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Buying an Old House Has Its Challenges. Here's How to Decide If Its Right for You

Buying an old house comes with a unique set of challenges and opportunities. Read on to find out if this homebuying option is right for you.

March 24, 2022
March 24, 2022
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My husband and I bought our house in 1989. On the day we closed, the house was 164 years old.

That’s right, our home was built in 1825. If these horsehair plaster walls could talk, what rich stories they could tell.

When we first saw the house, my husband Phil wasn’t convinced it was right for us. Old houses look charming from the outside, but on the inside, they hold a lot of surprises – and challenges.

Phil knew that as soon as we walked through the house. But all I saw were the possibilities.

Thirty-three years later, that house is still our home. I’ve learned a lot about buying an old house, though, including that this option isn’t for everyone – certainly not for the faint of heart.

I’ll tell you what I’ve discovered about owning an older house so you know what to expect if you take a similar journey.

What you see… and what you get

From the minute I stepped foot into our old home, I was charmed by its elegance and unique features:

  • Oversized windows with original, curved horsehair plaster
  • A beautiful open staircase with the potential to be a focal point in the front of the house
  • Exposed brick in the kitchen
  • Four solid upstairs bedrooms
  • A huge separate garage where Phil could create a workshop
  • A place to raise a family

The house had potential as far as the eye could see, and then some.

Through the years, we found hidden treasures, like Eastern white pumpkin pine random width floorboards that had been thickly covered in orange shellac. Beneath some pretty hideous, mustard-colored kitchen linoleum was tongue and groove oak, just waiting to be gently sanded and finished to a warm sheen.

There’s a lot to love with an older house.

“The architectural style, details and craftsmanship are things you don’t see in houses built today,” says Chris Egner, president of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI). Egner is also the owner of Chris Egner Design-Build-Remodel in New Berlin, Wisc.

“For some people, it is truly a labor of love, whether it’s the repair or restoration...while for others there is a stewardship, and [desire] to preserve,” he explains.

“For some people, it is truly a labor of love, whether it’s the repair or restoration...while for others there is a stewardship, and [desire] to preserve.”

Chris Egner, president of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry (NARI)

Egner also says that buying an old house is the ultimate green housing solution.

“Rather than knocking things down and throwing them away it’s working with what you’ve got,” he says.

When you buy an old house, you get much, much more than a roof and four walls. If you’re really lucky, you become part of a stewardship, an enduring legacy that’s bigger than you’ll ever imagine.

But while stewardship is rewarding, it’s not easy. And buying an older house means signing on for quirks and repairs you won’t have to deal with in a more modern home.

“Buying an older home is like adopting an older pet. Some of the puppy is going to be gone,” says David Pekel, CEO and partner of Pekel Construction and Remodeling in Wauwatosa, Wisc. Pekel and his team specialize in old house work and renovation.

The question is, do you have the time, energy, and affection to devote to an older home? And is there such a thing as too old?

Can a house be too old to buy?

The biggest factor to consider when buying an old house is its age, says Adam Levitt, renovation business development manager at Fairway.

“Building codes were different,” through the decades and even centuries, he says.

What passed for safe and efficient 100 years ago is much different from building standards now, and it’s important to consider how older systems and features will affect your life in the home.

For instance, doorways were narrower in historic homes. The electrical wiring in a 100-year-old property wasn’t designed to sustain multiple laptops, desktops, high-resolution TVs, and smartphone chargers, so you’ll likely need to have it upgraded.

Old plumbing systems can prove problematic as well, particularly if the pipe material is prone to corrosion that can lead to blocked lines.

“Buying an older home is like adopting an older pet. Some of the puppy is going to be gone.”

David Pekel, CEO and partner of Pekel Construction and Remodeling

But a great deal comes down to how well the home has been maintained. You might find a 150-year-old house in relatively good condition if its past tenants took care of the property. You can also find houses built in the past few decades that are in a serious state of disrepair and pose serious safety hazards because of the deterioration.

So, while an older house may need some system upgrades, they often have very good bones and unique layouts you won’t see in more modern designs.

Depending on the house’s age, history, and location, the local historical society or municipality may need to approve a sale or any renovation plans for the home. Talk to them before you commit to the purchase so you’ll know whether your remodeling plans are even feasible.

What to look for when buying an old house

Buying an old house may seem like a romantic dream – and it can be. But once you start looking at the house’s needs and condition, they’ll quickly bring you back down to reality.

Unless you have unlimited funds to purchase and fix up a property, you’re going to want to set limits for what you’re willing to commit to with an old house. Here are some things to consider.

Buying an old house checklist

  • Roof: How old is it? When was it last replaced? Check the materials used as well. Slate roofs, common on the East Coast, may be more than 100 years old and still intact
  • Plumbing: What are the water supply lines and pipes made of? Really old pipes may be made of iron, says John Gray, project manager at Total Home Manager in Hopewell, N.J. Iron pipes can rust and clog the lines over the years, and they’re susceptible to damage from tree roots. Galvanized pipes, on the other hand, may contain lead.
  • Gray owns and lives in a circa 1810 “former tenant” house in Mechanicsville, Pa. He recommends looking for old pipe shutoff valves inside cabinetry, because out-of-date valves may not close correctly or be prone to leaking
  • Width of doorways and bedrooms: Bring a measuring tape when you tour the home to check whether your furniture will fit in the space or through the doors when you’re moving
  • Windows: How old are they? Were they ever replaced? Old windows are likely not energy-efficient, and single-pane glass in old frames can let in quite a bit of air. That can make heating and cooling the home more difficult, as the HVAC system must work harder to compensate. It can also make your energy bill more expensive
  • Interior and exterior paint: How old is it? When was it last updated? Homes with paint older than 1978 likely contain lead. Be careful about handling repainting projects, especially with young children and babies in the house, as they can easily ingest paint chips while crawling or playing on the ground
  • Is there asbestos? Asbestos was common in homes built before 1980. Flooring, ceiling tiles, insulation and piping are all possible spots for asbestos. You can have asbestos removed by licensed remediation specialists
  • Heating: What type of heating system does the house have? Are there oil tanks on the property? If there are oil tanks, find out whether they have been properly abandoned according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines. You may not be able to get a loan for a home with an oil tank that has not been properly sealed, as it is considered a potential hazard
  • Electrical wiring: Knob and tube electrical wiring was standard practice in the U.S. from the 1880s through the 1930s. If it has not been replaced, you will need to have an electrician rewire the house for safety, to bring it up to code, and to ensure you can use the home safely for modern activities
  • Water and sewage: Is the house service by public water or a well? How old is the pump, and where is it located for service or replacement? If the house has a private septic tank, when was the tank last pumped? Most lenders will require a septic inspection as well as proof of recent service and pumping
  • Flooding and water damage: Does the basement get wet during rain storms or other weather events? Does it flood? Is the house built on top of an underground spring?
  • Flooring: Is there hardwood that can be restored? Or are there layers of old tile (and possible asbestos) that must be removed and replaced?

Inspecting an older home

Egner recommends scheduling your home inspection with a licensed inspector who has experience with old houses. You might also book time with a remodeler whose niche is old houses to do an estimate for repairs and renovations so you have some idea of what fixing up the house will cost.

When you are going through your inspection and appraisal reports, find out whether there are contractors in your area who can do the work that’s needed and who maintain systems like the ones in your home. If the house has particularly old heating, electrical, or plumbing, you may find that not many local contractors can service them.

If you’re considering putting an addition on the house at some point, Levitt suggests consulting a structural engineer. They can assess whether it’s possible to add square footage to an existing property, based on its current layout and structure.

Keep in mind that you will likely need permits from your local municipality to make any structural changes. You may also need approval from a historic registry as well, if the home is on the historic register.

Buying an old house: How to pay for your vintage home and repairs

When my husband and I bought our Bucks County, Pennsylvania, farmhouse, we had more enthusiasm and energy than we did money.

Sweat equity has been a big part of our journey, fixing up and maintaining the home over time.

That is a rewarding way to get to know a home. Settle into it, figure out what it needs, and do as much of the renovations and upkeep yourself as you can. Granted, you might find yourself washing dishes in the bathtub while the kitchen remodel is underway (a particularly interesting situation when the tub is on the second floor), or otherwise working around the renovations.

But there’s something uniquely satisfying about becoming part of the home’s history and seeing it evolve. The more hands on you are, you’ll have more influence over retaining the fixtures and characteristics that made the home so special to you in the first place.

However, you can also pay for repairs out of your savings or finance renovations as part of your home loan.

Renovation loan options

“It’s not just about renovating for an investment. You’re renovating for your lifestyle. You’re bringing love into the property.” 

Adam Levitt, renovation business development manager at Fairway

There are several renovation loan options that allow you to purchase a home and pay for repairs and upgrades in a single mortgage:

Each of these has a low down payment option, and you can use gift funds or down payment assistance toward your upfront costs.

“It’s not just about renovating for an investment. You’re renovating for your lifestyle,” Levitt says of the renovation loan option. “You’re bringing love into the property.” 

But renovating the home will likely increase its value, especially if you do things like replace the roof or remodel the kitchen or bathroom. These are key value-adding home improvements that raise the home’s value and give you more home equity.

What to know about buying an old house in a historic registry district

Homes located in historic registry districts – whether they’re national, state, or local – might have limitations or restrictions on the types of materials, colors, and designs that can be used on the house.

Each state has its own Historic Register. The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 authorized a list of sites and places deemed worthy of preservation. The list, register, and database are administered by the National Park Service National Register of Historic Places.

 Being part of a historic register can offer tax incentives and advantages for restoration, including tax credits. If the property isn’t already on a historic registry, you can apply to have it included.

 “While most of our clients are not seeking [historic register], they may live in a registered district and are under the custodian obligation to maintain the design and elements inside and outside the home,” Egner says.

 A specific exterior aesthetic including paint colors, material finishes, windows, metals, and roofing types, among others, may be required, he explained.

“Historic buildings present challenges and rewards as a unique ownership opportunity. The workmanship and materials found in many historic buildings can’t be duplicated today," says Scott Bomboy, chair of Perkasie Borough Historical Committee in Perkasie, Pa. He is also a local historic preservationist.

“Historic buildings present challenges and rewards as a unique ownership opportunity. The workmanship and materials found in many historic buildings can’t be duplicated today."

Scott Bomboy, chair of Perkasie Borough Historical Committee

Tax credits are available to those who want to remodel in an appropriate historical fashion. If there is not an interest in obtaining tax credits, the guidelines are eased, Bomboy explains. To learn about the options and requirements where you live, he advises starting with your state historical registry, which reports to the federal agency.

Homes must be at least 50 years old to be eligible for history register listing consideration.

Some local municipalities may also have a district historic society or preservation board or commission. It’s worth checking with those offices before making changes to the property or hiring contractors.

While restrictions on what you can do with your home may be frustrating, there are good reasons for the guidelines.

Not only is there an undisputed charm about construction techniques from bygone eras, these hallmarks – whether Victorian gingerbread trim, a stone walk-in fireplace, or itinerant stencils and murals – are time capsules. They’re also inherent to an older home’s value.

"Those factors should keep the demand high for such homes, since owning a piece of history still appeals to many people,” Bomboy says.

Buying an old house FAQs

Are old houses worth buying? Absolutely, if owning an older house would bring you joy and you are prepared to take on the stewardship of the property. But it’s important to have reasonable expectations when buying an old house. If you’re expecting to buy a 200-year-old house and have it work like a brand new property, you will probably regret buying the home.

Is it OK to buy a 50-year-old house? While the historical register defines an old house as 50 years or older, it is perfectly fine – and often desirable – to buy a 50-year-old old house. If the house is already listed on a register, there may be limitations to what types of upgrades and remodels can be done to the home. But many old homes are well-built and have unique features you will not find in modern properties.

Is it cheaper to buy an older house? Not necessarily. In most cases, repairs or remodeling costs to a very old home can be expensive. Even if the purchase price is lower than you’d find on a modern house, you could end up paying the same amount or more if the property needs extensive repairs. But if it’s in good condition and you can do some of the work on your own – for example, if it’s livable but needs to have the floors refinished or it needs fresh paint – it can be cheaper to buy an older house.

The bottom line

Owning and living with an old house is a stewardship. We’re connected to generations of families we’ve never known, and writing our own stories into our old home’s next chapters.

From that rubble foundation to its slate roof, cloth-covered wiring, and ceramic knob and tube fuses, an old house has much to teach us about the past and about our own resilience, even as it helps us build the foundation of our own futures.

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