How much "trouble" will an old home be?
August 23, 2014 12:14 AM   Subscribe

Looking at moving into the city from the burbs. Most houses in the areas we're looking were built in the late 1800s to early 1900s (through 1930). Trying to understand what living in an older house entails. First house on the agenda - 1890s home, was a funeral home, some updates, some major repairs needed.

I have to move cityward due to health issues, and needing to get out of being isolated in suburbia. Most (all) of the houses in the desired neighborhoods are old. Old Old. Our current house is from the 1970s, the home I grew up in is from the 1950s, and my husband grew up in a home built in the 80s. I do have a small amount of experience in older homes, with grandparents living in two very old homes, but only limited recollection.

The house I've fallen in love with was a funeral home when built in the 1890s, and was a duplex not that long ago. Current owner fixed it up to some extent, but it still needs major repairs. The two big ones mentioned were the roof needing replacing, and the basement having water issues. Additional issues we've come to realize are that the house, because it was a duplex, has separate heat and electricity and they really need to be combined. Realtor made that sound like a not big deal but after speaking to friends and family, they helped me see the light on that.

My health is a concern, I have limited mobility (I get tired easily), but can navigate stairs as long as I pace myself. Plus, all major rooms are on the first floor - there is a first floor bedroom, bath, and kitchen along with living and dining room. Most of the living space seems to be in good condition, and is actually quite beautiful. A lot has been restored. Electrical upgraded (though they used the dumb waiter, which is a shame), and the "bones" seem good. But I've been advised by friends that older places are just an never-ending parade of problems.

Moving to one of these areas would be really good for me; I need public transportation and where I am has none. The area we're looking in has a lot of small shops interspersed with residential space, meaning I can get access to stores without a vehicle, something I can't do now. All lawns are small, meaning there is much less yard work which is killing us now. But I don't know if I'm trading problems with being isolated for problems with an older home with lots of repairs.

Assuming we could take care of the major repairs right away, how horrible is living in an older house going to be? Is it going to be? Other houses in that age range? There isn't much on the market that's been really completely redone, and we don't have money to strip down "to the bones" and rebuild, but think we could reasonably make an offer that allowed us enough to do the necessary repairs right away.

This is Milwaukee, WI, so weather is Hot in the summer and Cold in the winter. Some homes are broilers, others updated to forced air. The one I like has a broiler for the first floor and forced are on the second floor, from it's days as a duplex.
posted by [insert clever name here] to Home & Garden (22 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Replacing the roof on an old old house can mean that it has been leaking for a while, and there could be structural damage to repair. The roof repair is likely to cost more than it "should". Water problems in the basement might be related to the roof repair. Gutters that have malfunctioned can concentrate water at the foundation, and cause basement water problems. Water can move down through the walls into the basement.

You don't know until you've looked closely. If you're not up on maintenance forensics, you would probably be doing yourself a favor to hire an home inspector. It's hard to save money
on a fixer-upper, and you might do better on a place that is more expensive but more predictable in its future expenses.

De-duplexing a duplex sounds like a big job. If you have mobility problems, perhaps you might want to live on the first floor and rent out the second? What's the rental market like?

Realtors always make it sound like it's not a big deal. They can't really trusted, or blamed for it, either way.
posted by the Real Dan at 1:13 AM on August 23, 2014

I grew up in a house that was almost a hundred years old, and then bought another centenarian as an adult. I loved both houses, but they were both a steady stream of repairs.

You know that this house needs major repairs already. My experience is that means that there are a lot more minor--for a value of minor--repairs that you're not seeing. So here's what I'd suggest asking yourself.

First, realistically, how do you feel about having a stream of minor crises? Do you take that in stride, or do you get upset and frustrated? How do you feel when a minor crisis turns out to be something that needs a huge amount of effort to correct? It happens a lot in older houses, especially once that had a "handyman" kind of guy living there--things are done well enough, as long as they're working, but when they stop working, you suddenly realise that you've got unprotected wiring and shitty insulation and whatever else. (Ask how I know. Seriously, wires wrapped around plumbing.)

Second, how's your cash flow? Can you afford a once-a-year crisis that runs you five grand? There's a shocking amount of stuff that homeowner's insurance doesn't cover, and you'll be on the hook for all of it. Even if you're great in a crisis, if you've got financial limitations, you're setting yourself up for a fall. I bought a house I could afford, and the house payment was no problem--where I got screwed was all the repairs the house quickly needed, and I couldn't afford. So we had buckets to catch the rain from a leaky windowsash, and borrowed money to fix some plumbing, and had a hole in the ceiling from a leaky pipe, and an overhead light fixture we couldn't use, and...

The house I purchased was also a former converted duplex that had been deconverted to a single family home before I purchased it. We had separate electric, but joint heat, and it wasn't that big a deal, really, but the constant oh, hey, we've upgraded things in this part of the house but not this part was a pain in the ass.

My feeling is that your limitations mean that this house isn't a great one for you. That said, if you really want to know, find a contractor who does home inspections, and have them come out and make you a list of everything they're recommend you fix on the house--not just things that would get called out in an inspection, but all the things that make the contractor go "man, that's shoddy work, and that's...not ideal, and that..." Assume that you're going to have to fix all of those things within the first year, and that you're going to have some surprise fixes on top of it. Ask yourself if that much maintenance is a task that you can realistically take on.

Living in an older house can be awesome. Seriously, I love them. But maintaining an older house is often a giant, expensive pain in the ass.
posted by MeghanC at 1:26 AM on August 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

Older homes that have been well-maintained and occasionally updated are not necessarily all that much more trouble than newer homes. If you feel like you're in a bind because on one hand you want to move to a more urban area where yards are small and shops are close, but on the other hand all the houses there are old and, OMG, my friends say older house are so bad... well, I'd relax about that. There are absolutely nice older houses in urban areas with small yards, that won't be a constant headache.

However a partially restored, duplexed former funeral home with neglected roof and basement sounds like a big project for someone with limited energy and mobility issues. I'd advise you to keep shopping, and maybe land on a smaller house that's been better-kept and doesn't need a pile of work up-front.

(Also, the house has a boiler, not a broiler. Not for heating living spaces, anyhow)
posted by jon1270 at 2:11 AM on August 23, 2014 [8 favorites]

I lived in a house that was called "historical" by the standards of my Colonial-era town, but it was originally a pig barn.

Anyway, over the years we inhabited it, it needed new insulation, windows, a roof, environmental air remediation, boiler replacement, chimney pointing, drainage design for the surrounding yard, doors, termite control and a lot more.

I was fine with all of it, but at the time I was able to afford those things and my temperament is okay with tracking down qualified workers, getting bids, and having people doing all the work in the house while I lived there.

My husband at the time was not fine with this stuff. He got anxious about the house always needing something new done, he got really stressed about the workers coming in and out. I mean, he was a mess. And when we divorced, I kept the house and he rented a brand new apartment, which suits him.

Part of the answer is how well you do with the legwork of getting qualified people and arranging all that stuff, and then waiting at home for them to come, and knowing sometimes they're no-shows, and sometimes they do crappy work and you need to go after them.

If even doing this a little bit is stressful beyond measure, then I would pass on an older home because you may be doing this more than once a year.

**and don't trust Realtors. Yes, they're nice people, but they often underplay damage and cost of repair, and you'll learn more from a home inspector, and even then, they can miss a lot of things.
posted by kinetic at 3:24 AM on August 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

An old home is a lot of work. Mine is at about the century mark and incredibly well maintained, but even so we had to get the electrical brought up to code, insulate the attic, redo the windows, test for asbestos, and install a sewer backup valve (which I guess is applicable to all homes though). Most of these were minor or cosmetic jobs and they were stressful enough -- sounds like yours are more serious.

As others have said, it's quite lovely living in an old home but you need a good cash reserve to deal with the little things that keep popping up. And repairs often involve undoing what someone thought was a good idea....75 years ago.

Don't be scared off by the phrase "old home", but do be very careful about the financial aspect.
posted by The Hyacinth Girl at 4:50 AM on August 23, 2014

We live in a late 1800s duplex row house that had an interior reno and electrical upgrade a couple of years before we moved in. Since we've lived there we've had a couple of minor roof leaks. Our landlord also replaced all the windows and did facade repair a while back, but I think that had been on his list of things to do for a while. Nothing else in the six years we've lived there.

Anyway, as long as the previous reno was done well, I don't think it's ridiculous to consider it, but an older house does mean that stuff perodically goes wrong. It's not such a big deal if you have repair people you trust and the funds to cover minor emergencies when they happen. But you should get a very detailed inspection and know what you're getting into.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 5:16 AM on August 23, 2014

Were I you, I'd watch a few This Old House episodes.

Honestly if you have pots of money and can hire experts whenever anything goes wrong, I'd encourage you to do this, but I'm guessing that you don't.

My other concern is the stairs. What if you need to get out of the house in an emergency? Those stairs could be deadly. Can you climb down from a second story fire ladder? I'm not even going to mention how hard every day tasks will be if you have mobility problems. Frankly, right now, in my fifties, I'm looking to eliminate stairs as much as possible. It doesn't get better.

Sometimes we need to face up to our limitations, money-wise and physically. Now, I 100% endorse your moving to a walkable community. Frankly, that's in my future as well (I'm thinking about Pittsburgh.) So for now, how about renting? If anything breaks, you call the super to fix it. It's not your money. If you don't like apartments, see if there's a house you can rent.

It doesn't have to be permanent, just to get you in the area. Don't compromise on how you need your home to function.

As for older homes, whoo, the stuff you KNOW about is bad, and water in the basement can point to foundation problems. Then there's electrical and plumbing, which means getting behind the walls, and that 'broiler' yeah, that's probably a $10,000 issue waiting to happen.

If you aren't really well-versed in owning a historic home, and if you don't have about $100,000 to put into upgrading things that will inevitably go wrong, as much as you love the house, it won't love you back.

I bought a 1962 fixer and it it bled me dry. That's not even half as old as the home you're contemplating.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:29 AM on August 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

Our house was built in 1900. We've done something major in the way of work most every year and we've been living in it for 26 years. It's architecturally more interesting than the more modern houses we could have afforded at the time we bought it and has a lot of space.

Negatives you'll want to think about - does the roof need a full tear-off and sheeting replaced or just new shingles? The former is FAR more expensive. You'll probably want to replace gutters and downspouts when you roof - especially if there are water issues. What is the state of the basement/foundation and furnace? If the foundation is dubious just walk away - that's expensive to deal with (ask me how I know!). In fact I would start looking at any house by going to the basement and if it's dubious just stop right there. It's easy to get charmed by beautiful old woodwork and high ceilings but foundation woes can be a budget killer. Do you have the money to hire out minor work as well as big projects? Do you have the skills to do the minor ones or will your mobility issues preclude it? Would making it back into a duplex and renting the upstairs make sense?

Others have pointed out the issues of ongoing work and dealing with contractors. To a degree that will be true with all houses but the keys are can you afford it and can you deal with having contractors all the time. Another thought to consider depending on location - old houses can be quite chilly in the winter. What is the state of wiring and insulation? If there was knob and tube wiring even if it has been upgraded it can be risky to add blown in insulation because there may still be exposed wires in the walls and that's a serious fire hazard.

We have a boiler (not broiler) and radiators. It's nice quiet heat - nothing nicer in the winter than having one's clothing preheated on a radiator. Still, even after replacing all the windows over the years it's a chilly house in the winter so wool socks and long johns are a given. In summer it stays pretty cool and in SE Michigan our climate is similar to where you are.

All that said I probably would have done it again knowing what I know now - but our next place will be smaller and either newer or upgraded by someone else
posted by leslies at 5:36 AM on August 23, 2014

We owned an older-but-updated home and we did not have piles of money and here's what the reality was: For the 7 years that we owned it we never had a vacation, because all our money and our free time was spent in either doing essentials or trying to fix the things that were driving us crazy. We were young and in great health so it was fine, but I would not do it again.

All houses basically want to fall down and ownership is about keeping them up. If yardwork in your current home is "killing you," I really, really don't recommend a half-done older home. You will need at least the amount of money you would spend to have someone mow your lawn to fix things up, over a year's period. Window seals will fail, tile, paint, etc.

The red flag to me in your post is the water. The roof, while potentially expensive, is one of those repairs that doesn't generally ruin your life: It's fixed outside, contractors aren't in your closet too much, it's done pretty much in one go and as long as you get a good warranty you are probably fine.

The basement could be a disaster. Our century home leaked whenever the water table got too high and we ended up spending a lot of time and effort first doing a cheaper solution (french drains) and then finally all the weeping tile and getting a sump pump, plus all the investigating. Every rainstorm we had to go check it out, we had to respond to water at times we didn't want to, and we also had to deal with the mould issue that was a result of earlier negligence.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:09 AM on August 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

One way to look at this is to consider that the time and hassles you're eliminating - transportation difficulties, extensive lawn care, inaccessibility of shopping - will be at least equaled and maybe exceeded by the time and hassles you will now devote to repairing and maintaining the old home.
posted by DrGail at 6:10 AM on August 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I totally love old houses, and the character they have. However, unless you are living with someone vaguely handy/have a few helpful friends on speed dial that will come over at 3am/have buckets of money to call a handyman anytime you hear a weird twinge, this house will probably end up being hazardous to your health. Lawn work might be killing you now, but at least you can tackle it on your own schedule. Leaks and outages and odd smokey smells have a way of happening right at the end of the most exhausting day ever. For most people, it would be an annoyance to climb onto the floorboards in the attic with a flashlight and figure out if it's a leak that can wait with a bucket until morning, or a burst pipe that needs an emergency plumber, but it might not be possible for you, or make you sicker later.

On a more minor note, I suspect the upstairs space would largely be left unused unless you have plans for frequent visitors or roommates, so you'd be paying to maintain space you don't need, and could risk not noticing major issues. I would recommend looking into renting a smaller house or getting a condo in one of the walkable neighborhoods you are interested in.

I currently rent the first floor of an owner-occupied 100+ year old house and it's pretty much everything you are looking for - no maintenance, a lovely yard I don't have to touch, walkable neighborhood, and it's actually cheaper long term than buying a house with more space than I need.
posted by fermezporte at 6:30 AM on August 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Do get a good inspector out. All homes can have problems. Older homes have problems that are usually worth fixing. If it has all of it's original interior doors, consider it a win, because those solid wood beauties are wonderful for shutting out sounds. If it has it's original windows, not so good. Expensive to replace and they won't keep out sound as well as new windows.

I loved living in an old house, even with the quirks and problems. I loved the sturdiness of it and the large rooms. It sounds like a perfect fit for what you need right now.
posted by myselfasme at 6:59 AM on August 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Our house is 140 years old and we love it. They built houses to last in those days and ours is in better shape than a lot of 70s houses nearby that are falling apart. However, our house was very well maintained over the years and our surveyor told us it was in excellent shape for its age.

You would be crazy to by that funeral home. Sorry to be blunt but that is a project for someone with lots of money and probably skill to make right. All old houses are not the same. Look for one in great condition and get a full survey to make sure. Otherwise you're letting yourself in for massive problems.
posted by hazyjane at 7:47 AM on August 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

My previous house was built in 1915. It was beautiful. I loved it.

It also had NO insulation. We were cold all winter. (MN winters are long.) Our heating bills were $500/month and that was with the thermostat set at a maximum of about 62 degrees during the day (stay-at-home parent & baby, so we needed heat) and 55 at night.

I also had to replace most of the water pipes because the mineral buildup inside them was so bad that the water was pushing through a space smaller than a drinking straw. This required us to cut holes in multiple walls & then have them patched & repainted.

Reasons why I think you should reconsider the funeral home: 1) The stairs sound like they're going to be an issue. Why buy a house where you cannot use half of it? 2) The water in the basement concerns me due to the potential mold issues.
posted by belladonna at 8:02 AM on August 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you all for the reality check. I do love the home, but it's making it sound worse and worse. Part of my family thinks if we got it at a reasonable price, we could easily have the repairs done and not worry about it (the upper area appears well maintained other than the roof). But the other part of the family sees it and thinks it will be a never ending stream of repairs. I wish it were the former, and was sort of hopeful, but it is sounding less like that is the case.

The house has actually been fairly well maintained since the owner got in, other than the roof - or at least appears to have been. She has had the roof regularly repaired. The water damage in the basement is disconcerting, but because of the boiler (oops on that earlier) there isn't a shared air connection between the musty basement and the rest of the house like their would be in forced air. Still, I didn't think about mold issues.

We did find two houses in the area that while smaller, sound more updated, and may end up being better choices.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 8:22 AM on August 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I had to leave the lovely 1905 house five years after we moved in, due to continuing health problems. (Long enough to do new roof, new electrical system, replace several broken window mechanisms, paint & paper & refinish floors.)

As well as the many truthful wary comments above, our house became more unlivable because I got asthmatic. Older houses are filled with dust, their skins are leaky, and most important, we couldn't aircondition ours. (Heating was originally gravity fed air ducts, poorly retrofitted to forced air. Two contractors said we'd need to install new ducts through out the entire house to add AC). Filtered dry air is not just a comfort issue; with asthma it makes the difference between breathing well and gasping.
posted by Jesse the K at 8:28 AM on August 23, 2014

I love older houses too and live in one that's about 100 yrs old. I've spent most of my life in old buildings, in both rural and urban areas, and I really love the higher ceiling, the larger rooms, and the details that you don't generally find in newer houses unless they're very pricy.

Make sure you can get insulation blown into the walls if it hasn't been already. Make sure the attic is accessible so that it can get insulated if it isn't already. Make sure it has storm windows that fit well. If the heating system is more than 20 yrs old it is probably inefficient. If there are steps leading to a front porch or stoop make sure there is enough room to build a ramp.

And make sure you get an inspector who is familiar, very familiar, with the old houses in your city.
posted by mareli at 8:54 AM on August 23, 2014

Another consideration, if it's been on the market a while, is that other people with more resources who are much more familiar with construction have looked at it and deemed it not economically feasible to repair.

Let's say your budget is $250,000. Alas! Every house you'd like as-is, lovingly refurbished, is selling for over $300,000, but you can get a fixer upper for $200,000 and use the extra wiggle room to fix it up. In my current area (not WI) that means all of the contractors, investors, and maybe the original homeowner have looked the house over and determined it would cost more than $100k to fix it up. Some of those folks have more contractor relationships and experience (and probably free cash to float emergency construction), so they could do it quicker and more cheaply than I could, but they don't believe they can make a profit at that price.

So, are there any homes in that area that look like they've already been brought up to modern living standards? How much does a "done" home cost?
posted by Gable Oak at 9:37 AM on August 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

I just took a look at the real estate listings for Milwaukee... there are some GORGEOUS older homes there. Most of them look "nicely redone" so maybe I am talking about houses that are more of a train wreck than you're looking at...
posted by Gable Oak at 10:02 AM on August 23, 2014

I grew up in an 1860s house and have owned three houses, the youngest built around 1920. My experience is that if you buy an older house that is in sound condition (ie no roof leaks, termites, etc) you can live in it comfortably for a long time while making only minimal repairs. On the other hand, if you want to modernize it, it will cost you more than you think possible. Case in point: knob and tube wiring. Any old house that has not been gutted will have some, certainly for the overhead lights. As long as you don't touch it, or the walls, you can live with this for years, and it's not particularly hazardous. But if an electrician goes anywhere near it, he'll very likely have to replace it to pass inspection. Also it is not compatible with blown in insulation. And you really shouldn't run a window AC off a socket connected to ungrounded wiring. etc, etc. Same with heating: the boiler will run forever, but it won't be very efficient. And if you replace it you'll have to deal with asbestos abatement. So a lot depends on what your ambitions are for the place.
posted by mr vino at 12:04 PM on August 23, 2014

I own two houses, one built in 1907 and one in 1913. The problem is that you already see maintenance needed, which means the previous owner deferred maintenance, not only on the small stuff, but on the large, visible, and impactful items as well.

I would expect to have to do a steady stream of repairs, maybe one or two minor items a year (minor plumbing issues, mostly, in my experience, but probably really depends on your house) plus a major one every several years (roof, repaint, deck, electric, etc). This is because different components fail at different rates. With a new house, many of these items aren't near their first end of life yet, much less on repeat rounds.

Renovating an old house is extremely cost prohibitive. If you want to pull permits, many times they will require that you bring the entire house up to code, if you're updating more than x%. For example, we have 2x4 floor joists for our attic bedroom, and we'd have to replace all that with 2x6 (which means ripping out the flooring, the ducts, etc and redoing all that and then patching it all back). That's just *one* thing. For this reason, we're considering building a new house where our existing one is, when the next major problem comes up. (The existing house also has a terrible floor plan and a post and pier foundation, which is not preferred in my area.) Then you have to have specialists come in for the lead paint and the asbestos everywhere (probably).

Anyway, unless you really like doing renos or you're a professional, I really wouldn't buy an old house with the idea of modernizing it myself.
posted by ethidda at 3:55 PM on August 23, 2014

Response by poster: I need to repeat my thanks for the reality check. I saw the house again today, and a second one that both need lots of repairs. For someone else, they will probably be great houses. But looking at them in the eyes of "these things need to be fixed" lead me to realize that they will be a nightmare. It is a shame, the first house had such a glow, but looking again with an eye on repairs made me realize it just would not be realistic with my health issues. It would be hard if I was in perfect health and 15 years younger.

I saw a second house in a similar situation; it would need massive repairs before really being what I wanted it to be, and there were lots of little things wrong; it would have been a never ending processes.

There are some updated houses - they sell fast and would be smaller. But that isn't all bad either. I think with the advice in this thread, I know now that I need too look for that style of house. The explanation - that someone(s) already looked at those houses, and decided they were not worth what it would cost to update them was really helpful in how I thought about the houses we were looking at.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 4:16 PM on August 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

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