Things to Know Before Buying an Older Home

I LOVE working in Hamilton because of the beautiful architecture and gorgeous, charming features in older homes.

There are so many warm, historic homes that I have been lucky to visit in showings and open houses, and I appreciate the character and qualities of each of them.

Pocket Doors, Original Trim, Tall Ceilings, Crown Moulding, Exposed Brick, Pine Plank Flooring, and SO many other beautiful, desirable features.

As nice as these homes can be, if they are not maintained, or the building materials have expired and now not up to building code, or lost it’s integrity, you could be facing problems you didn’t even know existed.

Please keep in mind that I am not a home inspector, and this blog reflects my opinion, and every home is unique. I don’t mean to scare you off buying an older home because, well, it’s old, I want you to love your home and not be scared if some of the below items are seen on your showing.

Here are some problems to look out for in older homes:

and please remember, I am not a home inspector and this data is what I have collected and believe in. Always hire a home inspector before buying a home.

  • Asbestos

    • Many homes built before 1980 contain asbestos in old floor tiles, ceiling tiles, roof shingles and flashing, siding, insulation (around boilers, ducts, pipes, sheeting, fireplaces), pipe cement, and joint compound used on seams between pieces of sheetrock.
    • The mere presence of asbestos in your home is not hazardous. Generally, material in good condition will not release asbestos fibers and disturbing it may create a health hazard where none existed before. The best thing to do with asbestos material in good condition is leave it alone. MORE INFO HERE

Read more about Asbestos here:

  • Plumbing

    • Galvanized steel pipe means its coated with zinc, to protect from rusting. Lead in your water is a concern because it can cause you physical harm.
    • You can go to Home Depot or Hamilton Water and get a sample of your water to test for any abnormalities.
    • The City of Hamilton has a Lead pipe replacement program, where they grant you a few thousand dollars towards replacing the water line bringing municipal water to your home from the street MORE INFO HERE
    • Galvanized steel will corrode over time, and it is almost impossible to tell this is happening just by looking at the pipes from the outside. The pipes rust away from the inside out, causing weak structural properties resulting in leaks and collapses. They will also develop calcium deposits inside of the pipe. These pipes can eventually become completely clogged with calcium build-up resulting in low water pressure and rusty water. MORE INFO HERE
    • Is your old home plumbed into a dry well rather then to municipal sewer drain? Some inspectors could miss this. It’s not popular, but a possibility depending on location.
    • Old fixtures. Ensure no older fixtures are leaking water.
    • Mix & Match plumbing and 1/2″ water lines are other things to look out for.

  • Older Windows

    • Air leakage is said to be the main culprit of high heating bills. Sometimes even caulking your window sealed isn’t enough, and it’s worth it to replace the windows, especially if they are broken (aka defective)
    • Most vinyl windows will last 20-40 years, or earlier if in direct sunlight. If your home was built before the 1960’s, it’s likely they are made of clean wood and gas, and could last 100 (or even 200!) years, if properly maintained and built with integrity.
    • You must ask yourself, is the ROI (return on investment) worth replacing your windows to get a lower bill? For most, they keep their century windows, especially if they still open and close properly to provide proper circulation. In most cases, the ROI on windows isn’t worth it until 20+ years of use.
    • This is a personal choice, to replace windows or not. If you are going to be in the house for a long time, the window is broken, or leaking air/ water, or the wood is rotting, replace it.
      • I would recommend trying to keep the original stained glass windows. You can remove them and reinforce/insulate around them if needed.
      • Purchasing new windows has it’s own footprint in terms of raw material extraction, manufacturing & transportation.
      • Caulking can help with air leaks, and air tightness is important, to prevent fog and moisture from being created in between the panes (unless single pane of course, which most older windows are)
      • You can also place a plastic film on on the windows as a temporary fix.
      • Overall it will be cheaper to repair your older windows, if salvageable, then to buy new ones.
      • Exterior Windows can get damaged if they have a wood shelf that has been exposed to the elements too long and is chipping or rotting.
      • Another huge issue I see a lot of is the brick above window sills coming loose. As this is structural to the home, it’s important to address, and parge if needed.
  • Old Wiring

    • Fuse boxes instead of hydro panels can be found in older homes, and your insurance company may make you replace it with a breaker panel.
    • New appliances are not meant to be used on such low amperage, and may not work if the fuses & wiring.
    • The concern here is that the fuse panel may work properly, but the fuse has a higher amperage then the wire, increasing the risk of fire.
    • You may want to consider re wiring some light fixtures in your home, if it’s built before the 1920’s
  • Knob & Tube

    • Knob & Tube wiring is especially popular in the Hamilton Area. Your Home Insurance provider will usually not insure you if you have nob and tube, especially over 5%. They may give you home insurance so you can close on the house (its mandatory), then make you promise to replace the old wiring within 30-60 days. It’s a fire hazard concern
    • DIY fixes like old rubber electrical tape, friction tape, and exposed splices could cause you trouble, especially if behind closed walls.
    • Knob & Tube wiring isn’t grounded, so it is more vulnerable to affecting your appliances from power surges,
    • You may be able to keep your old knob & tube wiring if the home is under heritage rules and deemed safe. Check with your local insurance company and authorities
  • Other Electrical Issues:

    • Your home inspector will look and determine, the insulation on the wires to see if it’s dried out and fraying, also look for corrosion in the service panel, and  look to see if a previous owner did anything unsafe.
    • Uncovered junction box
    • Overlamping
    • Lights flicker when its windy
    • Too few outlets (& too many powerbars)
    • No GFCI in wet areas
    • Over wired panel
    • If you live in a house in the 60’s/60’s you may have aluminum wiring, which is deemed unsafe, but there are solutions to attach copper tails rather then re placing all the wiring, which is very expensive
    • Copper wiring with good insulation can last 100 years.
  • Original Flooring

    • Re Levelling Floors can cause a total nightmare if done quickly and incorrectly. If you are jacking up your home from the basement, you don’t want to cause any cracks in the walls and ceilings.
    • Original wide pine plank floors are one of my favourites! Unfortunately, if you want to expose these if they’ve been kept under a carpet or something, you may be sacrificing some sound barriers. See if you can insulate or put resilient channel on the opposite side the floors are (ex: basement ceiling).
    • Creaky floorboards are totally possible, and probably guaranteed in older homes. Try using rugs to muffle the noise.
    • If original floors are well maintained, you may not need to buff them, but a coat of stain can go a long way to re vitalizing and customizing older homes!
  • Insulation

  • Can be non existent in older homes. Some homes are double brick which provides insulation in itself.
  • Basements with field stone foundation may have spray foam insulation on them, or it could still be exposed stone, with de humidifiers running in the basement to collect water moisture from stones.
  • In the old days they would use newspaper as insulation! (Yes, really).
  • Re insulating isn’t always inexpensive, but usually worth it, less you want to rely on space heaters and wood stoves etc.
  • Homes with Plaster walls are usually not insulated. The proper way to insulate is to take down the walls, put up a vapour barrier, then insulation, then drywall. If you blow insulation into the walls behind the plaster (without a vapour barrier), it could cause mould, termites, exterior paint failure, and MOISTURE. (When it gets wet it attracts termites & mould).
  • Dense pack cellulose insulation blown into walls wasn’t great either, because it can cause pillowing in the wall. Pillowing happens when the insulation is packed into the wall so tightly that it bows the wood lath holding the interior plaster to the wall. The bowed lath loosens the lath nails and often causes catastrophic plaster failure. MORE INFO HERE
  • Do you need to re insulate your house? Have the conversation with your Home Inspector and energy expert.
  • The insulation materials introduced in the mid-20th century containing asbestos and urea-formaldehyde, create the most concern in old houses today. Asbestos was a common component of heating system insulation by 1910, and by the 1930s it was also being added to some building insulation products. If you suspect your home has insulation containing asbestos, a known carcinogen, have the material tested. Complete removal of this insulation would be too invasive to most old houses so it should be left alone—unless your project is a total rehab and you’ll be removing walls and ceilings. If the asbestos is flaking, you can encapsulate the material—remember asbestos fibers are a health concern only when airborne.
  • Urea-formaldehyde, a combination of resin, hardener, and compressed air developed as an insulation material in the 1970s, was foamed into closed wall spaces. It was largely discontinued in the 1980s due to concerns of off-gassing as the product cures, but today we have a better understanding of the product and that the amount of vapors produced is finite. After the initial curing the material will not off-gas, unless it comes in contact with water or moisture, then it can break down and begin off-gassing once again. You can have your home tested for these vapors by an environmental company in your area. MORE INFO HERE

  • Not Symmetrical

    • Don’t count on your windows being completely even, or your walls being level, if you live in a century home. Although they’re usually straight enough to not notice, remember they didn’t have the same building equipment and materials that we do today, so plaster walls were done by hand, as well as stucco on ceilings.
    • Older homes (especially those on a hill), may have settled into their place, and have some cracks in the walls from when they shifted to where they are now. Most of the time these cracks are old and are nothing to worry about (unless they’re horizontal cracks in the basement foundation).
    • You can fix all structural problems, but they begin coming costly when it becomes more then adding support posts.
  • No Modern Layouts

    • Unless you’re taking down walls, typically older homes have principal rooms rather then open concept layouts. You will learn to live with it, and maybe that’s what you’re looking for!
    • I often come across older homes with no powder room on the main floor.
    • Basements weren’t used as living spaces ‘ back in the day’, just cold storage, so it’s a treat to find a basement that is tall enough to finish.
    • You can take down structural and non structural walls and have a header beam installed.

  • Chimney’s

    • They don’t necessarily last forever, especially when improper brick & grout work were done and it starts getting loose and falling apart


  • – Field stone foundation is very popular in older homes, as all they had at the turn of the century was stone and mud! Remember to always run a dehumidifier, and keep the space circulated by having a vent from your furnace blow air in the room, and preferably have a window that can open.
  • – Cracks in your basement and throughout your house could be superficial and have just happened as the house has settled. Of course if your home is sloping, theres a bump in your basement wall (like its caving in), or there are large (notably horizontal) cracks in your foundation, call a basement contractor (or 3!) and get some opinions on remediation

New Locks

    • Original Locks can be beautiful, but can you trust them? (Or, can you trust unwanted guests). Keep the original if it fits the time and goes well with your door, but consider adding an extra dead bolt or something
  • Don’t always bank on hidden gems

    • Unless the Sellers are original owners, it’s hard to know the extra history of the house, by just researching past listings, speaking to neighbours, etc. Don’t always assume that the hardwood floors underneath the carpet are going to be in pristine condition, or there will be exposed beams or brick under drywall. Seeing is believing. 
  • Nocturnal Pets

    • Usually home inspections are done during the day. Guess what? Critters are usually only out and about during the night. Have yourhome inspector thoroughly check the attic, and exterior of the home for any holes that need to be patched
    • If you see rat poison, or other concerning signs of unwanted guests,
  • Other Tips to Keep Your Older Home Energy Efficient

    • Seal Exterior Leaky Areas

      You can prevent some air infiltration in your historic house by tightening up leaky exterior areas by doing the following:

      • Add quality storm windows to your house
      • Caulk every pipe and exterior penetration on your house
      • Insulate your attic and basement box sills
      • Maintain the paint on your exterior walls
      • Repair loose mortar on your house
      • Weatherstrip your windows and doors

      On the interior plaster side of your walls, you can install rubber gaskets around electrical outlets and switches to prevent air infiltration.

      CAUTION: One place you should not caulk is under each clapboard of your clapboard siding. Caulking the clapboards will seal your house too tightly.

      Create a Vapour Barrier with Paint

      You can create a vapour barrier on your plaster walls by applying vapour-barrier grade interior paints. The effectiveness of these special paints is limited, so you should still caulk all your windows, outlets and switches.

Century Homes are Absolutely Charming and I cannot wait to visit the next one I see with a Client!

Now, we will keep our eyes open for this issues, and remember, people have been living in these homes for 100 years, or more! Don’t lose sleep over your new home being unsuitable for habitation – enjoy the learning process!

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