How long does a common residential house last?

Your typical residential house in the United States has frame made 2x4 and other size beams of wood. I was wondering how long the typical stick-built home built to US codes will last. The exterior will depend on the exact materials as well as the local weather, of course. How long will it be before the frame itself starts to deteriorate, or the wiring or other things inside the walls start to have major problems that would require ripping so much apart that it might not be worth it?

If the wood structure is kept free of moisture & bugs, there’s no reason it shouldn’t last forever.

Well, effectively forever. I’m pretty sure that my house is toast once the sun goes nova. :smiley:

I don’t have any exact stats, but I can testify that the townhouse that my mother lives in (which has not had particularly good care from the landlord in decades at least) dates from the 1800s. It is still in basically good shape. She’s not going to have things like central air ever put in, but items like the furnace (and the associated wiring) have been replaced as needed and it has yet to cost more than the house is worth or have caused significant damage to the walls.

ETA: Oh, I forgot to mention - the walls are mostly stone and brick actually, though there are wooden bits of the structure and of course wood slats behind the plaster. And I have no idea how old the bulk of the wiring is. I prefer not to think about it as long as she doesn’t report any sparks or anything. :smiley:

What about mechanical fatigue?

Also I have a related question: how long have houses been built in more or less the same way? Or course plumbing and wiring have changed, but what about the frame, and maybe the drywall walls and so forth?

My mother’s home was made at the turn of the century. That being the 1899/1900 turn and not seven years ago.

Being in Salt Lake City, with uber-low humidity and low insect problems, the structure has few problems at all. My friend and I competely remodeled the house (except for the kitchen and one bathroom which had been previously remodeld) and torn out lathe and plaster to replace with dry wall, redid part of the plumbing and some of the electricity (which had been upgraded by my father years ago) and added insullation; but the structure and outside were fine.

If the outside paint and roofing is kept up, the structure usually is good.

For the follow-up question, Mom’s house was made with “true” unfinished 2 X 4s so we and to make some modifications at times using the modern dimensions. I don’t know when dry wall replaced lathe and plaster (with horse hair).

Structurally, there wasn’t much difference with modern homes.

"What about mechanical fatigue?

Also I have a related question: how long have houses been built in more or less the same way? Or course plumbing and wiring have changed, but what about the frame, and maybe the drywall walls and so forth?"

   By mechanical fatigue I take it to mean those stresses caused by tension/compression,shear and the like. Most homes built for prevailing conditions (a home in Iowa, say having a greater snow load than one in Florida,or unique eartquake requirements like California) endure well.What is death for wood framing is moisture,mold,insect attack et al.
 Ballon framing was common back in the day when long lengths of lumber were plentiful,but the method also has inherent fire promoting aspects.Platform framing replaced it in the '60s,this area.That is also when I noted plaster&lath being dropped in favor of wallboard.

Many houses built today are much different from twenty years ago, and those as different from the ones twenty years older. The construction methods change more than the exterior look. Somebody that doesn’t see how the construction has changed might not see much difference in two houses from different decades.

I think I see what you’re saying Discord, but are you talking about framing methods (which haven’t AFAIK changed all that much in 75 years or so) or things like vapor barriers, fake stone facing, and better windows and doors which I (for one) would consider relatively minor improvements?

I live next door to a home that was constructed in 1820. Aside from the updating of the mechanical equipment over the years, everything is original, including a marble porch that must be 20 feet deep and 50 feet wide.

The lifetime of a timber-wall house is unlimited-except for two issues:termites and rot. Termites can eat a house ina few years, dry tot the same. if the house is properly maintained (avoid termites, keep the wood from contact with water), the house can last 800+ years.

I can see a balloon-framed house suffering overall mechanical failure. Because it was held together with nails, basically, the slow but certain oxidizing of those iron nails will eventually lead to failure. How long will it take? Hard to say, and it’s also hard to say that it’ll happen all at once. But for houses with a wooden frame where the major timbers are held together with mortise-and-tenon joints, mechanical failure is not so much an issue. And even where those joints fail, the house doesn’t necessarily come down. In my own house, settling of the foundation has led to some of the floor joists coming completely free of their mortises in the structural sill. But they don’t fall down, since the subfloor and the floorboards tie them to the rest of the structure of the house. Moreover, any failure in a house is almost always localized, and people will fix it before it becomes a major problem.

My true colonial house was built before 1760 and is still largely original in the main part of the house. The framing technique isn’t the same as today (they used axe hewned timbers a lot) but the basic idea is the same. If you look in the attic and basement, all of the framing is exposed and has never needed anything done to it. Some sections are held together by large, hand-carved pegs that seem to be doing just fine even after 250 years. The horse hair plaster on the walls and other details like that are doing just fine as well.

Sal Ammoniac,
I won’t dispute the virtues of timber framed houses,but you’d be surprised at the longevity of nails,especially in a properly protected structure. Old barns around this area collapse largely due to ground contact sills or lack of maintenance on the roof-salvaging wood from these ( lots of chestnut) have shown me tenacious nails many decades old.
Ballon framed houses had the joist band let- in,so the nails were never in shear.

The development of balloon framing is yet another feather in Chicago’s arhitectural cap, dating back to the 1830s. Link.

I’m not sure that was universally true. I think in some cases the rim joists were just nailed to the frame. However, I don’t have a cite for that.

And while it’s true that nails can last a long time, it’s also true that nail failure is a bigger problem than just the nails rusting away to nothing. Once they’ve lost their grip, because of settling or movement, nails become fairly useless.

I think it’s fair to say that on average, balloon-framed houses won’t last as long as timber-framed houses. Part of that has to do with the building technology, and part has to do with the kinds of houses that balloon-framing was used for – typically houses that were thrown up in something of a hurry, and which simply became less desirable over time.

I don’t think anyone on this thread has really answered the question posed. Sure timber frame houses or houses made more than 50 years ago with old growth wood will last a long long time. From what I have read, new stick framed houses built with new growth wood (30 year old trees or so) and built only to code will probably last around 40 - 100 years or so. The new growth wood studs used today are not as straight or strong (or dense), have more knots and moisture, and will twist, warp and crack more readily. Plus there is invariably moisture getting behind that housewrap. Time will tell. I don’t think we should have any illusions that 200 or 300 years from now all of these new suburban stick frame homes will still be standing as built.

On the plus side, wood that is protected from moisture will dry and and get really hard. So the mechanical strength of 2xs in attics gets stronger after a few years.

On the negative side:

Plywood and esp. chip board just doesn’t last. Any moisture at all and it starts to lose strength. Replacing all the exterior panels of these is going to be required on a “regular” basis. (Depending on moisture penetration and upkeep.)

Large engineered beams are going to last a really long time if properly protected. I suspect longer than comparable solid wood beams.

One relatively recent innovation are roof trusses held together by sheet metal ties. I wonder how long those ties are going to last. Vibration, flexing, moisture, etc. Can’t possibly last 100 years, can they?

Concrete foundations are another issue. Really old and very new concrete are frequently crap. Post WWII stuff is pretty good and should last centuries. But more recent stuff has such low quality control in both mixing and pouring that footings and basement walls are going to be in the sub-century lifespan. (You can get really great concrete. It’s just cost a bit more and too many contractors cut corners and get the cheapest stuff they can find. The driveways that have been replaced in our neighborhood in the last few years start falling apart within a couple years.)

A few years ago I was thinking about moving to a newer, up scale neighborhood. I looked at some homes built in the very early nineties. They weren’t holding up well at all. Cheap ass Masonite siding was warping and peeling paint. Plastic trim molding inside. Builders can use 2x3 studs on interior walls and they have no strength.

Masonite siding especially leads to house decay. It warps at the bottom and pulls away from the sill plate. Water gets behind it and you have rot.

The 1950’s homes built during the baby boomer period are holding up really well. My 50’s home should still be here a hundred years from now.

This is especially important. I remember talking to someone who salvaged an old mining camp with 50-year-old timbers. They said the pine used at the time was old growth, relatively knot-free, from giant pines. The wood had gotten so hard it was difficult to nail into, almost like hardwood.

Today, so much has been clearcut that they use very small trees,many barely make 2x4’s, which are full of knots, wet, and will warp (hurried manufacture, poor drying. If I have to go to Home Depot in Canada, where the stuff comes from, I might discard hallf the 2x4’s as too warped, cracked, or knotty for use). In addition, the solid 12x4 framing or multiple 12x2’s used for beams have been replaced by 10x2’s, and now composite. 10x2 floor joists are replaced by composite i-beams using chipboard middles and 2x3 or 2x4 top and bottom.

What used to be heavy plywood - exterior walls and roofing - is now chipboard. (Heck, I had a house built in 1962 that still used 1x10 on the roofing.) I see someone even sees masonite hardboard being used in places.

Hardwood floors are replaced by laminate. Cupboards are also wood composite.

The the OP answer then is - it depends. A modern house built well and mantained well could last centuries. However, with usual neglect, odds are anything built about 1900-1950 will last 100 years and I bet newer houses, much less. They make great claims for that wood glue, but I suspect once it is neglected it will crumble quickly.

I used to live where you could drive through the countryside and see the old and new farmhouses side by side. When the original settlers could afford a real house, they built one, sometime between 1850 and 1900. When that became to old, crowded, and stuffy, they simply moved out to a newer one a hundred feet or more away. They may be at risk of falling down in the next big wind, but actally they are pushing the 150 year mark with almost no maintenance for 50 or more, and the most obvious damage is badly sagging rooflines and siding in dire need of paint.

OTOH by comparison Anne Hatheway’s cottage, built of about 12x12 oak beam frame, is still standing strong 500 years later.

Wooden buildings can last a long time, even in damp climates like England. (1200 years, according to one set of dendrochronology results on this building, though their own website only claims a thousand years.)