Convince me that a 100-year old house is a bad idea
March 16, 2015 7:26 PM   Subscribe

We are house-hunting at the moment in Sydney, Australia. I keep falling in love with federation-style houses. For example, my current obsession is this 101-year-old beauty but I also love this one and a variety of similar places. My husband thinks that houses of this sort of age are likely to be a total money-pit, especially if wooden, and even if renovated. Is this true?

He says Australian architecture was not designed to stand for centuries, and wants to buy a modern brick house from the 1970s or later instead. I don't think I'm going to convince him to like any of these older buildings, so instead I'd like you to convince me to stop daydreaming about them.

ISo please hit me with a clue-stick. If you have owned a house of this sort of age, what terrible things have you had to deal with? What sorts of maintenance expenses do you have that you wouldn't with a newer build? Are there things about it that are just unfixable and that you hate living with? (Maybe lack of insulation? Small dark rooms?)

Most importantly, if you were buying again knowing what you do now, would you run in the opposite direction, or would you go ahead with it anyway?

Please assume that we will get full building reports and pest inspections no matter what, and that the purchase price of the house is the same whether we go for an older house or more recent one.
posted by lollusc to Home & Garden (44 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Not gonna give you the answer you want. I own a 100 year old Craftsman house near San Francisco and it has been fine for the 25 yrs I have had it.
As long as it has a good roof ,and a real foundation (not a row of bricks ,or posts sitting on rocks) I don't see a problem.
posted by boilermonster at 7:38 PM on March 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

Are there things about it that are just unfixable and that you hate living with? (Maybe lack of insulation? Small dark rooms?)

I own a comparably old house. The insulation situation is awful and unfixable without spending far more money than would be saved in cooling/heating bills for many years. There are oddities to the layout that made sense to the social mores back then, but cause friction now. The wiring is a terrible patchwork of amateur bodges held together with tape and hope.

But there are benefits, too, including better quality and larger wood framing members than is used in modern houses giving a very solid feel, and the location in a dense neighborhood with vibrant streetlife. (Your city may vary, but in this place it was basically a choice of new-and-suburban or old-and-nice-neighborhood, which lets me ignore many of the architectural quirks.)
posted by Dip Flash at 7:39 PM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's not just a hundred year old house, it's one hundred years of dodgy renovations from other owners you have to worry about, too. This is most visible in wiring and plumbing, both of which cost a frigging fortune to remediate. Also asbestos from shitty old renovations.

Woe betide you if the house is heritage listed, most renovation is of the table then, and what's allowed requires a plethora of approvals and expensive assessments, not to mention having to buy hundred year old bricks and other stupidity.

Houses that age are built for neither modern Australian weather, or lifestyles. They often have cramped, non essential hallways, bedrooms are small by modern standards and forget about built in robes. Open plans are out and your lounge is separate from your kitchen, and your dining room,it's annoying. Also the houses are dark, and the windows are a son of a bitch to replace.

The yard is often filed with the detritus of a hundred years of crap, it's all in the soil, including crazy lead levels and asbestos.

Those houses will all have terracotta piping taking water outside which is a complete nightmare, and guaranteed to be broken.

Also, the aging plaster in those houses is utter shite compared to modern plaster, very hard to work with and around, flakes like crazy and requires wholesale panel replacement more often than not.

Ventilation, insulation, and orientation are also often subpar and the ceiling space is filled with the most horrible crap you can imagine, plus a legion of dead rats etc.

Hubby is on the right track
posted by smoke at 7:46 PM on March 16, 2015 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Not in Australia, but I lived in a fairly unmodified 100 year old apartment building. If I owned the place, the things that would drive me nuts would be:

1. Inability to easily replace or fix things. All our interior doorknobs in that apartment were original, none of them worked, and the latches had been disabled by driving nails to hold them inside the door.

2. Termite/other boring insect damage.

3. Thermal efficiency. Not only wall and roof insulation, but also windows and doors. You probably won't be able to exactly replace the current windows with more modern, efficient ones. If you want to do it anyway, they may have to be custom made. If you're in some sort of historic neighborhood where appearances are controlled by some governing authority, they're going to be very expensive. If you cheap out, you have vinyl windows in a 100 year old house and you look silly.

4. Electrical systems. Our apartment had one ungrounded outlet per room, and we were lucky if it worked. The only outlet in the kitchen was behind the refrigerator and had a multiplex splitter plugged into it; we kept an extension cord plugged into it at all times and just plugged and unplugged other small appliances as we needed to. But! Maybe the place you're looking at has been upgraded! Then you'll have to count on them upgrading the panel for more capacity, the wiring in the walls for capacity and grounding (watch enough home reno reality shows and you'll have nightmares about knob-and-tube wiring) and whatever else along with it. Can you be confident that all happened? Do the walls still have their original plaster? Hmm....

5. HVAC systems (Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning): Has central heat or AC been installed already? Will you be comfortable without it?

On the other hand, buildings that are still around and look outwardly OK after 100 years are generally fairly well-built in the first place or well-maintained. I think your concerns will mostly be about the guts of the place.
posted by LionIndex at 7:48 PM on March 16, 2015

Also be aware that old houses the north America and Europe are generally not directly comparable, my understanding is that Aussie houses of a similar vintage were generally built to a much lower standard,with far less durable materials.
posted by smoke at 7:48 PM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

My house was built in 1908 and has it's issues.. but works for our family just fine. With a proper review of the foundation, roof, and walls, as well as electrical and plumbing, there is no reason why it could not be fine. A house will continue to settle and age. Depending on the soil and drainage around it, as well as roof, a house can last perfectly well for centuries.

I don't know the humidity / termite history of the area, as well as fire danger. Those would make me consider a wooden home more carefully depending on the climate.
posted by nickggully at 7:49 PM on March 16, 2015

Things I hated about living in a poorly maintained 1885 Victorian in coastal California:

- No heating!
- Fuse would blow and half of the house would loose power if I (or housemates) had a space heater and a blow dryer on at the same time.
- No driveway/garage, and the similarly-aged homes that did were veeeery tiny. Only one horse would fit comfortably.
- 1 bathroom to 4 bedrooms, and it was off the kitchen! That was fun for smells.

But I think the mold issue was mainly a factor of a slumlord renting to college kids. Older houses can also be gorgeous if properly maintained, and if you love the inherent quirkiness, you'll probably get over the structural shortcomings. Or if you have a lot to spend on improvements, you could modernize and end up with a really charming place!
posted by Drosera at 7:49 PM on March 16, 2015

Best answer: My Arts & Crafts house was built in 1900. We've owned it for 26 years and in that time we've replaced the roof, wiring, windows, kitchen, foundation, re-painted multiple times, done a lot of plumbing and work on heating system to mention the big stuff. It's a nice house with handsome details - hardwood floors, stained glass, high ceilings, couple fireplaces. I can't speak to the market realities or specifics of Australian architecture and conditions obviously and that's a huge difference.

Do we have a house with lots of character? Yes. Next house will have been renovated by someone else or be newer though - am not up for doing this stuff again! How are your skills and what is your level of interest in doing stuff yourself? Key questions with an old house unless you pay the long buck for someone else having modernized it.
posted by leslies at 7:51 PM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

I owed a cottage that would be 152 years or so now I owed it from 142years to 149years of age. It was in a small country town in South Australian. I loved it. My house was stone, which brings it's own set of problems, but that sucker was secure & well made, I did buy it as a DIY project which might not be what you are looking for. It didn't need any more maintenance than a normal house once I had renovated it, but the main problem I found with an older house is what you do is usually more expensive & complicated by not only age, but generations of other repairs.

I loved owning an old house so much, when I moved to the USA I bought another one, this one wood and siding and built in 1912. It had been renovated before we bought it. We have owned it for 3 years now, and we are not hitting any more problems than anyone else we know with newer houses. A few jobs weren't done to the quality we liked, or skimped on but the basic solid bones of the house with it's lathe & plaster walls will be here long after I'm gone. Again like the stone house, any maintenance, wear & tear repairs (the sort that happen even in newer houses) usually end up costing more, having weird things happen that no one expects etc. Nothing is every straight forward in an older house, things from hardware shops made for standard houses often don't fit right etc as the houses themselves just aren't standard, and have numerous owners all tweaking & changing things. Which ads to the personality & also the cost.

Now I find this part of the charm of an older house, not everyone does. I would buy either of those houses you linked to in a heart beat.
posted by wwax at 7:52 PM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: One constant annoyance: No closet space. Hardly any storage space in general.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:53 PM on March 16, 2015 [6 favorites]

Buying an old house isn't necessarily the most rational choice and as this thread shows, people can come up with a ton of reasons to not buy one but personally I'd never own or live in a house built after WWI. It comes down to personal preference and tolerance for a lack of alleged amenities but there's just nothing I don't hate about modern architecture and style. I wouldn't want to live in a house that I didn't love.
posted by octothorpe at 7:58 PM on March 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

Not sure if you want responses from Americans, but I have a 105-year-old bungalow/cottage, and I love it. I'm a single not particularly handy person who doesn't make that much money, and it's fine. The house had some minor repairs that needed to be done when I bought it, but not related to age; it had been a foreclosure and empty for years, and anyway I knew about them going in from the home inspection. The wiring and HVAC had been updated fairly recently--if they hadn't been, I would have worried. I have no regrets. I specifically wanted an old house. (Clawfoot tub! Crystal doorknobs! Woodwork! Four fireplaces!)

Yes, closets are small. There's no driveway, so I park on the street. Those things don't bother me, and my old apartment didn't have parking or big closets either.
posted by Violet Hour at 8:06 PM on March 16, 2015

I live in a Victorian house about that age in California. We bought it three years ago and nothing has blown up so far, though we do have a (1980's-era) sewer line that was poorly installed and needs to be rooted once a year. Every time we dig into some aspect of the house to work on it we find some interesting sign of those who have gone before us, but so far nothing we've uncovered has been especially scary or expensive to deal with.

I love it, and am so far very glad I ignored the advice of my parents and more sensible friends and went for the big crazy ancient fixer instead of spending the same amount of money on a smaller 70's bungalow. I feel like the custodian of something special that will be here long after I'm gone, and maintaining and improving it feels like working on a legacy rather than just doing chores to keep myself comfortable. That said, in Southern California I don't really care the building is completely uninsulated, and my house came with most of the other modern conveniences already taken care of.
posted by contraption at 8:31 PM on March 16, 2015

I don't think this question is about the house - it's about your values. I am a renter, but I've always lived in old houses. Right now I live in an 1885 house that hasn't needed much but cosmetic work, installation of an efficient gas furnace (you'd need to do that in a 1970 house anyway), and one roof leak repair in decades. There's nothing inherently wrong with an old house, and in many cases they were built much better. Personally, I really distrust new houses, built with shortcuts and fast profits in mind.

But what your husband is saying is that he simply isn't into house projects. He isn't going to fall in love with architecture and spend weekends working on the latest loving improvement project for a vintage house. It's just not his thing. It's not how he wants to spend time. And, even in a great old house, you spend at least some of your time repainting and repairing. He wants a "set it and forget it" house, whereas you're more OK with some sweat equity and a different level of connection to the past. It's about values, about how you spend your time, about what 'home' means. I think you'll get farther discussing the disconnect on those issues than on the merits of any one house or other.
posted by Miko at 8:32 PM on March 16, 2015 [7 favorites]

We have a house built in 1915 in Footscray. Yes we had to have it restumped and we re-clad it, along with a new kitchen and bathroom, but a lot of 70s houses would be facing the same issues by this time. It was fixing up the 70s renovation that was the biggest hassle, the older parts of the house came up just fine. Love the look and the layout of it, and the location too.
posted by wilful at 8:32 PM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also - I don't know what your home inspection laws are in Australia, but in the US, a good home inspector can flag up any systems anticipated to need replacement within a decade or so before the sale is final. So you can avoid surprises.
posted by Miko at 8:34 PM on March 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh, and speaking as a building surveyor, if you are going the newer route, you may as well go quite modern if you can. The difference in thermal efficiency in Australian houses between the 70s and now is quite substantial.
posted by wilful at 8:34 PM on March 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

I grew up in a house of about that age (in Sydney, 1980s). Some of the concerns will vary depending on how the place has been cared for, but in our case, we discovered:
  • Layer upon layer of wallpaper, haphazardly applied (someone papered over a calendar!) and then covered in paint. Required high pressure steam to remove.
  • Liberal application of kalsomine, cheap paint that was popular in the depression. It's an absolute beast to remove.
  • My parents fell in love with some of the (admittedly lovely) features of the house, but because it hadn't been well cared for, the time and effort involved in restoring the features was prohibitive. For instance, removing the crappy kalsomine from the intricately patterned ceilings took a long, long time, and stripping back years of crappy varnish off the lovely redwood doors and skirtings was both time intensive and expensive. My parents owned this house for close to 30 years and it was never finished (and for much of that time, barely liveable).
  • High ceilings look lovely, but they make it very difficult to heat the house. More so because it's very difficult to effectively draftproof such a house. In my childhood home, in winter we heated the loungeroom and nowhere else. I took to wearing multiple jumpers while studying for my HSC. I do not remember this with any fondness!
  • Conversely, in summer, a double brick house will get hot and stay hot for days after the weather has started to cool down - particularly a house with an unshaded western wall. My grandmother lived in a brick veneer house in the same suburb, and I always remember how cool her house felt in comparison to ours.
  • CRACKING, like whoa. It's not that the house is badly constructed, necessarily - after a long period of drought the clayish soil just shrank, and the house shifted, causing cracks. This was on walls that had been completely stripped and re-plastered less than 15 years prior. Plaster walls are unforgiving!
  • Most likely only one bathroom. This is fine for a small household but most families these days do not like to have to queue! (Particularly when there is a toddler in the house.)
Your mileage may vary, of course, but even if a house that age has been well cared for, it will often have an unsympathetic/daggy renovation (I cringe at the thought of the bathroom tiles in our old house!) that you will itch to restore. I have vowed for myself that I will NEVER buy a house like this unless I have the resources to get it up to a standard I can live with before moving in.
posted by Cheese Monster at 8:42 PM on March 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

Old house smell, drafts, bugs, asbestos, lead, lack of closets, stuck windows, tiny garage . . .
posted by HotToddy at 8:51 PM on March 16, 2015

Our house is over a hundred years old. You've been in it! Yeah, we renovated the back half but I wouldn't go for anything newly built. A friend of mine just bought a place off the plan, and I have to say modern attention to detail is shite. Ours is double brick which means you can't hear the busy road and keeps us cool in summer and warm in winter. I would buy a wooden house in Queensland but not in Sydney.

Storage is solved by built in wardrobes and they're not prohibitively expensive. Old places increase in value over time, new places don't. This may only be the case to Australian real estate though.

Tell mollusc he's dreaming, old is good. It gets better with age. And prettier. Like me.
posted by taff at 9:28 PM on March 16, 2015 [8 favorites]

Convince me that a 100-year old house is a bad idea
No, I love them. If you bought one that had been renovated, it'd be a beautiful life. Unless you like renovating, don't buy a fixer upper.

He says Australian architecture was not designed to stand for centuries, and wants to buy a modern brick house from the 1970s or later instead.
You need to be careful with more modern houses too. There were plenty of McMansion equivalents in the 70s and 80s and these were bought from catalogues with no consideration for direction of the sun or particulars of the site. They were cheap and quick to build and tend to get bulldozed because some are very ugly and not worth renovating. And a lot of 70s & 80s houses will have 240cm ceilings. This may or may not bother you, bothers me big time. Higher ceilings make any room feel more spacious.

If you have owned a house of this sort of age, what terrible things have you had to deal with?
It will depend a lot on the specific age/style of your house. A friend has fricken horse hair ceilings in their fancy old house. Ridiculously expensive to repair. No thanks. Meanwhile, the early 1900s Californian bungalow i grew up in in Leichhardt was very low maintenance. We replaced the living room walls with Gyprock because of termites. We had two coats of paint on the exterior over the 15 years we lived there. We replaced the 60s kitchen and bathroom. The plumbing was fine, electricals were fine, insulation was fine. Whoever had it before us had sorted all that out already. We had to replace one wooden sash window, my parents put in an aluminium one. My mother now lives in a semi of similar age and she's had to have one patch of brick wall (about 50cm x 50xm) re-mortared, the mortar just disintegrates eventually. Wooden windows need painting every few years. She had the wiring re-done. It's little so heating/insulation is not an issue.

You're just not going to get any horror stories from me, I'm so biased. The houses you've linked to are all gorgeous. You'll see your fair share of weird back halves because these old houses were built before kitchen and bathrooms were integrated, and often they only started as two bedrooms so these are typically the bits you'll see added on by someone at some point. Hopefully someone with a good eye and money. If you can afford it, get one that is already renovated and move into the nicest suburb you can. Depending on which street, you might find that your beautiful house in Granville eventually becomes surrounded by McMansions and when it comes time to sell, you're in a buyers demographic that doesn't care about your carefully restored bathroom. We lived near Lidcombe for a couple of years and our cute little post war fibro house is still there but most of the others on the street are now fugly knock-down rebuild monstrosities.

Good luck with the house hunt!
posted by stellathon at 9:29 PM on March 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was advised by an architect friend while house hunting to dispense with a building report and just expect to eventually have to spend 50 - 100k in any house of that vintage if it helps. Outside of renovations.

We ended up in a 1905 semi anyway.

I would second being careful with newer houses though. There were plenty of shody, cheap buildings put up in the 70s and 80s and 90s in Australia. Plus anything built or renovated prior to about 1980 is pretty much guaranteed to have some asbestos.

Good luck!
posted by arha at 9:44 PM on March 16, 2015

The main issues you'll have with older houses have to do with insulation and lack thereof, old wiring, heating/air con, subsidence/settling (particularly in drought-prone countries like Australia) and things being built on a smaller scale. In the brick house, for example, you can see in the photo of the kitchen that the stove/oven has been put in what used to be the fireplace. That one looks like it may actually be tall enough, but in many old houses where that's happened, if you are taller than about 5'2", you will be bumping your head on the chimney every time you cook something.

I agree with stellathon, personally. If you get the right old house, which has already had work done to it, they don't require more work than more modern ones. Meanwhile, a "modern" house from the 70s that hasn't been looked after can be falling to bits and is ugly besides. I think it's unfair for your partner to make the issue about age if the issue is actually about the amount of maintenance required. Things like repainting, looking after roof and gutters, restumping, cracked plaster due to subsidence, water damage - all of these things can happen to any property, regardless of when it was built.

I don't own a house, but have lived in older houses and newer ones in Melbourne, plus my mother was a realtor (in the US) so I grew up hearing houses' defects analysed. I also did a lot of house-hunting with an ex who was looking for a new place and wound up buying an old house which has been renovated and hasn't been any more problematic than the c1990s house some other friends bought not long before. I have seen a lot of houses.

I honestly think that you need to work out what things really matter and then look at places that fit those criteria. If your partner doesn't like the way old houses look and wants a newer one because the style of architecture suits better, that's a valid reason. Saying no old houses because all old houses are in bad shape isn't. Even things I mentioned above vary from place to place - that brick house, for example, will have no problem with insulation whereas your weatherboard one will. The weatherboard one already has central air installed. I'd be building up a checklist like this: (obviously the specifics vary, this is just an idea)

- large bathroom
- central heating/air
- rewired
- restumped
- kitchen redone
- southern light
- small garden
- brick or insulated
- main bedroom not next to street
- whatever else - wood floors? carpeting? must have bathtub? must have fireplace? go nuts with what matters!

Then you can judge the contenders by what matters rather than making assumptions about "all old houses will fail" or "all houses in Leichhardt will suck" or "all houses on a street starting with the letter B are right out".
posted by Athanassiel at 9:54 PM on March 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

I would live in an Arts and Crafts or Federation or Victorian house in a second: I think building was still decent then and I think houses of that vintage are just more comfortable and pleasant to live in. Double brick and high ceilings and smaller windows mean they are much cooler in summer, and not too hard to heat in winter. Floor boards are much nicer underfoot than a concrete slab. People always want them, you will always be able to sell a sympathetically cared for Federation place, because they have character and charm and I am absolutely biased, living in a slapped up 80s shit box on a concrete slab and no insulation. Every house has expenses, and cheaply built newer houses aren't magically fitted out with good wiring or proper finishing - I've lived in two that were NIGHTMARES. Got to judge the house on its own merits.
posted by mythical anthropomorphic amphibian at 10:40 PM on March 16, 2015

I live in a hundred year old house in West Virginia, USA. The house is wood framed and has lathe and plaster walls in most rooms. The plaster needs redone in one room from an earlier roof leak. Insulation was added in the 70's. Storm windows as well. Avoid original or non-up-to-date windows. They'll kill you in the winter. If the rooms are big enough, you can add closets.
posted by irisclara at 10:43 PM on March 16, 2015

I've lived in two houses around that age and my partner's dad lives in a house around that age too. I think the biggest problems with them are lack of insulation, lack of central heating/air conditioning (it would be pointless anyway, considering the lack of insulation), and things like cracks in the walls and holes in the floorboards. There's also the issue that people's needs and expectations have changed over time, in terms of layout, room sizes, number of bathrooms or toilets...

That said, that house in Northmead is absolutely beautiful. As long as it passed all inspections, I'd much rather live somewhere like that than a brick house built in the 1970s.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 11:09 PM on March 16, 2015

According to my mum, the biggest expense and most time-consuming part of owning a weatherboard house of that age is the painting. Thousands of dollars and so much time spent painting.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 11:14 PM on March 16, 2015

I own a house of that age. It was renovated by someone else who did a good job. Nevertheless, we still dealt with a whole mess of stuff. You get some good stuff sometimes, like beefy framing. But you also get knob and tube wiring, plaster and lathe walls, a lack of earthquake safety (here in the Bay Area), and concerns about asbestos and lead.
posted by slidell at 11:22 PM on March 16, 2015

I don't really understand this. Those houses look newly renovated to me, and one of them is brick built. There are standard trouble spots for houses -- wiring, plumbing, roofing, asbestos, drainage. Buying a home built after 1960 isn't a guarantee against any of these problems. A roof lasts 20 - 50 years, so even at maximum lifespan, your husband's 1970s brick box is going to need that kind of attention.

The two of you are arguing about theories. Get an inspector you trust and start arguing about houses.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:45 PM on March 16, 2015 [4 favorites]

Check your MeMail.
posted by jrobin276 at 12:07 AM on March 17, 2015

I've lived in mostly old Queenslanders for the last ten years or so (a lot of them - I'm a renter and we've moved roughly every two years) and they will be unique little beasts. I've lived in places with terrifying wiring, with rotten stumps that sway in the breeze, possums or worse in the roof, and the sort of kitchens that make you wonder if the renovators ever actually used a kitchen and bathrooms so waterlogged and poorly designed that it's a miracle they haven't fallen through the floor.

I also still love old houses with a firey passion. They have character and charm that brick boxes don't, and their sets of problems tend to be obvious and relatively straight forward to identify and fix. Restumping a house is easier than fixing a brick one with a fucked foundation, and I can literally see the wiring in my current house - I know how old it is (way younger than the house, as it doesn't have all cavities to hide the wires in) and the condition its in, and I'll never have to worry about it driving a nail.

I'd say a house renovated in the last decade or so is going to be as good if not better than a newer house that hasn't had a major remodelling anyway, regardless of original vintage. Both those houses you linked to are beautiful and look like they've had heaps of work done to them lately. Really you can only talk about them on their own merits - there's no magical window in which a house will be good or bad. It's all down to the care of the owners and how well it's been tended to.
posted by Jilder at 12:12 AM on March 17, 2015

Best answer: I've lived in two old houses in Sydney, neither of which were particularly well maintained. But as I didn't have to maintain them, I just learnt to live with the draughts and the squeaky floors and the doors that only sort of close and the taps that shudder if you don't turn them up enough, or up too much. I'm also just not looking at the cracks above the large arch in the lounge room, as they are the landlord's problem, and they don't seem to have gotten bigger. Even well maintained, I don't think I would want to buy either of them for two reasons common to both:

1. Layout, particularly the separate kitchen from living area. It works pretty well in a housemate situation, as it creates separate living spaces, but most people now are used to and want open plan living areas, as they work best if you have kids. Or entertain. Or if you like to watch TV while you cook.

2. Small windows that face the wrong way and eaves that aren't big enough. I like sunny winter rooms, and light but no sun in summer and no west facing anything except maybe the bathroom (less mold). Though this is stupidly hard to find even in newer buildings. In your examples, the first house is only going to get sun into the kitchen and laundry, and probably too much sun in summer, especially reflecting off the kitchen sink. The living room will be cold and dark in winter. The second house has an outdoor entertaining area that faces west, which means unless there's huge trees in the back yard (which there might be, hard to tell), it will be unusable in summer. (One summer in a 1970's apartment that faced west, and I'm now hyper aware of orientation).

That being said, I do have a soft spot for the old ones. Which is why I keep renting them.
posted by kjs4 at 2:22 AM on March 17, 2015

Actually, I'm probably judging the first one too harshly. But if I owned it, I would spend the whole time trying to work out how to afford to swap the kitchen and the third bedroom.
posted by kjs4 at 2:30 AM on March 17, 2015

I live in a house built in 1927 or thereabouts, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Do you have kids or are you planning to have kids? If so, lead paint can be a problem in older houses (pre-1978 in the US, don't know when they stopped using it in Australia). Lead paint makes DIY projects a lot more hazardous and possibly inadvisable, especially if there are kids in the house. It also jacks up the price of having a contractor do the work. Some contractors here are less willing to work on projects where lead paint is involved, so it can take longer to find someone to do work.

If the windows are original or just old, they might have lead paint on them, too. We replaced some of our windows for that reason. That's something you'll need to be aware of if you do replace old windows, and is a decent reason to replace old windows if you have kids.

Nothing's standard. I had some doors replaced in my house recently. I couldn't just go down to Home Depot and get new doors, because the walls are plaster and are not the same thickness as modern standard walls. And I couldn't do the install myself (even if I or my husband had the skills or desire to do that, which we don't), because lead paint (we have a 2 year old and I'm pregnant, so we don't mess with lead paint).

Fortunately, the previous owners (or one of the owners before them) did update the wiring. Pretty much everything in the neighborhood where we wanted to live was built between about 1890 and 1940. We looked at some houses with old knob-and-tube wiring. That made me nervous.

Kitchens in the old houses in this neighborhood tend to be pretty small. I don't know if that's the case in old houses where you are. The previous owners built a new kitchen as an addition, which makes this house a lot nicer than a lot of the others around here. A big kitchen was important to us, don't know if it is to you.

If a big garage is important to you, you might have more trouble finding that in an older house. It isn't to us, but it is to some people. Detached garages are also more common in older houses. Sometimes when the weather is nasty, I wish we had a garage where we didn't have to go outside to go between the garage and the house. But if I were still living in California, I probably wouldn't care nearly as much about that.

But overall, we like our house. It is possible to live in and enjoy an old house, even if you have no DIY skills. Though the real reason we like our house is the neighborhood it is in. It's a walkable neighborhood, where we can walk to shops or the grocery store if we want to, and there is nearby bus transportation. If that kind of thing is important to you, you might end up with an older house (at least in the US), because neighborhoods in the US built in the later 20th century tend to be less walkable. This trend is reversing in some places, so you might be able to find a really new house in such a neighborhood. (I have no idea if any of this holds true in Australia) When I was a teenager, I lived in a suburb where the only thing you could walk to was other houses in the same development, and I hated it. My husband does not like to drive. So a house in a non-walkable, non-transit-friendly neighborhood was not something we would have considered buying. As they say, the three most important things in real estate are location, location, location. Anything else about a house you could in theory (given enough money) fix. I think it really is more important to find a house in a location that you like than it is to find a perfect house. The location may dictate the age of the house you buy.
posted by Anne Neville at 6:41 AM on March 17, 2015

I've only ever lived in houses 100 years old + and I'm surprised by all these negative replies.
My parents currently live in a 600 year old house. I haven't had the experience that they're terrible to maintain or that they suck all your money away.
I wouldn't live in a new house if you gave me the choice. Most old houses are far better built than anything going up today.
posted by shesbenevolent at 7:56 AM on March 17, 2015

I don't think there's any kind of house you can buy that will totally avoid unexpected maintenance needs. Shit happens, to old and new houses. You could rent and then they'd be the landlord's problem (but then you might get stuck with a landlord who isn't good about doing maintenance). People think they can avoid that sort of thing by buying a new house, or by buying a house that has stood the test of time, but there really is no guarantee.

Do you like open-plan houses? I don't, really. I don't like having people in the kitchen while I'm cooking, especially not people of the toddler persuasion. My grandparents' house, built in 1900, had a door that you could close between the kitchen and the dining room. I've wished I had that on some occasions (or even that I had a standard sized door frame that I could put a baby gate up in). Instead, we've got a big open archway between our kitchen and dining room, too big for a gate. I'd like to keep my toddler out of the kitchen, but as a practical matter I can't. Features that one person likes might be ones that another one finds annoying. It's also possible that there are features that you'll like at one stage of life and find annoying at another.
posted by Anne Neville at 8:15 AM on March 17, 2015

We live in a 1906-built house; The previous owners updated the plumbing and electricity, and the house had a newish roof, furnace and water heater when we bought 6 years ago. The only 'surprise' we've had so far was a sewer line that needed partial replacement -- running at about $1500 USD.

I think a well maintained older house (as our house was very well maintained) need be no more headache than a new house.
posted by u2604ab at 1:28 PM on March 17, 2015

My house is 125 years old. They don't build them like this anymore. As the inspector said on the walk-through, it's been standing over a hundred years, through rain, drought, tornadoes, and blizzards. If something were seriously wrong with it, it's been fixed. It'll probably stand a while more.

Also, there aren't too many things about a house that you absolutely can't fix .
posted by caryatid at 2:05 PM on March 17, 2015

Best answer: We live in a 107 year old house in Texas. We are actually only the second owners of the house. Before we bought 15 years ago it the wiring had just been redone. We've replaced the central air twice, had to have the foundation raised, completely replaced the plumbing all the way out to the street, and remodeled the kitchen. Two bedrooms literally have no closets and the bathrooms are tiny. I love our house, but my husband is pretty experienced in construction so we've been able to do a lot of the work ourselves. The house is extremely sturdy due to its box construction, meaning all the outside walls are solid wood. So really, other than the roof which was replaced in the 1960s, all the big maintenance/repair has been done recently.

I agree that a 50 year old house is just as likely to have the same concerns and not as likely to have been fixed. To me, you need to ask about the plumbing, wiring, roof, etc. and compare house to house.
posted by tamitang at 5:24 PM on March 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

We live in a house in New York City dating from approximately 1870. We bought it after it had a fire and was uninhabitable, so we had to renovate the whole thing up to code, but we left as much "oldness" as we could get away with.

Since we bought the building (20 years ago) we had to do some roofing, we had to put in a new furnace, and some new windows. A new water heater. And then various other things. I'd say about $30, 000 total over 20 years.

I have a friend who lives in the penthouse of a gazillion-dollar building downtown, new construction, several well-known movie stars etc. in there. The people who built that building did it incorrectly and cheaply and they are now spending millions fixing things and suing the builder. And recently someone told me that the same thing is happening to a brand-new building around New York University, apartments owned by gazillionaires.

My house (it's a brownstone) is SOLID. There are definitely some problems. The floors are old and cracked, for example, and some places in the building are very drafty. But we love our building.

A lot of this comes down to aesthetics. I am so lucky in that my husband hates new construction as much as I do. And the 70's? yuck.

I look at my house as I would clothing or the art I might buy or furniture. If I'm spending that kind of money, I NEED my house to conform to my aesthetics. Every day I love waking up in my house. Every day I love to come home to my beautiful carved wood front door. I love my wide-plank Southern hardwood oak floors (they were actually subfloors -- the parquet floors that were there were all too water damaged after the fire to save -- the inspector from our government renovation mortgage tried to make us cover these subfloor with new floors, but we hired a restoration architect to write a letter stating that our subfloors were stable and solid enough to withstand use, and they let us keep them.)

If you're dying for an old house, I think you should try to get one, because an old house is a work of art that you get to live in.
posted by DMelanogaster at 6:11 PM on March 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I don't own but have lived in multiple 100+ year old houses in inner city Melbourne (Hey wilful, Footscray represent!) and one that was less than ten years old. The older houses, particularly when insulated both well and recently, are so much more comfortable to live in - high ceilings, bigger rooms, sash windows, better air flow and often MUCH better built. I've had multiple handymen/tradies tell me they would never buy a new house because they are often knocked up cheaply with little consideration for the site or the climate. That said, my dream house is a 1950s - 60s brick home preferably owned by one nice old European couple who lovingly maintained it but haven't redecorated in at least 30 years.
posted by Wantok at 7:43 PM on March 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

The first rule of buying a home is "don't fall in love, be prepared to walk away."

Get a real, honest home inspection - maybe even more than one. Have a professional tell you face-to-face what are the potential problems with your potential home. Be prepared to listen and take them seriously.
posted by bendy at 8:49 PM on March 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

One possibility, if you can find a contractor you can trust, is to buy an older house that's in not-so-good shape and to retrofit it, doing all that's needed in one go. So, for instance, you'd have them redo the roof, the cladding and windows all at once, and that way you can insulate and draftproof in one go.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:49 AM on March 18, 2015

Dust. I've lived in 100+ year-old houses and brand new houses, and I swear old houses are dustier.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:46 PM on March 19, 2015

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