What should homebuyers know about older homes?


New construction has slumped over the last few years, leaving many aspiring buyers to look at older homes, which are attractive for a variety of reasons.

While newer properties are commonly situated in cramped developments, older homes often enjoy larger lots. Adding in unique architecture and what is frequently superior build quality, older homes can potentially offer better value than newer ones, giving buyers more house for their money.

Why We’re Asking:

While older homes do have some characteristic advantages, that doesn’t mean they aren’t without their own set of potential problems. Electrical and plumbing systems, the roof, and other structural linchpins may suffer from years of neglect, leaving a new homeowner with a disaster on their hands.

To find out more, we’re turning to our panel of experts. We want to know what to watch out for when entering the market for an older home. What can an aspiring homeowner look for on their own and when is it time to call in a pro for help evaluating a potential purchase?

So experts, it’s time to weigh in:

What should people consider when purchasing older homes?

What are the pros and cons of purchasing older homes?
Are there certain decades or types of homes that are particularly prone to problems or needing major overhauls?
Are there styles and years that are better than others?
Are there any basic rules such as, ‘don’t buy a home that’s more than 50 years old’?
Do older homes require a more specialized professional for maintenance and services?

Any and all contributions are welcome, but here are some more questions to get you started:

Electricians: What should you look at for wiring?
Contractors: What about structural problems?
Plumbers: Are there specific plumbing problems with older homes?
Roofers: What about old roofs?
Designers: Does purchasing an old home limit you to one kind of design style or are they fairly versatile?

Experts, post your answers in the comment field below!


  1. Most people who purchase older houses do so because they want a home with character. it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stick to a traditional decorating style, but you should honor the home’s architectural style and details. Using furniture in classic shapes with contemporary upholstery, colors, or finishes is a great way to bring two different style sensibilities together in a harmonious way. Also, accessories can often bridge the gap between styles. A piece of modern art won’t seem so jarring in an older home if it’s surrounded by pieces that reflect traditional, global, or classic styles.

  2. Do not skip a sewer line inspection. It is often not included in a traditional home inspection but, is especially important in older homes where problems more frequently exist. The inspection will cost you $200 to $300 but can save you from repairs costing thousands.

    Homes built 20 or more years ago likely have concrete and clay underground sewer pipes. Root growth is the most common cause of sewer line damage and is often responsible for blockages and separated pipe sections. Outdated and eroding pipe materials are also a common culprit in sewer line deterioration. Older pipes are much more susceptible to root intrusion than new plastic pipe.

  3. The Greenest Building is one already built. So already ahead of the game on making the home eco friendly.

    The most important advice I give any client is to have a Structural Engineer do the primary inspection. Home Inspectors are fine but they do not always have the training and experience to see underlying issues that can be major issues regarding bringing a home up to code or potential issues that may not always be “disclosed.”

    Simply water damage, earthquake issues and other major structural and environmental damage is by far more costly to repair and replace and those are the primary issues one should focus on when purchasing any home – new or old.

    That said I would prefer to buy an “old” home simply because the concept of longevity and life in an older home often was built with a time frame from 50-100 years versus today’s disposable society of less than 25 years.

    All homes have great potential to be eco friendly and energy efficient be they built that way or not. Sometimes a home is more than a label, star or certification.

  4. Mechanical, mechanical, mechanical! Things like hvac and plumbing aren’t always the sexiest of topics for consumers, but buyers will quickly regret not having investigated the conditions of these systems prior to making a purchase when they are faced with replacement costs and utility costs.

    For instance, many older homes will not have water efficient toilets installed. This is not a terribly expensive upgrade to request from the seller, and they can save a staggering amount of water. This is not only more environmentally responsible, but if the home is on city water and sewer, it can save the owner a lot of money.

    Also, try out all the faucets in the house and see how long it takes for hot water to show up. Remember, if hot water is slow to arrive, this is an issue that you will be frustrated with at least twice a day, every day.

    Find out about the building envelope. What sort of insulation has been used? What condition is it in? Also, what sort of energy bills are the current owners dealing with? Take note of any hot or cool spots as you walk through a home.

    What sort of shape is the ductwork in? How well to the ventilation fans operate? Are they loud? Do they remove odors with sufficient speed?

    Finally, prospective buyers can’t be too cautious about existing problems that either have or could contribute to water damage. This might include leads, improperly installed showers, etc. Any signs of moisture or musty smells should be investigated. Don’t just “look” at a home! Use your other senses as well — smell, touch, hearing!

  5. Prior to purchasing a house, a trained inspector will be required to perform a full analysis of the home. That being said, that would not stop me from looking into the attic for water damage, which is a sign of a leaking roof; or peeling paint and wood rot around trim, windows or siding, which are signs that you will have to do some sort of work soon. If you notice any signs of damage make sure you negotiate the work or the price of the home to account for that work.

    An older home has probably had work done. Get documentation on when this work occurred, if there is a transferable warranty, which contractor performed this work and if that contractor has a reputable company. The last thing you want to do is deal with the prior homeowner’s mistakes.

  6. Keep in mind the cost of updating, as some rooms cost much more than others. Some buyers look at an older home as just having “cosmetic” repairs to do, but if the kitchen and bathrooms are out of date, there will be major expenses involved to modernize them. It may be worthwhile to have a kitchen and bath designer or contractor evaluate the project before buying the home. An older home that needs renovating can be a great bargain if the price is right, and the remodel can be done in the new buyer’s taste. Having newly renovated spaces means it will be years before the new owner has to do anything else, and it is likely they will never have to spend money on the kitchen and baths again. Buying a bargain, fixing it up, and living in it is the best deal for someone who plans to live in the home for several years, since the days of house-flipping for profit are behind us. This is a great way to get an entry point into a neighborhood that may be out of your price range – just buy the worst home on the nicest street!

  7. Purchasing an older home has its limits to Design Style no different than purchasing a new home. As a professional designer, I would ask yourself first before looking at homes to purchase (new or old) what style do you like…Traditional, Contemporary, or Transitional? Based on your answer, this might direct you not only in the right direction when it comes to the style of home you love; but also provide insights to future design decisions and opportunities both before and after the purchase (e.g. Kitchen Remodel).

    Most homes; especially the homes that most people call “Custom Homes”; usually found in large sub-divisions, are for the most part “Style Neutral”. The outside may lend itself towards a certain design style, but for the most part can be modified into the style you like with a few simple changes. The interiors of these types of homes are very style neutral also, unless either the home builder or previous owner have modified the interiors prior to purchase. In regards to the overall architectural layout, these homes either new or old are neutral for the most part and thus limitless when it comes to turning the homes’ interior into the style that you love.

    In general, in newer homes you possibly have more input into the overall style of the home based on decisions made with the builder or model selected while in older homes this style is already set and hiring a design professional would be your best bet to convert the existing older home into the home of your style and dreams!” So, to answer the question “Does purchasing an old home limit you to one kind of design style or are they fairly versatile?”, my answer is no, one just has to be creative and make the older home work for them.

  8. Most of the “Remodels” done in last boom were done in haste, and I am being called on to remove that haste. Tile on drywall, poor Granite joints at Sink & Window, Faux stuff that is warping, peeling, rotting from poor install and poor design. ” Trendy” Shower Valves set behind walls that can not be repaired and need it or will soon enough need it. Permitted or not, these “Remodels” are in my experience a nightmare. I would get a house as old as possible and never Remodeled. A Craftsman Home with a Crawl Space or Basement is a Dream! not a Nightmare. Any Re Surfaced Tubs are trouble as well as Re Surfaced Tile Enclosures. Tank-Less Water Heaters have been known to be “Thankless” do to poor design or Installation. Real “deals” exist on houses that have had the Copper ripped out of the walls and the Bank just wants out. This way you get Credit” for a repipe including Drywall etc. allowing you to really do a job your way and if you choose, to do it right. I recommend hiring a Commissioner for such projects.
    Greg Chick, Plumbing Trainer.

  9. So far the advice has been excellent–a great primer for buying an older home.

    As I am a bit older than most of the other contributors here, I have probably been dealing with really old homes longer. I actually grew up helping my dad restore homes dating from the 1870s to the 1940s. My wife Beverly and I live in a historic home NW of Austin built in 1856 by a famous Texas Ranger.

    A few quick points to add to the discussion.
    -In some tax districts you get a break for fixing up an old/historic home–others treat old homes the same as newer ones and sock it to you when you do any improvements. Having a designated historic home/living in a historic area often requires sticking to an authentic restoration. An older home will often have decades of pests living in them–I have dealt with scorpions, bats, rattlesnakes, etc.
    -Insulating, rewiring,new pipes, etc. can be a challenge. One trick I have used is to add a new interior wall behind the old one backing the exterior. While you may lose a few inches of interior space, it makes rewiring, re-plumbing and insulating much easier.

  10. Older houses can be aesthetically pleasing, as well as a good value. When purchasing an older home, be sure to fortify that structure with the best materials possible. Proper insulation will ensure even temperatures throughout the home, reducing energy consumption overall. High-performance windows use protective coatings and improved frame assemblies to help keep heat in during the winter and out during the summer. These types of windows are installed in each Grand View Builders home we sell. Efficient heating and cooling equipment will also improve the overall comfort of your home by reducing indoor humidity and noise, and require less maintenance over time.

    By updating an old house with newer features, your new home can be just as beautiful and efficient as a newly built residence.

  11. I am an Architect and Designer who specializes in helping clients re-design
    and renovate older homes to make them suitable for 21st century living.
    This usually means building in the kind of amenities such as master suites,
    chef’s kitchens and spacious living areas. I am well versed in the
    challenges of older homes as well as the realities of the real estate
    market. While you are correct in saying that older homes possess the
    character and craftsmanship that many newer homes do not, they also lack the
    technology in building materials and performance that many new homes
    require. Generally, most older homes are less expensive than a comparable
    newer home due to the anticipated maintenance and the expectation that some
    renovation or upgrade will be required. When I am looking at an older home,
    I generally focus on the following issues:

    1- Is the electrical system up to code? Is there copper wiring (legal)
    or aluminum wiring (now illegal)? Are wet locations protected with the
    proper GFI circuits? Are there enough outlets and are they at the proper
    height? Many older homes have old outlets in the baseboard which are
    dangerous to children and are often not grounded (2 prong vs. 3 prong).
    Have the outlets and covers been painted over?

    2- Are the plumbing waste lines PVC, cast iron, or galvanized? Old
    cast iron tends to be more prone to cracking and could be costly to replace.

    3- Does the layout lend itself well to modern living? Is the kitchen a
    good size? Is the structural system able to be modified easily if the owner
    wants to move a wall?

    4- I advise clients to avoid homes with complex roof lines with lots of
    valleys as they tend to leak over time. Fortunately, these types of roofs
    are common in the late 80’s and newer, so older homes generally don’t have a
    lot of these.

    5- I always look for period details that you could no longer replicate.
    These are things like wood floors made from old growth lumber with inlay
    work, stained glass, period hardware, built in cabinetry, detailed millwork
    such as stair balusters or newel posts, raised panel doors or doors with
    unique glazing, or special fixtures such as cast iron bathtubs or radiators.
    In today’s market, those kinds of items are difficult or impossible to
    reproduce and are the most valuable part of an older home. Anything else is
    likely to be renovated or replaced anyway.

    6- Stylistically, homes can be part of a historic typology such as Arts
    and Crafts or Victorian, but it is very difficult to live in an entire house
    filled with objects from a different era. Housing models such as craftsman
    bungalows or mid century ranches tend to suit contemporary living quite
    well, and those kinds of decisions should be considered when choosing a
    home. Style should only be as important as it is to the owner. If someone
    loves a certain type of home, they should buy it so long as the value is

    7- Hazardous materials such as lead paint and asbestos should also be
    considered in older homes. It can be dangerous and should be tested if
    there is a question.

    8- If an owner plans to renovate or update an older home it is best to
    consult with licensed professionals on your scope and budget before you buy
    it. Whether it be an Architect or a Contractor, old homes often follow the
    ‘domino’ effect. Once you touch one thing, everything has to be fixed.

    9- Insulation and energy efficiency are often missing from older homes.
    That leads to high heating and cooling bills. Check the insulation of the
    exterior walls (often there is none) and attic and whether the windows are
    new or old. Those are both big ticket items if upgrades are needed.

    Certainly the charm of older homes are appealing, but in today’s market,
    return on investment is often the decisive factor. Please feel free to look
    at the ‘Hazelwood’ project on my website which gives you a sense of a modern
    adaptation in a 1916 colonial.

  12. Purchasing an older home does not tie you down to one particular design style. In fact, it’s a great way to achieve an eclectic look. However, the room’s architecture should be taken into account. For example, if a living room has very traditional trim work such as crown moulding, cornices, etc. you may want to add a couple of traditional furniture pieces to accentuate the lines of the room. However, you can have some fun with it – mix it up by also adding a contemporary piece to the room and introducing some unconventional accessories.

  13. I can share one thing that happens fairly frequently to folks that buy an older home. A lot of old homes have much tighter staircases, lower ceilings, and narrower doorframes, which means when bringing in larger furniture items like couches, box springs, etc, there is a greater chance it will not fit. At Gentle Giant, we try every possible way to get every piece in, but sometimes it is impossible. On one occasion, a customer had to say goodbye to an extremely expensive, custom made couch because it simply would not fit in the century old house, be it through the doors or windows.

    This is something a lot of folks do not consider when buying an old house, but it can be helpful to think about.

  14. One thing that buyers often fail to consider is the the underground
    utilities on the property. Specifically, it is the responsibility of the
    homeowner to replace water and sewer lines from the property, all the way
    to the main line under the street. I was told that the typical shelf-life
    of galvanized pipe is about 50 years, yet a typical home inspection does
    not cover underground pipes. My home was built in 1938, and one year after
    purchasing it, I was stuck with a $17,000 bill to replace the lines (in
    2008). That, combined with the decline in the economy put me underwater on
    my home.

    So, I would definitely suggest that anybody looking at an older home ask
    about the sewer and water lines. If they have not been replaced, I would
    factor that in to the offer the buyer makes, because it is inevitable that
    they will have to be replaced sooner or later.

  15. Older houses can be fun to purchase and make into a great home. They often have charm, neat little quirks, and lots of opportunities for upgrades using your own tastes.

    But…you need to get them inspected very carefully. Find an inspector who is experienced with older homes, and is qualified to carefully inspect all of the homes systems, as outlined by the other responses.

    Then, be prepared for a long inspection report. Not that this is a bad thing – the more you know about the house, the better. Some of the issues you can negotiate with the sellers. Others you just file away for future reference. After all, when buying an older home you can’t expect everything in the house to be brand new. Sure, everything should be in working order. But not everything will be brand new just for you. Furnishing an old house can be a lot of fun. As long as you minimize the number of large, expensive surprises.

    And if you are handy, a “fixer upper” can be a great investment. Just make sure that you are prepared for all the possible work that needs to be done. Get the house inspected – and pay whatever it takes to get a highly trained inspector – think of it as “peace of mind” insurance!

  16. Here at GreenHomes America we love older homes, but let me clarify, because to us “old” is quite a broad category, in fact you might think of some of them as new. We have found homes only a few years “old”, new to many, suffer from the same problems we provide solutions for in much older ones. I suggest that in some ways new or old, it’s all the same thing. How a home performs is important no matter its age.

    Home Performance contracting, what GreenHomes America is all about, is a critical look at a home, and how it performs and more importantly, It is about pulling together all of the home’s “parts” and making it a more comfortable, safer and more efficient system. That’s the best part.

    Bringing together all of the parts of a home and making it work is no easy task. True craftsmen put together some beautiful homes long ago which are still standing and likely will for a long time to come with good care. This is certainly a benefit of an older home. They can be solid and well built as well as have a bit of character.

    Keep in mind some of these were built before modern style heating and insulation systems, before teenagers took hour long showers and we all stayed up with all the lights on to watch late night television. And yes, I did say insulation systems. New or old, insulation works only when it’s installed right, in the right place and combined with critical things like air-sealing.

    Builders today carry on the age old tradition of bringing so many different pieces together, but things have become more complicated, materials have changed, what we do in homes has changed, even what comfort is to us has changed. And modern builders still overlook things like air-sealing insulation and moisture issues. So don’t think you are always trouble free with new homes.

    Before you consider buying any home, knowing what you are getting into, new or old is an excellent idea. Home inspection is a good place to start, but I’d go a step further, think of how it will perform and a home energy assessment will help you with that, and a good one will provide the solutions you need to make a good home new or old a great one.

  17. “They don’t build them like they used to.” Ever hear this one? Yes, I know, it’s a trick question because you most certainly have. But when it comes to buying older homes this phrase will represent the key to what to look for in evaluating the work that may or may not be necessary to complete a transaction. Why? While we can argue that the homes built 100 years ago were made stronger, better and with more ‘sweat equity,’ it cannot be disputed that the materials used ‘back in the day’ do not meet today’s codes, rules and regulations. Buyers of older homes, therefore, should keep an eye on the features they cannot readily see: electrical, heating, plumbing, and roofing. If newer, more advanced systems have not been installed, then the costs to buy the home will rise, and rise accordingly because these four items are typically the most extensive items to repair on a home. Remember, though, if you do buy, and make the necessary upgrades, you’d have the best of both worlds: a better built home with the best features of a modern world.

  18. Depending on the price range, the size of lots vary. Some “not so affluent” areas of Wichita, KS, the lots are rather small and certainly smaller than the current ones the builders are generally offering. Many other older homes have excellent size lots for a future pool or some kind of outdoor living space.

    As a professional restorer of homes and commercial buildings a few of the pros and perhaps some of the cons are:

    Let us start with cons:

    1. Outdated and often inefficient HVAC, Electrical and Plumbing systems. We have performed at least 1 project annually that had a fire due to old wiring.

    2. Older properties tend to have various materials that contain Asbestos and Lead. Having these materials is not necessarily dangerous, however disturbing them to remodel may have adverse effects based on the amount of these materials.

    3. Mitigating costs for various projects on older building is more due to the additional resources that are needed.

    4. Older homes often are less insulated in the walls and ceilings and crawl spaces. Insulating the ceilings and crawl spaces is not too difficult, but the walls are certainly a challenge since they may be made of lathe and plaster.

    5. Older homes tend to have foundational challenges from settling or water seeping etc. in certain parts of the country. Settling leads to structural damage that needs attention as well.

    6. Building codes have changed over the years and thus smaller remodeling projects end up being more complicated and becoming larger to comply with today’s building codes.

    7. Windows are often in need of changing, and often custom windows need to be ordered to fit existing framing.

    8. Materials are quite different in older homes and need to be taken into consideration when remodeling. Often the same type and size may not be available and need custom fabrication. Crown molding etc., may need to be custom milled to match older items.

    Let us look at the pros:

    1. Unique character and architecture in each older home. Many small homes do not have this, but most over 1500 square feet homes possess this.

    2. The neighborhoods are established, for better or for worse.

    3. Yards often have mature trees providing much needed shade in the summer. They sometimes need being trimmed etc., and cleanup. Often the yard needs a little updating too.

    4. Value of the home versus the cost is quite good and certainly can be a good investment for a experienced or even a novice DIY person.

    5. Most older homes have a decent size lot where gardening can be a joy with vegetable gardens etc.

    6. Older homes are made of real materials and real wood built-ins versus today’s laminates and MDF products. Most of these are built to last instead of replacing after a few years.

    7. One of the most amazing features are the fixtures and the attention to detail. Nothing is standard, everything is unique. If one can maintain it and improve it, it is worth the cost.

    8. With older homes, there is always an opportunity to…. (you fill in the blank)

    There is always a reason when remodeling and updating a older home is just not a good idea. A smaller budget would not facilitate that. Major structural challenges may not be possible without the assistance of a professional contractor. A little TLC can go a long way.

  19. We are an architectural design team that focuses exclusively on existing homes, wether they be neglected, historic, or in need of minor updates. We are located in Phoenix the sixth largest city in the United States and one of the worst hit from the housing bubble burst. With these overwhelming issues facing us we have found that investing in older homes could be the answer to many of Phoenix’s problems. We believe that investing in older homes as opposed to opting for a new home on the fringe can benefit the city and community in endless ways. Older homes are found in historic city centers that could use
    the added density and patronage in the current economic recession, for example. We approach our design not only with a love for the mid-century modern aesthetic found in many old ranches in the Valley of the Sun but with a broader urban planning interest to reclaim Phoenix as urban mecca.

    Of course, like you say many older homes have the potential to leave an owner facing a disaster. Unless you’re considering a foreclosure that is sold “as is” you always have time to have a licensed inspector examine the property. As part of our design services, we work with clients in their housing search and visit the properties they are considering to speak about general redesign options and costs. We find that many older homes in Phoenix dating back to the 1950s and 1960s are some of our favorites to work with. The clean rectangular shape and sturdy block construction allow them to be easily adaptable to several design aesthetics as they are not ornate and provide a strong foundation.

  20. I love older homes. They have so much character, their landscaping is established and best of all, they are green! When purchasing an older home it is important to look at your storage options. This should not be a deterrent but you will need to be a bit more creative in how you use your space. Older homes tend to have few closets that are small and sometimes awkwardly shaped. You may need to consider furniture that can double as closet space, hanging shelves or installing a custom closet system in order to get the most out of the storage space you have. Alternatively, ‘right-sizing’ your things may allow you to need less storage space over all. Always, a move is a great time to streamline your possessions.

  21. This advice comes from my personal experience. Don’t forget to factor into the price of the home repairs you will have to make. Consider whether you will have the money or credit to do repairs or updates that need doing or if you would be better off spending a little more up front on a home that is up to date. For example, it is easy to think what a great deal and not realize that a new roof or new heating system can mean around $5000 each depending on the size of the home.

  22. Specifically with older homes, we recommend people look to see if the home still has the original builder installed deck. We have found over the years that many of these structures were built cheaply and poorly and have proven to be highly dangerous as they age.

    Even if the deck appears to be in sound shape and passes inspection, if it is the original builder product, it is a candidate for needing replacement. Consider the costs involved of both repairing a failing structure or replacing it all together and factor that in when making an offer on an older home.

  23. Pay for a very professional in depth home inspection; complete with lead testing, radon testing, asbestos, and sewer line. Also confirm all building permits that should have been necessary were actually taken out. Without permits the likelihood of the work being sub-standard or wrong increase greatly.

    If you’re buying an older home and plan on remodeling to 2012 level of comfort and finishes, be ready to replace the entire infrastructure. You can’t extrapolate remodeling costs from magazines because these won’t include the cost to re-plumb, re-wire, new heating system; hot water tank, new windows, additional insulation and possibly a new roof and gutters. The costs shown for kitchens and baths in magazines only include the work that was completed inside the bathroom or kitchen itself not the infrastructure. Be prepared to spend quite a bit to bring it up to a new home condition and don’t plan on moving in right away. I recommend consulting with an established design / build firm or contractor that does work in the neighborhood to go over what the estimated costs would be. Have a clear conversation about your expectations regarding the quality level of finishes and materials so they can provide you with the most accurate estimate of costs. This kind of undertaking isn’t for everyone.

    If an older home has been remodeled and isn’t in need of a lot of updates always ask for a list of what companies did the work and when and are any of the warranties (roof for instance) transferable to you.
    I am actually very positive about purchasing older homes that have been maintained and are structurally sound. I’ve seen new homes that are put together fast, have poor workmanship and very inexpensive materials. These will be in need to be remodeled soon too.

    I really like older homes, the architectural detailing and mature neighborhoods can’t be replicated in new neighborhoods. I have to admit that my house is seventy years old and yes we have replaced everything; remodeled every room and done two additions.

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