Most home buyers we work with would prefer to purchase a newer home, but many simply can’t afford it. Those who feel as though they have to “settle” for an older house are usually happy to become homeowners but plan to eventually upgrade to a newer, supposedly “better” home at some point in the future. If you feel you can relate, read on because this post will hopefully provide some real encouragement from an experienced professional who has “seen it all” and can attest to the pros and cons of both options. In short, purchasing an old house is often a very wise investment, contrary to popular opinion.
It may come as a surprise, but many of the older houses we inspect are better constructed than newer ones. In fact, if I had to pick a decade that seems to be the worst overall for poorly built homes, I’d probably have to say the 1990’s based on everything we’ve seen, and that’s not long ago… only about 20-30 years as of the date this article is being written. That’s probably due to the fact that many changes in code requirements were coming about around that time, as well as newer products, so the builders aren’t entirely to blame. I tell clients often that “our great-grandfathers really knew how to build houses.” Much of the work decades ago was done by hand and without the many modern advancements in tools and other technologies builders have at their disposal today. Foundation walls were often built 18 inches thick with stone, framing members were actually 2 inches thick, and the craftsmanship in woodwork and other finishing details is practically a lost art at this point. Much of this occurred during or shortly after the Industrial Revolution when workers and companies took great pride in their work and prioritized quality over quantity. Unfortunately, that isn’t so much the case today.
Today, homes are built with less substantial materials, but they are much more energy efficient. Advancements like spray foam insulation have revolutionized the building industry and allowed owners of new homes to benefit immensely from substantial cost savings in energy and much better sealing. In an age when the average homeowner works away from home and needs to depend on more automated systems, it makes sense that most homeowners need the ability to rely on HVAC systems that function on auto-pilot versus, say, an old coal furnace that required manual labor to load the coal, stoke the furnace, clean and dispose of ash, etc. Not only that, but the same system can now be controlled remotely from nearly anywhere in the world via a “SMART” thermostat, like a Google Nest. One could certainly argue, though, that there’s a real sense of value and satisfaction in having to continually work to maintain your home – one of your most valuable and important assets – and the folks we come across who are still doing things the old fashioned way take great pride in their old homes.
Appliances have followed this same trend, and this is something with which all of our clients completely agree because many have had firsthand experience with a newer appliance that’s quickly failed or an older unit that has lasted far longer than anticipated. Older, American made appliances were simply built to last. We often run across old water heaters, boilers, dishwashers and other units that are clean and still going strong with no indications that they’ll “crap out” any time soon. On the contrary, we’ve encountered several newer appliances – even as new as only 6 weeks old – that are leaking terribly and already beyond repair. In fact, many of the appliances that fail much earlier than expected are brands reputable for having previously produced long-lasting, reliable products over many decades. Here in our area of Johnstown, PA, a company called the National U.S. Radiator Company used to manufacture rugged boilers, and nearly every one we are fortunate to come across is still in great working order, largely free of defects, and likely to last many more years with minimal maintenance. Sure, they aren’t as efficient, but they may actually save money in the long run by outliving a newer boiler that is more efficient.
Now, many of the older houses we inspect do have several defects that you’d expect of any older home. Even then, though, those deficiencies aren’t as concerning as they may appear to an untrained or inexperienced eye. For example, most older homes have several floor joists that have been significantly notched or contain large bored holes that were carved out over the years to accommodate wiring or plumbing during remodels, repairs or other work. These are defects we inspectors have to note, but these joists are usually sound overall and have existed that way for a long time with no concerning signs of movement or failure at all. Old stone foundations are also usually prone to some degree of moisture intrusion, contrary to newer houses that are often constructed with modern and very effective waterproofing systems, but they rarely show alarming signs of failure or other significant problems.
Old houses definitely warrant a thorough inspection from an experienced professional, but the fact that a house you are considering buying is old should not, in itself, be a major deterrent. Take some time to research older building techniques and materials versus newer ones, and you’ll quickly discover that purchasing an old house may in fact be a wise decision, not a way of settling as you merely hold out and save for something newer.
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