Is Owning an Old House a Romantic Choice or an Expensive Burden?

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Home Improvement

With almost 14% of homes in the United States built before 1940, owning an old house can be a charming and historical experience. However, it is important to be aware of potential issues that may arise. Paul Brennan/Needpix

Many people are drawn to old houses for their unique character, durability, and historical significance. Whether it’s a 1920s bungalow or a Victorian three-story mansion, there are still a large number of old homes that are still standing strong all over the world. In the United States, nearly 14% of the approximately 137 million homes were built before 1940, with some cities, like Somerville, Massachusetts, and Buffalo, New York, having over 60% of their housing stock dating back to the 1930s.

While owning an old home can be a romantic idea, it can also come with significant expenses, particularly for first-time homeowners. Hidden problems such as outdated wiring, a crumbling chimney, or old drainage pipes can create financial stress and repair bills that can range from four to five figures. While some maintenance issues such as replacing roof shingles or water heaters can be predicted, the cost of fixing unexpected issues can be overwhelming. Therefore, it is important to be aware of the risks and budget for renovations and upgrades to avoid emergency situations.

What Qualifies as an Old House?

Reuben Saltzman, owner and president of Structure Tech, a home inspection company in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, explains that what qualifies as an old house can vary depending on where you live. In his part of Minnesota, homes built in the late 1800s are considered old, but in Virginia, they may not be. Generally, homes built before the mid-20th century are considered old. However, just because a house is old, it does not mean that it will fall apart. In fact, houses built 80 to 100 years ago or longer are often more durable and solidly constructed than newer homes. Saltzman explains that old houses were typically over-engineered and built with stronger materials.

Older homes are often draftier, leading to higher utility bills, but this can also contribute to their longevity. Newer homes may be more energy-efficient, but they are often less durable and may require costly repairs, such as replacing rotted walls. Additionally, newer homes do not have the same drying potential as older homes, which would leak air through the walls to dry them out. While older homes may have components that wear out over time or no longer meet safety standards, one common issue is with masonry chimneys. Water can cause deterioration to the mortar and bricks, and the interior lining may also be degraded, which can be detected through a level 2 inspection using a fiber-optic camera. Repairing a chimney can cost as little as $1,000 for external repairs, but rebuilding a chimney may cost up to $20,000. Another issue can be with galvanized steel drains, which eventually corrode and can be costly to replace. Additionally, the drain line going out to the street is owned by the homeowner and can involve expensive repairs if there is an issue. Home inspectors can identify problematic drains, but a specialist is needed to inspect the line going out to the sewer.

Apart from drain pipes, the supply line and distribution system in your home can also develop issues due to corrosion and deterioration over time. This can lead to a decrease in water flow as the diameter of the pipes gets smaller and smaller. Repairing the supply line can cost anywhere from four to five figures depending on the extent of the damage and accessibility of the pipes, according to Saltzman.

If your home has old knob and tube wiring, which was used before 1940, you may face electrical problems. These systems lack a ground wire, making them susceptible to fires if the circuit becomes overloaded. Additionally, the wiring can deteriorate over time, especially if it’s made of asphalt-saturated cotton cloth or rubber. Previous homeowners may have also modified the wiring improperly, making it more dangerous. Inexperienced individuals may cover the wiring with insulation, which can cause it to overheat as it’s meant to be installed in open air. They can also overload the system by connecting it directly to modern light fixtures. Professionals would splice the old wiring into a junction box and use new wiring to avoid exceeding the old wiring’s capacity.

Old homes may also have lead water supply lines, which can be hazardous to your health, and asbestos-containing insulation, which can cause lung diseases. It’s recommended that you have your home inspected for asbestos by a trained professional and hire a separate contractor to remove it. Asbestos removal can be costly and the price can vary by region. Additionally, there may be old fuel tanks buried in your yard that could contaminate the soil or groundwater. Removing them can cost a few thousand dollars.

Managing Costs for Home Maintenance and Repairs

Although the expenses associated with repairing certain issues in your home can be overwhelming, it is possible to handle them more effectively by including them in your budget. One way to do this is to set aside approximately 1% of the total cost of the house each year for maintenance costs. For instance, if your home costs $500,000, you should allocate $5,000 annually for maintenance. Another option is to budget $1 per square foot (0.092 square meters) per year. If you need to address major repairs, you may also qualify for a home equity loan to cover the expenses.

You can also identify potential problems by analyzing the home inspection report you receive before closing the deal. “Some issues are more critical than others,” Saltzman notes. “The report should highlight the most important ones.”

Now That’s Interesting

Replacing ancient drainage lines with sewers can be even more challenging if the pipes are made of Orangeburg, “which is essentially a type of fancy cardboard, believe it or not,” Saltzman adds. If you discover Orangeburg, you’ll have to excavate your yard, and the cost of replacing those lines can easily exceed five figures. Understanding how much it costs to construct a house and the common issues that old homes face can save you a significant amount of money in the long run.


1. What are the benefits of owning an old house?

Owning an old house can be a charming love affair. Old homes often come with unique architectural details and character that cannot be found in modern homes. They also often have larger yards and established landscapes. Additionally, owning an old house can be a good investment as it may appreciate in value over time.

2. What are the challenges of owning an old house?

Owning an old house can also be an expensive money pit. Old homes often require more maintenance and repairs than modern homes. They may have outdated electrical and plumbing systems, which can be costly to replace. Old homes may also have issues with lead paint, asbestos, or other hazardous materials that need to be addressed.

3. How can I tell if an old house needs repairs?

Before purchasing an old house, it is important to have a thorough inspection done by a qualified home inspector. They can identify any structural issues, electrical or plumbing problems, or other potential hazards. It is also important to look for signs of wear and tear, such as cracked or peeling paint, uneven floors, or water damage.

4. How can I maintain an old house?

Maintaining an old house requires a lot of time and effort. Regular inspections and maintenance are important to keep the house in good condition. This includes painting and sealing the exterior, replacing old windows and doors, updating electrical and plumbing systems, and repairing any damage as soon as it occurs.

5. How can I update an old house without losing its charm?

Updating an old house without losing its charm requires a delicate balance. It is important to preserve the original architectural details and character of the house while also making it more functional and comfortable for modern living. This can be achieved through careful renovation and restoration, such as updating the kitchen and bathrooms while retaining original features like hardwood floors and trim.

6. Can I make an old house energy efficient?

Yes, it is possible to make an old house energy efficient. This may involve updating the insulation, sealing air leaks, upgrading the heating and cooling systems, and installing energy-efficient windows and doors. While these upgrades may be costly upfront, they can save money on energy bills in the long run.

7. How can I protect an old house from pests?

Old homes are often more susceptible to pests such as termites, rodents, and insects. Regular pest control inspections and treatments can help prevent infestations. It is also important to seal any cracks or gaps where pests can enter the house, and to keep the house clean and free of food debris.

8. How can I finance the purchase of an old house?

Financing the purchase of an old house may be more challenging than financing a modern home. Traditional lenders may be hesitant to lend money for an old home that requires extensive repairs and renovations. However, there are specialized lenders and programs that cater to historic or older homes, such as the FHA 203(k) loan or the Fannie Mae HomeStyle renovation mortgage.

9. How can I find a reputable contractor for repairs and renovations?

Finding a reputable contractor for repairs and renovations is crucial to ensure that the work is done properly and to code. It is important to do research and ask for references from previous clients. Look for contractors who are licensed and insured, and who specialize in historic homes or have experience with similar projects.

10. What should I consider before purchasing an old house?

Before purchasing an old house, it is important to consider the location, condition, and history of the house. Is it located in a desirable neighborhood? Does it require extensive repairs or renovations? Does it have any historical significance or restrictions? It is also important to have a realistic budget for purchasing and maintaining the house.

11. Should I hire an inspector before purchasing an old house?

Yes, it is highly recommended to hire a qualified home inspector before purchasing an old house. They can identify any potential issues or hazards, and provide an estimate of the cost of repairs and maintenance. This information can help you make an informed decision about whether or not to purchase the house.

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