Thinking of Buying a Character Home?

A character home can be a money pit or a gold mine and knowing how to discern the two is not easy. In my experience people will lean towards either being too afraid of having to do any work at all or think that it’s no big deal. This article points us towards a balance point that is suitable for individual homes and individual people.

Falling for a character home is ins some ways like a love affair. You fall in love not necessarily for the most practical reasons but probably more because your heart gets caught up in the romantic feelings the property gives you. It is hard not to fall in love with the historic unique architecture, luscious wood, gabled roofs, hardwood floors, crown moldings, and antique light fixtures. Old houses definitely have their charm and romance.

If you have found your love you should be aware of extra costs and challenges associated with having a character home. The romance may just be worth it for you, particularly if the asking price of the property is right and you are willing and able to do some of the maintenance/work yourself. If you are already a handy person much of what I am about to outline is already familiar to you and are fairly aware of what you are getting into without my spelling it out.

Before we get into the nitty gritty let me say that not every character home has all or even any of the following issues. These are things that come up more often with older homes but not every time. Some will be evident the first time you walk into the property, particularly with me there as I’ve seen thousands of homes and am looking for deal killers before we even try to put a deal togehter. Some things will become evident when you have a property inspection because these are just some of the things that will be looked at by the Property Inspector.

Energy use

Most of these older homes will have insulation standards that are lower than modern ones and in the odd case you may find a home that doesn’t have insulation for much of the home at all. Heating methods and fuel use standards are also often very outdated. Lower efficiency furnaces or system that still use oil are costly and not eco friendly. A lack of decent insulation will of course mean it requires more energy to keep the home warm in the colder months and this again drives up your monthly living costs. Some homes still have single pane windows that have somehow managed to survive the decades. The good news is that there are many solutions in this category, especially in a time when energy conservation is topical if not mainstream.

The foundation is the most important aspect of any home and this is especially true for older ones. It holds the home in place, holds it straight and keeps moisture from the perimeter controlled in one way or another. One problem that is common for older homes is called the “sulphate attack”. This can occur as a result of a chemical reaction between the soil and the concrete, which causes the foundation to crack and crumble. Another common concern with older homes is that the centre beam of the home can begin to sink. This can result in a sagging roof, bowed walls, and sloping floors. If the old house has a bad foundation then renovating it can be very expensive where the cost can range from several thousand dollars to $50,000 depending on the size of the home. Also, in some cases, one might needs to jack up the house to replace the foundation and shore up the centre beam. Structural issues too can be remedied but they are a particularly expensive fix with costs that are difficult to project.

Electrical Wiring
When buying an older house, it is important to check for problems with the state of the electrical and lighting system. Do the lights flicker? Is the current steady or do the lights fluctuate between bright and dull? Is there adequate lighting in the home? It’s important to have the wiring inspected. Places built in the late sixties and into the mid 70’s may have aluminum wiring. Aluminum wiring needs to be professionally attached to lights, sockets etc. to ensure there isn’t an extra risk of sparking and fire.
Also, you should consider whether there are enough outlets and amp service in the home to suit the needs of a modern household. You may want to install more outlets and/or breakers in order for you to run a number of devices at once like a television, a computer, a stove, etc. In many cases an upgrade of the electrical panel many be a good idea to handle modern electrical needs.

Lead Paint
In older homes, lead paint is very common as lead was used as a white pigment in paint until the mid-1950s. If you are planning to repaint the home, call in a professional renovation firm as they know the safety precautions needed to be taken when repainting the house. Children and pregnant women should not be in the home during renovations. Fortunately enough time has passed so that it is rare to find a surface that hasn’t been painted in this much time but then again in renovations you may remove say, some wallpaper or wood panelling, to reveal an older painted surface underneath.

Asbestos was used in carpet underlay, textured paints, roofing felt, electrical wiring insulation, acoustic ceiling material, and insulation. If the home was built before the 80’s there is a pretty good chance it’s in one of the materials somewhere. The main thing is that it doesn’t end up in the air and thus in your lungs as over time it can be harmful. In some cases keeping it covered up may be sufficient and in some cases having it professionally removed by people taking hazmat type precautions (as they work with it every day) may be necessary. The latter is of course expensive but financing can be available for that as well. Don’t panic if you encounter a home that has it, just ask a pro like a Property Inspector for input pertaining to the particular case. There has been an awful lot of media attention on this one over the years which has conditioned many people to freak out instead of doing what they should do, which is investigate further.

Galvanized Pipe 
Galvanized pipes are known to rust very quickly. Most insurance companies now refuse to cover water damage caused by leaks in a home with galvanized pipes.

Also worth noting is that old iron plumbing stacks have a way of rusting on the inside and swelling which causes a narrowing of the pipe and more opportunity for blockages.

It’s important to know about the conditions of the house your planning on purchasing. Just like people, years will eventually take a toll on homes as well. Years will make things begin to sag and slope, the difference being that it’s easier to fix such issues in a home than in an aging body. (Says the Realtor who has arrived at middle age.) So when you are looking at older homes bear in mind that there will be extra costs and time invested in these kinds of things compared to a newer home. Build this into your budgeting plans. One of the things I really like about older homes is that as the decor is already out of date, the fact that it looks nice now means that it will still look good in ten, twenty or however many years. If you were to buy a newer home with modern decor it’s going to get dated in a way that probably won’t look good in that time and you’ll want to update it in ten or twenty years. There is some financial trade off there as well as it’s easier to get it just the way you want it. With the character home you also have a canvas to play with where you won’t feel guilty changing paint or floors to your liking compared to something that is recently installed and has added to the asking price. Older homes tend to have nicer lots in established neighbourhoods close to amenities with mature trees, but that might also mean a noisier location. Lots of pros and cons in either route!

Preserve the Charm of Your Old House

If you have already fallen in love with this old house, then make sure you follow the golden rules in repairing your dream home and preserve it’s historic features and value.

  1. The golden rule of remodeling is, “Do no harm”. As you update your older home, make sure to preserve its historic details. Reuse existing materials. Keep historic moldings and hardware. Wire gas lamps for electricity. Keep distinctive examples of craftsmanship. Restore marbling, stenciling, and carvings.
  2. Don’t try to undo long-ago renovations. Most buildings change over time, and alterations to your house may have historic significance in their own right.
  3. Whenever possible, repair rather than replace. Don’t throw away that old claw foot bathtub – have it re-glazed. Fix damaged doors, refinish old cabinet and  patch cracking plaster.
  4. If historic feature cannot be repaired, look for a similar item at an architectural salvage center, or buy a new item that matches the old in design, color, texture, and other visual qualities.
  5. And best of all make sure you hire a contractor that share your passion and understand your love affair with your old house.

Good luck, you may have found your Gold Mine.


Ryan Coffey


Related Articles

But, I want to keep it!
Photo Tour of Nanaimo
When Should I Buy My First Home?

No comments

You must be logged in to post a comment.