Older Homes 101
July 27, 2012
Homes, Heritage Homes

Whether you are a first time buyer trying to get into the market or a lover of heritage, older homes come with their own idiosyncrasies. Character homes are great and we love inspecting them. Over the years building additions, modifications and changing construction practices can make these homes more challenging to inspect and own.
Drainage & Waterproofing
Wet or damp basements can range from being a slight nuisance periodically in extreme weather conditions to a health and property hazard, which can be very expensive to fix. In most cases the issue is a failure to control rainwater run off as opposed to actual ground water.
Signs to look for: odor; mold, rot or mildew; loose floor tiles, stained carpets or wood floors; water on floors; dampness on floors or walls; water marks; rusted metal especially a consistent line on metal appliance (furnace, water tank, or columns); damage to items stored on the floor or storage raised up off the floor; no floor drains; troughs in concrete floor at the base of walls leading to a drain; extra drains added; a full sump (water reservoir in floor), they may have pumps operating continuously in the sump, spare pumps on hand, or auxiliary power to the pump incase of a power failure; crumbling drywall, plaster or concrete on walls; wall cracks and associated water staining; efflorescence which is a white chalk like substance on concrete or brick walls caused by moisture passing through the material and leaving minerals on the surface.

You have to realize that in the past basements were utility areas and some water infiltration was accepted if not expected. Some old homes have basement floors sloping towards one wall or a corner with small holes in the foundation for drainage. Today an unfinished basement is the exception not the rule. The last thing you want is to finish your basement only to find out during the wet season waterproofing was necessary.

Knob & tube wiring
Houses built up until the 1950’s will likely have some knob and tube wiring, unless it has been completely replaced. It is known as knob and tube because of the distinctive ceramic tubes the wires pass through the wood structures in and the ceramic knobs, which are used to change direction on this two-wire system.
Over time these systems have usually been modified with new fixtures, additional branches, being covered with insulation or poor maintenance over the years. These issues may cause degrading of the system and a fire hazards. It is also an ungrounded system (only the two vertical prongs are functional even though a newer style three-prong outlet might have been added), which is not appropriate for many of today’s appliances and electronics. Some home insurance companies will not write new policies on homes with extensive knob and tube wiring. Others may have a higher premium for the wiring. Another approach is to have a certified electricians seal of approval that the system is in good working order.
60 amp electrical service
Homes built into the late 1970’s may still have a 60 amp electrical service. This type of service can be easily identified when it enters the house above ground because of the distinctive two wires coming from the power pole. These homes usually have limited electrical outlets sometimes only one per room; this can lead to extensive use of extension cords and an increased fire risk. Typical homes since the 70’s have a three-wire 100 amp electrical service, used to meet our larger power requirements (some houses have larger services).

Aluminum distribution wiring
In the mid 1960’s to late 70’s many homes had aluminum wiring installed to save money over the more expensive copper wiring. Remember homes built prior to this time period may have been upgraded from knob and tube wiring to aluminum wiring during this period as well. These systems have small solid aluminum wires used to power lights and receptacles as opposed to multi stranded aluminum wires still used today on large power appliances and electrical panel connections. It is possible that, over time, a high resistance connection and/or arcing could develop somewhere in the electrical system, resulting in a connection that gets very hot and increases risk of fire.
As moisture is probably the number one enemy of homes on the Wetcoast the ability of the buildings exterior to perform in our particular weather conditions is paramount. Some materials and building practices are more susceptible to damage over the short and long term. The one nice thing about buying an older home is that if it has been well maintained it has a proven track record. It is still standing. We look at the home’s design for its ability to shed water, does it have good overhangs, what condition is the roof in, are flashings used at material transitions to divert water in good repair or even there. Have these flashings been re-used as in the case of a second, third, or even fourth roofing layer applied.

Is there soil to wood structure contact? Wood by it very nature is designed to pull moisture up from the ground, even after it is cut down and incorporated in a home. Ground level should 6-8” away from wood structure. Where wood contacts concrete there should also be a moisture barrier. As we know in the rain concrete gets dark as it absorbs water, this absorption can also be from the surrounding soil. This moisture can then be transferred into the wood structure mounted to the concrete without a barrier present. Excessive moisture in wood over time can cause, mildew, mold and rot. If left unchecked server structural damage may occur.

Fireplaces & Chimneys
Many people buying older homes are drawn to the cozy feeling of a natural fireplace. We understand the attraction and want to make sure they are safe for use. There are many things to be aware of. If you run into a shallow fireplace it might actually be meant to burn coal and unsafe for wood. Deteriorated mortar, cracked firebricks, missing or narrow hearths and the proximity of combustible mantels are other concerns to be accounted for.

Chimneys have experienced changes since the beginning of the 20th century. Fire safety and conservation has increased substantially as our understanding has grown. Many early chimneys have no dampers allowing warm air to exit your home and cool air to enter, making it drafty and more expensive to heat. Older chimneys are typically unlined which is now considered a fire hazard. Some of these unlined flues have also been used to vent domestic gas appliances like furnaces and hot water tanks. The combustible gases from these appliances are particularly corrosive to the bricks and mortar deteriorating the chimney from the inside.

Health Environmental Concerns
Asbestos was widely used up until the early 1980’s. This product is dangerous when it is disturbed causing small fibers to become airborne and then inhaled. Asbestos has been used in many products around the house over the years.
Loose-fill vermiculite insulation is one product widely used in older homes to insulate attics, which may contain traces of “amphibole” asbestos. This can be costly to remove if you want to refurbish or renovate your home, otherwise simply leave it alone including staying out of the attic.
Other asbestos products include shingles and roofing felts; exterior siding; pipe and boiler covering; compounds and cement, such as caulk, putty, roof patching, furnace cement and driveway coating; wallboard; textured and latex paints; acoustical ceiling tiles and plaster; vinyl floor tiles; and appliance wiring.  This list of asbestos related products is far from exhaustive.

Why was asbestos used so extensively? Asbestos has excellent qualities for a building material. It is plentiful, cheap, easy to work with, inert, fire resistant, and an excellent binder. This last quality is also the reason it is such a health hazard. Asbestos in good condition and on its own is not a health issue. Only when its fibers become airborne does it pose a health risk, leave it alone and it should leave you alone.

Fuel (oil) storage tanks
Fuel tanks were commonly in use from the 1920’s to 50’s. Many of these underground tanks were abandoned when the homes were upgraded to natural gas heating from the 1950’s on. Today insurers and governing bodies are concerned by the environmental hazard these tanks may pose.
Buried oil tanks can sometimes be identified by, their 2” fill or 1 ¼” vents pipes sticking from the ground, depressions in the soil near the house, abandoned heating oil lines on the interior or exterior (small copper lines, usually cut and crimped, passing through walls to the exterior or run in the floor emerging to make a connection to the old furnace), footprints or a larger concrete pad on which the existing furnace sits (oil furnaces were typically larger), or old 8” heating ducts can also help identify that a home used to have an oil furnace. If there is or was an oil tank inside usually there is at least one buried outside at some point in time.
Increasingly, removal of the tanks is being required at the time homes are sold and when insurance is renewed. Taking a non-leaking tank out can costs around $3,000, including the environmental assessment. A leaking tank can be much higher with cleanup jobs up to $30,000 and beyond.
Grow houses (marijuana operation)
Buying a former grow-op is a concern for many clients today. While this is not specific to older homes it has been included for your benefit.
People performing these operations are becoming better at covering their tracks but these are some warning signs to look: a “skunk-like” odor; holes cut into walls, floors, and ceilings for no apparent reason; heavily modified electrical junction boxes and ventilation systems that defy the explanation; stressed vegetation on the exterior property grounds; dumped potting soil interior and exterior; unusual colonization of moulds on surfaces; trellises, hooks, and lines strung in unusual locations (across ceilings, attics and walls) and unusually elevated electrical bills accumulated by the previous occupant. Remediation of these homes can be costly.
Galvanized piping
This type of piping was used up until the 1950’s. It is metal piping with a zinc or galvanized coating to protect it from rusting. Identifiable by its grayish threaded pipe and fittings, this pipe corrodes from the inside causing the lowering of the water flow and eventually leaking. Typically these leaks start at the threaded connections. While the absence of galvanized piping is good please be aware that copper piping has been is use since the 1930’s, which means it could also be nearing the end of its useful life.

Pressure Reducing Valve
Pressure reducing valves are usually located where the city water service comes into the home. These valves are used to lower the pressure entering the home to somewhere below 75psi. In many older homes these valves have never been used. When homes are running line pressure from the city service I have seen readings as high as 120psi in Vancouver. This means all of your household appliances are working harder than they need to and will fail earlier in their expected life cycles. New water tanks and some quarter turn faucets seem particularly susceptible to failing under higher water pressure.

All homes have items that will need to be repaired, maintained or observed to make sure there is no further deterioration. It is important to understand the issues of a particular home in context with what should be expected of a house of that type and age. Our goal at Haystack Home Inspections is to provide you with the information needed to help you make informed decisions whether you are buying, selling or simply maintaining the home you already own.

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