10 Old House Questions to Ask Before Buying a Historic Home

So you want to buy an old house? Here are ten things to know before you take the plunge.

It looks so pretty: the detailed gingerbread porch trim, or the massive stone fireplace, or charming bay windows and nooks and crannies. But should you actually BUY the old house, or just admire it on the house tour?

Here are some questions potential ‘this old house’ homeowners need to ask before signing on the dotted line.

1.) How old is it?

Don’t believe the real estate tax records, which are often nothing more than a guess. Whether your research happens via an experienced architectural historian or some old-fashioned sleuthing at the library, try to narrow the house’s construction date down to a certain decade if possible. The information will help you in all future decisions about the house.

2.) Is the foundation ok?

No sense spending tens of thousands of dollars on a restoration quality paint job if the bricks in the cellar are crumbling or the only thing holding up the walls are the termites holding hands. A home inspector by someone KNOWLEDGEABLE about OLD HOUSES should help you determine if the foundation is solid, or fixable.

3.) How’s the plumbing?

Make sure you know whether the toilets and sinks are operating under their original (ie at least 50 years old) cast iron plumbing, or if new PVC plumbing has been added- and if so, when. You will want to know whether you need to replace all the plumbing in the bathrooms and kitchen, as you will have a tendency to want to use these rooms for their intended purposes.

4.) …and the electric?

If the power is run on old knob-and-tube wiring and has never been upgraded in terms of wattage, you will need to know this when purchasing a historic home- particularly if you enjoy using washers and dryers microwave ovens, or computers. A complete electrical overhaul means a pretty penny, so you’ll need to know this going in.

5.) How is the house heated and (if at all) air-conditioned?

Old radiators are great for warming mittens in the winter, but an oil heating system can cost a lot to maintain. If you are a person who cannot stand to be hot and there is no central air in the house, figure in the cost of adding room air conditioners to cool the space you’ll need to cool.

6.) Cooks in the Kitchen

If you happen to prefer gourmet cooking and are addicted to shows on the Food Network, take this into consideration when shopping for an old house. Avocado green 1970s appliances may not fit into your gourmet vision, so the cost of a kitchen upgrade needs to be taken into account.

7.) The Roof! The Roof!

Keeping rain from entering the home is a popular priority for homeowners. It may not be realistic in the case of a century-old charmer which, no matter how many roofers try, continues to leak periodically in a variety of spots. Roof replacement can be one of the most costly old-house repairs, so you’ll want to add this to the tab before you ante up.

8.) Windows to the Soul …

or just to the house, but keep your eyes open. Are the windows original? If so, do they have storm windows? When were those added? Old houses, depending on when they were built, can have a few small windows or many large ones, each with its own amazing draft-producing ability. Consider the cost of installing (possibly custom) new windows if this is a priority for you. If you love the look of those old original wavy glass beauties, buy LOTS of caulk.

9.) If the Walls Could Talk…

we’d tell them to fix their own cracks. But they’ll be looking to you for that, so be ready. Does the house contain its original plaster? Experts usually recommend retaining this, as it adds insulation value to the house- but the phone book is full of many drywallers, few plasterers. Be aware of the options in terms of repairing materials in the home’s walls and ceilings.

10.) Floored

Are the floors original? Hopelessly sagging? Covered in burnt orange shag wall-to-wall smelly carpet that needs to be removed asap? Restoring original flooring is often a popular old-house activity and can often be done in a do-it-yourself fashion, but you’ll want to know what ‘lies ahead’.

But the big question:Is this home?

You will be able to think of dozens of reasons NOT to buy a historic house. But some the reasons in favor are less tangible. Is the house in a neighborhood where your kids can walk to school or ride bikes to the library and ice cream shop? The house was probably built of old strong wood, brick, or stone- and built to last forever. There may be the coziest fireplace you’ve ever seen- begging for someone to read books or knit nearby. You may not be able to find these intangible benefits in a vinyl-clad subdivision.

So if you’ve fallen in love with a sunset-facing porch, it may be saggy and have peeling paint, but it just may be that the old house needs you as much as you need a home.