Dumb questions about buying a house

Mrs. RickJay and I are buying our first house. We are, specifically, looking to save money by buying a house that could use some painting, floor refinishing, and other stuff I am good at. However, there is no way in hell I am doing electrical work. I enjoy living.


  1. What is the normally accepted amp service for a home? Every house I can find seems to claim “100 amp service.” Is this what I need, or should we be looking for something with more amps?

  2. How can I tell a house with crappy aluminum wiring?


A 100-amp service is about the minimum acceptable for a house nowadays. 150 or 200 amp, even 300 amp, are much better. And if you have any choice about it (like buying before the house is built), go for the bigger service. It really only costs a few hundred $'s more to go for 200 or 300 amp instead of 100 amp when the house is being built. It will cost you many times that to convert at a later time.

My advice is to always over-do electrical stuff. It ends up being useful in the long run.

As for “crappy” aluminum wire, it’s not really that ‘crappy’. The problem is having a mix or aluminum & copper wire, and not doing the connections right. A lot of older homes had aluminum service coming into the house – that’s fine if it’s done right. (And since you are hiring pro’s to do the wiring, it should be OK.)

But really, there is not much point to aluminum wire any more. It used to be much cheaper than copper wire, now the difference is pretty slight. So go for all copper if you can.

I’ve heard that the price drop on copper came about the time the Bell System/Western Electric discovered recycling. They added a box in each of their green trucks for recycled scraps of wire, and at their factories. This ended up becoming the largest copper mine in the world – that is, the amount of copper they recycled was more than that produced at the largest copper mine.

Find a reputable home inspector and go through the home inspection with them. Best money you ever spent. They will point out areas to worry about and tell you what can be done about them. They won’t tell you that a house is good or bad. That’s up to you to decide.

100 amp service is fine for most people. While you’re at it, check out the breaker box to find out if it’s an older system w/ fuses or a newer system with circuit breakers.

If it’s a fuse panel, you’ll probably want to have an electrician replace it w/ a new circuit breaker panel after you move in. Of course, you’ll also want to use this deficiency as a bargaining chip when you negotiate the price. If it’s a circuit breaker panel you should be O.K. unless it was manufactured by Federal Pacific.

As for aluminum wiring, I’m with you – I’m not crazy about it, and it would certainly be a big “negative” for me. To check, simply take a screwdriver and pull off the cover plate from a switch or outlet, then look at the color of the conductor that’s wrapped around one of the screws. If it’s hard to see, remove the two screws from the outlet (or switch) and pull it out a little. (But don’t touch the screws! If you’re concerned about getting shocked, I would definitely shut the circuit off at the panel.)

I recently upgraded to 200amp in my home. I had previously had only 60! It’s made a HUGE difference, so I’m going to agree with t-bon and say to go ahead and buy, or upgrade, to the best you can afford.

And congrats on the home-ownership!

Just want to ditto that 150-200 amps is much more reasonable than 100.

We moved into a moderately sized (1500 sq ft) house a couple years ago, and discovered late in the buying process that our county now required a minimum of 150 amps, up from the 100 the house was built with. Why this upgrade burden happened to fall on me, and not the previous owners, is something that still grates. Just bad timing I guess.

After the work was done, the electrician’s bill was just under $1400 (US), if I remember correctly. That was to upgrade the house from 100 to 200 amps, and replace an exterior aluminum cable that had deteriorated from exposure. The price differential between upgrading to 150 vs. 200 amps was small enough, compared to the total job, that we just went ahead for the 200.

Our electrician, friendly guy that he was, said that the extra juice would come in handy if we ever installed a hot tub. Not that’s a likely purchase for us, but I suppose it’s nice to have the capacity for it.

I AM going to have the home inspected by a certified inspector. I would never, ever, ever buy a house without a professional inspection.

I just wanted to know the impact of various amp levels BEFORE I make offers and hire inspectors. The house we are presently looking at is very old but has a relatively new circuit breaker box, which serves a new forced air gas furnace and a water heater, which suggest it may have been upgraded at some point. I will find out on Saturday when I conduct my own personal inspection.

Thanks everyone!

Wait, oh, please read this.

With any skilled trade the biggest expense is the time the job takes; re-wiring an older house requires carefully cutting holes in existing walls, fishing wire through existing walls, patching those holes; tedious stuff that no-one likes to do, but that doesn’t require an electrician’s license.

Find an electrician who will let you do the prep work, but make the actual connections him/herself.