What to Look for in Homes of Different Ages

Older homes are wonderful. They’re chock-full of character, and they typically cost less than a comparable brand-new build. But we’ve all heard horror stories from people who bought an older home only to shortly thereafter have to replace all of the plumbing or the electrical wiring. And sometimes new homes have horror stories, too.

If you have a good inspector, he or she should catch these issues. But it’s always smart to be aware of potential issues before you hire an inspector. This may prevent you from having to pay an inspector because you lose interest in the house beforehand. Or, if you decide to move forward, it will help you know what to ask the inspector about.

Here’s what you should be looking for in a home in Salt Lake City no matter how old it is.

Homes Around 70 to 100 Years Old

Salt Lake City homes that are from this time period are often stunningly beautiful homes. They were usually built by skilled pioneer craftsmen, and these homes often have gorgeous woodwork and brick work that add to their charm. Even the simple homes from this time period have a certain charm about them. Homes this old really can be wonderful places to live.

But homes from this era also have a unique set of potential problems that you should watch out for.

Electrical Wiring

If you’re buying a home that’s around a century old, the good news is that the electrical wiring has probably been replaced. If it hasn’t been, it likely isn’t working very well and will need to be replaced soon.

Homes this old often had knob and tube wiring, a type of old-fashioned wiring that was very prevalent here in Salt Lake City from the 1890s through the 1930s. It had exposed wires running through tubes and around knobs, and if you think it sounds dangerous, you’re right. You may not be able to even get home insurance on a home with this type of wiring unless you go ahead and get it replaced.

You also may need to upgrade the home’s electrical panel. Old homes usually had panels that could handle around 60 amps, while new homes have panels that can handle 200. Our electricity needs are a lot different than the pioneers were!

Plumbing

Historic Salt Lake-area homes often had galvanized steel or even clay pipes, which are especially prone to deteriorating and leaking. You may also encounter cast-iron pipes, which can completely disintegrate in the ground. Lead pipes were also very common and are, to no surprise, a safety hazard. Pipes made from these materials will likely need to be replaced.

Our extreme and sudden temperature changes can cause pipes to break and leak without warning, so any plumbing system in a home this old needs to be thoroughly checked out.

You may also want to check the sewer line to your home, which could have been made of terracotta, cast iron, or even tarpaper. These pipes disintegrate, get clogged, and become inundated by tree roots over time. It’s a good idea to have a special camera look at the condition of the line.

Foundation and Exterior

The floors of historic homes can be quite uneven due to settling in the home and/or problems with the foundation.

Uneven floors caused by a cracked, sunken, or leaning foundation is something you need to take a further look at. Issues like these have to be addressed in order to keep the home safe and livable. Many Utah homes were built on brick foundations, and they aren’t as stable as poured concrete, especially with our extreme temperature changes.

On that note, many homes in our area have brick exteriors. Brick doesn’t have much give, so when our temperatures change quickly (like they often do), the brick and mortar can’t expand and contract each time. Eventually, the brick and mortar will wear down, crack, or fail and need repair.

Shelf Basements

Shelf basements are common in older homes in Sugar House, the Avenues, and other parts of our area. A shelf basement means that a basement was added after the home was built. Builders dig out a basement without touching the dirt next to the foundation wall. The ceilings are often short, and it can be hard to know what to do with the space. Make sure these basements are thoroughly checked for mold and water problems. They should also be checked to make sure they’re stable.

If you want to make the space more useable, make sure you check with a qualified contractor that knows how to work with shelf basements. What you’d like to do may not always be possible.

Earthquake Safety

As you may know, Salt Lake City sits on the very active Wasatch fault (and parts of it are on the West Valley fault). We’re due to have a large earthquake sometime in the coming years, so it’s smart to be prepared in case that happens.

Brick homes built before 1970 are known as “un-reinforced masonry houses,” and if you think that sounds dangerous in the event of an earthquake, you’re right. These could crush occupants inside them during a severe earthquake. Retrofitting these homes is expensive but necessary. But there is good news: the city’s Fix the Bricks program pays up to 75% of the cost for the seismic retrofit (though they do have a waiting list and can’t guarantee anything).

Layout

Homes this old have often gone through a hodgepodge of renovations and fixes at many different times throughout their existence.

They’re also likely to have layouts that aren’t very suited to today’s families, including single bathrooms, small kitchens, and lack of storage space.

Insulation

Older homes were often built without much insulation, and they certainly weren’t built with the amount of insulation that’s recommended today. With how cold Utah’s weather can be, it’s important to know what insulation exists in the home and how you might want to add to it to make the home more comfortable.

Radon

Radon is a colorless, odorless gas that’s also toxic and can cause lung cancer. And Utah just happens to have some of the highest concentrations of radon gas in the country.

ANY Utah home should be inspected for radon emissions, but old homes were built before radon was a concern. These homes may not have ever been checked for radon exposure, must less have had a mitigation installed.

Lead Paint

If the home was built before 1978, there’s a good chance that the original paint contained lead—a certified lead inspector can tell you if there’s lead present in the home or not. Lead-based paint is one of the most common ways someone gets lead poisoning, and it’s especially bad for young children.

If the paint is in good shape, especially under newer layers of paint, it’s not usually a problem. If it’s peeling, chipping, or cracking, you’ll need to have it removed by a lead-certified contractor.

Important note: any home that was built before 1978 can have lead paint, so this is applicable to newer homes, too.

Homes Around 40 to 60 Years Old

Homes that are around this age are modern homes in many ways, but they still have some issues you need to watch out for.

Electrical Wiring

Generally, electrical systems that were installed in the 1970s and 1980s are modern electrical systems. They have circuit breakers (instead of fuses) and grounded receptacles.

However, there was a worldwide shortage of copper during the 1970s (copper is the preferred material for electrical wiring). Because of the shortage, many builders used aluminum, which was easily available and inexpensive. But receptacles and light switches were usually still made of copper or other metals that react to aluminum. This causes the wiring to overheat, creating a fire hazard.

The standard for electric panels during this time was 100 amps, which may be adequate for some homes, but many modern homes are likely to need up to 200 amps.

Plumbing

Many houses built in Utah during this time period have copper pipes, and they should be in good condition. However, angle stop valves behind toilets and under sinks may need to be replaced.

Swamp Coolers

Homes from this era usually have forced heat, but they can come with a variety of heating and cooling systems.

In Utah, swamp coolers or evaporated coolers are a common form of air conditioning. They are usually only effective in drier climates like ours. Swamp coolers are usually on the roof and give cool air through water evaporation. They work best on single-level homes, but even then, they may not be adequate for our hot summers. You may want to consider installing an air conditioning system.

Asbestos

Asbestos is an inexpensive, fire-retardant material that was used extensively in homes built from the 1940s to the 1970s.  If the material is in poor condition and the asbestos fibers are exposed, they can be easily inhaled and cause lung cancer. The good news is that if the material is in good condition, it’s not a health hazard. Asbestos is commonly found in some types of:

Materials containing asbestos should be removed by a licensed specialist. While you can legally do it yourself, it’s a big pain to follow all of the proper procedures and it’s probably better left to a professional.

Homes Around 20 to 30 Years Old

Most homes built in this time period meet all of our modern standards. But some may still have issues you should be aware of.

Plumbing

The biggest thing to be aware of is polybutylene piping. It was discontinued in 1996 because of problems with the pipes bursting. If you have a home with this type of plumbing, you’ll have to have it replaced to prevent catastrophic flooding.

Major Component Replacements

Homes built in this time period may just be coming up on their first wave of major replacements.

A roof can last 25 to 30 years and an HVAC system for around 20. If those big-ticket items haven’t yet been replaced, it’s probably about time for some expensive repairs.

Dated Décor

Homes built around 20 years ago often haven’t been upgraded yet, and you may need some imagination to see past the green countertops, closed-off kitchen, and honey oak cabinets.

If the home is sound and has a good floor plan, appearance can be easily changed. Sometimes it’s nice to have a home that hasn’t had a hodgepodge of renovations done to it.

Brand-New Homes

If you want to buy a brand-new home, you may think you’re off the hook. Not true, though the types of issues you’ll encounter will be different. Here are some things you should do.

Look at Construction Quality

Go to the developers’ other sites. How do the completed homes look? Do the new residents like their homes? Look at reviews and forums and see what people are saying about potential issues.

Pay special attention to issues that may indicate the lack of quality work or materials.

Know Your Warranties

Many new-home warranties are administered by a third party and don’t cover workmanship or finishes. Make sure that you know what the guarantees are and what kind of provisions are in your contract for small issues that you may need to sort out with the developer. These warranties often come into play if the developer fails to carry out the work.

Some components, like windows, may be covered by the company that made them.

Get the Home Inspected

Did you know that you still really do need a home inspection? New homes can have all sorts of problems, too, even after they’ve passed permit inspections. I can’t stress this enough: get the home inspected.

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