Truth Time: What Nobody Tells You about Buying an Older Home

updated Apr 30, 2019
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(Image credit: Alicia Macias)

When we started looking at real estate, there was never any question that my husband and I would buy an old house. We didn’t even bother looking at any that were built after 1950. We knew we wanted the style and craftsmanship of an old home. Now, a couple of years after buying a house that was built in 1912, I’ve learned a few lessons. Even though I’ve lived in older houses and buildings as a renter, actually owning an old house has its own challenges. Don’t get me wrong, I adore my house and would buy it again in a second, but there are some quirky things about old houses that I wish I’d known to expect.

(Image credit: Sophie Timothy)

There is No Such Thing As ‘Standard’ Anything

If, like me, you’re new to home ownership, you may turn to internet searches to find out basics about how houses are put together. When you’re trying to hang something heavy that needs to go on two studs, but can’t find the second one (see below), you may Google, “standard stud spacing.” Those numbers may not be applicable in your old house. They certainly weren’t in mine. Mine aren’t even standard across my house, as some walls were added in different eras. Due to changes in building standards and codes, or individual builders’ quirks, how things were supposed to be done often don’t match up with reality.

So it goes with other things in an old house, too. Replacing ceiling lights becomes a little bit more challenging when it’s a happy surprise to find an electrical box. Water supply lines that “should be” hot on the left, labeled with an H, but are mislabeled, or switched, are pretty fun to deal with. My takeaway lesson from issues like these is research, but verify. Don’t be surprised when the standards and codes don’t apply. Adapt as necessary, and try to laugh about it when you’re done (also, take notes, so you remember for next time).

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(Image credit: Alicia Macias)

Not All Walls Are Made of Drywall

When we moved into our house, I didn’t really know what plaster and lathe was. It took a while before I even realized that’s what we had. While overall I think plaster and lathe walls are a positive feature, and I’d fight to keep them, you can’t treat them exactly the same as drywall.

Unlike drywall, which is basically crumbly, paper-bound sheets over wood studs, plaster and lath is made up of thin strips of wood over studs, covered with a concrete-like mixture of lime, sand, and/or cement that also goes between the wood strips. In some ways it’s better than drywall, since it seems to be superior at blocking sound. But the first time I tried to find a stud with a stud-finder, it was an exercise in frustration.

I’ve since learned that for items that are less than 10-15 pounds, you can just screw into the wood lath. And there are tricks for finding studs when you do need them. Nowadays I knock, and listen for differences in resonance. When I think I’ve found a stud, I pull out my strong magnet, which will stick to the nails holding the lath to the stud if I’ve successfully located one. It’s a bit old-fashioned, but it gets the job done.

(Image credit: Caitlyn Cartlidge)

Future-Proofing Is Impossible

People sure didn’t plan ahead when it came to electrical outlets. It’s like they had no idea that we’d need to plug in everything from our toothbrushes to our robotic vacuums. And hiring an electrician to add more is surprisingly expensive, so if you’re doing wiring already, add more than you think you need. Otherwise, power strips might be your new best friend in an old house.

Those leftover land phone lines are another story, though. They’ve outlived their usefulness, and someday we’ll finish tearing them all out. And don’t even get me started on the tank from the old oil heater buried in our yard. My point is that it’s nearly impossible to predict what the future holds as far as technology goes, so you just have to do what makes sense at the time. Your house may never be “done,” though, because technology keeps changing, and who knows, maybe electrical plugs will be obsolete soon.

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

You Will Deal With Other People’s Mistakes

The older your house, and the more owners it’s had, the longer there’s been for people to make questionable decisions. If someone painted walls a color I hate, or installed tiles that I think are ugly, that’s fine. Those are just differences in taste. But when those tiles are installed in the worst tile job I’ve ever seen, I get mad. And I want to slap whoever left so many sloppy paint drips on the walls and mouldings.

Dealing with other people’s mistakes has taught me a valuable lesson: Try not to do anything that will make someone else curse you for incompetence or laziness. And use the highest quality materials you can afford. Even though you might not care about future owners, if you stay in your house long enough, the person doing the cursing may be future you. Hopefully someday my house will eventually pass to someone else, and I’d prefer that they consider me a good caretaker of this old building.