Buying an old house? Make sure you know something about its life

This is a little off-topic, but still involves working by hand – the task of looking after your abode. In a rampant market where every week houses seem to go up in price, the winner is often the one with the best price, and the fewest strings attached, such as a home inspection. People are often drawn to a house because it has a renovated kitchen with stainless steel appliances, or a “finished” basement. Everything seems very cozy, but the superficial decorations on a house don’t matter as much as its structural integrity – things that are often hidden. Would somebody pay more to know the sewer drains are new? Likely not – the buyer of today is more swayed by the houses staging, than by whether or not the pipes are PVC. If buyers do get a home inspection, they often rely on the inspector doing a good job – that doesn’t always happen. You could end up with a house with “hidden extras”. An example? Buying a house in the middle of winter – when you won’t know whether there are leaks in the basement because the ground is frozen.

Here are some questions to ask before you even offer on a house:

1. How old is the house? The age of the house will help identify that sort of ailing structural problems could be present. For example asbestos siding was used on houses from the 1930’s through to the 1970’s.

2. What sort of plumbing is in the house? Copper or PEX pipes are good. Galvanized not so much. Is the main water line coming in from the street copper?

3. What about the sewer lines? In many older houses, the sewer lines are clay, and join up to a cast iron stack below the ground. These clay pipes don’t last forever, and the joint with the cast iron stack can often rot away. Drain lines which have been replaced will be PVC, and join the stack about 3-4 feet from the ground. A cast iron stack itself may not be as big an issue, and it is way quieter than PVC (hence one of the reasons it is used in high-rise buildings). Are there PVC clean-outs in the front of the house? No implies that clay pipes run out to the city line (there was only one sewer trap, and was often located outside the house).

4. Does the basement experience flooding or sewer backups? Does it have a back-flow valve to stop the sewer backing up? This is more important if you plan to buy a house in a low lying area, or a valley.

5. Does the property have good drainage? This really means does the ground slope away from the house? Have the basement walls been waterproofed?

6. What about the electrical? Does the house have any knob-and-tube, or aluminum wiring?

7. How old is the furnace? If it vents through the chimney then it is a mid-efficiency furnace. As of January 1, 2010 you can’t buy a mid-efficiency furnace in Canada, only high efficiency. So a mid-efficiency if installed is a minimum of 5 years old. How old is the air conditioner? Generally 10-12 years is the maximum life span, and older ones may have older less-than-green refrigerants.

8. What about the roof? Is there a peaked roof or a flat roof, or both. When was it last replaced? Asphalt? 3-tab or architectural? Roofs never last as long as they are suppose to. A 20-year roof may last half that time depending on whether there are tree limbs over the roof, exposure to sun, critter damage.

9. Are there skylights? Are there stains inside – a sign of leakage?

10. Roof ventilation? Look inside the attic if possible. Too many people avoid exploring what’s up in the roof cavity, but it greatly affects the health of the house. Is the attic properly insulated? If not, air leakage in winter may cause condensation and ice built-up.

11. What about insulation? Poor insulation will lead to high heating bills.

12. How old are the appliances? Water heater?

Many of these items don’t relate to the aesthetic value of a house, but without sufficiently vetted infrastructure you will find yourself spending a lot more money when you own the house.

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