Love That Old House? How to Avoid Expensive Surprises

Aug 9, 2018 8:30:00 AM Christina Wilson

Of course, you love that classic historic house. You can picture how it will complement the other restored homes in the neighborhood. Before you allow that image to lull you into a decision, remember that old house renovations can be full of expensive surprises. Take some time to plan and carry out your own inspection.

You wouldn’t consider a purchase without getting a professional inspection. But, your preliminary assessment will narrow the field of possibilities and increase your knowledge of what to look for. Here’s a guide to how to perform a DIY inspection on historic homes from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

1. Make a list. Before you get started, make a list of all the areas you want to look at, including the roof, chimney, interior and exterior walls, porches, windows and doors, foundation, fireplaces, attics and basements, bathrooms, etc. This will help ensure that you don't miss any critical elements, and can also help you prioritize the work that needs to be done once you become the owner.

2. Take pictures. Having photos to refer back to will help you remember what you've seen. (Be sure to ask the owner or their representative for permission first.)

3. Start at the top. From a distance, examine the roof and chimney. Look for a sagging roofline, leaning chimney, and any sort of obstructions. Closer in, examine the roof shingles or tiles for signs of rotting, cracking, or other damage. Check the chimney for loose or missing mortar, and verify that the flue liner is intact.

4. Examine the walls. Like the roof and chimney, a house's walls need to be looked at both from near and far. Different kinds of exteriors will show different kinds of wear. A crumbling brick façade will require historic brick restoration by tuckpointing. And don't neglect the interior—while paint color and wallpaper are easily changed. Make sure those aesthetic choices aren't covering up signs of leaks, loose plaster, or other damage.

5. Spend some time on the porch. Look for weak floorboards and peeling paint, which are signs of rot, and take a moment to look underneath to make sure the piers holding up the porch are stable and not pulling away from the house. Also, make sure the stairs are in good condition; be on the lookout for missing or damaged railings.

6. Look out the windows. Are they original? Moreover, are they in good shape—no cracked or broken glass, or damaged sills or rails? If the windows are not original, are they compatible with the house?

7. Walk around—and up and down. In other words, pay attention to the floors and the stairs. Listen for squeaks and feel for springiness, sags, and tilts. Pay particularly close attention to the floors near sinks and tubs—is there water damage? Peek under the carpet when possible to assess the state of the flooring below, and look along the baseboard for ridges that indicate a floor has already been sanded down. (Most can only be sanded one or two times.)

8. Go underground. How is the basement? Keep your eyes peeled for signs of water damage. Puddles, clogged drains, or a sump pump make it clear that water has been an issue, but stealthier signs often include furniture and books up on risers rather than on the floor.

9. Are all systems go? Don't forget to look at the basics that we all take for granted: heating, hot water, and electricity. Many houses that have been renovated have newer systems, but not all will. You'll want to be sure that everything is functional and safe before buying the house.

10. Don't forget the attic. There are several key things to pay attention to in the upper reaches of a historic home. Make sure there's no wildlife (look for signs of animal damage, nests, or hives), holes in the roof not visible from outside, or water damage. Also, check for climate-appropriate insulation.

Download Free Homeowner's Guide to Tuckpointing 

Renaissance Development, a leader in brick restoration and historic preservation, specializes in the restoration of a historic brick building’s mortar joints using traditional methods (tuckpointing) and materials. Contact us for a free site visit and project quote.  

Categories: Historic Preservation, Renovation

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