Old houses have a lot of charm and character. Sometimes that “character” is falling out of the windows! As home inspectors, it is our job to make sure that our clients know what they are getting into. Some people have a very good idea about what owning an old home involves; others have no idea. An inspector’s job is to help our clients understand what their old house is all about.
I consider a home to be an “old house” when it is 50 years old or older. In the 24 years that I’ve been doing home inspections, the vintage of old homes has moved forward from 1943 to 1967. There have been considerable changes in construction during that time. Conventional wood framing and board or plywood sheathing for floors, ceilings and roofs have become the rare exception rather than the rule. Oriented strand board and artificial stucco were not used widely, if they were even invented, back then. And when was the last time you saw plywood used for floors or countertops?
As home inspectors, we don’t use codes for evaluating homes during inspections. However, codes are useful for setting standards against which a home can be evaluated for safety, durability and functionality. An old home may not comply with current standards. Sometimes, even new homes don’t comply with current standards; that’s why we are often hired to inspect new construction.
However, using current standards does allow us to evaluate any home in terms of safety and functionality. Also, it’s important for inspectors to understand the durability and the “life expectancies” of existing systems when they are inspecting an old home. We need to make sure that our clients are aware of the potential, significant expenses that may occur in the foreseeable future. Concerns that typically are associated with old homes—lead paint, for example—are issues that can be of significant concern to many buyers, especially families with children.
I’ve heard a lot of discussions among home inspectors over the years. Some inspectors say that many of the items they find during inspections are
“grandfathered” because of the age of the home. I believe that is absolute nonsense. If a child falls through a guardrail because the baluster spacing is wider than 4 inches, the parent’s attorney isn’t going to accept the line, “it’s an old house, the guardrail was ‘grandfathered,’” as an excuse for an inspector’s failure to note the concern in the home inspection report.
As another example, any home that was built before 1978 may have lead paint somewhere in it unless it has been completely gutted and rebuilt. If the inspector does not disclose the potential existence of lead paint, and especially if any child living in the home is later diagnosed with lead poisoning, lawsuits can occur. An inspector who disclaims lead paint in a pre-inspection agreement and does not mention the possibility of the existence of lead paint in an inspection report is doing a disservice to clients with small children who are buying an old home and might be planning to scrape and paint the interior of the home as soon as they move in. Some people just don’t know about the sorts of things that we, as home inspectors, take for granted every day.
When evaluating an old home, I ask myself these basic questions about almost everything I see:
• Is the item safe now?
• Will it remain safe in the future?
• Is it functioning well now?
• How long will it continue to function in the future?
By considering these basic questions, I can evaluate almost everything in a home. And I can put nearly every consideration that appears in the building codes into the perspective of a safety or a property durability concern.
For example, the current code requires ground fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) protection in every place in which the hazard of electrical shock is likely, as well as arc fault circuit interrupter (AFCI) protection in most cases of the home. You may choose to state that the electrical system should be upgraded to match current standards. You should note these recommendations as being significant concerns because the consequences of a problem that occurs because of missing GFCI protection is an electrical shock, which can be deadly. Also, the lack of AFCI protection can be a fire hazard, especially because the use of extension cords is more prevalent in older homes due to the fewer number of receptacles placed in each room. You should note the significance of the problem in the report so that your client understands why you are making the recommendation.
Again, we must remember that some of our clients know very little or even nothing about owning a home. It is our job to make sure they understand the most significant concerns that we discover during our inspections.
Old homes also may not comply—or even come close to complying—with modern construction standards for environmental extremes or fire safety such as high winds, floods, earthquakes and fire blocking. The cost and difficulty of retrofitting an old home to improve its performance under times of extreme duress are the sorts of considerations that we should be evaluating every time we inspect an old home. Buyers in California and in the Gulf States are looking at these considerations every day.
I live in beautiful Virginia, which is very much a “laissez-faire state” as far as regulations are concerned. If a home was built in 1950, Virginia will allow replacing a non-GFCI receptacle in a bathroom with a regular receptacle because GFCI protection was not required in 1950 when the home was built. The building codes in Virginia have been written to allow this, even though the model code requires upgrading to meet current standards. “The thinking is if my granddaddy didn’t need ground fault protection, then that’s good enough for me.” Nevertheless, I recommend placing GFCI and AFCI protection everywhere it is currently required. This is an inexpensive, simple upgrade that significantly increases the safety of the residents of the home. That the upgrade is not required where I live does not enter into my inspection process or report. This does not endear me to real estate agents, but they are not my clients.
Virginia is an area that has a moderate climate and few natural disasters. It does get hot and humid, as well as cold and snowy, in some parts of the state, and we do experience the occasional hurricane, tornado and earthquake. But these are not the sort of frequent or extreme occurrences that dictate serious construction requirements, like windproof glass requirements in Florida, earthquake-resistant construction requirements in California or the energy conservation requirements in some northern states.
My sole legal and ethical responsibility in my inspections is to my clients. It is very important to me to provide my clients with realistic expectations about the homes they are considering purchasing. The requirements and considerations of every inspector usually are determined on the basis of the area in which he or she lives and works. You should base your recommendations to your clients on your local conditions and requirements.
This article is the first in a series of articles about old homes that I will be writing for the Reporter. In future articles, I will outline some of the specific concerns that I frequently encounter when I inspect old homes. If you have any questions about inspecting
old homes, please contact me at ABLE Building Inspection, firstname.lastname@example.org or 540-636-6200.