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Maybe you’ve always fantasized about living in a stately Victorian or a regal Colonial with history practically oozing from the walls. Or, maybe, like many people, you’ve been struggling to find a home that will fit your budget and a 1970s fixer-upper is all you can afford.
Whatever your reason for buying an older home, there are both pros and cons to consider.
“Older homes can be charming, cozy, special, and truly shine, or they can be fully outdated and in need of a partial or complete overhaul,” says real estate agent Ian Katz.
I chatted with real estate experts to get their advice on what to look out for if you’re considering an older home. Here’s what they had to say.
Mature trees can be a bit of a mixed bag. They provide wonderful shade for your home and garden, which can be a real lifesaver if you live in a hot climate. But they also have their fair share of issues. Older trees need to be maintained regularly — via trimming, pruning, and fertilizer injections — and that likey means hiring a professional.
If you’re considering an older house with big, mature trees, that’s no reason to run in the opposite direction. However, you may want to get the trees checked out — just like you’d get the house itself checked out with an inspection — so you know what you’re getting into. And, perhaps just as importantly, you may want to budget extra for regular tree maintenance costs.
“It’s a good idea to have an arborist come out and assess the health of the trees,” says Cate Singleton, director of design at Tilly, an online landscape design company. “Getting a good trim for mature trees can often solve many issues, but you’ll definitely want to know if any are diseased or dying.”
Older homes may have single pane windows, meaning there’s just one pane of glass between you and the world. That’s just fine for looking outside, but not ideal for keeping your home’s interior at a consistent temperature.
“Old windows tend to have very little in the way of insulating qualities,” says real estate broker Jennifer Patchen.
These days, double pane windows — which trap an insulating layer of air or gas between two panes — are much more common. You may decide to upgrade your home’s windows at some point in the future, which will be a costly endeavor — so, again, not a dealbreaker, but something to keep in mind from a budget perspective.
You don’t hear much about lead-based paint these days. That’s because, in 1978, the federal government prohibited its use for consumer applications. But if you’re buying a home that was built before 1978, there’s a decent chance the walls, porch, trim, railings, and other areas may be coated in lead paint.
Lead paint can lead to a variety of health issues, especially in children. If the paint is covered up or in good condition, it’s not usually a problem. However, if the paint is chipping, peeling, or showing other signs of wear and tear, you’ll want to get it remediated ASAP. And if you plan on renovating the house at any point, be aware that you could accidentally fill the air with toxic lead dust, so you’ll want to hire a special “lead-safe contractor” for help.
Technology has come a long way in recent decades — and that also applies to home systems, such as electrical, plumbing, and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC), says Katz. Older systems may work just fine for years and years but, eventually, they will break down. When this happens, you may not be able to find replacement parts — or even a professional who knows how to fix the system.
In some cases, you may have no choice but to pay for an upgrade. For example, in January 2020, the federal government banned the production and import of Freon gas, also known as R-22, which was once a common coolant used in air conditioning systems. You can still use your Freon-based AC, however, once your system runs out, you’ll likely have a very hard time finding Freon — and, if you do, you’ll pay a lot for it. Replacing your HVAC system could set you back tens of thousands of dollars, says Katz.
When it comes to outdated plumbing and electrical systems, you might not even realize what you’re dealing with until you try to make a seemingly small aesthetic upgrade, says Monica Breese, a real estate agent, interior designer, and home stager.
“These issues can be quite significant and can turn a small project into a large undertaking pretty quickly,” she says. “Replacing a vanity or some light fixtures can be relatively easy, but once you get behind the walls of an older home, you may be dealing with a lot more than what you originally anticipated.”
Rooms in newer homes have level floors and straight walls, which makes orienting your furniture a breeze. However, with an older home, you might not be so lucky, says Katz. This probably isn’t a huge deal — mainly a minor frustration — but you may have to get a bit creative with decorating.
“Floors can often be chalked up to the charm factor and therefore no big deal — especially in a home of historic character,” says Katz.
Charming as it may be, uneven flooring could be a sign of a much, much bigger problem below: Foundation issues. “As time goes by, homes settle and the foundation could shift or give a little, making the rest of the home not as strong,” says real estate agent Alex Platt.
Some obvious foundation issues may be visible from the outside (or there may be other visible clues, like the uneven flooring). However, to really understand what’s going on beneath your home, you should hire an inspector, says real estate agent Judah Ross.
“For historic homes, foundations are almost always an issue,” he says. “Especially if it’s pier and beam, it’s almost guaranteed to need work at some point.”
Along those same lines, an inspector may find other structural issues in an older home, such as wood-destroying insects like termites and carpenter ants, says Ross.
If you’re buying a much older home — or one that’s been designated as historically significant — then be sure to read up on any relevant preservation rules. These could prevent you from making the renovations you had your heart set on (or require you to go through an extensive approval process).
“There may be limitations on what kind of changes can be made to the home,” says Patchen.