There’s something to be said for the charm and craftsmanship that buying an old house brings to your life. There’s also something to be said for the inevitable (and expensive) mishaps that could be lurking behind any corner or wall. Yes, purchasing an old home has many benefits, but it also has its fair share of what-ifs that you’ll need to take into consideration.
The home I grew up in was built in the mid-1920s. It had various iceboxes around the exterior of the house, a hidden door leading under the deck that my parents discovered when redoing the basement, and a nostalgic je ne sais quoi that is impossible to capture in my current house—a new construction property whose joints are still settling in to the earth.
According to recent census data, 13.5% of the homes in the United States were built prior to the 1940s and 19% were built before 1950. In some cities—such as Buffalo, New York and Sommerville, Massachusetts—more than two-thirds of available housing units have been standing for 75 years or more. And in New York City alone there are more than 1,400,000 residential properties built in 1939 or earlier.
With no shortage of old houses in the country, many homeowners find themselves with an option when they’re ready to buy: go for the history and allure of an old house or set their sights on something built a bit more recently. If it’s a decision you find yourself trying to make, read on for five things that you’ll want to keep in mind before pulling the trigger and buying an old house.
Things can get expensive—fast
One of the reasons that my husband and I opted for a new construction home is that, as new homeowners, we didn’t want to have to worry about unforeseen problems that would eat up our decorating budget. You’ve probably heard the horror stories: a homeowner goes to renovate a first floor bathroom only to find that the foundation is cracked and sinking, or something as simple as tearing down a wall reveals outdated and dangerous wiring that needs to be updated immediately.
Old homes are certainly sturdy—they wouldn’t have lasted as long as they have without true expertise in their construction—but they’re also potentially ripe with little problems (or big problems) that can put any renovation plans on the backburner. Need a new roof? That will set you back an average of about $11,000. Have to repair some windows? It’ll cost you about $350 to $500 each. While buying an old house doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you’ll have some costly repairs in your future, it’s absolutely something that you’ll have to think about before going all in, especially if you plan to renovate.
If it’s priced low, there’s probably a catch
That old Victorian mansion listed at what appears to be well under market value? It’s likely not just because the current owners believe in the power of a good deal. Any time you see an older home priced lower than expected, it’s usually because the sellers are accounting for something, be it necessary home repairs that they don’t want to take care of themselves or completely outdated features that will cost an arm and a leg to bring up to date. That’s not to say the home isn’t worth purchasing, but it does mean that what looks like a good deal on paper isn’t always going to be a good deal in reality.
If you’re interested in buying an old house that appears to be listed suspiciously low, make sure to do your research before getting too serious about it. In addition to the obvious steps, like going for a showing at the property and having your realtor get as much information as they can from the seller’s agent, see if you can locate past inspection reports and any other relevant paperwork, which should give you a better idea of the home’s possible problem areas.
You may be limited when it comes to renovations
While it’s not always the case, some older homes come with restrictions in terms of what can and cannot be done to them. Check with the Building and Planning Department for the area that the home is located to find out what those restrictions may be. It’s possible that you will be limited in terms of the changes that you can make—for example, you might not be allowed to add on to the structure, fence the property, or make changes to the interior layout.
If you have renovations in mind (or at least know that you would like to renovate at some point), work with planners before making the purchase to get a clear picture of whether you have any limitations, and if so, what they are. That way, you won’t be surprised later on when you go to get a renovation permit and are swiftly denied.
It takes a village
To really ensure that you’re making a smart investment when buying an old house, it helps to have a variety of people on your team. That includes not just your real estate agent but an engineer, a contractor, and an inspector who has plenty of experience with both old and historic homes.
I know what you’re probably thinking: that’s a lot of people to get on board, especially if you have no plans to renovate. But old homes, while built to last, are generally outfitted with pretty ancient features when it comes to things like plumbing, electrical wiring, roofing, and heating. If you don’t do your due diligence, you could end up buying an old home with excellent bones but a plumbing system that is completely ready to give.
Putting together a team of experts who can check on these key features ahead of your purchase will give you a head’s up about any systems that will need to be replaced in the near future. It will also give you a lot of peace of mind. Better to know that the roof will need to be replaced in a couple of years than to only discover that fact when it starts leaking into your kitchen.
Your homeowners insurance might be pricey
Homeowners insurance, like all insurance, is priced based on risk. Insurance providers are well-versed in the many expensive problems that older homes can pose, and you can expect them to wrap those possibilities into the quote that they provide you with.
Just as you must budget in advance for unforeseen repairs, you also have to know what you’re getting in to with your homeowners insurance policy. Start collecting quotes early on so that you can see how insurance might affect your spending limit and so that, when it does come time to close, you can know that you’re getting the best deal possible.
Is buying an old house worth it?
Whether or not purchasing an old home is a right choice for you is, ultimately, a personal decision. Despite the considerations mentioned above, old houses have a multitude of benefits that you won’t find in newer homes, as well as an undeniable charm that can easily make a house feel like a home.
Your best bet is to not rush in to the purchase. Do as much research as you can on the property, and enlist the help of plenty of experts who can help you see past the surface.