Buying any home is always a big decision. Buying an older home is a slightly different one, with its own set of important considerations. Either way, it makes sense to do some new house vs. old house homework to fully understand what you’re getting into before making an offer. Old homes have their own distinctive charms. Some even have historical significance. Even if the home you’re considering is more than a century old, don’t let that turn you off from the idea until you know what you’ll be facing. We’ve put together a list of things to think about along the way.
Know what you’re after
Deciding early about what matters most to you can help narrow your search. Make a list of what you must have (like number of bathrooms or bedrooms), what you’d like to have (like a pool), and what you absolutely cannot tolerate (like termites or a moldy basement). This will also better equip your REALTOR to help you find your perfect place. While you’re at it, look into the benefits of protection plans, which can save you plenty while helping you stay on a budget.
Old versus new
In the new construction vs. old home debate, you should know that there’s no definitive answer. “They don’t make ’em like they used to.” “Brand-new is best.” You’ve no doubt heard both, and there are relevant points on each side, but neither sentiment tells the whole story. Building codes change with the times and arguably improve, while some builders still cut corners and rely on cheap materials. Certainly, modern homes have better insulation, fewer potentially toxic materials like lead paint or asbestos, and more stringent electrical codes. However, old homes are often distinctive and unique in their look, design, style, robust architecture and orientation. In the old house vs. new house discussion, those “good bones” can go a long way.
Prioritizing your inspection
Whether you’re intent on buying an old home or not, you need to prioritize your inspection, meaning you should realize how important it is and make sure you take the entire process seriously. Start by finding a reputable, experienced inspector. Without a competent inspector, you’re likely to miss things that the average person can overlook. Particularly with older homes, you need someone capable of detecting less-than-obvious problems that could involve the structure and foundation. You may even want to follow up your inspection with an evaluation by a structural engineer. Structural and foundational repairs can be costly; never overlook them.
Buying an old home: pros
Homes built more than 50 years ago can brim with features that are difficult to quantify, like charm, nostalgia, character, personality, or a unique feel that’s almost indescribable. While there’s nothing wrong with assigning real value to the feelings these features evoke, there are other, more tangible reasons to buy an older home. Let’s consider a few.
- History: Not every older home is officially considered “historic,” but some are. These homes are designated as such by the National Parks Service, and they include a set of regulations and responsibilities buyers must adhere to in the interest of preserving important locations. Still, older, non-historic homes can add value to your potential purchase if they include comprehensive records of sales, valuation and improvements.
- Architecture: Older houses can be special, and even models that weren’t unique at the time of the build tend to stand out today due to their comparative rarity and distinctive building style. The levels of artistry, craftsmanship and attention to detail found in older homes are now rare and more difficult to replicate in more contemporary builds.
- Price: While real individuality can cost you, an older home is almost certain to save you money when compared against a new home, at least in terms of purchasing price. Some estimates put purchase-price savings at as much as 30% when buying an older home.
- Location: Older homes are often found in convenient locations closer to the center of town. This often places them in proximity to other homes from the same era, meaning these communities are less likely to be rezoned and tend to be well-preserved.
- Landscaping: In decades past, land was far less expensive. In contrast with today’s fraction-of-an-acre-size lots, older homes tended to be situated on much larger properties. As such, owners had more room for landscaping and often invested accordingly. If you’re fortunate enough to find a home that’s been cared for over the long term, it’s likely its landscaping reflects this care, increasing comfort and value.
Buying an old home: cons
There’d be no pros list without one for cons. But remember: We’re not here to talk anyone in or out of buying an old home. There’s truly no right or wrong answer to that question, and the best you can do is inform yourself before deciding what makes sense for your personal situation. Factors include what is realistic in terms of your finances, your affinity for DIY maintenance and repairs, and your simple, gut-level feeling about what’s right for you. First, consider these cons.
- Insurance: It’s important to remember to shop around when you’re considering homeowners insurance. It’s not required by law, but most mortgage lenders require you to have it before loosening their purse strings, and it’s more expensive for older homes.
- Maintenance: Older homes need more maintenance in general, so you can expect to spend more on it. But if you’re paying less to get into the home, you should have more left over for these costs. You can also save (and budget) with a home warranty.
- Utilities: In general, older homes are not as well-insulated and can cost up to 40% more to heat and cool than newer homes. However, older homes can be improved. New insulation and more efficient HVAC systems can make a huge difference in utility costs.
- Codes: As decades pass, building codes adapt with the times. Aspects of safety that were once not even considered are now unassailable standards. Safety should always be prioritized, which reminds us of the importance of a thorough, reliable inspection.
- Layout: Though there are signs the trend may be reversing, modern and contemporary home designs have long prioritized large, open spaces over the smaller, separate spaces more often found in older homes. Ceilings are lower. Closets are smaller.
- Lead and asbestos: Homes built before 1978 often contain toxic lead paint in both interior and exterior surfaces. It’s dangerous when ingested or inhaled, and is more of a threat to kids. Removing lead paint can be hazardous, much like asbestos, which was often used to insulate pipes. Asbestos is best left undisturbed unless qualified professionals can remove it, often at a considerable cost.
- Electricity, windows and plumbing: Here are three big investments old homes often require. All are essential and can significantly impact your utility bills and comfort levels. Ensure that your inspector gives you a clear idea of what you’re facing with each.
- Insects and pests: Particularly in older homes that have been uninhabited for years, insects and pests can be resident problems new tenants will have to address. Termites could be a deal-breaker, while rodents, ants, squirrels or snakes can be removed more easily.
Buying an older home can be satisfying, but it can also be an adventure. Again, most of your decision about owning an older home comes down to your comfort level with the financial, maintenance and home-improvement aspects of your particular circumstances and the results of your home inspection. Avoid surprises later by informing yourself as thoroughly as possible upfront; this can make a huge difference down the road. Deciding how much value to assign to each pro and con is something only you can do. Hopefully by now, you have a better idea of the important aspects of the decision that are worth your consideration.
The information in this article is intended to provide guidance on the proper maintenance and care of systems and appliances in the home. Not all of the topics mentioned are covered by our home warranty or maintenance plans. Please review your home warranty contract carefully to understand your coverage.