintegrate, get clogged, and become inundated by tree roots over time. It’s a good idea to have a special camera scope these lines out.

Foundation

The good news is that old homes in Portland are likely to have nice hardwood floors made from top-notch local wood. But those floors could be very uneven due to settling in the home and/or problems with the foundation.

And of course, if the problem is caused by a cracked, sunken, or leaning foundation, the issue will likely have to be addressed.

You’ll also want to know if the home’s sill plate is damaged (it’s what the entire home rests on, and it’s on top of the foundation).

Certain areas of Portland are more likely to have problems with high water tables, eroding soil, and loose slopes that can affect a home’s stability, so it’s important to pay attention to this especially when a home has been around for a long time.

Layout

Homes this old have often gone through a hodgepodge of renovations and fixes at many different times throughout its existence.

They’re also likely to have layouts that aren’t very well suited to today’s families, including single bathrooms, small kitchens, and a lack of storage space.

Mold and Water Problems

The most likely problem you’ll encounter with an older home in Portland? Water in the basement or crawl space. Our old homes are likely to have cracks in concrete walls that let moisture in, which can cause structural damage, rot, mold, and mildew. After dealing with any existing damage, the best solution is to waterproof the basement or encapsulate the crawl space to prevent future water damage.

You may also need to upgrade an old home’s drainage system (this was something that often wasn’t even thought about when these homes were built). Broken or clogged down spouts are common in older homes, and they can wreak havoc on your foundation.

With all the rainfall we have here in Oregon, this isn’t something you want to mess around with.

Insulation and HVAC Systems

Older homes were often built without much insulation, and they certainly weren’t built with the amount of insulation that’s recommended today. Portland’s weather has gotten more extreme in recent years, so it’s important to know what insulation exists and how you might want to add to it.

It’s also highly likely that an existing HVAC system will not be adequate for our climate because it’s less moderate than it used to be. For instance, you may need to install a whole-house air conditioning system.

Lead Paint

If the home was built before 1978, there’s a good chance that the original paint contained lead—a certified lead inspector can tell you if there’s lead present in the home or not. Lead-based paint is one of the most common ways someone gets lead poisoning, and it’s especially bad for young children.

If the paint is in good shape, especially under newer layers of paint, it’s not usually a problem. If it’s peeling, chipping, or cracking, you’ll need to have it removed by a lead-certified contractor.

Important note: any home that was built before 1978 can have lead paint, so this is applicable to newer homes, too.

Homes Around 40 to 60 Years Old

Homes that are around this age are modern homes in many ways, but they still have issues you need to watch out for.

Electrical Wiring

Generally, electrical systems that were installed in the 1970s and 1980s are modern electrical systems. They have circuit breakers (instead of fuses) and grounded receptacles.

However, there was a worldwide shortage of copper during the 1970s (copper is the preferred material for electrical wiring). Because of this shortage, many builders used aluminum, which was easily available and inexpensive. But the light switches and receptacles were usually still made of copper or another metal that reacts to aluminum. This causes the wiring to overheat, creating a pretty severe fire hazard.

The standard for electric panels during this time was 100 amps, which may be adequate for some homes, but many modern homes are likely to need up to 200 amps.

Plumbing

Many houses built in Portland during this time period have copper pipes, and they should be in good condition. However, angle stop valves behind toilets and under sinks may need to be replaced.

Asbestos

Asbestos is an inexpensive, fire-retardant material that was used extensively in homes built from the 1940s to the 1970s.  If the material is in poor condition and the asbestos fibers are exposed, they can be easily inhaled and cause lung cancer. The good news is that if the material is in good condition, it’s not a health hazard. Asbestos is commonly found in some types of:

  • Insulation on basement boilers and pipes
  • Vinyl floor tiles, linoleum, and floor glue
  • Window caulking and glaze
  • Roofing and siding material
  • Plaster
  • HVAC duct insulation
  • Paint

Materials containing asbestos should be removed by a licensed specialist. While you can legally do it yourself, it’s a big pain to follow all of the proper procedures and it’s probably better left to a professional.

Homes Around 20 to 30 Years Old

Most homes built in this time period meet all of our modern standards. But some may still have issues you should be aware of.

Plumbing

The biggest thing to be aware of is polybutylene piping. It was discontinued in 1996 because of problems with the pipes bursting. If you have a home with this type of plumbing, you’ll have to have it replaced to prevent catastrophic flooding.

Major Component Replacements

Homes built in this time period may just be coming up on their first wave of major replacements.

A roof can last 25 to 30 years and an HVAC system for around 20. If those big-ticket items haven’t yet been replaced, it’s probably about time for some expensive repairs.

Dated Décor

Homes built around 20 years ago often haven’t been upgraded yet, and you may need some imagination to see past the green countertops, closed-off kitchen, and honey oak cabinets.

If the home is sound and has a good floor plan, its appearance can be easily changed. Sometimes it’s nice to have a home that hasn’t had a hodgepodge of renovations done to it—think of it as a blank slate.

Brand-New Homes

I know this article is mostly about buying an older home, but I wanted to mention that even if you want to buy a brand-new home, you’re not off the hook when it comes to making sure you know what you’re buying. But the types of issues you’ll encounter will be different. Here are some things you should do if you’re looking at new construction.

Look at Construction Quality

Go to the developers’ other sites. How do the completed homes look? Do the new residents like their homes? Look at reviews and forums and see what people are saying about potential issues.

Pay special attention to issues that may indicate the lack of quality work or materials.

Know Your Warranties

Many new-home warranties are administered by a third party and don’t cover workmanship or finishes. Make sure that you know what the guarantees are and what kind of provisions are in your contract for small issues that you may need to sort out with the developer. These warranties often come into play if the developer fails to carry out the work.

 

Some components, like windows, may be covered by the company that made them.

Get the Home Inspected

Did you know that you still really do need a home inspection? New homes can have all sorts of problems, too, even after they’ve passed permit inspections. I can’t stress this enough: get the home inspected no matter how old it is.

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