This is one big honking purchase...
March 22, 2013 10:14 AM   Subscribe

We're house hunting. We think we've found a good match. But I need a sanity check. Help!

(tl;dr at the bottom)

We (wife and I) are getting ready to buy our first house! We're in the Cleveland area. We've been attending open houses since January and working with a realtor since mid February. We finally found a house that matches our needs! I'm excited for it, but there are a few downsides and I want a sanity check on whether we should reconsider, or if these are the kinds of things we should expect almost any not-new house to have. Also, if anyone would like to weigh in in depth, MeMail me and I can send a Zillow link.

It’s worth noting that we’re not planning on making/saving money on this vs renting. We’re going into this because we want to own a place and have total control over what we do to it, and we would just like to break even or ultimately lose not much money years from now when we end up selling.

The house itself is a really nice colonial. Brick exterior, tons of curb appeal, lots of character inside. Very modern updates to most of the interior. Smallish rooms, but we like that - we don't want tons of unused room, we just want enough for us, a kid or two, and occasional guests, and this house has that.

The big issue is the house was on the market for 4 months last year and never sold. The owners recently brought it back on the market at a reduced price and with a new realtor. The housing market around here is still a little slow and there are a number of houses that are sitting on the market, but at the same time lots of people are ready to buy at the current mortgage rates and the really nice and competitively priced houses (i.e., maybe slightly underpriced) are being bought within a week of being listed. We really like this house, so we are surprised that people don't find it desirable, but that is the big issue - in the future when may be looking to upgrade or move to another city, will the house just sit on the market like it is now? We're hoping that the issue is the current owners overpriced the house previously. They have reduced the price $30K since they brought it on the market – but it’s still available.

I also worry that it's small for the price. We want a smaller, nice house, so this fits us very well. But so many people just want a BIG house - maybe that will make it harder to sell?

Other worries:

The gas bill in the winter is $260-$360! That seems astronomical for a 2,200 sq ft house, but maybe I'm off. Yet the sellers claim that the house is well-insulated. It does have original windows – but I’m still wondering why on earth their gas bill alone is so high. Maybe they're lying / misinformed about the insulation? Maybe $360 isn't that high?

The house has an ancient (possibly 1920's) boiler. We're assuming that we'll have to replace it at some point (maybe immediately), we have the savings available and are pricing that into our offer. But strangely, the seller claimed that an inspector told that this ancient thing will outlast any modern boiler, and that it is more efficient than modern ones. I find the efficiency claim... ludicrous, and for some reason that makes me nervous. My thought process is: If they’ll lie about a boiler being efficient, what else are they hiding? Or am I beanplating?

Some of the wiring appears to be knob-and-tube hooked up to an old fusebox, though I’ll have to get a contractor in there to verify that the old wiring is actually in use. Is that something that will definitely have to be replaced? Are we nuts for buying a place with old wiring? I feel like every house we see in this neighborhood has some old wiring and it’s inevitable.

That leads me to the final questions. I would like to get an inspection prior to making an offer - after all, if there are nasty surprises then why bother with an offer? I’d also like to walk through the place with a contractor to estimate some bathroom updates, check out the plumbing age, estimate any electrical upgrades, and to discuss replacing the (original) windows. I’d even like to pay for an assessment to make sure we’re paying about the right amount. But I’m told by our realtor and by a friend who is a mortgage broker that it’s customary to do those things after having our offer accepted, and amend the offer based on the inspection. That seems extremely backwards – why would we make an offer on any house with so many unknowns? I’m wondering if that’s a sign that we should run away, or if it truly is customary to put an offer down and then count on the inspection to save us from this being a money pit.

We trust our realtor as much as we would trust any realtor. We get good comments about him whenever we mention him, and he is highly recommended by his past clients. And he is very helpful and quick to answer questions. We just have problems trusting any realtor’s opinion since they benefit from us closing on a house.

tl;dr: buying an old house because we like old houses and like this one especially. Sat on market for 4 months, worries we’ll have trouble selling as well when the time comes. Gas bill is $250-$360 / mo. Some electrical updated, some may be old. Realtor says we shouldn’t get an inspection, get an appraisal, or have a walk-through with a contractor until we have an accepted offer, but it seems to me that those things should happen first. Go for it, or tap the brakes / run away?
posted by Tehhund to Home & Garden (49 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Yes, you do the inspection after your offer is accepted. You put a contingency in the offer allowing you to ask for repairs or credits (or to bail) if the inspection turns up problems. Look at it from the seller's side. Why would they want to allow everyone who might consider making an offer on their house to have it inspected? An inspection takes at least an hour or two, poses the opportunity for damage, etc. It only makes sense in the context of an extremely serious buyer: someone who will buy the house unless the inspection brings bad surprises. And that's exactly what the inspection contingency is for.
posted by primethyme at 10:22 AM on March 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


I would get an inspection for sure, and especially someone who's familiar with older homes. We've bought 3 homes, and have always had the inspection after the initial offer, which has let us enumerate stuff we want addressed before final closing - fix this outlet, remove that pile of junk, etc.

The offer document has always had a line on there that makes the offer contingent on an inspection (and depending on your area, certification that the place is free of termite activity).

As for the offer, look at the comparative properties and toss something out - your Realtor should be able to give you guidance on what would be reasonable. Then the seller may counter, and you go back and forth, etc. Good luck!
posted by jquinby at 10:22 AM on March 22, 2013


Yes, it is customary to make an offer and then do an inspection. The offer is conditional on a satisfactory inspection. Why would you want to spend the money on an inspection if you might later find out that you can't agree on price? And since the house has been on the market for a while, you should be making a lower offer.

The proof is in the pudding as far the insulation. If the gas costs are high, then the house probably isn't all that well insulated. You can't trust the seller.

Those old windows don't help. You'll save a lot, maybe even 50%, by upgrading to a modern boiler. You can likely save a lot of energy by doing air sealing as well (get a blower door test).
posted by ssg at 10:23 AM on March 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Inspections, etc. do not usually happen until you have an offer accepted. In my state and in the state I just sold in, there were written outs for the buyer if the inspection uncovered anything that they didn't want to deal with. I would ask your realtor about this.

On the issue of why the house hasn't sold, I would ask your realtor to pull the comps for the area to see what the price per square foot is in the area. That is the real benchmark rather than overall price of the house.

And here's another anecdote: we're buying a house (closing on Monday!!) that was on the market on and off for almost a year. We asked why it hadn't been bought since we thought it was just great and it sounds like it was due to the sellers waffling on whether to sell rather than the house itself.

If you have any questions, ASK, ASK, ASK.
posted by Leezie at 10:24 AM on March 22, 2013


Is that $250-360 gas bill the budget plan price? If so, that's probably not that bad if the place is 2,200 sqft with the original windows. Upgrading the windows will set you back a not insignificant amount but it could possible save you serious money on the gas bill.
posted by playertobenamedlater at 10:25 AM on March 22, 2013


My personal opinion is that formal assessments are over-priced, probably because there's a whole lot of potential liability involved in that process. But you should definitely get some assistance in figuring out what the house is worth, and because much of the value of the house is going to be in how you can adapt it to your particular wants, that means figuring out how much the house is worth to you.

Your upgrades to the house will generally not pay off at a rate exceeding what you spend on them. In fact, they'll generally be expenses, not capital investments (if you doubt this do a search for "ROI home remodeling").

The realtor is not on your side. As you point out, they benefit most from the house closing with minimal fuss.

I'd find a contractor or home inspector (not appraiser) and offer a couple of hundred bucks to do a walk-through with you, and maybe get a copy of the RS Means
Contractor's Pricing Guide: Residential Repair & Remodeling 2013 Book
and total things up.

And ask your insurance company what they'll charge to insure the knob & tube. You don't necessarily have to replace it, but you should know what it costs. And assume the K&T is still in use.

When we bought our house, the seller's agent was more than happy to, while he was there for an open house any way, let us crawl under the house and through the attic for a few hours. If people are reluctant to let you do this, it's probably because they're trying to hide things.
posted by straw at 10:27 AM on March 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


But I’m told by our realtor and by a friend who is a mortgage broker that it’s customary to do those things after having our offer accepted, and amend the offer based on the inspection. That seems extremely backwards – why would we make an offer on any house with so many unknowns?

I think the idea there is that you make your offer based on the implicit assumption that all the inspections will go just swimmingly, and then when they do not you shake your head gravely and mutter "Well, the place turned out to have a whole lot of problems you didn't tell us about, I'm not sure we're really interested anymore. Maybe we'd consider moving forward if you'd be willing to fix all these issues as a condition of the sale, or reduce the price enough to cover all the extensive repairs we're going to have to do to make it habitable."
posted by contraption at 10:27 AM on March 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Buying an old house because we like old houses and like this one especially.

Sounds good!

Sat on market for 4 months, worries we’ll have trouble selling as well when the time comes.

You're buying, not selling. Don't try to predict the future.

Gas bill is $250-$360 / mo.

Would be a bit high in Chicago for an older house of similar size, but not out of the realm of possibility. We are fairly well insulated with new windows. I pay $200 - $300 in the winter months.

Some electrical updated, some may be old.

Old house, par for the course. Old doesn't mean unsafe.

Realtor says we shouldn’t get an inspection, get an appraisal, or have a walk-through with a contractor until we have an accepted offer, but it seems to me that those things should happen first.

As mentioned upthread, contingent offer.

Go for it, or tap the brakes / run away?

Go for it for now. Offer pending inspection, if there are any really red flags (foundation specifically) walk away. You will have some yellow flags (electrical, plumbing), you can ask for a seller credit or decide if it's worth living with / fixing yourself.
posted by true at 10:29 AM on March 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Sat on market for 4 months, worries we’ll have trouble selling as well when the time comes

Also, 4 months isn't that long, currently, so this doesn't imply having problems selling when your time comes.
posted by TinWhistle at 10:29 AM on March 22, 2013 [6 favorites]



But I’m told by our realtor and by a friend who is a mortgage broker that it’s customary to do those things after having our offer accepted, and amend the offer based on the inspection. That seems extremely backwards – why would we make an offer on any house with so many unknowns?


This is known as due diligence. An offer is conditioned upon satisfactory completion of due diligence. If the due diligence process turns up anything problematic, the offer can be withdrawn.
posted by dfriedman at 10:31 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


The gas bill in the winter is $260-$360! That seems astronomical for a 2,200 sq ft house

My place is about 1000 sq.ft. and gas bills of around half that cost would not be unusual in wintertime.

Upgrade the windows, though.

But I’m told by our realtor and by a friend who is a mortgage broker that it’s customary to do those things after having our offer accepted, and amend the offer based on the inspection. That seems extremely backwards – why would we make an offer on any house with so many unknowns?

Because there's no reason to commit to making a formal inspection until you're in a position to buy. When the seller accepts your bid, it does not really mean you're going to buy it. It just means that the sales process is "on hold" and no one else is allowed to bid while you and the seller work out the particulars. At worst, all that happens is that you lose the $500 from the inspection if you want to pull out because there are too many problems.

We want a smaller, nice house, so this fits us very well. But so many people just want a BIG house - maybe that will make it harder to sell?

Yes, it will make it harder to sell. One of the frustrating things about the real estate market is that making a good investment means not just buying what makes you happy but buying something that will be appealing to future buyers when you sell the house.
posted by deanc at 10:31 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Some insurance companies will not cover homes with knob and tube wiring. And some mortgage companies require you to have insurance. So, find out about this part in advance.

I take it those sums for the gas heat are per month? I have a smaller house than you, and it's costing me more than that per month, but I have oil heat. We're relatively well insulated, and we have newer windows.

There's generally no problem doing inspection after offer, since you can walk away after claiming the reason is the inspection (even if the reason is just that you just changed your mind). Double check that with your realtor, of course, in case it is different in your jurisdiction, but its a safe period to find these things out and decide if your seller is loony/the house is buggy.
posted by instead of three wishes at 10:33 AM on March 22, 2013


The house has an ancient (possibly 1920's) boiler. We're assuming that we'll have to replace it at some point (maybe immediately), we have the savings available and are pricing that into our offer. But strangely, the seller claimed that an inspector told that this ancient thing will outlast any modern boiler, and that it is more efficient than modern ones. I find the efficiency claim... ludicrous, and for some reason that makes me nervous. My thought process is: If they’ll lie about a boiler being efficient, what else are they hiding? Or am I beanplating?


Ludicrous is the right word. There's no way that an 80 year old boiler runs even remotely close to the efficiency of a modern one. We replaced the 60 year old boiler in our house with a 975 efficiency model and our heating bills dropped by more than half. It wasn't cheap though, the new one cost us around $8K but there was a tax rebate for buying a high-efficiency model.
posted by octothorpe at 10:34 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Offers contingent upon the inspection are typical, except that once you've made the offer the temptation will be enormous just to disregard a lot of what the inspector tells you about the house because in your mind, you've already bought it.

You're going to need to spend a lot of money on this house, it sounds like. Get a quote for replacing the wiring.

When it's time for you to sell the house, should you choose to later, whether it sells is mainly just a function of how you price it. So if you get attached to the idea that your house has a certain value, your house will probably be hard to sell. If you realize that your house, while perfect for you, may not be perfect for the majority of homebuyers, you will adjust your expectations accordingly and set a more appropriate price, and the house will sell.
posted by MoonOrb at 10:36 AM on March 22, 2013


I'm in Pittsburgh, but Pittsburgh and Cleveland seem not that many worlds away, so in case it's useful - that's just about exactly the size of our house, and our budget gas bill is on the lower end of that range you've quoted. I seem to recall that when we replaced the windows, it lowered our bill some, but not dramatically.

Everything you've listed sound reasonable except the wiring. I don't know about electrical stuff but my partner, who does, was really worried about the places we looked at with that kind of older wiring and breathed a huge sigh of relief when our place turned out to have wiring that was old, but not knob-and-tube old. I remember there was concern about insurance coverage.

Maybe in that neighborhood that really is just the standard and there's no way around it, but then I'd seriously consider doing some negotiation post-inspection to cover the cost of rewiring, or whatever you determine you'd have to do to be insurable and not have your house burn down unexpectedly some random night.
posted by Stacey at 10:37 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm not actively looking right now, but nothing you've said would make me run away from the place. The issue is just price. Yes, it may have knob and tube wiring, but if the wiring is still good on inspection, the question would be whether you want to have it replaced (here, friends report a whole house costing $10,000 to modernize wiring).

You're right that a smaller house is less desirable to many, but there will always be people like you (and me) who want a house that size. It just takes longer to find them and sell to them.

Those utility bills don't sound crazy to me. I'm in a 1200 sq foot apartment and I can pay 150 for gas in the winter. While the windows are surely a culprit, I'd see about spray insulation wherever you can get it (can't get it in the walls with knob and tube, natch!)--you'll see a big improvement right away, even if you just put it in your attic.

Good luck!
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:37 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


You're going to need to spend a lot of money on this house, it sounds like. Get a quote for replacing the wiring.

And unless you're in the DC housing market where buyers will waive inspections you're going to have to deal with this at some point.
posted by playertobenamedlater at 10:38 AM on March 22, 2013


Negotiate the cost of the window upgrades, replacement boiler and electrical upgrades (if required) into the price after the inspection - you're allowed to do that, and we did. (We needed them to replace a rusted out junction box and fix the electrical conduit into the house - they hired a guy to do the work rather than lower the price, and we were happy with that.)

Otherwise, don't worry about the size if the house has other things going for it - curb appeal, vintage design with modern amenities, a great yard, a nice location/view, etc. etc. etc. We paid on the high end for a small house, because we loved the location - old New England forest (with a little brook!) in back of us, and a very quiet, family-friendly street, with a very nice new kitchen and updated windows.

Buy what you want and what you need, and rest assured, other people will have the same wants and needs if you ever have to sell.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:42 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Oh, regarding the comment about furnace efficiency: I'd also note that I've heard several crusty old electrician types say "Oh, yeah, Knob & Tube is the safest kind of wiring out there". I have yet to hear that statement from an insurance adjuster.

(It may be true that it's safe, if it's well maintained and in original shape. Houses, however, are altered, and good systems are not about what works when everything's in pristine condition, but what works as the system evolves and the house grows with its owners and residents.)

There's a lot of lore out there in the building industry, and you can often find someone to reinforce whatever prejudices/messages you're trying to pitch. Even with mounds of evidence to the contrary.
posted by straw at 10:44 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


But I’m told by our realtor and by a friend who is a mortgage broker that it’s customary to do those things after having our offer accepted, and amend the offer based on the inspection. That seems extremely backwards – why would we make an offer on any house with so many unknowns?


As others have said, this is standard operating procedure. From the seller's POV, they don't have any interest in having an inspection prior to an offer being made because if you find issues in the inspection they'll need to disclose those to future buyers. So having an offer accepted, doing an inspection, and then negotiating actually puts you in a favorable position.
posted by donovan at 10:46 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Get a quote for replacing the wiring.

Make sure to price out repairing and repainting the walls that have to be opened up to do this and not just the cost of the electrician.

(I could not find an insurance company willing to let the knob and tube stay in my house, and I was on the phone for a full week)
posted by kmennie at 10:46 AM on March 22, 2013


You guys are great. Thanks for the sanity check - I'm feeling good about moving ahead, but with our eyes open about the possible downsides. I also just spoke to our realtor, who explained the “offer contingent on inspection” side of things, and what he said matches what I’m hearing in this thread.

We’re going to discuss a bit more, but it looks like our next steps are to put together an offer that prices in some of the problem areas, and if/once it's accepted make sure we get a good, thorough inspector / inspection. The realtor says we can also bring a contractor in during the inspection to estimate the work we’re considering (boiler, electrical, etc). That sounds great to me, but followup: is bringing a contractor in in addition to the inspector unusual?
posted by Tehhund at 10:52 AM on March 22, 2013


Our insurance company had no problem with the knob-and-tube wiring in our house but we did end up replacing it within a few years. I think that it cost us around $12,000 for a ~2500 square foot townhouse. That cost was extra expensive because our house, like many other Pittsburgh houses from the 19th century, has solid brick exterior walls that make it impossible to run wiring inside of them.
posted by octothorpe at 10:56 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


We bought a 2k sq ft house in Shaker in 2010. We have a lot of original glass in the windows, and pay $300 in a bad month for gas -- but we've had some insulation blown in etc. I'm sure it was worse before.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 11:03 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


It is totally normal to bring in contractors to give estimates during the inspection. Most of my buyers have done it.
posted by Melsky at 11:04 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


If they kick up a fuss about you bringing a contractor, it may be a sign they are going to be unreasonable about things. My first offer on a house fell through because the sellers had some giant snit fit over the fact that I brought a friend with me when we came in to do a radon test -- I was excited over the whole thing, wanted a friend to see my future new place, and they threw a giant screaming psycho fit over the fact that I hadn't been alone. The reality was, the sellers had had an offer for a whopping 5K more than what they'd agreed to with me, and had decided to be jerks about every little thing to scare me off. I backed the hell away, and never regretted that decision.

The second place, I brought in a second inspector based on what the first inspector noticed -- that there might be a carpenter ant problem. There wasn't, it was fine, and the sellers had no problem with my request for the additional inspection. The closing was as smooth as a closing could be.
posted by instead of three wishes at 11:08 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you're happy with the house, that's the main thing.

You can put in an offer conditional upon inspection. In particular, the knob-and-tube is of concern. Around here, if there's operational knob-and-tube, there's no insurance, which means no mortgage. On the bright side, if there's wiring that has to be ripped out, maybe you can do pump-in insulation at the same time? (It's a pain later.)

Based on my smaller, 1923 house, which is on oil, I'm not seeing that heating bill as crazy. I'm ten bucks a day, minimum.

As for why the house sat on the market? Who knows. The inspection may tell you part of that story. There could be plenty of other reasons, too -- houses in my neighbourhood can sit for a long time, simply because people today find the kitchens too small.
posted by Capt. Renault at 11:13 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


The house has an ancient (possibly 1920's) boiler.

I grew up in a house with one of these - my parents have lived there for 35 years now. Never had a problem with it. Sounds like you'll want to update it for efficiency reasons, but it's likely that it'll just keep on bumping along for the foreseeable future.

The big issue is the house was on the market for 4 months last year and never sold.

My wife and I just bought an old house that had been on the market for a similar amount of time. I wouldn't worry about it. You're doing your due diligence - if after the inspection, you still think it's the right house for you, then it probably is. From your perspective, it's great that they've recently dropped the price and switched realtors - sounds like they're motivated to sell!
posted by ndg at 11:27 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


My house was on the market for 6 months in a very hot market, because the decor in the bedroom was un fricking believable. Bright red shag carpet, wallpaper murals of the earth as seen from the moon, mirror tiles on two walls, giant red jacuzzi tub in the BEDROOM. That and a small kitchen kept this house on the market when people were making same-day offers for $20K above asking price all over the place.
posted by KathrynT at 11:41 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


By the way, old glass windows can be brought up to modern tightness standards through reglazing, recaulking/etc the casement, and the use of exterior storms. MeMail me for references if you want (I don't have them quite handy at the moment and would need reminding to go looking for them again).

K&T can be a problem in two ways: 1) if the insulation or original system has been compromised or altered (in my house, they'd attached it to aluminum wiring sometime later) and 2) finding insurance. If it's in an area with plenty of older houses, this is less of a concern, and I was only turned down by one insurer (who didn't insure houses over 50 years old).

Old houses can rack up problems over time, and sometimes the fixes are not done well by past owners. Think about it - I doubt any of us will get to 100 without wrinkles and sags. That said, how handy are you? You can save a lot of money if you're willing/able to do the labor (i.e. wiring in a balloon-frame building via attic/crawlspace).

If you end up replacing the windows anyway, can I has them???
posted by bookdragoness at 11:44 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


IAAL, IANYL.

Have you asked the homeowners/your realtor whether the house has gone under contract, but the buyer backed out?

You'll also want to talk to your realtor about making very, very sure that your offer is conditional on the inspection turning out the way you want and that you get a chance to have all of the inspections you want and that if the inspection doesn't turn out the way you want, you can walk away with your deposit or whatever else you want.

In my market, it isn't unusual to bring in a contractor together with the inspector, especially if it's an older house or a high-end property. However, you may want to talk to your realtor about making sure that the inspection provision allows you to bring in a contractor/you to back out if it turns out the house needs $____________ of work to fix the knob/tube wiring, etc.

In lieu, or in addition to all this, you may want to consider whether the seller is willing to provide you with a home warranty.
posted by joyceanmachine at 11:44 AM on March 22, 2013


You're getting good answers here. We just bought our first house a little over a year ago and I wanted to suggest one other resource that was really useful to us. We found the Nolo book for first-time home buyers to be incredibly helpful. It seems like a lot of the questions you have are classic first-time home buyer questions; these (and more) are really nicely answered in the Nolo book.
posted by Betelgeuse at 12:12 PM on March 22, 2013


We really like this house, so we are surprised that people don't find it desirable

As a shot in the dark, I would check the school district.

Also, stop going by what "the seller says..." The seller is an unreliable narrator with a vested interest in getting a buyer. Personally I'd get an inspector and do an inspection before putting in an offer but I think inspections are cheap compared to houses.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:20 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


We're at the tail end of selling our current home and buying a new (in CO). Had our new home inspected yesterday. All the above advice is good.

I'm posting to recommend adding a sewer pipe inspection. It's about $250. Our new home was fine but the inspection in our current home revealed a crack and we just had to shell out $5k to get it fixed -- good news for the buyers. It could save you a bundle.

We used Hydro Physics.
posted by NailsTheCat at 12:26 PM on March 22, 2013


Most of the time if a decent house sits on the market awhile it is because it's overrpriced. Your realtor should be able to guide you into making an appropriate lowball offer then negotiating.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:40 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


By the way, old glass windows can be brought up to modern tightness standards through reglazing, recaulking/etc the casement, and the use of exterior storms. MeMail me for references if you want (I don't have them quite handy at the moment and would need reminding to go looking for them again).

This - a properly maintained original window is going to be much much much better than a cheap replacement.

we live in a house built in the 1920's. The worst windows in the place? The ones that are drafty and leaky? The ones that have been replaced.
posted by Lucinda at 1:28 PM on March 22, 2013


Gas bill is $250-$360 / mo.

I live in an old, old, old house. All our windows are original but we've just had, within the past two years, the house completely re-insulated. Our house could be considered insanely well insulated and our ENTIRE utility bill (gas+electric+water, etc) is around $180 in the horrible winter months of the Midwest. Take that for what it's worth...
posted by youandiandaflame at 1:36 PM on March 22, 2013


When I bought my house, this was the procedure:

1. Make an offer and put down earnest money. This shows that you're serious, but it is not a final offer; it's conditional upon inspection. It reflects the price you're willing to pay for the house if there are no serious problems.

2. Have the house inspected. If the inspection turns up a deal breaker, this is where you walk away (you might lose the earnest money).

3. Make a revised offer that reflects the results of the inspection. The seller can accept or reject the offer, and you might haggle back and forth for a few iterations.


And here are my lessons learned and regrets from buying my first (very old) house:

1. Have the house inspected twice by independent inspectors. This will cost an extra $300 or so, but it greatly decreases the chance of overlooking something serious.

2. Factor the age and condition of the roof into your valuation of the house. Roofing costs $20k or more and needs to be done every 15-20 years for asphalt shingles.

3. "Well insulated" in an old house probably means the attic is insulated but the walls are not. It is prohibitively expensive to insulate the walls unless you happen to be gutting the house anyway. $300/month in the winter in Ohio does not seem unusual to me (I'm in NY with an old house and an ancient gas furnace). The most cost-effective way to lower your energy bill is to install a $100 programmable thermostat and program it conservatively.

4. Expect to spend thousands/year in maintenance.

5. Replacing the furnace with something like a heat pump will increase your efficiency, but may involve asbestos abatement, which doubles the cost. We're talking $10k-$20k.

6. In negotiating the price, be aggressive but be prepared to walk away. Don't get emotionally attached to the house. Become Mr. Spock.

You can probably negotiate to have some contractors give you estimates along with the inspection phase. This is something your real estate agent should be able to facilitate.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 1:43 PM on March 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


"The realtor says we can also bring a contractor in during the inspection to estimate the work we’re considering (boiler, electrical, etc). That sounds great to me, but followup: is bringing a contractor in in addition to the inspector unusual?"

You know, when I was considering putting in an offer on a particular house that I knew was going to need certain work done, I brought a friend who's an architect with me to my second viewing to get her opinion, and my realtor said if I wanted to send a contractor for an estimate she'd be happy to take him through.

We had an electrical contractor in with the inspector when we bought our current house, because we knew we had to have the panel upgraded to get insured and the sellers had agreed to pay half the upgrade, so we were getting a proposal ASAP so we could get the work done before we moved in. (I'm not quite sure how we knew that before the inspection, may have been something the sellers warned us about.) It was no big deal.

The sellers weren't living in either house at the time, which probably makes a difference.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:17 PM on March 22, 2013


As a buyer the get out jail card is to make any offers conditional on the inspections and financing. You can always get declined for the financing if you want -- if necessary you tell your bank that you don't intent to pay the mortgage.

It will never go that far, but as a buyer it will keep your options open.
posted by zeikka at 2:40 PM on March 22, 2013


By the way, old glass windows can be brought up to modern tightness standards through reglazing, recaulking/etc the casement, and the use of exterior storms. MeMail me for references if you want (I don't have them quite handy at the moment and would need reminding to go looking for them again).

This is quite true. With good storms you get the same efficiency as double pane. Also, new windows are frequently not the best return on investment. Definitely not if you haven't weatherstripped foundations and walls, and insulated attics and walls first. The energy -efficiency pyramid is a good guide for where to spend money in a retrofit. (According to Martin Holladay, energy-efficient windows rarely recoup costs. That can change if energy prices increase or windows get cheaper. But the window thing is certainly an instance of greenwashing in many cases).

The issues that you mention wouldn't stop me, if I was able to budget paying for them over the next few years. Perhaps get a few bids on the electrical before you put your offer in.
posted by oneirodynia at 2:58 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Slap*Happy: Buy what you want and what you need, and rest assured, other people will have the same wants and needs if you ever have to sell.

This was our experience with our last house, and the reason I wouldn't worry about the size. We sold our tiny (and lovely) house in Oberlin a year ago very easily. Had an offer in a week, and accepted a much better offer after 2 weeks on the market. Our Realtor had predicted an easy sale, too; she said it was the great big houses that were hard to unload during the recession.

My guess is the the sellers of the house you're looking at simply overpriced it, and that's why it hasn't sold. It obviously needs work, the sellers are in denial about it and have been kidding themselves about what the house is really worth; you can't trust them about the wiring or boiler because they're lying to themselves. But they really do want to sell, so they've dropped the price significantly. That doesn't, however, mean the house isn't still overpriced. Look at a lot of comps in the area and get a feel for what similar houses in similar condition are going for, and diplomatically, respectfully and kindly make an offer based on what you know the house is worth, not on what the current owners are asking.

qxntpqbbbqxl: Roofing costs $20k or more and needs to be done every 15-20 years for asphalt shingles.

This is the worst of worst-case scenarios. Roofing, while not cheap, rarely costs anywhere near that much for a house of the size you're looking at, in Cleveland, and if you use decent shingles the lifespan will be significantly longer unless the pitch of the roof is very low.

Where in the Cleveland area is the house? I live in Pittsburgh now, but I grew up in Euclid, painted houses in Shaker and Cleveland heights as a high school summer job, and lived in Oberlin for 15 years.
posted by jon1270 at 3:47 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


N'thing storm windows. They are cheaper (by miles) than new windows, and will thus 'pay back' much more quickly.
Plus old glass is often more interesting - it frequently has 'waves' in it, which cause the light on a sunny day to refract and do interesting things inside.
If they are double-hungs, make 'em work again - there's not a better way to make a house more comfortable after a hot day than openeing the tops and bottoms of double-hungs throughtout the house - you'll get some great convection going and really cool things down fast!
posted by dbmcd at 4:03 PM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


They actually already have relatively new storm windows on most or all of the windows (we forgot to check that they're on every window, but will when we see the place one more time) and keeping the storm windows with the house is explicitly included in the offer we're drawing up. I assumed that storm windows would help a little but not as much as nice new double-paned windows, but it sounds like storm windows might be better than I thought?
posted by Tehhund at 4:12 PM on March 22, 2013


That seems extremely backwards – why would we make an offer on any house with so many unknowns?

So you want to spend money on inspections for a house that may be under contract to someone else by the time you decide you really do like it?

You need to look over the options for contracts where you live, in many states you can have provisions in the contract that allow you to change what you will be paying or what the seller will be fixing based on the results of inspections, or possibly back out of the offer without loosing your deposit. (this is an extremely simplified explanation, IANAL, etc.)

Sat on market for 4 months, worries we’ll have trouble selling as well when the time comes.

If the house is priced too high, it will take longer to sell than you might like. If you don't mind it taking a while to sell, it can be priced higher. If your top goal in selling a house is to get an offer quickly, pricing it low enough will get you offers in a day or two. You won't have trouble selling it, what you'll have trouble doing is selling it for as much money as you would like.

If the house has been on the market for a while, consider making a lower offer or asking for more concessions from the seller.
posted by yohko at 4:13 PM on March 22, 2013


Fellow Clevelander here, eastside. My assumption is you're looking in The Heights or in the Lakewood area?

First of all, four months on the market is NOT a long time, especially in Cleveland. The problem in the Cleveland area is that while there are a lot of nice older homes (I own one), there is also a large supply of brand new construction at very competitive prices in better school districts with lower taxes - especially if you're looking at the inner ring suburbs.

One thing to keep in mind with these homes, especially if the seller is elderly, is that in many cases they have not updated or maintained the homes in many years due to the costs involved. One of the big problems Cleveland and Shaker Heights faces with their large mansions is that many are owned by folks in their 70s and 80s who have no interest in dumping thousands into the house. The plus side here is that when these folks pass away the kids often just want the monkey off their backs so they have been selling for a song - so long as the buyer is willing to accept some big responsibilities. My wife and I recently looked at a home in Cleveland Heights that was 5,600 square feet (the elevator sold me. seriously.) and in general good shape - selling for $320,000. It really was a steal, but serious overkill for us...not to mention the $17,000 annual property tax bill, which was insane.

If you're looking at 1920s era homes, above all, have an INDEPENDENT home inspection performed - never through the real estate agent. I'm going to give you some lessons learned from my 1929 colonial purchase that may or may not be useful to you:

1. Roofing: check to ensure that the roof has one layer of shingles and that the roof is in good condition. Often you will find these homes to have 2 or even 3 (waaaaay against code) layers of shingles because the previous owner never properly had the roof replaced. For a 2200sq ft. home figure on between $6,000 and $12,000 for a full tear off and replace, complete with ridge-venting and/or soffit venting if it isn't in place.

2. Electrical: it's likely the house will have knob and tube wiring, which is not necessarily a bad thing so long as it has not been frayed or spliced improperly. You'll want to ensure that the fuse box is in good order. If it's an old screw-fuse box that is 100 amp or lower you may want to budget to have that replaced with 100 or 200 amp service and proper toggle switches. That will run you between $1200-$3000.

3. Asbestos: it's likely you'll have some asbestos insulation on some of the boiler pipes, likely at the point where the pipes go through floor-boards and joists. There's nothing much to worry about here so long as the asbestos is properly wrapped and isn't touched. Asbestos is only really an issue when you start poking at it and it disperses into the air.

4. Boiler: if it is an original "octopus" that takes up a large chunk of the basement and has never been updated, you really will want to budget to replace it. Check whether it is a hot water or steam boiler, there is a difference and 1920s era homes in Cleveland can have both. If a boiler has been properly maintained there should be a paper tag on it listing the service dates. Check to see when the last one was done and if you can't find one, you'll want to ask the inspector to get a proper analysis of the state of the boiler. Older boilers are prone to rusting out and the heating element will start cracking, especially if not properly maintained. You'll also want to ensure that sub-assemblies like the blow-off valve and cold-water automatic fill are working properly. If they don't they MUST be replaced unless you want a potential bomb living in your basement. As to the whole 99% efficiency devices, I'm not sold that they're worth the premium over a 95-98% efficiency boiler, but figure on a minimum $5,000 to replace. Much more if you've got an old octopus that needs to be torn down and reconfigured/removed.

As to the monthly heating bill: is that the winter bill only, or the annual "monthly budget" amount? In the dead of winter my ~2000 sq. ft. colonial runs me about $300/month, but I use budget billing which comes to ~$85/month every month.

5. Basement: water is your enemy, especially if there is mold. It's normal to see effervescence on the walls, especially if there is brick, but if there are signs of water intrusion you will likely see if near the corners of the house where downspots enter the ground. It may mean that the drain tile underground is bad, the drain pipes are shot, or you've got some bigger water issues. Have these investigated well and if waterproofing is necessary do it properly: which means an exterior system that digs up around the foundation and also replaces drain tile and downspots that are in bad shape. I had about 30 lineal feet on the backside of my house done a few years back and it ran me about $3,000. Worth every penny.

It will be normal to see a lot of weird things. For example, if your 2nd floor bathroom has a heavy old fashioned tub you'll likely find the floor a few centimeters off where the weight has caused the floors to shift and settle. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be if the tub wasn't placed over a joist properly to distribute the weight, or worse, there is water rot, which is common. Cracked plaster is also common to find due to temperature changes and the settling of the house over the years.

Insulation will be an issue: there won't be much, if any.

Windows are another one. Thankfully, the woman I purchased my home from had not replaced the original wooden windows with vinyl. This has given me the opportunity to replace a handful with wood sash replacement windows from Marvin (I'm partial to Marvin, whose kits are between $250-$450 per window depending on size and options). I've used their sash replacement kits which are a fraction of the price of a full replacement and provide you 90% or better of the efficiency that a full insert would. I've also done a lot of window restoration on my own that saved me thousands. Most of the wood windows will be in good shape, they will need to be re-caulked and there are also sash insulators that will give you a very high percentage increase in efficiency while retaining the original look and quality of your house. Vinyl windows require replacement far more frequently than do wood because the vinyl expands, contracts and cracks over time. Wood windows require maintenance but not necessarily replacement. If you can afford replacements - go for it, otherwise there are better uses for your dollars.

You will also want to make sure there are no code violations that the city is trying to have the current owner complete. You will inherit these, and if you're in The Heights or other inner ring suburbs the building inspector will become your personal nightmare if you don't have a plan to correct these. Most are willing to work with you so long as you can demonstrate that you have a plan and resources to fix the issues.

Another resource that will be helpful is the Cleveland Restoration Society. They offer, for a limited number of locations, some great resources for homeowners as well as some low interest home improvement loans.

Final two recommendation:

1. Angie's list. Get a subscription. You'll use it.
2. The most expensive phrase in old home ownership is: "While we're at it....."
posted by tgrundke at 8:53 AM on March 23, 2013 [3 favorites]


So much good advice and guidance here. I'd like to second tgrundke's point that you use an independent home inspector. Find that person yourself, don't use whoever your real estate agent recommends. The problem here is that their interests are not aligned with yours. Your agent wants you to buy the house, because they want the commission. The inspector wants to maintain a relationship with the agent who pushes work to him/her, so they have an incentive to gloss over things to keep the deal moving along. Houses do have issues, but you want to make the purchase with your eyes wide open. Since you are unfamiliar with knob/tube wiring, and presumably other aspects of construction/wiring/plumbing, I think you need someone who you can trust to teach you about this house.

Others covered the KT issue pretty well. I'd be concerned that's an indicator of more deferred maintenance that you'll need to catch up on quickly (and at high cost). You mentioned that there are very modern updates to most of the interior. I'd be concerned that the owners spent on cosmetics at the expense of substantive maintenance and systems updates.

Good luck! It sounds like you're being reasonable here.
posted by stowaway at 10:31 AM on March 23, 2013


@ stowaway -

I wouldn't worry too much about k&t wiring, so long as it is in good condition and you are not overloading the circuits, there is no pressing need to replace it. The problem with k&t wiring is that many trunk slammer electricians or do-it-yourselfers tend to simply splice into the k&t to add additional circuits. That's a big no-no and the proper way requires a junction box which is accessible (cannot be behind walls, as an example).

We're going to be replacing our fuse box with an updated one, but are keeping the 100 amp service simply because I ran the math and we don't pull anywhere near the amperage in our relatively small house. We're also going to start replacing the k&b circuits as we do renovations, first step being the kitchen and first floor since those are accessible from the basement.

Again, don't sweat knob & tube unless it's in bad shape. There are a lot of electricians upon first inspection will tell you to replace it because they're not comfortable with it, but ask them to look for defects, splices, flaws. If it's in good shape, you're perfectly fine to live with it.
posted by tgrundke at 10:41 AM on March 23, 2013


One more thing to add to the renovation / k&t discussion: remodeling older homes in a non-destructive manner gets expensive fast because of the labor involved.

Case in point is replacing k&t wiring, especially if you have plaster walls. If you're going to gut a room to the studs so you can put in insulation and then drywall, running electrical is a cinch. However, if you want to retain that plaster wall the costs will spiral because the labor to perform a non-destructive upgrade is significantly greater.

It will be easier to upgrade k&t on first floor rooms assuming the wiring to them is right below in the basement, but it still requires a bit of skill and patience to avoid cracking and destroying plaster. In any case it's worth consulting with electricians who are accustomed to working on old homes to get some estimates and recommendations on how best to go about the work. There are a LOT of tricks to the remodeling trade (ie: removing baseboards to run cable versus destroying walls, running subpanels to the second floor through unused chimney gaps, crawlspaces or main stack holes) and not every contractor will be willing to use them for a myriad of reasons.

The good news is that there are a lot of contractors in Cleveland who are used to this kind of work. I'll re-recommend the Cleveland Restoration Society as a great resource.
posted by tgrundke at 10:51 AM on March 23, 2013


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