Pitfalls of older properties: Put on your inspector's hat

It's a simple and time-proven fact: there are some very real problems seen again and again in homes that are more than 50 years old. Below are some things to inspect closely before buying an older house.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates radon causes 21,000 cancer deaths per year.  Radon is caused when uranium in soil, rock and water breaks down and gets into the air you breathe. Most new homes are built with features to prevent radon from entering that older homes often don’t have.

So, you’ll want to request a radon test during your inspection. A high radon reading isn’t a deal breaker, but you will need to purchase a radon reduction system. Depending on the severity of the problem, this will cost you anywhere from one hundred to a few thousand dollars. These systems can also increase your heating and cooling costs because they decrease efficiency and often increase electrical usage.

Cracked Foundations:
This is another problem almost exclusively seen in older homes. Unless a new home is poorly built, there are usually enough structural reinforcements to prevent the foundation from cracking. If you are buying an older home you’ll want to have your inspector pay close attention to the foundation.

Many older homes have stone foundations that were never designed to hold back moisture. Before you put in an offer, you can also walk around the house and look for visible cracks in the foundation and check the inner walls of the basement for signs of water damage. You don’t have to worry too much about small, vertical cracks. Larger cracks or ones that run horizontally are more worrisome.

Your inspector will be able to tell the difference and let you know about how much it will cost to repair. Small cracks can be fixed for less than $100, but larger cracks may cost $1,000 or more. If the foundation needs to be replaced, you’re looking at costs of up to $100,000.

Lead Paint & Pipes:
Most homes built before 1978 will have lead paint and pipes.  Lead from paint, including lead-contaminated dust, is one of the most common causes of lead poisoning. Typically, the lead paint is buried underneath layers of newer, lead-free paint. As long as the new paint is in good condition, you should be safe. Peeling and chipping paint is a hazard and requires immediate attention. It’s also more of a hazard in windows, window sills, doors, stairs and other surfaces that get a lot of wear-and-tear. You’ll want to make sure all painted surfaces in your older home are in excellent condition and dust frequently.

If your new home has lead pipes, you can replace them all, but that is very expensive. A better option is to get a water quality test from an independent laboratory every two years. The test will cost you about $50 and most of the time will show that your water is perfectly safe. Another tip, is to let the water run for about 30 seconds before using it. This is because water that has been sitting in the pipes for a while will likely be a little higher in lead content.

Asbestos was used in all kinds of construction materials, including tile, glue, installation and roofing, between the 1940s and the 1970s. It has since been discovered that asbestos exposure causes lung disease and cancer. Like lead paint, asbestos isn’t hazardous so long as it’s in good condition.

The trouble comes when the asbestos becomes damaged and releases fibers into the air. If you are considering buying a home that has asbestos, have your inspector check for tears, abrasions or water damage. You will also want to periodically do these checks yourself once you buy the home.

If the asbestos is damaged or if you are planning renovations, you should consider having a professional remove it. Because of the potential health and environmental risks of asbestos removal, specific permits are required. Your local health department can provide you with this information. The cost for removal depends on how much asbestos you have, but is usually about $200-$400/hour. A reputable contractor should give you a free estimate.

Old Outlets/Wiring:
Most older homes were built with electrical boxes of 60 amps, compared to the 100 amps that is standard in modern homes. Older ungrounded wiring is common with older homes.The easiest way to spot this is the outlets will have two prongs, not three. 

Rewiring an entire house costs about $7,000. You can make the project more budget-friendly by doing it one room at a time. Most people who buy older homes decide to install ground fault interrupter (GFI) outlets in bathrooms, kitchens, garages and other rooms where there is the potential for them to come into contact with water. GFI outlets immediately cut off the power if they come in contact with water. They cost about $75 each.

Dan Steward is president and CEO of Pillar To Post Professional Home Inspection. Founded in 1994, Pillar To Post is  the largest home inspection company in North America with over 400 franchisees, located in 47 states and 8 Canadian provinces. It was ranked the No. 1 home inspection franchise in Entrepreneur magazine’s 2013 Franchise 500®. For more information: http://www.pillartopost.com

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