Buying an Old House? Read This First

Buying an Old House?

That romantic feeling that sweeps over us as we walk through a century old home steeped in so much history. That intrigue towards towering baseboards and fancy metal radiators that seem artsy as much as they are utilitarian; the ambition arising as we picture tweaking things to make it our own. These natural responses to old houses can easily become intoxicating and lead us to sign on the dotted line. Congratulations, you just purchased a “money pit”.

There is no question that customizing an old home to be what you dream up is a very rewarding endeavor.  But all too often people engage in this adventure without knowing the undermining challenges these old houses carry that will almost certainly sabotage the budget.  Let’s be honest, 100 yr. old homes are not just old, they are ancient in construction terms. They are so far behind the building techniques that we practice today, that very little can be left untouched. I’ve been unlucky enough to go through a few full gut renovations of ancient homes to see all the challenges you SHOULD expect while trying to dress it up in shiny finishes. Before you start with finishes, during any demo, you will no doubt uncover some details that can sink your budget battleship. Here is a list of 5 things you should be investigating before you sign that sale agreement on an “ancient” home:

1. No Attic Hatch

Literally more often than not we find no access to the attic in old houses and if there is a hatch it is sized to allow a Chihuahua or a raccoon through or maybe your 6 yr. old, but definitely not a grown adult. This means framing, drywall, mud, paint and trim. None of this is easy because its all ladder work.

attic hatch (2)

2. No Insulation

If you shred the lathe and plaster from some walls because they are cracked or bulging and you want that new drywall look, be prepared to find an empty wall cavity in behind. I have yet to find an ancient house with insulation; same goes for vapour barrier. Yep, you’re still going to have to go backwards before you go forward…So much for that drywall going up today.

no insulation old house (2)

3. Balloon Framing

You can be forgiven for never having heard of this and still not understanding it all. Really you don’t need to, as long as your contractor does. What’s really important is that cutting a new door in or expanding a window size where you wanted it just got a million times more difficult. The framing for headers for doors and windows has now become serious business.

balloon framing (2)

4. No Footings

Yes. Quite simply, yes. I know, I can’t believe it either. How will you know if the house you’re looking at has no footings?  You won’t unless you cut open the basement floor or dig down from the outside. Your 3rd floor addition is a dream you just woke up from. Beware.

no footings 1 (2)

5. No Raised Heel

Another construction term that probably means nothing to you. Safe to say,if your ancient house has roof rafters instead of trusses where they used 2×4’s or 2×6’s, you will never have good insulation around the entire perimeter of the top floor ceiling and you will suffer ice damning on the roof in the winter. Damn…literally.

raised heel (2)

So while that brand new spec house in the seemingly generic subdivision comes off bland and uninspired to you, give some deeper thought to how far you are willing to go to make that old “gem” a comfortable, efficient, modern dwelling. It may be worth a second thought or better yet a tear down!