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Sunday, May 11, 2014

First time buyers – Should I buy a historic home? (Part 1)


Question – We've been looking for our first home and my fiancé loves the idea of living in a historic home. What do I need to know about that?

Answer  (Part 1 of 2 posts) – Well, if you are looking for a home and hobby all in one, go for it. I’m a
historic home owner. My house in Milford, Michigan was built in 1885, which is actually fairly recent compared to some really historic homes out in the New England area. I also have a friend from college who moved to England and now lives in a building that was once a tavern and was built in the 1600’s. Now that’s historic!

In all seriousness, there are many things that you’ll need to consider before buying a historic house. I’ll try to cover as many as I can think of here. This topic is so large that I've split it into two posts, so stay tuned for part 2. The two parts generally fall into two categories – things to look for before buying and things to know or consider doing as an owner. The reason that most people give for wanting to buy a historic home is that they have “character”. That is a kind word for saying that they have quirks that you don’t find in modern homes. Some of those quirks are endearing and some are just maddening and can be expensive.

First, let me say that many old houses are just that – old, tired and run down. They may not have been well cared for or they may have been converted to rental units and sometimes cut up into apartments. Those
probably won’t make great home for first time buyers. They are likely to turn into money pits.

Realize also that not all historic homes are grand examples of Victorian living. Most towns had a few really nice houses that were built by the wealthier merchants and business owners in town and the rest were just run-of-the-mill homes for working class people. It’s sort of like the difference today between a custom designed and built house and a tract home.  Some of the historic houses in many towns around the country were actually ordered out of the Sears & Roebucks catalog or the Montgomery Ward’s catalog and shipped via rail to the town in pieces, where they were assembled on site. You can read more  about that from the Sears archives by clicking here.

Basically, all vintage homes were stick-built on site, usually from plans that had been drawn up for the owners or modified to meet their needs and desires.  The grand old homes of the day had great woodwork (mostly quarter-sawn oak), wonderful staircases (some like mine had front and rear staircases, magnificent fireplaces, nice porches (many times more than one) and other features that separated them from average working class homes. If you buy a home that was not built by one of the wealthy owners of the day it will never be a grand historic home. With enough investment, you can turn it into a really nice historic home, but not a grand historic home. It just doesn’t have the “bones” to build upon. I was lucky enough to find a fairly nice, 3,000 Sq Ft historic home in the Village of Milford, Michigan that had been built by a local merchant with enough money to do it right. My home probably started out at about 2,000 Sq Ft and had additions put on later. I’ll talk more about it in the next post.

So, what are some of the things to look for before you buy, beyond just the pedigree of the house?  Look to see if the major systems have been updated. Some of the nastiest looking electrical, plumbing and heating systems that you’ll ever see are in some of these old homes and every one of them is very expensive to update.

The foundation is also an area to pay close attention to with older houses. Most of the really old houses  were built on stone foundations, which are essentially piles of rocks. These old homes were built well before concrete blocks were available and certainly before poured concrete basement walls. The grand old homes may have had cut stone walls for the basement, which meant that stone masons had cut and chiseled the large stones used into more or less rectangular blocks that fit nicely together. That was expensive even back then, so it is somewhat rare. Most other houses just used large stones fit together as well as they could be, with some mortar to hold them in place. Many old homes had a layer of concrete or mortar added to the outside at some point.

I don’t want this to sound like these homes were just built on piles of rocks; these stone foundations were 3 to 4 feet thick and fairly deep, plus are shored up with mortar. However, many times these foundations would shift and settle causing the house to settle or shift around, too. If things have shifted too much and large cracks have appeared or they have allowed large sections of the house structure to develop problems, you may have to have the foundation replaced. That means jacking up the house and basically building a new foundation underneath. That is very, very expensive. So do a thorough foundation inspection with your home inspector.  Click here if you’d like to read more than you’ll ever want to know about foundations and repairs from a structural engineer.

Another aspect of the home’s foundation is what is right under the floor on the ground story. If you go into what is called the basement (we call them Michigan Basements here), it would not be unusual to find a dirt floor in at least part of the basement area. The Michigan Basements were essentially crawl spaces that were dug out enough so one could walk around upright. Many people later added concrete floors. The other thing that was common was to use tree trunks as both vertical and horizontal floor supports under the house. Since these supports were never meant to be seen, the tree trunks were not even sawed to make them look like lumber and many still have the tree bark on them. They were and are sturdy support for the house; however, they are also attractive to several types of wood destroying insects, including carpenter ants, termites and powder post beetles, so have them thoroughly looked at during the inspection. The inspector may only find evidence of an infestation, so you’ll need to call in an expert exterminator to assess how bad things are what it might cost to get rid of them (yep, more money).

Most of the homes built in the mid- to late-19th century had what is called knob and tube electrical systems and fuse boxes instead of electrical panels. The old knob and tube wiring literally had a central spines -the tubes (which may have been a copper tube or just a larger diameter copper wire) running through the center of the attic and the basement off of which circuits were wired. The tube was held away from everything on glass or ceramic insulators (the knobs) and in many cases the tube was bare.  These were two wire systems, so there is no ground wire. Sometimes circuits were taken off by wrapping one end of the circuit wires around the two tubes. What insulation that was on the circuit wires was often a woven material that mice and other critters loved to chew on. The main tubes ran back to fuse boxes where you had the old glass-encased screw-in fuses. If the house that you are considering still  has this set-up think twice about buying it! It is not only dangerous and a fire hazard, but extremely expensive to replace. 

Look for homes with updated electrical systems with grounded circuits and modern circuit breaker boxes. Play close attention to the circuits in the kitchen and baths to make sure that they have been updated to modern GFCI standards. Click here for a good article on electrical wiring (including knob and tube) in older homes and what you might want to do.

Most homes built before the turnoff the century did not have forced air systems. They used boilers and either steam or hot water radiators. Most of the original boilers were coal fired but may have been replaced at some point by oil burning units and maybe eventually by gas-fired boilers.  Check out the age and condition of the boiler, if there is one. You can also just about bet that some of those steam or hot water pipes running
from the boiler are wrapped in asbestos insulation, so be careful not to disturb any of that.

Both steam and hot water heat are very good heating sources and are good for people with allergies because you are not blowing dust around every time the heater or air-conditioner kicks on.  Speaking of air conditioning, homes with boilers do not have duct work in place that would be needed to support modern forced air systems and central air conditioning. Many historic home owners just use window air conditioning units in the summer. That’s what I do. I've found that a couple large window units serve the first floor very well and smaller units in each bedroom upstairs allows me to only cool the rooms that are actually being used.

Somewhere along the line a previous owner may have had ducts put into the house by stealing space from closets or from the rooms themselves. In many cases they used what is call gravity feed systems which are essentially large openings between floors covered by grills that allow hot air to rise and the cooler air to drop down to the basement due to gravity. Some historic homeowners have installed forced air systems in both the basement and the attic, with ducts in the second story ceiling and the first story floor.  Click here to read an article from the This Old House Web site on some modern techniques for retrofitting a historic house for air conditioning. This is another opportunity to spend major money.

The plumbing in historic homes is another area to be concerned about. Most of these old homes were built before cast iron pipes were outlawed due to the health hazard. Plumbing seems to be one area that you can count on having been upgraded at some point in the life of the house – perhaps when the toilet was brought inside from the outhouse. I find that most historic houses now have copper and PVC plumbing in place, but
that is something to look for. On the supply side, most of these old houses may have started with a well or a cistern system for capturing rain water (my old house still has the original cistern in the basement). 

When public water systems were introduced or electric well pumps were installed the plumbing was usually upgraded. What may not have changed is the fact that most old houses were built with only a single bathroom and it was usually on the second floor. If you’re lucky someone along the way may have added a bath or a bath and a half. Even if the plumbing has been updated, there is a good chance that the water pipes leading to the house and the sewer connection leading away from it have been i n the ground for decades and may be well outside their useful life span. Guess who pays to dig up and replace those when they go bad – yep, get out your checkbook. Check out the plumbing thoroughly because guess what – it’s yet another money pit to update or add plumbing.  


I’ll cover other items that will present you with opportunities to spend money on your old house in my next post. These posts are not meant to scare you off just to equip you with enough knowledge to make an intelligent decision. Obviously, with the number of major areas to check on it is even more important with a historic home to have a good home inspector do a thorough inspection.

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