Buying an older house - pros and cons?

So we’re officially looking for a house now. I’ve spent a lot of time combing to find a house in our price range. We do not want one of the new houses that are going up - the McMansions - they’re just not us. Along the same vein, neither of us wants a house where we have a massive amount of work to do on it - we’re not handy like that.

Still, my eye is continuously drawn to houses built in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. I love these houses - they have character, and they don’t look like all of the other houses on the street. Many of them seem to have up-to-date improvements on them - most have central air, boast of new wiring, etc. However, we keep getting warned against buying an older house, even with the improvements done on them.

So why? We love them because the rooms are big and airy, but overall, the house isn’t too big for us and our two cats, and in a few years, our little ones. Is there a reason we’re being warned against buying the houses? And if the house has been updated and well-cared for, is there any reason we shouldn’t buy it?

Thanks for your help!


In my experience with a 1947 home, we are constantly getting unpleasantly surprised by stuff the previous owners did.

For example, we are replacing the back deck which the most recent owner had painted white (I learned the valuable home owner lesson that one should never paint decks, it traps in moisture and accelerates deterioration).

The old deck was removed and we found an absolutely HIDEOUS brick/concrete patio (obviously they had done it themselves). The size of the patio and the odd, metal “lip” holding the concrete forced us to have to revise our plans for the new deck for an additional $900.00.

They also did a crappy job with plumbing, wiring and skylights (they were actually WINDOWS) that we’ve spent a ton of money fixing over the past 3 years.

In my experience with houses from the era you’re describing, the main problems are lack of modern conveniences. If a kitchen doesn’t have a dishwasher, there might not be an appropriate undercounter space where one can be installed. Electrical outlets are still scarce; maybe one or two in each room, tops, unless there was significant updating. Bathroom colors from the 1930s through the 1950s were hideous; lime green, pink or rose-hied beige tiles, toilets and sinks were all the rage.

Lot grading laws were uncommon until the 1950s and 1960s. Many lots from before that era won’t have swales or a graded slope intended to divert surface water away from the house.

Floorplans in older homes don’t account for television viewing or modern types of furniture, such as sectional couches. The house I’m renting now, built in 1950, has a living room where you really can’t place a television that can be comfortably seen. It’s laid out something like this …

 ^^^^   (kitchen)    +   (dining)  |
 +--+                |             |
 +--+--------FPFPFP--+            ++  ---
 +--+                              |   |
 +--+                              W   |
 +--+                              W   11'
 +--+                              |   |
 +--+                              W   |
 |                                 W   |
 |                                 |   |
 +---+DDD+--------WWWWWWWWWWWWWWW--+  ---

 |--------------- 24'--------------|

I’m also looking at houses from the same era, and it seems like a lot were remodeled extensively in the late 1960s and early 1970s, not exactly a high point in the realm of domestic good taste. Lots of orange and green; rugs, kitchen appliances, countertops, and so on. Many were one-owner houses where the original owner remodeled, retired, and then died; there’s a flood of 'em on the market here in east suburban Cleveland.

Sorry to double-post, but I forgot one thing.

Queen and king size beds are a fairly recent invention. Many older homes have stairways and hallways that don’t account for moving mattresses or larger objects of furniture. You may not be able to get a queen or king size mattress or box spring up or down stairs, or around a tight hallway.

Go for it!

I live in a 100 year old farmhouse (built in 1904). Before that we lived in a 1920’s bungalow and a 1850’s cottage.

We like older houses because they have fascinating architectural details. The rooms are bigger. They don’t all look alike. They aren’t all about conspicuous consumption.

There are a couple of different ways you can go with older houses. Buy them and redo them yourself, or buy them from somebody’s who has redone them. Both have their advantages and disadvantages.

If you’re going to buy an old house and redo it yourself, given the fact that you aren’t a do-it-yourselfer, you should look at the project as tantamount to building a house from scratch. You’re keeping the shell and the interesting elements and replacing everything else with modern stuff. The advantage to this method is control. You choose what goes into the house – the colors, the quality, the layout – and the people who are doing the work. Of course, this means you must suffer through all the trouble and stress of a major constuction project. Not necessarily fun or relaxing.

If you buy from somebody who has done this you don’t have that sort of worry. However, you could be letting yourself in for some surprises. We bought our house from someone who had redone it (and on the whole did a very nice job.) However, we are still discovering weird stuff. Nothing major, just weird things that they did. Upon discovering them we have promptly replaced them with our own weird stuff. The upshot of this is if you aren’t doing the work yourself, check it out very closely. Have the systems (plumbing, electrical, HVAC, insulation) checked by experts you trust. A coat of paint and some cheap berber can hide a lot. Make sure of what you’re buying.

One thing to keep in mind is any house, old or new, is headaches. You will have repairs and maintenance on any house you own. It’s part of being a homeowner. There may be a slight increase in an older home. However, we think the improved personality of the home outweighs any added maintenace required.

As already noted, there are problems associated with owning an old house. But, there are also advantages. For example, the quality of materials in an older home can’t be matched in new construction. Hardwood floors, doors, moldings, etc. are made from tight grain old growth timber that simple isn’t available anymore. The quality of workmanship is also generally better. There was much more attention to detail in things like stairways, fireplaces, built in cabinetry, moldings, etc.

New houses aren’t without problems either, LP siding that grows mushrooms and rots in moist climates, mold growing in houses that are too tightly constructed, aluminum wiring (no longer legal I believe), etc.

Owning any home is going to end up costing money for maintenance and repairs. While important, economics isn’t the only thing to consider.

Besides what’s been said:

[li]If the house has stayed upright for 50 years, it’s probably structurally sound.[/li][li]50 year old neighborhoods are less likely to have homeowners associations or equivalent groups that you need to consult before doing things like building a fence or putting plastic flamingoes on your front lawn.[/li][/ul]
[li]Electrical: 50 years ago, electrical outlets weren’t grounded. If you’ve got a lot of 3-prong stuff (i.e., most computer equipment and power tools), this may be a problem.[/li][li]Plumbing: Make sure the place doesn’t have lead pipes.[/li][/ul]

The biggest issue with an older home, as I see it, is that you don’t know who did the updates. That means you don’t know what sort of quality those updates are. Every time something goes wrong with our house, we find another problem with the wiring. Whoever wired up our furnace/air conditioning didn’t do it to code. We’ve got to have additional wire run and more breakers put in. Whoever installed the dishwasher and garbage disposal didn’t do that to code. We’ve got to have still more wire run and god knows what-all else.

If you buy an older home, make sure you pay extra for inspectors to go through and look at the plumbing and wiring and make sure things aren’t half-assed jury-rigged stuff that’s going to break down in a month or two.

Thanks for all of the info. It’s good to know. One of the reasons we’re looking to an older home is simply because we’re on a smaller budget - not because we couldn’t afford a higher mortgage, but because we don’t want to. A house is important to us, but so is maintaining a decent lifestyle. And I’ve seen too many of my friends buy these outrageous new houses only to discover that they can’t even afford furniture, then bitch and moan about how broke they are. We don’t want to fall into that trap.

My father-in-law is a realtor, and we know we’re not getting anywhere near a house that doesn’t pass his standards - considering we know nothing about this, we’re happy to do that.

elmwood, we’re probably looking at similarly-styled houses - we’re in Canton.


I definitely agree that there’s something missing in newer construction, but bear a couple of things in mind when looking at something you plan to renovate. We learned these the hard way:

  1. Beware of “renovation creep.” We decided to remodel the kitchen. Since we were going to spend a ton of dough anyway, we figured that we might as well expand it into the mud room. Well, since we were building a first-floor addition, we’d actually be saving money by making it a two-story addition, and expanding the upstairs bathroom. Then, since we now ended up with with this section of dead space we decided to add a lavatory!" Of course, we never liked the whole second-floor layout. We gutted it- moved all the interior walls. New windows (all of them). New roof. Removed the vinyl siding and clapboards under them. New cedar clapboards all around. Oh…did I mention appliances? New stove. Top-loading “dish drawer” (actually, the smartest thing we ever purchased). New water heater. New furnace. New radiators (but only in those rooms we didn’t install radiant heat). New toilets.
    I don’t know what happened: the contractor talked fancy-talk to us and the next thing we knew only two interior walls are all that is left of the original house. Don’t let this happen to you.

  2. Check local codes before you start building. One of the bedrooms in our house had a small closet which was not shown on the original plan on file with the town. However, the architect’s plans did show it. According to the inspector, this meant that we technically added a bedroom (evidently closet=bedroom), and in our town, code is that all new bedrooms have to have a hardwired smoke detector installed- a $3000 cost we definitely didn’t anticipate.

  3. In the old days, there were no electrical appliances and everyone had only two pairs of overalls. This is why (as others have pointed out) you will find electrical service to be few and far between and closet space woefully inadequate for all of your stuff. Trust me; you can never have too many outlets, too many drawers, or two many closets.

  4. Hire a good general contractor, and then ** watch him like a hawk!!!**
    Do not accept shoddy work from subcontractors and do not sign off on anything unless you are totally satisfied. The second you sign off, it’s your problem.

Me? Next time, I’m just buying some land and slapping a nice pre-fabricated house on top.

One thing I have noticed in the older houses around here…these date from approximately 1900 to 1920…is that the closets are significantly smaller than what people these days are used to. People must have had way fewer clothes back then, and they certainly had less junk in general.

I have also noticed the paucity of electrical outlets and have run into problems with this in places I used to rent. Some older houses also might not have electrical service that can handle today’s numerous power hungry appliances.

Other potential issues you might run into in an old house that you wouldn’t in a brand new one are lead paint and asbestos. Also, again around here, many of the houses that were built before the mid 1980s have septic systems that don’t conform to current regulations and need to be upgraded at fairly great expense before the state will allow them to be sold.

Of course this isn’t an issue if the houses are connected to a municipal sewer.

Gunslinger and I aren’t on the market right now, but when we do decide to settle down we’re looking at houses built between 1920 and 1950. Are the ones you’re looking at the pre-war bungalows? Because that’s our preferred style. One warning specific to those is that the pretty columns on the front porch can and will fall out if not properly taken care of. You have no idea how many houses I’ve seen that were missing columns or about to be missing columns. And I bet they’re impossible to replace in a way that looks right.

elmwood, every place I’ve lived so far has been a mid-'70s apartment complex in a firmly middle-class neighborhood, and they’ve all been set up with few electrical outlets, fewer phone plugs, and weird living rooms not built for television viewing. So those problems aren’t confined to the pre-tv era.

One of the hypothetical “pros” of an older house is the opportunity to find pieces of the house’s history, like they show on that HGTV show “If Walls Could Talk.”

As CrazyCatLady said, I think inspections are the key. I had two places inspected when I was house hunting, although the firt one was just a preliminary inspection. It was enough though, to tell me that the house needed a little too much upgrading–the electrical system seemed okay, lots of outlets, but the wiring was wrong, and some rot had been covered up instead of really taken care of. I had loved that house, but I didn’t want to mess with the electrical system.

The house I did buy is a 1930’s cottage/bungalow style (one and a half stories) and is solid as can be. The electrical was re-done several years ago by a professional, the plumbing is just fine, the floors have all been restored, the roof is 5 years old and the heating system is healthy. The storm windows need fixing, and the railing on the porch will give out soon and there are a few minor fixes or improvements, but nothing that can’t wait until I can afford them. Oh, the fireplace needs some major repair, it’s usable, but just barely. That’s my fault though. The inspector listed it, but I didn’t push hard enough for a complete repair.

Anyway, my suggestion is to find a house that you really like, that meets enough of your expectations, and then get an inspection. If you can’t get an inspection unless you put down an offer, make the offer dependent on an acceptable inspection. Then don’t buy it unless there is nothing in the inspection that will cause you grief. Roof, foundation, electrical, plumbing, heating system–that’s where the grief is.

New homes have no character, no charm. Buy an old house. Have fun looking!

Hmmm…well, the moment of truth has arrived. The house I am absolutely in love with has just dropped $10K, and is now in the perfect price range for us. So do we go ahead and start looking at it? Or do we wait until October to start looking as planned?

Do you get inspections before or after you make an offer?


Typically an offer is made contigent on inspection. Although I guess there’s nothing stopping you from getting it inspected first.

“Not being handy” is definitely a drawback for an older house, but it depends on how old and how much work needs to be done. For a house dating back to the 20’s, you need to check out the plumbing and electrical with particular care. I’d expect to see some plaster cracking as well. If the kitchen and bathrooms have been remodeled recently, that would be a huge plus. Most other things can be done pretty easily while you’re living in the house, but if you have to remodel the kitchen or the bath, it can get awfully inconvenient.

Make sure you check the foundation and basement pretty carefully. If the foundation is in good shape, then that eliminates a lot of potential complications later on.

I think typically offers are contingent on the place passing inspection. Ours was, anyway. You put down your earnest money, and the realtor puts in an offer for you. Then you either get an acceptance, a rejection, or a counter-offer. Once your offer is accepted, you have inspections done. Don’t cheap out and just get a general home inspection–get specialty inspections done on the wiring and plumbing, at the very least. If the house passes inspection, you go forward. If something doesn’t pass inspection, the present owner can fix it out of his own pocket, you can reduce your offer by the amount the repairs will cost you, you can let it slide if it’s something minor, or you can choose to withdraw your offer.

Avabeth – wife and I live in a 1920’s rowhouse. Some of this is repeating what others said. . .


Great heardwood floors.

Nice molding

Nice fixtures (like brass lock-plates, and light fixtures)

Solid, 6-panel doors

High ceilings

Plaster walls (over brick) and plaster ceilings giving it a very solid feel

Lots of fun quirks (e.g. our bottom post on the stairs was wired for electricity so we found this funky antique lamp and installed it on the post at the bottom of the stairs. very cool. Closet with a passage from one room to another. )


Previous owners did things very cheaply and ugly. All the walls and trim had to be repainted. They painted over the nice brass fixtures. But, that depends on your previous owners. This just meant a lot of work for us.

Crappy original windows (replaced for $3K)

Crappy kitchen (replaced for $20K)

Crappy bathroom (being replaced this year)

Some plumbing problems, but the pipes are all copper.

Loose fitting doors that let in a lot of draft.

I think that the houses in baltimore vary greatly in quality from neighborhood to neighborhood. There were rich people/medium people/poor people back then too. There are old houses with bad foundations, water problems.

Get a good inspector – your mortgage company should provide the inspector. Realize that you WILL be doing work and spending money so don’t handicap yourself with too big a mortgage.

Experienced old-home owner here. The current one dates from 1907…the previous one from 1867.

I can’t imagine living in a modern house these days. They all sort of look the same and the short cuts sometimes irk me. Example: I have a pal who bought a new house. The large windows over his entryway look like seperate panes but are actually one large pane of glass with white tape making the appearance of segmented windows. Yeesh.

There ARE things you give up with older homes. There will certainly be a series of repairs/remodelings that you’ll want to do. The simple fact is that the house will have been worked on for years and you will have different tastes than the previous owners.

You WILL have to contend with space issues for modern conveniences like dishwashers and such. In the 1867 house the interior bathrooms were additions in the 1930s and that cost us a bedroom and part of the porch.

But I’d still take older homes if only because the sensibilities there were for larger rooms and stronger construction. The home inspection I had done on the 1867 house said (and I paraphrase) ‘this house is so well put together that it should last another hundred years’.

It’s fun, it’s not run-of-the-mill, and it’s something you can work on.

Also, they tend to come somewhat cheaper so you can put some work into it and improve your resale value fairly easily.

Unless your older home has been extensively renovated, forget about it! In my opinion, you can go broke fixing a Victorian-era house. Nothing is standard-if you replace the windows, they will all have to be custom-made! The plumbing can be a nightmare as well. Of course, there are values to be had…but be very careful; you might be unpleasantly surprised. Our house was built in 1924…and it had many defects. When we removed the wallpaper, the wall plaster (horsehair and plaster) started to fall off! We had to cover every wall with sheetrock. The layour of older homes is not good…small closets and small bathrooms.
Also, beware those tract houses built from 1945-1955…many are cheaply built, and also have structural flaws (like heating couils in the cememnt fllors…if these leak, you are screwed!
Above all, get a GOOD home inspection…and back out if he uncovers serious flaws…you can lose your shirt fixing long-erm defects…roted walls can cost a fortune to replace!
Thwo new houses are going up next door…these will be zero-maintainence homes (plastic siding, cememnt tile roofs, aluminum gutters and trim. These houses will cost a LOT less to maintain over 20 years…I’d buy one if I could!

Fortunately, my father-in-law was a carpenter, and he had very nice things to say structurally about the house we bought.

That said, there’s a whole batch of things we’d change if we could.

Cabinets – yes, they’re solid wood in the kitchen and baths. They’re also all custom-made to non-standard sizes, so they can’t be updated.

Kitchen – not enough counter space, no room for a double-bowl sink if we prefer a dishwasher, a 24" built-in oven. Good luck finding a replacement for that.

Bathroom – one little ceramic tile fell off. Then we discovered the entire wall was rotting. Then we decided to redo the bathroom, and the contractor discovered the floor tiles were set in cement. Yes, it was built to last!

Electrical – the service has been upgraded twice. The electrical contractor says there’s no more we can do without stripping out all the wiring and starting over.

Windows – the previous owners had put in cheap windows that leaked air everywhere. Replacements were so expensive, we had to do them one or two at a time.

Plumbing – we’ve replaced about half of it, and those beautiful tall trees in the front yard keep sending their roots into our sewer pipes. The plumbing contractor has warned us that it’s only a matter of time before the sewer collapses and has to be rebuilt

Insulation – the entire house could use more.

Codes – the previous owner was a do-it-yourself fanatic, but apparently, self-taught.

Don’t get me wrong. The house has served us very well over the years, but it’s definitely a continuing investment.