What is a deal-breaker when buying an old house?
April 8, 2010 2:41 PM   Subscribe

My husband's grandmother is in her 90s and we have been offered the chance to buy (for very cheap, basically nothing) her large 1940s woodframe pier and beam house. One story.

It's in good shape on the inside, just needs updated fixtures/cosmetic stuff. But the siding on the outside looks a bit iffy; wooden porch columns need fixing; and of course we want to get it checked for termites, etc. There is an old well in the back that will need a new cover/plug, the old one has rotted (and w/ gas drilling in the area, we will not be using the well water, house is on the city lines).

It's a great size for us and has a huge yard, a tiny mother in law house that my husband would use for a studio, and a pretty nice neighborhood w/ big trees and wide streets.

Aside from a recommendation from an inspector that it be condemned, what could he/she find that would make any of you say "not worth it, no matter how cheap?"
posted by emjaybee to Home & Garden (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Aside from a recommendation from an inspector that it be condemned, what could he/she find that would make any of you say "not worth it, no matter how cheap?"

Superfund site on or near the property?
posted by The World Famous at 2:43 PM on April 8, 2010

Inability to get high-speed internet service.
posted by box at 2:49 PM on April 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

Best answer: As the former owner of a 100 year old house . . . make sure you get the major systems checked--electrical and plumbing.

Make sure the electrical is up to code and has enough outlets for all the stuff you're going to want to plug in (there were no laptops, iPods, WifFi access points etc when the house was built).

In terms of plumbing, you'll want to make sure it's tested for lead. If the house is hooked to the sewer/water supply, you will want to have it "scoped" to make sure the connections to the curb are in good shape. (As I was selling the above mentioned house the buyer discovered a leak in the never-replaced connection to the water main and I was suddenly out $5K). If it's on a septic system you'll want to check the connections to the tank and of course the tank itself.

Re: the siding, it was not uncommon to side houses with tiles made from asbestos--not clear that's the case hear, but that could possibly be the biggest headache/expense you'd face as remediation is not cheap.

Not sure where you live, but of course have the foundation checked. If you are in earthquake country you might want to make sure it's properly strapped/bolted to the house.

It sounds like you're getting a sweetheart deal so I wouldn't say that a problem means you should walk away from it, but you should know what you're getting into. One thing to remember is that if the house has been happily standing there for decades and decades it's probably a well built house with lots of quirky charm!
posted by donovan at 2:50 PM on April 8, 2010 [5 favorites]

Lots of easements or easement disputes, especially any having to do with gas lines. (Living over or right by one would give me pause). I'd also want to know if the neighborhood was about to be run over by a freeway, or if the zoning would allow a strip mall to be built next door (although that might raise the value.)
posted by Some1 at 2:51 PM on April 8, 2010

Make sure the electrical is up to code and has enough outlets for all the stuff you're going to want to plug in

Meant to add: If the answer here is no, you can have additional outlets/circuits added relatively inexpensively (I had this done).
posted by donovan at 2:52 PM on April 8, 2010

An inspector and/or appraiser should be your first step, and they'll advise you on anything. I'd also research whatever the development plans are in the area (the city should have it on file and available to examine) to make sure that there aren't plans to run a freeway through the backyard.

I personally wouldn't buy a house in an area that has crime issues, development issues, an unclear or sketchy title history, or that is in a floodplain or other disaster zone that would make home insurance unobtainable.

You should also check with a CPA or tax professional to see what the law is with that sort of transfer of property not in a typical inheritance situation. There's a process for it, but I can't remember what the process is if there's a discrepancy between appraised value and actual transfer value.
posted by SpecialK at 2:52 PM on April 8, 2010

Most little things can be fixed, especially if you're getting a sweetheart deal. Hell, I've even helped jack up a house, repair the foundation, and drop the house back down on top of it (though this was a pretty little cabin). For me to walk away, it would have to have major structural damage, e.g. the roof has leaked for the past 20 years and half the interior studs are rotting and covered with black mold. That, or the house is parked on top of a set of old fuel tanks or something hazardous. Outside of the major stuff, the little things can be dealt with (old electrical or plumbing systems, etc.). However, if there are a ton of major things to deal with, at some point it probably wouldn't be worth the hassle/expense, though that threshold is probably different for everyone.

This is all apart from environmental things, like the neighborhood, new freeways, etc.
posted by craven_morhead at 2:56 PM on April 8, 2010

Response by poster: Hmm, SpecialK, yeah, we're just beginning this process and the legal issues may mean we're not "owners" for a few years. Basically, after she dies, the plan is to have us move in as renters until all inheritence issues are settled; there are only two people, my husband's mom and her brother (the executor) who would inherit, and neither of them wants to live there.

But of course, family stuff can go crazy, and we are fully prepared to walk away if it goes pear-shaped or someone causes a shitstorm about it.

In the current market, this house is not going to sell for much to an outside buyer (only 2 bedrooms, it's old, much bigger/newer homes available for not much) so we're hoping that means we can scratch each other's backs and avoid a mortagage. But again, who knows.
posted by emjaybee at 3:05 PM on April 8, 2010

I owned an older house (1920s) and we found that there was no such thing as an inexpensive repair: fixing a minor plumbing problem turned into tearing out walls and re-doing most of the pipes, and so on. It seemed like everything that went wrong ended up costing $5000. It was a tremendous relief when we moved to this newer house, and the first time I called a plumber for a problem, he was able to fix it for under a hundred dollars!

Now, even that's not a deal-breaker if you have the cash flow to handle it. I'm with donovan--even relatively significant problems would not necessarily be enough to walk away if the initial price is so ridiculously low.

(Side note re SpecialK's comment, "that is in a floodplain or other disaster zone that would make home insurance unobtainable": being in a floodplain doesn't mean you can't get insurance. You can get regular homeowner's, and you will have to get flood insurance as well. Depending on the risk level of the flood plain, the flood insurance can be relatively cheap, or it can be a big expense. We were misled, accidentally I'm sure, by our realtor when we bought the house we're in now, and it is in a higher-risk flood plain than we were led to believe, and the $1200 a year we pay in flood insurance feels a lot like money we're pissing away for nothing, not because we think having flood insurance is bad, but because we could live literally less than a block away, be outside the flood plain, and not have to have the insurance, or be able to get it for only a few hundred bucks.)
posted by not that girl at 3:05 PM on April 8, 2010

1. Liens (mechanic, tax liens, etc.)
2. Foundation problems like expansive clays, rotting piers.
3. Extensive rot/termite problems in structural components like floor beams.
4. Significant amounts of contaminated soil.

The great thing about an empty house is that things like lead and asbestos abatement are relatively easy (if you hire the appropriate professionals). It's discovering stuff like that after you've moved in that really sucks.
posted by electroboy at 3:16 PM on April 8, 2010

On the lead plumbing, even if the pipes are lead, your water supply may be OK; test the water, not the pipes. (I guess the insides can develop some protective corrosion over the years that keeps the lead away from the water.)

Other sources of lead could be a concern, especially if you plan to have children there - painted trim (windows especially), bathtubs, stained glass. You could also test the soil in the yard for lead if it's near a freeway and you plan to have a vegetable garden or children who might play in the dirt.

(I'm not a lead expert, this is just what I've gleaned as a homeowner. And like others have noted above, these are all things that can be remediated; well, maybe not the dirt so much, never looked into that.)

On the subject of children, if you're planning to have them while you live in this house and would like them to go to public school, you might check out the caliber of the elementary whose attendance area you'd be in.
posted by lakeroon at 3:36 PM on April 8, 2010

Buying this house from Grandma should be no different from buying from a total stranger. The first things you want are a drive and walk around the neighborhood to see if you want to live there. Second, go to the local Planning Department and determine what the zoning is on and surrounding the property to see if there are any surprises (like the high rise apartment about to be built next door) that would detract from living there. Third, get a preliminary title report from a title insurance company. You want to make sure there are no liens against title and that any easements or rights of entry are livable. Generally, in an urban setting, any easements for utilities that cross the front (street) side of the house and are no more than ten feet wide, are benign. The same would generally go for the rear boundary (unless that studio is sitting on top of it). Any other easements should be well understood as to location and rights or prohibitions attached to them. Next, and only after you are satisfied with the above, hire a home inspection service. Don't get a "walk around" inspection. A competent inspector will physically climb onto the roof, into the attic, under the house and look into all nooks and crannies. He will take the covers off of electrical outlets, inspect the main panel and any sub-panels, operate any appliances and advise regarding plumbing pipes, fixtures and outlets. He will look for termite and mold damage and help you understand that siding material.

After that, budget at least $10,000 for repairs and upgrades. When Grandma moves out, that carpet and kitchen linoleum will not look so good, the walls will need painting and the things your inspector finds will need attention.

Separately, you need the advice of either a tax lawyer and/or an estate lawyer. IANAL, but I think you can structure a purchase agreement or provision in the will that will allow a low purchase price. Seek this specialty advice now, so the deal is done right before she passes on.
posted by Old Geezer at 3:37 PM on April 8, 2010

Not that girl- check the various survey maps for the flood insurance. There was a minor hub-bub when I bought my place because "it's in a flood plain". When in reality, a tiny sliver of the property is below the flood level for a drainage ditch. So check your maps, because your property might be on one plain, and not the building.

Another caveat for big old houses: if you aren't handy and are going to have to rely on random tradespeople, it can get very expensive. But if you are handy or have handy people you trust, not nearly so. Many trade people like to upsell homeowners on large jobs because they are more profitable for them. Stuff like "oh, you're on borrowed time" or "if this one leaks, they all probably will" and the like.

The ONLY thing I would be wary of is asbestos.
posted by gjc at 3:45 PM on April 8, 2010

There's been a lot of good advice already that I agree with.

Assume that there aren't any dealbreaking externalities (like a bad neighborhood). Assume that the house does have some serious problems that need fixing, and that a thorough inspection will turn these up. You should start asking around for recommendations for a contractor. Once you know what needs to be fixed and what you'd like to change, walk through with the contractor and get an estimate for both money and time from him.

This is what will let you know whether it's worth it.

Assume that the house will not be occupied during the repairs/renovation (the process will go a lot faster, and you'll hate life a lot less), so you'll be paying rent on another place and property tax (and rent?) on the new place for the duration. Add that into your costs.

Know what you want in advance. Any construction project will have some unforeseen contingencies, but you want to minimize mission creep.

Of course, if you're handy, you might want to do some/all of the repairs yourself, but you've got to measure the tradeoff in terms of time required and hassle vs money.
posted by adamrice at 3:46 PM on April 8, 2010

On the electrical side, check that the house doesn't have knob-and-tube wiring. I have friends who remodeled an older house with knob-and-tube and to bring it up to code involved rewiring the whole house. This might not be a dealbreaker but it'll definitely be a pain in the rear to fix.
posted by immlass at 4:27 PM on April 8, 2010

Response by poster: Many thanks to all--and now I need to go search AskMe for "finding a good estate lawyer".

Can I ask here--why are there restrictions on setting a purchase price? I mean, why can't a house be sold for whatever the owner wants to sell it for? (or you can send me to a good site if you know one re this).
posted by emjaybee at 4:35 PM on April 8, 2010

Just to quote my husband: "You start to fix a washer on a faucet, and the next thing you know, you're digging up the sewer!"
Old houses/systems are like that.
posted by dbmcd at 4:51 PM on April 8, 2010

As the proud owner of a 1947 home, here is a list of things we've tackled in the last 5 years:

Inspection items:
Waste lines
Sewer lateral
Water - Well and/or quality.
Electrical - Panel, Grounding and in wall wiring - aluminum bad, knob and tube ok, grounded copper - best.
Lathe and Plaster or Drywall ?

Major projects:
Electrical all replaced - new main panel.
New waste lines throughout the whole house
Windows not flashed properly - new sills/etc.
New bathrooms.

Old houses are fixable, the only thing that would make me run screaming from an old house would be evidence of major structural damage or the need to repair a significant part of the foundation, or a cascade of projects.

The thing about an old house is that you will inevitably find your medium sized renovations turn in to large renovations as it just makes sense to fix whatever you uncover during the renovation while you've got something ripped apart, just expect it. Generally as long as the structure is sound and you are reasonably handy and have some time to work on things you can do a lot on these houses yourselves.
posted by iamabot at 5:51 PM on April 8, 2010

If you're getting a great deal on a house, the cost of a really good inspector and a competent appraiser are well worth it. I owned an old house. It didn't have enough outlets, but it was built well, and had lovely trim and fixtures.

- Where do you live? Many old houses are poorly insulated, if at all, and it's really important for both heating & cooling.
- Windows - replacements w/ sealed double panes?
- Electric - is there old wiring, like "knob & tube" that may need to be replaced to get insurance? If you wnated to add a/s, is there enough power?
- Roof
- Septic?
- Plumbing

And get good documentation of the family expectations, maybe a contract. It's rotten when money issues divide families.
posted by theora55 at 6:01 PM on April 8, 2010

Does she need the money from the sale? If not, renting it to you and then leaving it to you in her will may be a better deal - she'd have some income and there shouldn't be any gift tax issues on her part, and it will pass to you at its then current value with no tax impact, so if you decided to sell it , the basis would probably be higher and you'd be in for lower taxes on the sale.That's how I understand federal law after dealing with my mother's inheritance and helping plan her will, (IANAL) though you might want to check state/local laws for variences. It might be beneficial if any repairs you make offset rent. An actual lawyer might be a good idea.
posted by path at 6:28 PM on April 8, 2010

>why are there restrictions on setting a purchase price?

Not sure where this came from. She can in fact sell it to you for whatever she likes. Most likely she would want to retain a life estate and sell the remainder interest to you, or direct her executor to sell it to you for a specified price. But you should beware of the possible disconnect after she is gone. You may intend to buy the house for $50,000 but find that her heirs think that you should pay $350,000 instead.
posted by yclipse at 6:59 PM on April 8, 2010

Response by poster: I wish I could mark more than one as "best", several of these are just what I needed. Many thanks.

No one has mentioned plugging an old well--does anyone have experience with that? I've never lived on a property with anything like that.

I am lucky in contractors; my older brother is a homebuilder. He has contacts all over the area, mostly guys I've known since I was a baby, who are not likely to screw over their friend's family, as he sends them a lot of work. My fear so far has been that there's something huge and money-pit expensive that I might not know to check for. Grandma is still living in the house and may well be there till she dies; she's a tough old lady and pretty self-sufficient. So we're not planning on anything immediate.
posted by emjaybee at 7:21 PM on April 8, 2010

Best answer: If you are still in the north Texas area (as mentioned on a thread on the blue), I cannot emphasize enough getting a foundation inspection in addition to the "regular" inspection. Also, get the property surveyed and pick up a title policy (mandatory if you're getting a mortgage, optional but strongly recommended if you're not).

In addition, check the central appraisal district for the property's county (Denton, Tarrant, Collin, Dallas) and see what taxing jurisdictions cover it and what exemptions are present. You'll lose the Over 65 exemption on your next tax year unless the CAD appraiser gets sticky and decides to prorate, but you keep the HS (homestead), for whatever that's worth on a tax discount these days.

Some cities, especially those in north-east Tarrant County, have started doing zoning overlay districts on the older parts of their cities, where additional zoning requirements apply. You will definitely want to check the zoning--at City Hall, not over the Internet, just so you have someone there who can look at the map with you--and see what zoning you're in before you start doing any major repairs. (Fun tip: Print out the CAD listing for this property and bring it with you; it will have the legal description on it and make finding the property on the zoning map much easier if the city doesn't index by address)

Good luck! :)
posted by fireoyster at 12:43 AM on April 9, 2010 [1 favorite]

Bear in mind that in places like the UK and some other European countries, around half the population live in old houses (pre 1940) very successfully. Of course they're more work and more expensive than modern houses and there are endless surprises (look! no foundations! Cool! That brick supporting wall is actually half rotten wood!). But I don't feel like I'm living in some endless restoration project or anything. For the most part, it functions very well as a house as it has done for the last 180 years.
posted by rhymer at 5:02 AM on April 9, 2010

Agree with Rhymer - it;s not remotely unusual elsewhere. I'd recommend getting a surveyor to take a look when you are renting.
posted by mippy at 7:22 AM on April 9, 2010

No one has mentioned plugging an old well--does anyone have experience with that?

There may be a local requirement for abandoning a well, but if it's your standard big-hole-in-the-ground dug well, I'd fill it in and cap it with concrete. Don't just cover the hole, as inevitably some kid is going to get curious and lift up the cover.
posted by electroboy at 8:11 AM on April 9, 2010

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