America has lots of old houses. According to HUD’s 2013 American Housing Survey, the average owner-occupied structure is about 37 years old. For reference, that’s higher than the U.S. median age.
In some parts of the country, the housing stock is far older. On average, owner-occupied housing in New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania is more than 50 years old. Though there are exceptions to the rule, homes tend to be older throughout the Northeast and Midwest, and in urban cores across the country.
By contrast, newer homes and bona fide new construction homes are more common in Southern and Western cities in general, and in suburban and exurban communities across the country.
What Is an Older Home?
As a general rule of thumb, homes built after 1990 are considered newer, and homes built before 1920 are considered “old” or “antique.” But housing age is a subjective condition that turns on numerous factors.
The most important include:
- Construction Style and Quality. Prefabricated and mobile homes are generally constructed to lower quality standards than solidly built Tudors, Craftsmans, or Colonials. Mass-produced houses, which tend to be newer, can have quality issues as well. However, custom-built new homes may be constructed even more solidly and durably than older homes. Ultimately, construction quality comes down to the quality of the materials used, and the skill and diligence of the builders.
- Climate and Geology. Climate – particularly humidity, temperature extremes, and storms – accelerate the aging process. Homes in the eastern half of the U.S. are more likely to experience problems attributable to these issues, such as roof damage and basement or foundation moisture, than homes in coastal California. Geological factors that can accelerate the aging process include seismic activity, sinkholes and limestone geology, and high water tables.
- Renovations. In some cases, antique homes are updated so dramatically that it’s difficult to define their age any longer. For instance, my wife’s parents own a farmhouse built in the 1880s. But successive owners thoroughly updated, modernized, and expanded the house over the years. In fact, the only original components are an old cinder block foundation and basement (now completely encased by a newer, expanded foundation and basement) and a few structural supports rising above the original footprint. Most other components date from the 1970s or later. So is it really fair to say that the house is an original 1880s farmhouse?
Common Older Home Problems and Potential Solutions
1. Hazardous Materials
Lead and asbestos are two hazardous materials that were used in residential applications until relatively recently. Lead, a neurotoxic metal that’s particularly harmful to children, is commonly found in exterior and interior paint made before 1978. It’s also found in substantial quantities in pre-World War II plumbing systems, and in smaller quantities in water pipes installed before the mid-1980s.
Asbestos, a naturally occurring fibrous material that causes a serious form of lung cancer and other respiratory problems, was an ubiquitous insulation and fireproofing material until the mid-1970s. Successive EPA actions banned most asbestos applications by the late 1980s, but the agency never required building owners to remove existing asbestos products. Accordingly, many older crawlspaces, walls, and pipes still contain asbestos insulation.
When you buy (or rent) a home built before 1978, you’re usually required to affirm your understanding that the home may contain lead paint. If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of coexisting with lead paint (the medical literature isn’t conclusive on the matter, though removal is recommended for homeowners with small children), invest in professional lead paint removal services. According to HouseLogic, professional removal costs $8 to $15 per square foot.
If your home’s plumbing system is very old, it could still contain measurable quantities of lead. The most cost-effective way to deal with this is a water filtration system, either for the entire house ($1,000 to $3,000, depending on house size and system quality) or the kitchen tap ($200 to $1,000, depending on brand and quality). Replacing the home’s entire piping system is the only way to ensure totally lead-free water, but doing so can cost upwards of $5,000.
Though direct, prolonged exposure to asbestos is a serious health hazard, insulation tucked away in inaccessible walls is not likely to pose a direct risk. However, removal is recommended if you plan on knocking down walls, expanding your home’s footprint, or attempting other expansive projects likely to uncover asbestos-laden material.
Asbestos removal costs vary greatly by project size. A single pipe or wall runs in the high three- or low four-figure range, while a whole-house project costs $20,000 to $30,000.
2. Termite Damage
Over time, termites can devastate homes’ wooden and wood-like components, including floors, structural supports, and drywall. The problem is particularly acute in the southern half of the country, where termites are active for most or all of the year. Older homes are more likely to have active termite infestations or preexisting termite damage due to compromised foundations or drywall.
Signs of termite damage include sagging or buckling floors, pinpoint holes in drywall, hollow-sounding wood supports or floorboards, and bubbling or peeling paint.
Prevention is the cheapest and least invasive termite solution. Remove all loose wood vectors – including shrubbery, mulch, building materials, and stacked firewood – from contact with the lowermost portion of your house. Prevent water from pooling near or against your home’s foundation by filling in low ground or installing a surface drainage system. Use treated lumber (toxic to termites) for decks and other wooden structures attached to your house. Remove dead stumps and root systems from areas near the house. And seal visible foundation cracks, which provide ready entry for termites.
For infestations in progress, hire a pest control professional to shrink or eliminate the colony. Exterminators typically charge $8 to $20 per linear foot (as measured around the home’s perimeter), depending on the foundation type and the infestation’s severity. The average home’s perimeter ranges from 150 to 200 feet, so expect comprehensive treatment to cost anywhere from $1,200 to $4,000.
Depending on the length and severity of the infestation, termite damage repairs can range from cosmetic fixes (such as replacing damaged floorboards) that cost a few hundred dollars to structural remediation projects that can cost $10,000 or more.
If you catch the problem before you buy, perhaps during a professional home inspection ($200 to $500), get a repair estimate from a general contractor. Then negotiate with the seller to cover part or all of the repair costs, as well as the cost of professional pest control services if the infestation is in progress.
3. Mold and Mildew Damage
Over time, homes exposed to excessive moisture often develop mold and mildew problems. Though particularly common in basements and bathrooms of wet-climate homes, moisture-related microorganism growth can occur anywhere. The problem is more likely to occur in old homes because moisture more readily seeps through cracked foundations and leaky pipes. However, since infestations can start inside walls, it’s possible to walk through a mold-infested older home for sale without realizing there’s a problem.
While small amounts of indoor mold growth are permissible and even expected, uncontrolled growth can exacerbate allergies and existing respiratory problems (such as asthma) in healthy children and adults. More serious infections can develop in the very young, the very old, and those with compromised immune systems.
Also, mold literally eats away at its host surfaces, particularly wood, drywall, grout, and other porous or semi-porous substances. Unchecked mold infestations can cause structural problems and render a home temporarily or permanently uninhabitable.
As with termite infestations, the best solution to mold and mildew is prevention. Buying a dehumidifier (anywhere from $100 to $500 new, plus $50 to $100 in annual electricity costs) for your basement can work wonders. Ensuring proper ventilation through a combination of floor or ceiling fans and open windows during dry, mild weather can help on higher floors.
You can treat small mold infestations, such as on an isolated area of a basement or bathroom wall, with store-bought mold spray, abrasive sponges or brushes, kitchen gloves, and lots of elbow grease. For larger infestations, this is impractical. According to HGTV, whole-home mold remediation can cost as much as $5,000, and possibly more if the infestation affects hard-to-reach areas like the attic, basement crawlspaces, or inside the walls. To reduce remediation costs, make sure your homeowners insurance policy covers mold cleanup before you buy an older home.
4. Plumbing Problems
The biggest danger of an old or substandard plumbing system is the possibility of a pipe failure that floods the home or causes major water damage in the walls and floors. A serious failure can temporarily render the home uninhabitable and cost tens of thousands of dollars to clean up, though the damage is often covered by homeowners insurance. It can also cause longer-term problems, such as mold infestations.
Before purchasing an older home, ask the seller how old the plumbing system is and about the material used in supply and drain pipes. Whereas brass and copper pipes typically last 50 years or more, steel pipes can wear out after as little as 20, according to HouseLogic. Pipes made from PEX, an increasingly common plastic material, typically last 40 or 50 years.
Special care is warranted if the pipes are made of polybutylene, a grayish, flexible plastic material used from the 1970s to the 1990s. Chlorine, which is found in bleach and other household cleaners, corrodes polybutylene pipes over time and can lead to spontaneous failure.
If you’re eying a home with polybutylene pipes, ask the seller to install (and pay for) new pipes. If not, consider whether you can put up with the inconvenience and cost of replacing the pipes yourself, which you should do as soon as your budget allows to minimize failure risk.
For other common pipe materials, you simply need to ascertain the system’s age and target a date several years before the end of its life expectancy. If you plan on still owning the house when that date arrives, begin saving for a full system replacement now, keeping in mind the effects of inflation.
Whole-house pipe replacement costs range from $1,000 to upwards of $5,000, depending on the pipe material, size and floor count of the house, and number of water fixtures.
5. Foundation or Structural Problems
Over time, nature catches up with even the most solidly built homes. Older homes are prone to a variety of foundation and structural problems, such as major cracks or unevenness in the slab or perimeter foundation wall; corrosion, dry rot, or moisture damage in pilings or concrete foundation supports; damaged piers (support footings); and dry rot or moisture damage in above-ground studs.
These issues are particularly common, and tend to occur sooner, in regions with abundant soil moisture, unstable bedrock, seismic activity, and other perils. Though alert homeowners generally catch structural problems before they render homes uninhabitable, remediation is costly and inconvenient.
Signs of foundation or structural problems include doors that jam or fail to latch, visible wall cracks that grow over time, cracked tile or concrete floors, persistently stuck windows, and floors that are clearly off-level.
Any apparent foundation or structural issue requires an expert opinion from a structural engineer ($300 to $800). Addressing a modest foundation issue, such as a crack in the perimeter wall, can cost a few hundred dollars. More serious problems, such as uneven soil that requires support piers underneath the foundation, can cost $5,000 to $10,000. And in seismically active areas, foundation anchor bolts are required or recommended – at a cost of at least $1,500 apiece. Many homeowners insurance policies don’t cover these costs.
If the foundation requires extensive repair or wholesale replacement, costs can quickly escalate to $20,000, $30,000, or more, depending on house size. Again, homeowners insurance often doesn’t cover these costs. If you’re seriously thinking about buying an older home with obvious foundation damage, factor repair costs into your offer price or ask the seller to address the problems before closing.
Also, note that the cost of repairing secondary issues related to foundation damage (such as damaged upper-level flooring, walls, and doors) varies greatly and can add substantial expense to your project.
Radon is a radioactive gas that occurs naturally in certain types of bedrock. Per the EPA, radon tends to persist at higher concentrations in the Northeast, Midwest, and Intermountain West, but it can occur anywhere.
Radon enters homes through cracks in the foundation perimeter and basement walls, which are more common in older homes. The gas then circulates throughout poorly ventilated houses over time. Though it’s not toxic when encountered intermittently and in small doses, radon is the leading cause of lung cancer for nonsmokers, and exposure over the generally accepted safe concentration is not recommended for long periods of time.
Radon mitigation typically involves capturing gas in the soil or rock surrounding the foundation and piping it up to a rooftop vent, then sealing foundation cracks to prevent further leakage. It can also involve installing multiple depressurization vents outside the house (venting radon before it reaches the foundation), as well as negative-pressure fans that essentially blow radon from the basement or lowest level back into the soil.
According to Kansas State University, the average cost of a radon mitigation system is about $1,200. This can vary between a few hundred dollars to more than $3,000, depending on the home’s size, foundation type, and the problem’s severity.
7. Roof Problems
Older homes tend to have older, possibly deteriorating roofs. This presents numerous problems, including pest infestations, interior water damage, and compromised (less effective) insulation. Problems stemming from a compromised roof, particularly once interior leaks begin occurring regularly, can cost tens of thousands of dollars to fix and may not be covered by homeowners insurance.
Warning signs of potential roof issues include missing or damaged shingles, crumbling roof cement, bowed or sagging gutters, persistent moisture in the attic, evidence of water damage in the upper floors, and critters in the attic or upper crawlspaces.
Before you buy an older home, assess the roof’s age and condition to the best of your ability. Unless the seller put the roof on, he or she might not be aware of when it was installed, so consider hiring a roof inspector ($200 to $500) if there are obvious signs of wear.
On sloping roofs, asphalt shingles typically last 15 to 40 years, treated wood shingles last around 30 years, and fiberglass shingles often last longer than 50 years. Steel roofs usually last 40 to 60 years, while copper roofs can last longer than 100 years. Tile roofs last anywhere from 40 to 100 years (clay tiles tend to be on the lower end of the range, with stone and concrete on the higher end). Stone roofs last 100 years or more.
On flat roofs, asphalt-gravel (flat shingle) material lasts 10 to 15 years. Rubber-coated roofs last up to 50 years. Thermoplastic olefin membrane, a high-tech, rubber-like option, also lasts about 50 years.
For all materials, note that a roof’s actual lifespan depends on installation quality, prior maintenance record, roof slope, and local climate.
If the roof’s problems are confined to a small area and the roof isn’t near the end of its predicted lifespan, you can save money by replacing or repairing only the damaged section. If the roof is older or widely damaged, it makes long-term financial sense to replace the entire thing (or at least one whole side).
Replacement costs vary greatly by material. Shingles typically cost $5 to $8 per square foot, including labor, or $10,000 to $16,000 for a 2,000 square foot roof. Stone roofs can run up to 10 times that range.
8. Inefficient Windows
Old homes are more likely to have older, inefficient windows. The primary downside of inefficient windows is higher electricity bills, due to the fact that the home’s climate control system has to work harder to compensate for leaks. According to the Federal Government’s ENERGY STAR program, installing the most efficient class of windows in your entire home can reduce your annual electric bill by $126 to $465, depending on where you live.
Address inefficient windows temporarily with passive heating and cooling methods, such as shutting windows and blinds on hot days and opening them at night, and by using plastic film ($10 to $20 per five-window roll) to seal leaks during the winter. Sealing cracks around your windows and reinforcing your home’s insulation, a more permanent solution, can cost upwards of $1,000.
The ultimate leaky-windows solution is simply to replace old windows with more efficient ones. However, super-efficient windows are very expensive. Installing them in your entire house could set you back more than $10,000, meaning you might never earn back your investment.
9. Inadequate or Unsafe Electrical Systems
Electrical problems fall into two categories: convenience and safety.
First, convenience: Unless their electrical systems have been updated, older homes lack sufficient numbers of electrical outlets to address our collective addiction to electronic devices.
Second, and more importantly, safety: The lifespan of electrical wiring itself is basically limited by the lifespan of the wire’s insulation. Wiring installed before 1960 lasts roughly 70 years, while newer wiring is estimated to last at least 100 years. Once the insulation deteriorates to the point that the actual wire is exposed, the risk of electrical fire, shocks, short circuits, and localized (single- or multi-room) power failures increases dramatically.
Electrical service panels and circuit breakers are also prone to deterioration. Service panels last 60 or 70 years, while breakers last 30 or 40. Failing panels and breakers can cause shock, power failure, fire, and other dangers.
Note that water damage, fire, pest infestation, and other unusual events can harm some or all of an electrical system’s components, necessitating repair or replacement long before they reach their life expectancy.
Electrical work is dangerous and confusing for novices, so avoid taking the DIY route with your electrical project. Instead, hire a licensed electrician (usually $60 to $100 per hour).
A qualified electrician typically takes 30 to 60 minutes to install a single outlet, at a total cost of $80 to $150. Installing a new circuit (with a connection to the home’s breaker) can cost an additional $50 to $100 per outlet.
A new service panel runs from about $200 to $500, depending on the brand and warranty, plus several hours of labor. A new breaker costs anywhere from $5 to $30, depending on the type and brand, though out-of-production breakers can cost up to $100 apiece. A competent electrician can install a few breakers in an hour.
10. Failing or Inefficient Mechanicals and Appliances
Old homes are more likely to have old mechanical equipment, such as water heaters, furnaces, and air conditioning units, as well as older household appliances. Mechanical and appliance lifespan varies by item, brand, and workload. On average, water heaters last 10 to 15 years, furnaces last 15 to 30 years, central air conditioning units last about 20 years, refrigerators last 15 to 20 years, and washers and dryers both last 10 to 15 years.
Equipment near the end of its useful life is more prone to failure, raising the possibility of an inconvenient or dangerous situation – such as the heat going out in the dead of winter or an electrical fire – that needs to be addressed immediately. Moreover, older equipment is usually less energy-efficient, resulting in ballooning utility outlays.
Older homes with recently updated mechanical equipment and appliances typically fetch a premium. If you’re fine with buying older mechanicals and appliances, research each unit and determine about how much longer it can be expected to last. Draw up a replacement schedule commensurate with your time horizon (if your furnace has 15 years left and you plan on selling in five, replacement isn’t necessary), and begin saving for the most pressing projects.
Mechanical and appliance replacement costs vary by item and brand. For instance, natural gas furnaces, ideal for colder climates, cost anywhere from $2,000 to more than $10,000. Heat pumps, sufficient in warmer climes, can cost as little as $1,000. Efficient tank-less water heaters can cost as much as $5,000, while traditional tank heaters typically run in the $1,000 to $2,000 range.
If you plan ahead to replace your old water heater or laundry machine, finding room in your household budget won’t be an insurmountable task. However, an unexpected replacement can really set you back – particularly if there’s damage involved. A family friend recently had to replace his old dryer after a massive electrical fire was sparked by faulty wiring and exacerbated by a clogged dryer vent. Including cleanup, the bill came to more than $20,000, though his homeowners insurance policy covered most of the cost.
11. Unhelpful, Unfinished, or Outdated Updates
Older homes typically have more than one previous resident, and sometimes a lot more. All those past homeowners have had license to do what they wished with the property.
While many older homes retain the full charm and function of their original construction, others have a host of unhelpful or anachronistic updates that detract from the homeowner’s experience and potentially add to the cost of ownership. Particularly costly updates that may need to be rectified shortly after moving in include poorly designed, inadequate, or simply tasteless kitchens; illegal basement bedrooms (lacking egress windows, for instance); and incomplete projects, such as a partially finished basement or partially laid patio.
Before we bought our current house, my wife and I went to an open house at a 100-year-old home with a half-finished basement (curtain walls marking off two small side rooms with recently laid carpet, otherwise totally barren), half-finished screen porch (the structure was built, but there were no screens or interior paint), and a literally transparent exterior paint job.
The home had been purchased just a few months earlier for far less than the current asking price, suggesting the current owner had attempted to flip the house and had become overwhelmed. Our real estate agent remarked, “It looks like this guy ran out of money and bailed.”
As long as they’re not unsafe, you can live with unhelpful or outdated features until you have room in your personal budget to fix them. The cost of said fixes varies widely. A full kitchen update typically runs into five-figure territory, while replacing outdated moldings or rectifying a hideous interior paint job might cost just a few hundred.
Half-finished add-ons, such as the porch at the abandoned flip mentioned above, are another matter. They can be unsafe, particularly for small children, and may provide access points for insects and rodents. Think twice about buying an older home with too many wonky updates or haphazard design touches, as they often disguise bigger problems.
For instance, we found out later that the abandoned flip had serious foundation problems that would cost tens of thousands of dollars to fix. The scale of the foundation issue likely compelled the flipper to walk away from the property before completing the job.
12. Substandard or Unsafe Features
Older homes sometimes have too much charm. Depending on the style, location, and history of a particular house, some original features may be obsolete, not up to current building codes, or actually unsafe. Examples include old laundry chutes, servants’ staircases, staircases that lead nowhere (commonplace in houses that were once divided into multiple dwelling units), steep staircases, low ceilings, blocked-off chimneys, and nonworking fireplaces.
Our current home is by far the nicest place we’ve ever lived, but it nevertheless has a steep, winding staircase that we’d feel uncomfortable allowing a toddler to traverse, as well as an obsolete chimney that’s showing early signs of deterioration.
Many jurisdictions are lenient about substandard or against-code features in owner-occupied residences, relative to rental or commercial properties. Accordingly, you likely won’t be required to fix such issues (unless they threaten other properties) after taking possession of your older home. However, fixing these issues can preserve or increase your home’s value, not to mention enhance the safety and comfort of its occupants.
Some problems have straightforward, affordable solutions. For example, childproofing our steep staircase simply involves installing a latching door or child gate at the entrance. Others, such as a crumbling chimney, require regular upkeep (repairing flashing and any damaged roof materials) that can cost a few hundred dollars per year.
Potential Benefits of Owning an Older Home
1. Convenient Location
Because most cities grow outward over time, older homes tend to be located closer to employer- and amenity-rich downtown cores. A convenient location offers many time-saving and healthful benefits, such as shorter commutes (and the opportunity to use public transit or commute by bike) and easier shopping trips.
By contrast, newer owner-occupied homes tend to be built where land is cheapest – often on the edges of existing towns and cities. Such places aren’t always convenient.
However, these rules aren’t universal. Big cities have plenty of newly built condos downtown or close by, and many rural homes are quite old.
2. Hard-to-Duplicate Original Features
Though some older homes lack character, many showcase charming, period-specific features that are pleasing to the eye and may increase resale value. For instance, the built-in storage and display cabinets in our older home’s dining room definitely influenced our purchasing decision, both because it was aesthetically pleasing and practical. In our region, the only new homes that contain such built-in furnishings are well out of our price range and preferred neighborhood.
3. More Established Neighborhood
In towns and cities, older homes are often located in established neighborhoods with long-term homeowners who care about the area and community, mature landscaping and tree cover, and a general sense of community. Such areas are also more likely to be connected to municipal infrastructure, such as sewer and water systems.
By contrast, less-established neighborhoods tend to have less community engagement – particularly if the homes are very new and most residents are busy professionals without the time to engage their neighbors. Plus, newer subdivisions look bleak until newly planted trees and shrubs fill out.
4. Potential for Better Construction Quality
Depending on the building style and location, an older home may be constructed more solidly and durably than newer homes. This is particularly true for budget-friendly new homes in mass-built subdivisions, which are typically built by big companies with the ability to cheaply mass-produce the structures.
Then again, some of America’s original suburbs were mass-produced housing tracts built shortly after World War II. When considering any home built to standardized specifications, learn as much as possible about the materials, methods, and labor used by the construction company.
5. More Opportunities to Build Equity
Creative, enterprising, diligent homeowners see opportunity in older homes’ shortcomings. Every poorly designed kitchen, unfinished basement, or non-landscaped yard is a project-in-waiting. And a well-chosen, well-executed renovation or update can boost a home’s appraised value, and its eventual resale value, by more than the project’s cost.
Your budget is likely to limit the scope of your vision, particularly right after you move in. But equity-building projects become more manageable when they’re planned and budgeted for well ahead of time. My wife and I are already kicking around ideas (and saving) for a finished basement and brand-new detached garage, even though we won’t start on either project anytime soon.
Even a charming, beautifully staged older home in a convenient, tight-knit neighborhood is likely to have some of the drawbacks mentioned above. If you choose to fix most or all issues as they arise, you’ll likely end up spending tens of thousands of dollars during your tenure in the home. Alternatively, if you choose to ignore serious issues or do only the bare minimum to fix them, you’ll likely have to accept a lower sales price or cover the cost of major repairs just prior to selling. Either way, you could limit or negate the overall return on your real estate investment by purchasing an older home.
That’s not to say that newer homes don’t require major repair and upkeep investments over time. And new homes often come with additional expenses that owners of older homes aren’t likely to face, such as homeowners’ association fees. Ultimately, it’s more important to choose the home that feels right to you and your family than to obsess over what could go wrong with your new abode.
How old is the home you currently live in? Would you consider buying an older home in the future?