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  • Brad Stringer, BA, MBA, CMI, CIE

9 Things To Look For When Buying a Pre-1980s Home

Updated: Mar 3, 2023

Home ownership should be a goal for anyone looking to build equity and quit giving money away each month for rent. But how do you know you are not buying a money pit when you go to purchase your first home? First time buyers are often looking at more affordable housing stock, which usually means more "vintage". If you are buying one of these homes, you should give a critical look to these areas even before you make an offer.

  1. Age Of The Roof - Roof coverings can cost several thousands of dollars to replace and the price has only continued to go up. If the roof is greater than 10-12 years old, you may be looking at need for replacement in the upcoming years. Getting up to the roof edge with a ladder is a good idea, but if heights are not your thing, a good pair of binoculars can help to get a better view. Look for any missing or damaged shingles, tree contact damage, etc, as well as just the overall condition. If it looks bad, it will likely come up as an issue on an inspection.

  2. Composition Shingles Installed Over Wood Shingles - Wood shingles have been in use for a number of decades prior to the transition to composition. At the time of installation of composition shingles, wood shingles should be removed and new decking installed to adhere the underlayment and shingles. Many installers would not remove the old wood shingles, but would install the composition over them using the wood shingles as the "deck" material. This is not a currently acceptable installation method and many insurance companies will not insure this type of installation. A quick look into the attic can help you to be aware of this situation prior to making an offer.

  3. Signs Of Structural Movement - Look for visible cracks at the interior and exterior brick/masonry/drywall. On early slab homes, perimeter foundation walls can "roll out" in corners of outside walls. Look for separations at the corner baseboards or cracks above doors on walls perpendicular to the outside perimeter wall. Deflections at interior floors, doors that don't properly close in the frame or latch, cracking tile, all can be signs of structural movement. This can be very expensive to repair and is not something you want to find out after you have made an offer on the property.

  4. Corroded In Slab Ducting - Early slab homes had in-slab ducting. This ducting was often galvanized metal making it susceptible to moisture and corrosion. Poor drainage along the perimeter foundation would lead to moisture infiltration and sometimes complete failure. This can be a costly correction running several thousand dollars and is usually addressed by either coating of the ducting or routing new ducting overhead and abandoning/filling the old ducts. Opening a register and viewing the ducting with a light and mirror can sometimes give you a clue as to whether this may be issue before making your offer.

  5. Older Electrical/Distribution Panels - Some electrical panels in older homes had issues making them a concern with regards to failure or in some instances a fire concern. Federal Pacific, (FPE) and Sylvania/Zinsco panels are two of the most common early panels you will see with likely issues. Although there is not much you as a potential home buyer can do to pre-inspect these, being aware that there may be issues with these panels on a home inspection going in can help you to be prepared to negotiate for replacement/updating. You may also encounter ungrounded receptacles throughout or missing GFCI receptacles in wet locations. These issues can sometimes be readily addressed without major upgrades.

  6. Knob & Tube Wiring - in use in the U.S. from the 1880's through the 1930's, this wiring consisted of ceramic knobs to support runs of wire and ceramic tubes when routed through wood framing. This type of installation is not grounded making it somewhat less safe than newer wiring, and some insurance providers are no longer insuring this type of wiring due to its age. Looking in your attic for this type of wiring is a good idea if you are considering purchase of home from this era.

  7. Aluminum Wiring - Aluminum wiring was used in some homes built during the mid 1960's through the early 1970's due to the increased costs of copper. Problems with the formulation and its expansive characteristics when heated made it a concern with regards to electrical arcing, oxidation, overheating, etc. to the point it was finally no longer allowed to be used in residential construction. About the only way to determine the presence of aluminum wiring is removal of the breaker panel cover and inspection of the interior. However, if scorching of plastic covers of receptacles/switches is noted along with flickering of interior lighting, surfaces of receptacle/switch covers that feel "hot" when touched, these can be possible signs of aluminum wiring being present. This can sometimes be made safe by a licensed electrician, but also can run several hundred dollars or more.

  8. Inadequate Insulation - As a rule, homes built prior to the 1930's were not insulated and even inspecting today, we still find some with no insulation in the attic. Walls were also not insulated at this time period and many homes still have no insulation in their walls. Again, checking the attic prior to making an offer is a good idea. In our Midwest region, typically 12-14" of fiberglass loose insulation is what is needed or 8-9" of cellulose, (ground paper treated with fire retardant). Determining the presence or absence of insulation in walls can be more difficult. Use of a non-contact temperature sensor, or more effectively, use of a thermal imaging camera can sometimes help deduce if there is insulation in perimeter walls. While insulating an attic can be relatively easy, insulating exterior walls can run thousands of dollars and likely will require some destruction of finished surfaces to allow for installation.

  9. Uninsulated Windows & Doors - Old uninsulated wood windows and doors can make a significant dent in your home heating and cooling budget due to poor sealing/drafting. Storm windows can help by providing an additional layer of protection, but thermal insulated doors and windows are better. Upgrading can run several thousands of dollars and require destruction of some portions of the interior/exterior of the home during installation. Some historic neighborhoods may also require you to upgrade to a window that looks similar to the wood windows for historic preservation. This can drive costs even higher. If the home has not been upgraded, budgeting and negotiating with the seller should be considered.

While this is by no means an all inclusive list, as you can see, there are things you as a potential buyer can observe as part of your pre-purchase consideration which can assist you in your decision to buy or not to buy, or to negotiate for after an offer is made and accepted. Someone once said that we buy emotionally and then justify logically after we have purchased something. Hopefully, this will give you some things to consider logically before becoming emotionally invested!

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