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How to Avoid Buying a Money Pit: What to Look for When Buying an Old House


One of New England’s greatest assets is its quaint small towns and the beautiful antique and historical homes in these towns.  I grew up in a small New Hampshire town, whose main street was littered with homes that dated back to the 1800’s. The homes ranged from Victorian mansions to saltbox and cape style farm houses, each with its own unique architecture and charm.  In fact, the house that I grew up in was a quaint little white farmhouse that was built in the 1800’s, well at least the original part of the house. Although, this house was full of charm it was also full of issues!

Now that I look back on this, these issues were mostly related to the age of the home.  Among them were low water pressure, no central heat (only a sweet little fireplace and wood stove to keep us warm), a roof that leaked, a basement that flooded, windows that creaked and let the wind in and little rodent visitors each winter. As a child this was all just a normal part of life in the farmhouse, but I can imagine it caused my parents a lot of stress.   The house was always under some sort of major repair and eventually its charm was out shined by the money pit it had become. If you don’t want this to happen to you, there are certain things you should look for when considering buying an old house.

Possible Issues You Should Look for When Buying an Old House

There are several issues that you could encounter when buying an old house.  The best way to find out if the house has these issues is to hire an experienced, reliable and reputable home inspector and to ask lots of questions!  Here are some of the top issues to be aware of when considering buying a old house, especially one built before 1970:

  • Old Electric-  

In many old houses not only is the wiring old, but also the electric system may not be up to today’s needs.  This is the day and age of the electronic device and many old houses do not have a large enough electrical load capacity to handle all of our devices.  In addition to these houses may only have a few electrical outlets in each room. In addition to the inconvenience of these issues, if the wiring in the house is old it can be a huge fire danger, if the wires begin to crumble or degrade.  Any issue with the house’s wiring can end up costing you a lot of money and often wiring issues are unforeseeable by a novice.

  • Termite Infestation (past and present)/Bugs/ Rodents-

No one wants to live with an onslaught of bugs and rodents.   In addition to being creepy these creatures can cause major damage to a house.  Make sure to find out if there has ever been a termite issue in the house as even if the issue is over there could be residual damage.  In addition to the health risk of having rodents in your home, they can also be a fire risk if they are chewing on wiring.

  • Asbestos-

Asbestos is a dangerous material that was used in insulation and plumbing consistently in houses until the 1970’s.   Therefore, odds are if you are buying an antique house, especially one that hasn’t been renovated there is probably asbestos on the property.  While asbestos is not dangerous when it is intact it is very harmful when broken or degraded. This can happen over time or during renovations.

  • Lead Paint-

When buying a house, you are required to sign a document in which you acknowledge that there may be lead in the paint in your house.  Lead is a dangerous substance that can cause illness, especially in children. When a house has lead paint, flakes can contaminate the air and water supply.  Make sure to have your house or perspective house tested for lead.

  • Water Quality-

There are many things in an old house that can reduce the quality of the water supply.  One very prevalent cause for bad water quality is the source of the water supply. Many antique houses have dug wells.  These wells are shallow and therefore can have more contaminants from the ground. In addition to the water source, water quality can also be negatively affected by radon, asbestos, and lead in the home.

  • Roof Issues-

Years ago, roofs were not made with the same sturdy materials as they are made with today.  Also, you may find the roof of an older home has been repaired shoddily by a previous owner.  Make sure to have the roof inspected for leaks, faulty shingles and other possible issues. Roof repairs are among the most expensive repairs that can be made to a home.

  • Foundation Issues/Wet Basements-

Sadly, over time foundations can degrade, crack and become unstable.  If there are significant cracks to the foundation or it has shifted it is advisable not to purchase the property as the repairs will be very costly.  You will also want to make sure that there are no cracks or that they are repairable because cracks can allow for water damage and make the space unusable or cause mold issues.  

  • Old Plumbing-

If you are buying a house from the early 1900’s and it has the original plumbing you will definitely need to replace it.  The plumbing may have asbestos wrapped pipes, faulting joints and leaks. Any of these issues can be costly and dangerous to your health.  Water leaking can lead to mold and other damage.

  • HVAC System Condition-

Replacing an AC or heating system can be extremely pricey.  Also, the age and thus efficiency of your HVAC system can have a huge impact on your utility bills.  Often older houses will not have AC and may have unique heating systems that could be difficult or impossible to repair.

  • Lack of Insulation/ Old Windows-

Another huge hit to your utility bills would be a lack of insulation and/or old windows.  Most houses built before 1989 have single pain windows. These windows let in a lot of the heat in the summer and the cold in the winter.  Replacing windows in an entire house can cost you in the $10,000s. Also, old homes often are poorly insulated or not insulated at all. They used different materials like horse hair to insulate houses in the early 20th century.  All of these materials will need to be replaced when you purchase an old home.

  • Cheap or Outdated Updates-

If the house you are looking at has been renovated look for cheap and even outdated updates.  If it is important to you to keep the historical integrity of the property you are purchasing and the previous owners were going for a modern look maybe this house is not for you.  Also, be aware of the cheap quick updates that the seller might have don in order to flip the house. These types of updates can be costly to undo.

  • Historic Restrictions-

If you are buying a historic home there may be restrictions on the types of renovations you can make to the home.   These can include paint color, fencing, landscaping, and other restrictions. These restrictions can make home upkeep very expensive and may also keep the house from ever feeling like it is your home.

Be Careful Not to Buy A Money Pit


The best way to ensure that you don’t end up purchasing a veritable money pit is to hire an reputable and experienced home inspector and to really consider all of his/her findings.  Also, make sure you ask a lot of questions before purchasing an old home.  Ask the previous owners, the neighbors, your realtor and of course the home inspector.  Buying an antique gem can be a dream come true as long as you are well informed!

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