This Old House?
October 24, 2015 7:55 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for people's personal experiences or recommendations for blogs, articles, or shows about living in homes built prior to 1970 and/or having a new home built. Details inside.

Mr. Westridge and I will be moving shortly, hopefully to our "forever home." We are debating building our own home vs. buying and fixing up an older home. I've always loved older homes, but I have only the foggiest ideas of what can be involved as far as scary stuff that can go wrong and the likelihood of bad/expensive stuff happening. I'd like to spend the time before our move sponging up as many people's personal experiences in older homes as possible.

Mr. Westridge, however, is pushing for buying property and having a home built on it. Again, I don't have any experience with that so as much info as I can find is great!

Hope this question isn't too general. I don't have a super broad acquaintance/friend base, so things that many people probably hear about from other homeowners have escaped me.
posted by WalkerWestridge to Home & Garden (10 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
If you have time for a book, you might check out Tracy Kidder's House. It's one of my favorite books on any subject.

BTW, at least in my neck of the woods, when people talk about "older homes" they're not talking about ones built in the 70s. If you go looking for material on old houses, it's likely to be about much, much older houses that have problems you're not likely to find in a 70s house (knob and tube wiring, lath and plaster walls, etc.).
posted by primethyme at 8:26 AM on October 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

I found the Country Plans Small Home Design Build forum very informative and helpful. Find the long threads where folks post their entire process in the Owner Builder Projects section.
posted by humboldt32 at 8:28 AM on October 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

I get your side-eye of older houses but they're not really like cars. A new house is just as likely to have expensive problems from cheap corner-cutting contractors and until someone lives there, nobody will know. At least in the older houses, most of those problems have been found and fixed. A good home inspector can usually find the "old house" problems - foundation, roof, non-code homeowner "improvements." If you're in an old clay pipe neighborhood, definitely have the side sewer scoped - it saved me a disaster once.

On the other hand, nothing can really replace the "I built this, for me" feeling though. So if that's what your husband wants most, an older house isn't going to be as attractive no matter how well-maintained.
posted by ctmf at 9:20 AM on October 24, 2015 [3 favorites]

On the building side, check out the UK-based Grand Designs. It's all about the pitfalls and problems on the way to house building and how people deal with them. As per the title the houses in question tend to be ambitious/unique in some way, but it's not all gigantic mansions. The host, Kevin McCloud, is an architect. Big topics are budget (they always discuss planned budget and final spend), schedule/delays, and issues around communication with project managers and architects, and/or what happens when people decide to not hire a project manager/architect and do that job on their own.

It's a also a really entertaining show. I have no interest in house building but have happily watched several seasons.
posted by snorkmaiden at 9:37 AM on October 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

I bought a house built in 1920. Everything is still surprisingly level and straight. There are a few hairline cracks in some of the oldest plaster. The siding and woodwork is all original wood and it has held up beautifully. We put in modern windows and will be remodeling the bathroom. A previous owner redid the pipes and electrical, which is something that pretty much has to happen at some point in very old houses.

My parents had a new house built in the 80s. They've had to replace the wood siding already, had roof issues, and leaks have developed around many of their windows over the years. Their walls already have as many cracks as my house. They used a very reputable builder and didn't skimp on materials.

I think "they just don't build 'em like they used to" is incredibly true for houses. To rebuild my house with the same quality of wood and craftsmanship that was available in 1920 would be prohibitively expensive now.
posted by erst at 9:59 AM on October 24, 2015 [6 favorites]

If you're open to books:

Michael Litchfield's Renovation (now in its 4th ed.) is a great overview of the volume and variety of tasks you're likely to have to take on, and what they involve.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation's long-out-of-print-but-fantastic All About Old Buildings: The Whole Preservation Catalog is a massive trove of information about pretty much every aspect of occupying, repairing, and maintaining old buildings.

I also strongly recommend reading George Hoffman's short + packed-with-useful-information How to Inspect a House - this will not only give you a better idea about the "bad/expensive" things that can happen to old houses, but how to avoid buying one where these things are actually underway.
posted by ryanshepard at 10:01 AM on October 24, 2015 [6 favorites]

If you buy an older house, budget for possible asbestos and lead paint removal.
posted by Cranberry at 12:59 PM on October 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

I bought a house built in the 1890s, gutted it, and made it very 21st century inside. The original house had a good roof, walls, and floors that needed a little TLC, and everything else was brand spanking new, exactly what I wanted and where I wanted it, and 100% code-compliant.

I tackled the old vs. new question before making an offer, and sustainability ultimately won out: "The greenest building is the one that's already built."

The renovation took about 6 months with a general contractor, and I think it inspired a bunch of other houses on my block to renovate, from fresh coats of paint to new roofs and windows. Not only did I get a nice house by fixing up an older one, I also got a nicer neighborhood after about a year or so. My home's value also nearly doubled in 5 years, which was a pleasant bonus.

It was a ton of work requiring just about every building trade, but it was also a very rewarding experience and totally worth it.
posted by subliminable at 4:17 PM on October 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

We compromised. My husband wanted a shiny new house and I wanted an old character-filled one. We bought one where the front part is from, I think the 1940s or so, and the back is a newer extension. The whole thing was renovated with a shiny contemporary look seven years ago.

Don't do what we did.

The renovation was new enough to be appealing, but old enough that everything is just starting to fail now. Within a month of moving in we had to fix or replace the dishwasher, kitchen taps, heating system, a light fixture that just fell off, a cupboard door, the garage doors, the sliding door and the entire balcony.

On the other hand, the front (old) part of the house is rock solid with no issues beyond draughty floorboards and windows, and the inspector said it was built much more professionally and with higher standards than the new part at the back. So if we had to do it again, I wouldn't compromise. I'd either want brand new with warranty, or an old one that needed ripping back to the studs so that we at least saved money on the purchase.
posted by lollusc at 7:56 PM on October 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

Three years ago my husband and I purchased a house that was built in 1963. It is all block construction, tri-level with a two car garage.

It had been empty for about a year before we purchased it, had been a rental property for an unspecified length of time before that. For at least the first 20 years or so it was owned by the family that originally had it built (so say our 80+ old neighbors who have owned their house since it was new!)


1) I've replaced every single outlet in the house; they were all some combination of old, ugly, broken, non GFI compliant... Don't even get me started on the rest of the wiring.....

2) There was a 1/8 inch crack in the original cast iron main stack pipe that was discovered when we noticed water wicking up through the grout in our laundry room floor. Required two weeks of remediation and jacking through the slab to fix.

3) We tore down the very much not-to-code back porch, which was in the process of slowly rotting from periodic water damage.

4) All the flooring, cabinets, tubs, sinks are serviceable but in dire need of updating, but we don't have the cash to start ripping out stuff now.

5) The A/C unit is 14 years old, we are amazed it is still running, but keeping our fingers crossed it'll last just a bit longer.


1) The neighborhood is well established, quite, and lovely. Neighbors are friendly and not-crazy.

2) The all-block construction means almost never having to worry about noise. That train track two blocks away? You might hear a gentle, far off whistle at 11pm that sounds more cozy than anything. Planes? No problem. That dude racing a motorcycle close by? Still annoying, but not as bad as it could be.

3) Property value is great! Can't underestimate the importance of that.

4) Location! We actually are 15 minutes from everything. New build or even somewhere you can buy empty lots advertise that, but they're lying. (YMMV)

5) The house has way more character than anything built in the Valley in the last 20 years.

The Cons sounds really bad, but if you can find an older house that has been well-cared for you probably won't get the string of bad luck we did. The house was sold as-is by Fannie Mae, so we knew what we were getting into. And the home inspection pointed out MOST but not all the issues, and we knew we could deal with everything that was found.

If you really want an older house, it might take longer, but you can eventually find one that's been well loved and cared for.

If you get a new-build, make sure it's in a location you'll love, and get a solid home warranty!
posted by sharp pointy objects at 1:00 PM on October 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

« Older Considering putting offer on a house and need...   |   Maximizing of banana bread muffin deliciousness Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.