Budget-Busting Red Flags to Look for When Buying an Older Home

published Oct 28, 2016
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A living room with an oval-shaped coffee table with gold legs. On top are candles and books.
(Image credit: Ellie Arciaga Lillstrom)

Wooed by its close proximity to our favorite beach, my husband and I bought an older home in Charleston, SC, last spring. One year and tons of cash later, we’ve learned the hard way that it isn’t always the big, glaring problems with older homes that’ll bite you right in the butt—er, budget.

In our experience, it’s the little red flags that sneak up and rob you blind before you can close the front door. These are the kind of issues that may come up in a home inspection, but usually aren’t deemed serious enough to prevent purchasing the house. So do yourself (and your bank account) a favor and put these pricey but often overlooked problems on your radar.

1. Prior Renovations

Wait, renovations are a good thing, right? Well, they can be if they were done properly. However, if you buy a home where the contractor cut corners during the reno, having that guest room addition you were so psyched about during the purchase process could come back to haunt you. We found out after buying our home that the plumbing wasn’t properly inspected after a prior renovation, and trust me when I say that is not a pretty problem to deal with when it makes itself apparent in the middle of the night. If you do fall in love with an older home that has obviously undergone some more recent reno, consider having a structural engineer come out and give the property a once-over.

2. An Older HVAC or Hot Water Heater

Here’s a cautionary tale for you. During our home inspection, the inspector pointed out that our hot water heater was older and would need replacing “in a few years.” No problem, we thought. We have plenty of time after we move in and address other issues, we thought. Only, we thought wrong. The hot water heater, may it RIP, gave out for good two days after we moved into the house. One $700 trip to Lowe’s later and we had hot water once again, but we also learned a valuable lesson about factoring expenses for older home appliances into our budget. See also: our outdated HVAC, which we are replacing just over a year after buying the home for a cool (get it?) $6000.

3. Poor Insulation

It’s an unfortunate fact that many older homes have poor or, in some cases, no insulation. Interestingly, we have decent insulation in the original portion of our home, but subpar insulation in the comparatively young 10-year-old addition. This means that our electric bills are massive during months with extreme temps, since the addition of the house is always either super-hot or super-cold. We’re dealing with it for now, based solely on the prohibitively pricey quotes we’ve gotten for either removing drywall and laying down a layer of fiberglass insulation or pumping in blow-in insulation.

4. Outdated Wiring

Unless the wiring in your home is faulty and/or poses a major fire risk, it will likely come up during your home inspection as simply a soft recommendation—e.g. “We suggest you replace the current electrical system” or “We suggest you have an electrician examine your wiring.” This may give you false sense of security, since it wasn’t a big enough issue to cause a hitch in the home buying process, but it’s wise to heed the advice. We’ve already spent over $2000 for electricians to fix issues in our home that have resulted from our old wiring, so it’s certainly something worth noting—especially since the type of wiring often found in older homes (generally knob and tube or aluminum) can be very expensive to replace.

(Image credit: Lauren Kolyn)

5. Popcorn Ceilings

While popcorn ceilings probably are on your radar during the home-buying process as a blemish on the interior of your dreams, it’s an issue most people are willing to overlook to get into the home they want for a price that’s practical. Let me assure you, though, popcorn ceiling removal adds up quickly. In our area, for example, it costs $100 per room and $50 per bathroom, or roughly $1100 for our entire house. This cost could be higher, depending on competitive rates in your area and whether your ceiling tests positive for asbestos (common in homes built before 1978, like ours).

6. Weird Smells

The thing about weird smells is that they have a source, and the source can cost you major dinero to fix. In older homes, it’s tempting to chalk up any mustiness to that “old house smell.” Real estate agents may even refer to it that way, or try to camouflage the odors with candles or air fresheners. It’s always good to bring up any funky smells when you’re touring a potential home, though, because such smells can be indicators of big problems like water damage, mildew, mold, and even infestations of pests like rats or cockroaches. (Yuck, I know.)

7. Lead Paint

File this under “deal-breakers you foolishly ignore if your home inspector doesn’t seem too concerned.” If your home was built before 1978, the odds are decent that you could have lead paint somewhere beneath the surface of your walls in an old layer of paint. Although this is typically only a problem if the paint starts to chip or you sand or strip walls with lead paint, it’s still a good idea to buy a cheap lead paint testing kit from your local home improvement store. Then you’ll at least be prepared, mentally and financially, if at some point you have to spend the tens of thousands of dollars lead paint abatement costs.

Did you buy an old home? Has it robbed you blind like me? Do you love it anyway, and wouldn’t dream of living anywhere else?

Re-edited from a post originally published 10.28.2016 – CM