Talk to me about my new old house (asbestos, other weird stuff?)
June 2, 2016 9:20 AM   Subscribe

Boyfriend and I just bought our first house, built in 1923. I'm starting to worry we got in over our heads.

The house was well below our budget, and as a result is in overall worse shape than most of the more expensive houses we saw. The low price wasn't the primary motivator -- we also just liked this house and location better than any of the others. It's a beautiful old house that, as my mom (rather dryly) commented, looks like it was previously occupied by a frat. The sellers were evidently having a bunch of personal problems (financial issues, impending divorce) and just not really taking care of the place.

We knew going in that we'd be facing some sooner-rather-than-later repairs and expenses. A lot of it is no big deal -- things like painting over some truly wretched and sloppy paint work, replacing the shitty linoleum in the kitchen that the previous owners let their dog chew on, removing some weird stuff from the walls (old thermostat bits, a mysterious light fixture in the kitchen attached at about hip height, that kind of thing). The main bath is gross and small and dated and will need to be totally redone eventually, but isn't going to kill us (...I hope?). We're young and childless and don't mind living with gross or weird stuff for a little while.

However. I've been reading up on old house stuff here and elsewhere, and I'm starting to get nervous that some of the things we didn't think too hard about are going to turn out to be actual, big, super expensive problems.

For example! The oil furnace in the basement is quite old, and while it's currently chugging along just fine (albeit at about 80% efficiency), we figured we'd have to replace it eventually. Thing is, all the steam pipes down there are insulated with what is almost certainly asbestos. Some sections look fine, but there are a few places (not huge, maybe an inch or two in different spots) that are damaged or pulling away. Other sections are covered in what looks like duct tape, so who even knows what's going on underneath. I'm concerned that 1. this is dangerous to us (laundry is down there, so we'll be using the space) and 2. whenever we do need to deal with the old furnace, we'll be forced to do thousands of dollars worth of abatement or whatever before anyone will work with us (not sure if that's how that works or not?). For what it's worth, the home inspector flagged this area as containing "probable asbestos" but did not say anything beyond that.

At one point an electrician lived in the house, and we were told that he updated the electric about five years ago. One the one hand that's awesome -- we saw a lot of houses of the same era with lots of knob and tube crap -- but on the other hand, what if he did something insane and/or illegal? I'm not even sure how you figure that out other than waiting for some kind of crisis to occur.

Overall I'm just feeling incredibly overwhelmed as the realities of homeowning start to set in, and I would love a little guidance on some first steps. Should I call a plumber and an electrician and just ask them to check things out and make sure everything is more or less okay, or is that a stupid waste of time and money? Are there particular issues or warning signs I should be on the lookout for, either generally or more specific to a nearly 100-year-old house? I felt really good about this decision when it first happened and now I'm worried that we accidentally bought a garbage house that wants to kill us because we were too dumb to know better.

(Maybe not relevant, but at least part of my rising panic is probably mental -- I had a knee injury right smack in the middle of the closing process and opted to have surgery ASAP so that I could do the acute recovery while we still lived in our stair-less apartment. I'm reasonably mobile now but prohibited from doing much of anything besides endless physical therapy for a few months. It's a big added stressor and also I just feel SO USELESS.)
posted by catoclock to Home & Garden (28 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
Most of this stuff should've been covered in your inspection report. Ours had breakdowns of where suspected asbestos was, electrical and framing problems were, even down to "x panels of insulation need to be replaced.'

The process varies by your jurisdiction, but most cities/counties run websites now that have full permit histories (something else your realtor should have pulled for you, and you should have on file). So you can review the permitted work that was done; if the electrician didn't pull permits, you should have a pro come in and check it out....but again, this should've been done during the inspection, and a breakdown of the electrical system should be in your inspection report.
posted by furnace.heart at 9:28 AM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


Did you have an inspection done and get a copy of the report?
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:28 AM on June 2, 2016


You had the house inspected, right? You should have gotten a report that mentioned electricity, asbestos, water, structural damage, etc.
posted by xyzzy at 9:29 AM on June 2, 2016


Was the house sufficiently under budget that you could put the difference into a rainy day house fund? I would also call the inspector and ask them questions about their report and what they remember before I called in pros to redo the inspector's job.
posted by AugustWest at 9:31 AM on June 2, 2016


There are licensed asbestos abatement specialists- you could call one and see if they'd be willing to give you a quote for removing asbestos containing materials (ACM). I'm in a related business so yeah that could get pricey but we get quotes first and a good contractor doesn't charge to provide you an estimate. Same thing with electrician and plumber. Do you know anyone in the neighborhood? Maybe they can recommend some good local contractors for you to contact.
posted by FireFountain at 9:37 AM on June 2, 2016


Response by poster: Yes, the house was definitely inspected prior to the sale. I do have the report. It's not as detailed as what furnace.heart mentioned -- as far as asbestos, it just says "suspected asbestos" with a picture of a section of the basement pipes.

I'll step out now, sorry!
posted by catoclock at 9:39 AM on June 2, 2016


If the house was under budget, I would say you most likely got a deal. All of these issues can be easily dealt with. Most sound cosmetic. Also, all of this should have been covered in an inspection.
posted by xammerboy at 9:39 AM on June 2, 2016


Looks like encapsulation is an option with asbestos pipe insulation.

Asbestos is all over the place in older homes (it's in the basement tiles at my current house and probably in the tiles at the house we're moving into next month) and the contractors I've spoken with will say that encapsulation, if it can be done, is a perfectly acceptable alternative to abatement. If the pipes themselves are in good working order and do not need to be replaced, consider encapsulation.
posted by soren_lorensen at 9:44 AM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


FWIW, I replaced a furnace (gas, not oil) in my 1960 house last year and the furnace company included the asbestos abatement of the old furnace in their service. A lot of old houses have asbestos, it's generally not a problem unless it gets into the air, and there are a bunch of professionals who know how to deal with it, so it wouldn't be a big concern to me. Abatement of the oil tank might be a bigger deal when/if you upgrade to a modern furnace.

As to the electric, so many houses out there have had questionable stuff done by non-electricians, if an electrician updated the wiring and stuff that would be super-low on my list of concerns.

Welcome to home ownership!
posted by rabbitrabbit at 9:45 AM on June 2, 2016 [4 favorites]


If you have steam pipes, you probably have an old-fashioned single-pipe steam heating system. Is the boiler what New England plumbers jocularly refer to as a "snowman"? If so, there's good news and bad news:
- the good news is that these boilers were over-engineered by today's standards, and they'll generally run forever.
- the bad news is that they're covered with asbestos
- they're also not especially efficient

I own a house built around 1920 and we had one of these. We had the boiler replaced about 5 years ago & all the asbestos insulation removed at the same time. The plumbing contractor recommended an asbestos abatement company and the asbestos removal was surprisingly not that expensive, I recall it being around $3k but it was certainly no more than $5k.
posted by mr vino at 9:50 AM on June 2, 2016


If the pipe insulation was installed before the ‘80’s, you can be pretty confident that it does contain asbestos. Given the age of the house, you can be pretty sure that there’s other asbestos around, too. Back in the ‘20’s they thought it was the greatest thing ever. It can be in plaster, caulk, adhesives, etc. It will be an issue when you’re having work done. But it’s only the friable stuff that’s a concern for your day to day life. I’d encapsulate the decrepit parts of the insulation for peace of mind about using the basement. It’s not going to hurt you unless it can be inhaled. If you do decide to have children, you’ll want to look into lead and PCBs, as those are ingestion hazards. Sock some of the money you saved away for future work.
posted by Kriesa at 9:54 AM on June 2, 2016


(General preface to everything below: prices depend a lot on where you are located; whether something is "worth it" depends a lot on your personal finances.)

Asbestos: yes you probably have it. Yes you'll probably need to have it (at least partly) abated when you replace the furnace. I agree with others that any competent furnace company will probably bundle this service, or at least recommend an asbestos abatement contractor when they quote you a furnace. So you could just call a couple HVAC companies and ask what they do about abatement and about how much it is.

Electrical: there is a strong chance that any DIY stuff is not technically up to code. However if an electrician did it, it also seems likely that it was done in a "good enough" manner rather than what some average joe would do based on watching youtube videos. Wouldn't hurt to call an electrician just check everything out. But call around a bit to make sure they understand what you want. Normally electricians are called to perform a specific repair or upgrade; I've had trouble conveying "please just make sure everything is OK and tell me if it's not."

Same goes with plumbing. Honestly what you might do is call the inspector who did your inspection and ask if they can recommend specific electrical and plumbing inspectors to do a detailed inspection of those aspects of your house. Not sure how much that would be, but worth checking.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 9:55 AM on June 2, 2016 [2 favorites]


However. I've been reading up on old house stuff here and elsewhere, and I'm starting to get nervous that some of the things we didn't think too hard about are going to turn out to be actual, big, super expensive problems.

I highly, highly recommend picking up George Hoffman's short, dirt cheap and indispensable How to Inspect a House. It will start getting you oriented to what to keep an eye on in your house, and what some of the most common signs of trouble are.
posted by ryanshepard at 10:01 AM on June 2, 2016 [3 favorites]


In the US, there are a TON of programs for replacing old heating systems that can off set your costs, up to and including asbestos abatement. You'll find them from Federal, State, County, Municipal as well as from your utility company.

For example, replacing an old oil furnace/boiler with natural gas might be rebated by the gas company.

That lino in the kitchen could have asbestos, so just go over it, don't try and pry it up.

As soon as you can, have a plumber put a camera down your pipes to the city sewer, to affirm that you don't have any problems.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:07 AM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


My husband and I bought a hundred-year-old fixer-upper about nine months ago, and literally every homeowner who has visited since has been delighted to point out a different part of the house that he or she is certain will kill and/or bankrupt us immediately (water heater, furnace, back steps, giant old tree, asbestos, lead, wiring, leaks, mold, foundation, etc.).

The fact that everyone names a different thing, coupled with the fact that the previous owners survived living in the house in its current condition, coupled with the fact that none of these folks ever felt inclined to point out these same million things that were wrong in any of our previous rentals, has made me take all of these assertions a lot less seriously.

There are definitely things that need addressing in any old house, but my mental health advice is to start working on them slowly and not to get caught up in the weird advice/hazing ritual that other people feel like they need to do to make first-time homeowners feel even more insecure about the biggest purchase of their lives.
posted by teditrix at 10:20 AM on June 2, 2016 [4 favorites]


Best answer: We bought our now 100- year old house 20 years ago. We had an old boiler, asbestos covered pipes, and knob-and-tube wiring. We never had tons of cash to pour into fixing everything all at once. We did replace things as they arose, which did not break the bank. So, as everyone upthread has said, you don't need to do it all at once. If you are freaking out about the potential cost of something, find someone to give you a (preferably free) quote. Oftentimes, it's not as bad as you think and then you'll know what you need to spend for that project, not to mention the knowledge you'll get from talking to a skilled tradesperson.
posted by sarajane at 10:30 AM on June 2, 2016


So, as a veteran old house homeowner, you tackle it like any big problem-one step at a time and from the ground up. Literally. Buy some books and read some websites-The Holmes Makes it right books are great for an entry level series they are written by Mike Holmes who is a Canadian contractor who has a great TV show on HGTV about fixing messed up homes. Get a subscription to Fine Homebuilding magazine if you want to go the DIY route (or even just learn enough to tell a good from a bad contractor).

Here are the evaluation steps: (you may need to hire a contractor or two to come in an evaluate the situation as a consultant at an agreed upon price to just look at and advise you-like hiring a lawyer for a consultation)

0. Go to city hall and get a permit history/zoning/whatever history on the house. They should have counter staff available to help you and provide you with all the information they have on your home. This can let you know what you need to do and what has be done and when.

1. Foundation-is it sound? is the ground the foundation touches stable? Is the house level? Do you have any water intrusion in the basement? If the foundation isn't right, nothing else is going to come out right.

2. Bones-is the framing sound? water damage, insects, has previous owner (PO) done overenthusiastic renovation that removed structural supports? You say you have a basement-this can be a HUGE asset in evaluating the house as you can SEE and access these things usually. Finished basements are not necessarily a huge asset.

3. Backbone systems-Electrical, plumbing, HVAC. These are best left to professionals for major rework. My last old house project got a new panel installed, and a new furnace installed (the 95% new furnaces are magic and pay for themselves over time). Get one of the circuit testers to get some idea of the quality of your wiring. If you have old steel or copper or (heaven forbid) lead pipes get that stuff replaced with PEX real, real quick. Also get your water tested for heavy metals and such so you know how to evaluate this issue. Dealing with this stage is likely when you will run into asbestos abatement-asbestos is not safe but it isn't the most dangerous touch and die stuff in the world either. It is a naturally occurring mineral and in a lot of areas there is a certain background asbestos count from natural rock outcroppings. If you are not working in enclosed spaces with it for a long periods of time it isn't something to treat as a huge danger. From what you describe if you don't mess with it, just being next to it isn't dangerous. Trying to remove it yourself if you aren't prepared for it can be. Do you have an "orangeburg" sewer pipe? if so it will fail. Get that dug up and fixed before you toilet becomes a fountain. Is your plumbing vented right? (same as last point).

4. Livability/comfort-insulation, new windows, doors, roof, etc.

5. Aesthetic items-kitchen renovation, new bathrooms, flooring, etc. These are a matter of taste and do what you like and can afford.

You want to do them in this order so you don't have to go back and redo crap you just sealed up behind a nice new drywall or expensive counter or whatever.

Here are some links to my previous answers.
posted by bartonlong at 10:36 AM on June 2, 2016 [9 favorites]


Best answer: I bought a 1920s house almost a decade ago. I have had a laundry list of things to repair -- doorknobs up and falling off (once, a door, a very sturdy door, up and fell off with no explanation), lath and plaster walls are beautiful but a nightmare to repair, expect to find new problems whenever you remove something (oh, I'll just put in new flooring...oh! there's another layer of flooring underneath that doesn't want to come up easily...oh! the stuff underneath suffered water damage at some point and needs to be replaced) -- never expect a small job to be a guaranteed small job.

But, while typing this, teditrix came in and made my main point, viz: people have been living in this house for a very long time, though storms and so on, and survived. You will get used to certain quirks of the house, used to telling people they can't flush anything besides waste and toilet paper, etc...

My area doesn't pull permits etc either. I did move in to uninsurable knob-and-tube; the electrician said it was very well done and there was no real reason to tear it out except to satisfy the whims of the insurance company. (And I had done a lot of calling around, and found nobody willing to write a policy without the entire thing being re-wired.) This involved a lot of work, but it was done by a licensed electrician, and afterwards there was an inspector from the province who poked his head in to make sure everything was as it should be. (Apparently I had a very good electrician; when he heard the name he said "Him!! Oh, then this is just a formality. He's never made a mistake in his life.")

It's probably safe to assume you have neighbours in houses of similar age -- ask them for the low-down on local repair people. If your neighbourhood has a Facebook group, that's also a good place to ask for warnings/recommendations. Interview more than one for every job, hire the one that is not only well-recommended but also a person you like; it makes everything more pleasant.

Learn to lay caulk well -- there will be gaps in strange places -- just keep going at it until your house seems to be built primarily out of caulk and you are no longer dealing with draughts at the windows and mice in the cupboards, and this is an easy, easy DIY once you get the hang of it. (I did so much of it that my then-toddler daughter played "caulk" and would mimic all the actions; it drove me mad that none of the toy tool kits on the market included a toy caulking gun, which would have been just the thing.)

There are YouTube videos on how to repair nearly everything -- a good book on home repairs that has been written by a certified pro and has been edited and so on is a still a good investment.

I referred to my house as "a rich person's house that had been lived in by a succession of poor people." A testament to the idea that you can live with a fair amount of neglect before the house ceases to be a house. If you have a treed lot, stay on top of trimming the stupid things and don't let new ones grow; every spring I have to go around yanking up maple saplings, a thing I am sure is going to get me on a list of subversives performing anti-Canadian activities. But a tree in the wrong place or growing into the wrong place is expensive, and damage happens quickly.

AFAIK asbestos is like smoking and any other number of bad-for-you things in that it is not brief occasional exposure that one needs to fear. Mould is also a little oversold as a danger too in my view, ditto lead paint -- so long as you are not a small child and not actively playing with asbestos/mould/lead, get rid of it eventually, but don't live in fear of it.

Some things, if not disclosed in the sale, are things you can and should sue the seller for. If you do ask somebody to have a look (I would shop around for a very experienced general contractor) to tell you if there are any problems, do this before the statute of limitations on going after the seller runs out.

And, congratulations -- old houses are...well, there are reasons why you bought the house you did; remind yourself of these whenever something breaks down.
posted by kmennie at 10:40 AM on June 2, 2016 [4 favorites]


Best answer: Don't worry too much! I did this spiral when we first bought our house (built in 1913) a few years ago. It feels overwhelming, but probably a lot of this stuff will never even come up, or if it does, pretty much as slowly as stuff comes up in a brand new house.

Asbestos isn't dangerous unless it's being fiddled with. if you have asbestos covered pipes, just don't poke at them and they won't give you any lung problems while your furnace is still working. If you need to replace it, just make sure you tell everyone your house is old and there's suspected asbestos, and they'll send someone who knows the drill. I don't know, maybe that's controversial. but I grew up in a house with asbestos, and our house probably has some now.

This is actually helpful everytime you talk to someone to do something at your house. I've been having great success telling people that our house is over 100 years old, so there could be unforseen issues with doing something small in a new house. I think we've started getting more experienced tradespeople from the companies because of it. Like, we got our chimney cleaned, and I was like "very old house" and they were like "oh, good thing to tell us, we have some guys who probably wouldn't know what to do with a brick chimney."

Definitely put some of the money you saved on the house aside into a "oh crap" fund, because old houses do have some quirks, especially if parts of them are.. home built. One thing to be aware of, though this might be regional and might not matter for you, is that often old furnaces are vented up the chimney in old houses, and that's not up to code anymore. So if your furnace bites it, it may have to be replaced in a very expensive manner, with all new venting and stuff put in. I'd definitely put some money aside for that, our realtor told us when we were looking to be aware of that with old furnaces. (we were specifically looking for something built 1920s or before)

I've read a few books on DIY stuff and done some brushing up on it, so that when things come up I don't feel totally overwhelmed by it. It's at least helpful to be able to talk to tradespeople about what is wrong when I phone them. But that's general homeownership advice.

Some old house specific stuff: I wouldn't THINK you'd have any lead paint since people have been living in your house, but if you have anything painted white (the most common lead paint colour most places) and the white seems PARTICULARLY nice and bright for its age (lead paint is really goodlooking), consider painting over it with a sealing primer. Make a concerted effort to wash your hands before you eat. Get carbon monoxide detectors. Be aware of any changes in the flavour or colour or smell of your water. Poke your head and a strong flashlight up into your attic every 3 months to make sure there's no critters/leaks/mold/crazy things happening up there. If anything is acting odd (ie: one of our upstairs light fixtures went through more bulbs than felt right) check it out, because it could be something done wrong (the connection wires had become untwisted and were sending a spark to each other occasionally, and shorting out lightbulbs or something. Could have started a fire.)
(also we had a plug that didn't work, and it turns out that the connection wire had fallen off.) Just use your eyes, nose, ears and head to inspect things often and stay on top of them when they come up!

kmennie is right. If you have a big old tree, stay on top of the dumb saplings it spawns. We have two beautiful Ash trees, and I feel like all I ever do is pull up saplings.
posted by euphoria066 at 10:46 AM on June 2, 2016 [3 favorites]


Best answer: We know your feeling - we closed on our first house on Tuesday! It was built sometime in the 30s and 40s, and needs a bit of love. The big difference in our situation is that all 4 of our combined parents have built or gutted...about 7 or 8 homes. Both my husband and I grew up in reno hell.

So - first realization: People live for years and years in worse wrecks than yours - and yours doesn't even sound close to a wreck. Calm down! You (probably) don't have to strip the house down to studs, redo every single wire and plumbing fixture, or lift the home off the foundation to repour. Your stuff? Peanuts!

Make a list. Check it twice. Then - prioritize, and make sure you include quality of life somewhere in there. Bathroom functional, but you hate it? Fix it - unless there's something structurally important to do to the house (mold/rot/sagging, whatever). Let yourself have a 'fun' reno or two. Paint your front door! Make it look like YOUR house, dammit. Oil furnace still chugging along? Make sure you can replace it if it fails, but otherwise, schedule the replacement for when YOU are comfortable with the home, and your finances.

Decide if you want to (or can) do as much as you can ASAP. We're overlapping our rental for a month so we don't have to live somewhere with no functional bathroom. We're ripping the whole bathroom and kitchen out, and making it awesome.

As for as home-made electrical work - if it wasn't done badly enough for the inspector to notice, it's probably okay. Shortcuts are evident to all but the shoddiest of inspectors. Our wiring is clearly home-made because of such facts:
- It's not stapled to joists
- the hole it passes through is an inch lower than it needs to be
And then it's clear that the panel was installed by a licensed electrician because of things like correct bundling of cables and the correct amount of slack. Does that mean our house is going to catch on fire, because some guy cheaped out and lead the lines to the panel himself? Nah. It just means we're going to turn the electrical off one day and staple them to the joists so they're not hanging loose. No one wants to set themselves on fire - some DIYers are REALLY bad at it, but if it's someone with reasonable capability, even if it's not 100% to code, doesn't mean its a wreck of an install.

Calm down! Houses, especially old cranky ones, always have weird surprises. You prooobably have rot in the bathroom. You definitely have asbestos somewhere. But remember, people lived in these kinds of houses for years and years and you don't hear of many spontaneously combusting or falling down. :) You'll be fine.
posted by aggyface at 10:54 AM on June 2, 2016 [3 favorites]


Oh - and putting my geologist hat on for one last thing:

Asbestos is not going to jump out and bite you in the middle of the night. Again, generations lived with it as their wonder material and it clearly didn't kill off the human race. Be cautious. Wear proper PPE if you're poking at it and vacuuming dust or whatever and don't stick your nose up to it to take a big long whiff. Get it removed one day, but you don't need to be crazy militant about it. If a chunk of it falls off, sweep it up, don't breathe in too much, and chuck it in the garbage; move on with your day. (Please don't chuck a whole pipe's worth into the garbage though!)
posted by aggyface at 11:07 AM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


Hi! Fellow 1923 house-owner here, American Foursquare with Arts & Crafts details.

There's going to be things to deal with all the time, and you simply have to prioritize. Even now, nine years later, I'm still working on things which were on the original List.

And yes, Asbestos is a big deal (my scare actually turned out to be rock wool insulation), and you should get it looked at. If you're not actually dealing with it, and it's not disintegrating, you can simply leave it alone without too much worry. But yes -- get it looked at and have someone who knows what they're talking about tell you that.

If I had to do it all over again, I'd swap out the oil furnace first thing. Mine was a ten year old unit, so I figured I could let that wait. Wrong. We're in low oil prices now, but I was dealing with much higher prices then, and given the shit insulation, it was a money pit. I simply could not save enough money to replace it -- all my money was going into burning oil.

I swapped it for gas, and immediately my heating bill fell to a third of what it was before. Oil was costing me at least ten bucks a day, and I was being really, really miserly with the thermostat.

Yeah -- I'd get rid of the oil furnace as soon as I could.
posted by Capt. Renault at 11:22 AM on June 2, 2016 [1 favorite]


Regarding the electric, did you check with your local building permit office to see if a permit was pulled for the electrical work? Just because he did it himself doesn't necessarily mean he didn't follow the right procedures. Normally the inspector would come out to verify the work and close the permit. I think it's mentioned above, but that's one place to start.
posted by cabingirl at 11:51 AM on June 2, 2016


Re: the "duct tape on the pipes." That may very well be tape that was placed over asbestos. I've paid for asbestos abatement where the procedure essentially was placing a sealant and fancy tape over asbestos. The tape is not inherently bad and will likely contain the asbestos. My best advice is to educate yourself on what asbestos and lead paint or lead pipes look like so you can identify it in your home and proceed cautiously. You don't want to be like my neighbor, haphazardly ripping asbestos siding off his house without a face mask and letting the particles float around the entire street. If you know how to identify these toxins, you'll be able to work around them and protect yourself much better.
For the oil furnace: they do run forever! I agree that you could contact your local gas company and ask if they have any rebate programs for replacing outdated furnaces. We found our CPA was actually a pretty good resource for some information like this because she was knowledgable about federal and state tax credits and how to find info about them. I also surprisingly really like "This Old House" magazine as a resource for home repair and remodeling info. The tv show is always vastly outside of my price range, but the magazine content seems to have some more affordable ideas. Congratulations on your new home and I hope you have a speedy recovery!
posted by areaperson at 12:03 PM on June 2, 2016


The rule with old houses is not to panic. You probably have asbestos and lead and there is no doubt electrical and plumbing that were done by insane people. Also of course the foundation will have issues and the house will have settled in weird ways. Put a ball in the middle of the house - it will roll to one side of the house because the floors are uneven. This is old houses. I've had two of them now as an owner and about 5 as a renter - they are built to last, so first relax.

Lead/Asbestos - encapsolation for asbestos is a thing, so if you are worried look into it. If you have to do removal, there are programs for homeowners for loans and grants. Do some digging, don't panic.

Insane electrician - yes, no doubt. Anything truly troubling (like a bad fuse box - we had one of those) should have been picked up on your inspection. Otherwise, consider this as adding to the charm of your house.

For any work, be sure to get multiple people in to give you estimates. You will always get the person who panics you, and says that everything must be redone. Sometimes that is true...but rarely. If a worker comes in and suggests that for any project, get two more opinions and estimates.

For other stuff, find a handyman who can do quick fixes and has experience with old houses.
posted by Toddles at 10:52 PM on June 2, 2016


Excellent advice abounds in this thread.

Be aware, old linoleum likely also has asbestos in it and is often covered with new flooring to contain. Old paint will likely have lead, that's a chore to remove. "Encapsulation" mentioned above is a very good strategy for containing asbestos. Many people have seen the "Chandelier Ceiling" type cottage cheese ceilings of the 70's and 80's. Likely all contain asbestos. The main strategy for dealing with it, other than removal, is painting the heck over it until it is encapsulated, contained, sequestered. Just don't let anyone bounce a ball or throw things against the ceiling. Old attic or ceiling insulation, the stuff the called "rock wool" in the fifties all likely has asbestos. Just carefully take some samples to an environmental testing agency to see what you're dealing with. In the purchase agreement, at least in CA, the disclosures should include those kinds of issues. At the very least you can ask for the testing to be done or hire your own testing agency- hindsight 20/20. Oh, electrical work, modifications, add-ons, plumbing should have been documented to code in the disclosures by the seller.

We lived in a flat roof apartment building where roof work was being done where they were replacing the air conditioning units and the knuckleheads, using cutting saws to remove some rotted roofing support beams, of course, cut to deep and shredded the "Chandelier Ceiling" in multiple spots around the apartment with powdered debris flying every where. Somewhat naively but doing the Sherlock thing, I carefully placed some in a ziplock baggie and took it to an environmental testing agency and for thirty five dollars found it was an asbestos palooza. Promptly notified the owner of the apt and we had some assist in moving out right away, just as an army of professional asbestos remediation people swarmed over the place - sheesh. Oh, testing agency, on returning the sample, wanted to confirm the "chain of custody" of material going home. Nice.

If you're doing much of the home improvement work yourself absolutely use precautions. Removal and disposal of toxic substances requires a professional effort and assistance. Avoid the risks of the big C when older, now, by minimizing exposure to the nasty toxic stuff.

It's all doable, but dot your "i's" and cross your "t's."
posted by WinstonJulia at 1:32 AM on June 3, 2016


Response by poster: Hi all -- thank you so much for the advice and kind words. I know my "question" was all over the place, but this has been super helpful.

Re: permits... my town does indeed keep their records online. About four seconds of googling turned up a permit for an electrical update in 2004. So, not quite the time frame we'd been given, but it does seem like the big job was done aboveboard. No doubt there's been additional tinkering since then, but this eases my fears about that whole thing quite a bit. So thanks to everyone who suggested chasing down permits! I'm sure it seems super obvious but it had honestly never occurred to me.

As for the rest, I'm going to do my best to just calm down and take things one at a time. There's nothing in this house that money can't fix -- not that we're rich by any stretch, but I'm socking money away and we'll be okay.

I'm sure this won't be the last time I roll in here with kinda dumb house questions, but for now I'm feeling much better.
posted by catoclock at 7:55 AM on June 3, 2016 [2 favorites]


A warning about what to call the device in your basement that heats your house. We have steam radiators. I asked a company to send someone over to inspect our "furnace." They do, but upon seeing our device, the guy says, "we don't do boilers." Ugh! My understanding now is that if a device heats air, it's a furnace. If it heats water for steam heat, it's a boiler.
posted by pickles_have_souls at 5:32 PM on June 3, 2016 [1 favorite]


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