What to expect when inspecting an old* home.
*We’re am defining, “old” as 100 year old and older.
February 1, 2023
By Brian S. Delle Donne & Frank J. Delle Donne
This is Regal Home Inspections’ 10th year in operation. Over these years we’ve inspected new homes and many homes built in the 1900s. We’ve also had the challenge of inspecting homes built in the 1800s and even a handful built in the 1700s. The first old home I inspected was on Queen Rd. in Stockton, NJ. It was inspected on January 5, 2015. There were two sections in the home. The, “newer” section was built in the 1800s. The original home was built in 1740. Can you imagine, that’s 36 years BEFORE the signing of the Declaration of Independence!!! In 2019 we inspected a house in Middletown, NJ that was built circa 1765. We’ve seen some pretty interesting things. For example, since the beams and timber used to build the house were made from trees cut down on the property or nearby, you can still see the chisel marks from the people that shaped the wood over 200 years earlier. In 2 houses that we’ve inspected, and clearly visible in the attic, the roof rafters had Roman numerals chiseled into them. So the two raters that meet at the ridge of the house each have the Roman numerals I, II, III, IV, etc. My prediction is, and I’m very confident that this is correct, because they used mortise and tenon construction, those rafters were shaped on the ground and then like puzzle pieces, carried or lifted to the roof area and constructed. I goes with I. IV matches to IV, etc. Pretty neat I think.
But what inspired me to write this piece today was an inspection that Brian and I did this past weekend. Literally, within the past 11 days we inspected 2 houses built in 1910. One in Matawan and one in Wall Township. We also inspected a house built in 1927 in Carteret over the past week. If you’re thinking about purchasing an old house, be sure to have it inspected. This applies for newer homes as well but NEVER waive your inspection on an older home. This blog points out a few findings that are often seen in older homes and as a buyer, you must be aware of going into the deal. Now I know the saying is that the 3 most important things in a home purchase are location, location and location, but the older the home the bigger the potential for it to be a money pit. If you have the tolerance for that going in and you have the money for some things you may not have considered then great, go for it. But if you’re extending yourself a little further than you’d like and may not have a large amount of cash to reverse some of the issues that may exist, be aware, get an inspection from a reputable company and one that’s familiar with these things.
- In older homes (200+ YO) if you’re lucky the foundation exists and maybe it’s stones. Stones that were sourced from the area and used to build the foundation. Sometimes the issue isn’t the stones themselves but the mortar that holds them together. In older homes (Even those built up to the early 1900s), the mortar that holds the stones (And brick in 100 YO homes) turns to sand. Think of the mortar as the glue that holds the stones, brick or more modern concrete blocks together. If the mortar loses its adhesive properties, the stones or brick will become loose. This can cause the foundation walls to move and often bow inward due to the pressure from the dirt outside.
- The structure also includes the wood; Beams and joists are what are visible in the basement. Rafters are seen in the attic. Beams and joists may be held together with mortise and tenon joints. This is where they cut a tab into the end of the joist and a corresponding hole in the beam. The tab is set into the hole. But as the house ages and may shift, the mortise and tenon joints may separate. With respect to the wood, beams will sag over the decades and cause floors above to not be level. This is very common. Also, 100+ year old wood may have been infested with powder post beetle larvae. These insects hatch and bore small holes in the wood. The way I describe the powder post beetle damage to people is as follows: You know how good wood has fibers in it. The fibers help give the wood strength. Power post beetles change the structure of the wood so it has a composition kind-of similar to chalk. When you break a piece of chalk it just snaps. The powder post beetle damaged wood may not snap but the intended structure of the wood no longer exists.
- Electrical and Lighting. This is a big thing in older homes. 125+ years ago houses may have been illuminated with gas lamps. Pipes were installed in the walls and throughout the house the pipes came out of the wall with a little valve and one could literally light an open gas flame to provide illumination at night. Not a big deal now because they aren’t used but I find it interesting enough to mention.
The real issue with the older home is the wiring circa 1930s called Knob and Tube (KnT). This was found in the house inspected this past weekend. Built 1910 and wired with KnT in that era. This may have been the first house in the neighborhood with electric lighting. Pretty impressive for 1910 but today, insurance companies frown upon KnT. We advise buyers that it must all be removed by a licensed electrician. Obtaining homeowner’s insurance with reasonable premiums may be difficult. As I tell people, insurance companies don’t like risk or you’ll pay for the risky lifestyle; Smokers, parachute jumpers, waterfront/oceanfront properties, etc. Reduce risk and you can reduce costs.
- Hazardous materials. Also seen on the 1910 built house this past weekend was asbestos. A known carcinogen. Not only was residual asbestos seen on the steam boiler pipes, small pieces of asbestos (Like duct) were on just about every flat surface in the basement’s utility area. Luckily I carry facemasks (Covid) so I put one on and continued. However, from a home purchase perspective, I’m not sure how expensive it will be to remove all of the asbestos but we all know, “It ain’t (sic) going to the cheap!”
- Not seen at this past weekend’s house but seen on many others is galvanized steel pipe. Galvanized steel is known for corroding from the inside. It often looks OK from the outside but inside it corrodes and as the rust builds up it reduces the diameter inside the pipe. Flow is restricted. It’s often seen on the water supply pipes as well as drain pipes. If the service pipe from the street is visible and it’s galvanized steel, replacement is a requirement for buyers. Which party pays (Buyers or sellers) is not up to the inspection company to decide but from an inspection perspective…replace it.
These are but a few of the things that we’re highly aware of in older homes. If you’re considering buying an old home, Regal Home Inspections, LLC is a great option for you. With our formal training and experience with 4 centuries of homes inspected, we’ll provide you with a thorough inspection and comprehensive and informative report.
You can reach either Brian or Frank to ask questions and schedule an inspection.
Brian – 732-740-8365
Frank – 908 902 2590