Why are older houses built better?

I’ve recently purchased my first home, an older home, and it got me to wondering about the construction of older dwellings. I have always heard people say that older homes are built better. Why is this? What were their methods? Have modern day contractors become bad since they try to get everything done as fast as possible?

I then thought it might also have something to do with the building site, since way back when people may have built on solid ground, and not buying some hole of a lot then erecting a house.

I know any house is going to have its kinks, especially older homes, but what makes them better? And, why don’t modern day contractors use the older methods and build homes of lasting quality?


The older houses you see today are built better.

Those that were shabby shacks, ugly, or ill-maintained were torn down ages ago!


Labor costs and materials costs are vastly higher today than in the past, even proportionally. Housing would be even less affordable than it is if houses were built to the older standards.

Same principle as black and white movies. As Bosda Di’Chi of Tricor said, the crappy ones are long gone. Add to that the use of pine or spruce as building material compared to oak or walnut or whatever the indigenous lumber was where the house was built.

I was going to say cost, too. If you look at a lot of the older houses, it’s all brick and real wood floors and stuff…now it’s alumiinum siding and crap like that, and everybody churns out tons of identical-looking houses.

But there’s a downside to older houses - the modernization aspect. I simply can’t live in a house that has only one outlet in each room. A lot of these houses need the elctrical all redone to catch up to modern times.

One of the main things you’ll see in older homes is thicker, solid wood. As lumber prices increased, stud dimensions became smaller and plywood came more into use (plywood is very strong, but doesn’t hold up to water unless it is specifically designed to do so). I also heard somewhere (no site) that since nail guns (which drive all the nails in at the same angle) became popular, houses built with them are more likely to blow down in hurricanes and what not.

Another thing you’re seeing a lot of now are the cookie cutter houses that are thrown up in a couple of months with maximum profits for the builder in mind. This doesn’t necessarily make for poor construction, but a custom built home is likely to have higher quality components. Most of these cookie cutter houses, at least in the southern US, are also built on slab foundations, which are cheaper to begin with but a pain in the ass if anything goes wrong down the line.

I agree with Bosda 100%.

Older homes took more on-site labor to build, so adding more on-site labor to dress it up was easier. Today, most products are pre-fab at a factory, so the on-site labor is much less, doing fancy trim will increase your labor cost by a large percentage. If it takes 1/2hr to install a pre-hung door, adding a half hour to trim it out nicely doubles your labor. If it takes 2+hrs to install a door from a solid blank, then that half hour is less of a hit.

I’ll say this, though, if you had a house built to your specs, using modern materials without cutting corners, it would far outperform a typical older home. My house is over 100 years old, and damn solid, but I can point to a dozen things that would be better in a modern home. Most new homes, though, are cookie cutters models, since all that sells today is square footage.

The house I grew up in was built in the 1830s. The walls were a foot thick, solid brick covered in horsehair plaster.* That would be monstrously expensive to build today, but back then, brick was pretty cheap. (We had a local brick kiln.) With no unions, you could pay brick layers and other laborers a pittance.

Hubby and I bought a house three years ago that was built in the 1930s. It’s all brick and hardwood with plastered walls. Our insurance company told us that the re-build costs if the house was destroyed would be almost exactly twice what we paid for the house. (Though we could have taken the cheaper option to have the house rewbuilt with modern-style materials. I.e, drywall instead of plaster, etc.)

Quite true. A lot of the older houses around here still have knob-and-tube wiring. Our insurance company refused to cover a house we considered buying unless we ripped out all the old wiring and totally re-did the electrical system.

  • It was a thirteen room house, with twelve-foot ceiling throughout, but you know what? Heating and cooling costs were astonishingly cheap. The walls held in the heat in the winter, and in the summer, they kept the place cool.

I have a 1923 house, and i would MUCH prefer a modern house. Walls are lath and horsehair plaster-we had to cover with sheetrock 9the plaster was crumbling). Rooms are odd-shaped and small closets.
Bathroom is small and poorly designed, also windows are small leading to a dark house.
people criticise modern houses, but they are much easier to maintain and remodel. plus, refitting an old house is a royal PIA, because old-time corpenters didn’t work with standard dimensions. about the only good thing about old homes is they usually have higher deilings-which is nice in hot weather.


Homes today, when built properly and to the area’s codes, are good structures. In coastal southern states, some of the building codes take into account hurricanes and methods/products designed to withstand them, or at least minimise the damage and dangers. Likewise with earthquake prone areas, specific to that area’s problems.

Remember, solid doesn’t always mean better. Sometimes it’s just thick walls that would still blow down or fall apart if subjected to certain natural disaster extremes. Let’s not forget fire safety, either. With some older homes, it’s just pure luck they’re still standing. With others, it’s quality.

That being said, tho, there is indeed a certain charm with respect to the long lasting older homes, and the craftsmanship that went into them. I am constantly amazed as to what went into certain homes that I’m updating or remodelling.

Now, tract housing, spec homes, etc… can often end up as piece of crap monthly problem having nothing works right hell holes. Hopefully, you won’t buy one of those.

I have to agree with this. My house is 150 years old, more or less, and it’s pretty solid, but I’ve done enough renovation and remodeling work on it to know what’s underneath. Dunno what it was like when it was built, but there’s not a right angle left in the place and all the floors and ceilings describe catenaries as the beams have sagged over the years. Many of the floor joists are just ridiculously undersized by today’s standards. Some of the interior walls are only a couple of inches thick. The cellar is fieldstone, is damp, tends to flood in heavy rains, and is completely porous to mice and other critters. The beams and joists were not kiln dried or even completely debarked so powder post beetle damage is on pretty much every surface. The wood is nothing special – to my eye, it appears to be pine or spruce rather than oak.

I’ve been inside one of my neighbor’s houses which is more or less contemporary with mine and it’s much nicer inside. Then, as now, some of the quality of the house depended on how much money you had.

Whether a house is “built well” depends on a) the quality of the materials used, and b) the quality of the labor doing the work. Since these are both notoriously variable, I think it’s impossible to generalize.

My experience in this matter comes from the ongoing remodel of a 1914 house. Certainly the wood was stronger than what is commonly available today - after my first (failed) attempt to drive a 16d nail into a stud, I switched to drilling pilot holes and using screws whenever practicable. The original labor on the house was another thing. Studs and joists are sometimes spaced on 16" centers, as often not. Whoever cut the mortises in the door jambs for the strike plates apparently used the (larger) plate for the front door as a template for the (smaller plate) interior doors. In some rooms the corner joints of the baseboard is mitered, in others it is butted; some baseboard is beveled on the top, some isn’t; sometimes the door frame corner bead is coped to fit over the baseboard, sometimes the baseboard just butts up against it. And so on.

One main reason is that our society is constantly engaged with the idea of economic growth. Measuring how successfully a local economy is doing, how fast the city is growing, is contingent upon how many people are buying new homes. How much development is in the works and how fast can we throw it up. Consequently, new homes are often built so affordable to keep the wheels churning, which means that to build these homes that way, corners are cut. I’ve been in some new homes where the living room floor feels like you’re standing on a trampolene. It’s getting worse, and no one will really have the ability to stop the growth machine.

It’s a myth that older homes were built better. As someone who has actually had to investigate the structure of older homes during remodeling or adding additions, I can tell you I wouldn’t buy any home over 30 years old, especially not here in Florida.

Not to re-hash, but to hopefully add more detail, the reason is cost.

You figure that most everyone that works on a home is paid hourly. The faster they get the house built, the less the contractor has to pay them and the larger his profit.

As the old addage goes, haste makes waste. In their rush to get the houses built as quickly as possible, corners are cut. Mistakes are covered with extra spackle and carpeting. (No real cite, but personal experience.)

Contractors/builders tend to find the cheapest non-structural pieces (toilets, carpets, windows, etc) that will last the warranty period. Most of the “Contractor Grade” or “Builder Grade” items that you see in the home improvement stores are no frills and not the highest quality.

Older houses are the ones that have lasted and have probably had some work to shore up any real issues (Domicile Darwinism?).

Now a contractor (or builder) that is building their own house would probably spend more time and money (depending on how many “professional favors” he could scare up) getting things just right. Using modern building techniques and materials, they would have a house far superior to any old house that has lasted in terms of structural integrity and efficiency.

My dad had a house built in 1953 in a new suburb of Chicago. It was a cheapie, but it was designed by him and an architect friend of his and contracted out to builders. I remember seeing it go up and visiting when the carpenters were there doing some of the final work. One guy worked for what seemed like hours to get one of the doors to hang correctly. My mom, who became sort of a mascot of the guys working on the place, because she’d bring them iced tea and cokes and stuff, (a brutally hot summer) kept asking him, “but shouldn’t it close like this?” or “Stash, shouldn’t these cabinets open like this?” and he’d say, “Yeah, they should,” and he’d go back to work on them. That kind of work doesn’t happen anymore. It must have been costly then, although we were far from rich. That house in that suburb was definitely low end. I look at that house now, and it’s just a little crackerbox of a thing in what’s now an old suburb. But I bet it would hold up way better than the stuff that’s being built now. Labor intensive, and from laborers who took a great deal of pride in their work, another factor that’s missing from all sorts of work today, not only in the building trades.

As an ex-framer/construction guy, I call bull on this one. An air-driven spiral nail has twice to three times the holding power of a hand-nailed spike. I would blame cheaper, weaker materials, shoddier construction techniques and/or the increasing size of windows (reducing lumber in the walls) and roof heights (increasing the affectable surface area) before blaming air nails driven in at the same angle. (which they won’t be because an air nailer is not that precise a tool. )

There’s another factor that comes into play which one of my old structural engineering professors called “designing with a very sharp pencil”. Not as applicable to small homes as it is to big projects but worth thinking about.

Nowadays it is possible to model the strength of a structure and the loads placed on it very accurately, and this inevitably leads to people producing structures that are just strong enough to meet the anticipated loads (although modern building codes have various factors of safety built in - LRFD and so forth). Years ago those quantities were not as well understood and so things were often overbuilt; this was a recognition by the designers that they didn’t know exactly how strong their lumber was or how high the wind loads would be (for example) and so they’d throw in a pretty big factor of safety to account for those unknowns.

Something that is overbuilt by a factor of two will tend to outlast something that is built right up the edge of what is considered “acceptable” to “to code”. It’s also more expensive. If you are willing to pay for the same kind of overdesign today you can have a home that will be as solid as anything built 100 years ago.

I hear this answer / excuse / reason for all sorts of questions. Money. It’s more expensive today. To save money. But haven’t people AWAYS wanted to save money? I do feel that people are more greedy today, but I don’t know it for sure. There were, after all, the robber barons. There was the Teapot dome scandal. There have always been cheaters and scoundrels and people who made their millions by cutting corners and profiting wherever they could.
Somehow, that answer doesn’t get to the bottom of this question or a lot of other questions. Maybe it’s a much larger issue and my question should be over in GD. Something about the rise and fall of Western Civilization or something like that. Vested interests, etc. I think I need to go mumble about this elsewhere, but if anything, I think that the money angle is just the symptom of something bigger. It’s certainly the proximal answer, but it’s just too easy to answer this question that way. Later on, boys and girls. xo, C.

I’ve framed and done remodels and I’m going to back him on that too.
If you want to see how much stronger a gun-driven nail is than a hand-driven one, just try pulling one of each with a claw hammer or a prybar. the hand-driven nail will pull out MUCH easier.