1883 House - Money Pit?
August 23, 2021 2:51 PM   Subscribe

How much trouble can we expect from a home in Ohio with part of the house and foundation dating from 1883?

We're looking at a fantastic house, which has been redone beautifully. Sellers disclosures indicate no problems. Part of the house is over an 1883 stone foundation. Red flags have been raised by our buyer's agent realtor because of the uncertainity of the integrity of the foundation, water (city water), and possibly electrical considerations.

If it matters, this house has been on the market for over 60 days, which is very unusual in the current local market.

I think we'd need a cut above a licensed home inspector to really go over things.

What would you call that person?
posted by imjustsaying to Home & Garden (8 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I never really cared about how long the house has been on the market as especially in a hot market it tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Why not call a contractor to see how much it would cost to jack up the house, tear out the foundation and rebuild it? It is hard to say how much it would cost without knowing more but I'd ballpark around 50-60k. That's extreme but it is better to know the worst case scenario in case repointing the foundation doesn't work. It all depends on what's wrong with it.
posted by geoff. at 2:57 PM on August 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

I live in an old house, in a neighborhood full of old houses, many from a similar era as the one you are looking at. There are a few general contractors who regularly work in this area and specialize in remodeling and repairing these houses. If your area has similar folks, I think they would be the best equipped to give you the straight dope on the condition of the house and potential issues. Of course, that kind of contractor also tends to be very busy and might not be excited about the idea of squeezing this kind of job into their schedule, so I'm guessing it might take some convincing ($$$ and flexibility) to get it done.

A few possible ways to find these contractors:
  1. You say the house has been redone beautifully. Who did that job, and do they specialize in this kind of restoration?
  2. If there are any old houses under renovation in the area, look for contractor signs out front.
  3. Ask neighbors.
  4. If the house is in a historic district, the people in charge of enforcing the building and remodeling rules will almost surely know what contractors (and architects) they see a lot.
  5. Or you might be able to pull building permits from recent projects in the area and see who did them.

posted by primethyme at 3:23 PM on August 23, 2021 [5 favorites]

The person who would tell you more about the foundation is a structural engineer.

FWIW I am currently sitting in a circa-1867 house with no foundation whatsoever, just brick walls and posts and dirt. We bought it knowing that there were subsidence issues and that we would have to install new posts and beams to keep the house from falling down, which we did as part of a broader renovation. Our house is still slanty and will forever be slanty, but we're fine with it.

The mere fact that you have a 140-year-old foundation isn't necessarily a red flag. And the nice thing about stone or dirt is that they handle moisture issues better than concrete. On the other hand, if they finished the basement and laid a floor directly on the foundation, that is likely to end badly. And obviously any subsidence or integrity issues are serious and will cost you real money.

Frankly to me the water and electric are more worrying because they aren't just in the basement, they're all through the house. If you have corroded pipes or poorly insulated, hundred-year-old wiring, these will cause you expensive problems and you'll have to make holes in all the newly-redecorated walls to fix them. Can you ask the sellers to disclose what parts of these systems if any they replaced during the renovation or if they have any information on their age? Are there permit filings you can look up to get more details? I wouldn't buy a house with a brand-new renovation that left bad wiring or plumbing in place; not only will you have to redo a lot of work, it means they probably cut other corners you'll have to address.

One of the most instructive things we saw in our home buying process was an 1840s wood frame. The house was falling down, but the seller gave it a new coat of paint it and it looked perfect. It sold over ask even though it probably needed $500k of work because it didn't look like it needed work. Don't buy a house like that!
posted by goingonit at 3:27 PM on August 23, 2021 [8 favorites]

Red flags have been raised by our buyer's agent realtor because of the uncertainity of the integrity of the foundation, water (city water), and possibly electrical considerations.

I'm currently selling an 1850's house with at least a partially stone foundation. While I think getting a really good inspection by a structural engineer is a good idea, these things on their own aren't necessarily a problem at all. I would be a little cautious about the nice reno just because it's easy to slap a new kitchen in a house that has a lot of weird problems. And I'd wonder if your buyer's agent has legit concerns or is just nitpicking. Our realtor, for what it's worth, is super jumpy about our house in a way that we just aren't. People who aren't familiar with old houses sometimes assume they are awful. We're being very up front with buyers about the work it will need.

We also did have to do a whole-house water treatment plan and it worked well and was not fiendishly expensive relative to the price of the house. However, if you have a bunch of pipes that are dicey, I'd want to know that. Same with the electrics, knowing what got redone (we had new electrical panels put it because our electrical panels were not okay) and what is yet to be done would be what I'd want to know.

In general, though, older houses are more money pits than less-old houses. This doesn't mean that they may not also be worth it, but just pursuant to your title, you've got to kind of want to be in this situation, not choosing it because you're mostly looking at 1900s houses but this one is cheap. Good luck.
posted by jessamyn at 3:43 PM on August 23, 2021 [3 favorites]

Just finished a renovation of a brick home built on stone foundation in 1851 (in Ohio). Each of two additions to the original four rooms was not as well done as the original, but all still standing straight, with only minor subsidence. In many ways, the age of the home is its own endorsement; there are few built today which will be standing 140 years from now. Have it inspected, of course, and try to get someone who's had experience with older homes, but no reason to get a specialist involved unless the first identifies a problem. Same goes for another of the mentioned potential issues - a competent inspector will quickly identify unsafe or inadequate wiring.
posted by bullatony at 4:06 PM on August 23, 2021 [4 favorites]

In many ways, the age of the home is its own endorsement; there are few built today which will be standing 140 years from now.

Yes, this.

The person who would tell you more about the foundation is a structural engineer.

I would amend this to stay a structural engineer with experience in historic buildings...many structural engineers don't understand how older materials work (e.g. old growth wood vs. newer wood, capacity of stone foundations, etc.) because they've never been exposed to them, and therefore will make things seem worse than they are.

Similar point - is your buyer's agent realtor concerned because of specific issues they are aware of, or just in general because they are not experienced with historic buildings?

I don't know where you are located, but in the US every state has a "state historic preservation office" (sometimes goes under a different name e.g. Maryland Historical Trust, but if you google that phrase plus the state name it should come up) which almost always has a historic architect on staff. They generally don't endorse any specific contractors but can point you toward resources or explain what you need to look at. You may also have a statewide or regional preservation non-profit that can help you with resources - for example Michigan's statewide non-profit has a historic resource directory. If you have a local historic district commission, they can also likely help even if you aren't within the district.

Final word - seconding what others have said about a "beautiful renovation" hiding potential problems. Usually, there are some obvious clues. When I was house hunting I walked through a wonderful Sears kit house and thought I'd fallen in love. But...the windows had been replaced and you could literally shake them back and forth in their frames, and while the renovation looked nice at first glance, on closer inspection a lot of the details were kind of half-assed which didn't speak well for the things you could not see.
posted by Preserver at 9:54 AM on August 24, 2021 [3 favorites]

When it comes to inspector v. engineer, I don't think it is either/or.

The home inspector knows a good bit about many important systems as well as how to interpret visible clues to structure issues.
If the home inspector observes or suspects structural problems, an engineer may be a good call.

Also, there's a lot of variety out there in professional backgrounds, as mentioned.
I'm a licensed home inspector [not in your state] and I also do restoration work on 19th C homes, so maybe you can find someone like me in Ohio. That inspector may know engineers who work on older homes.

Good luck with your exciting journey!
posted by Glomar response at 4:05 PM on August 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

Apologies, I missed the part about you being in Ohio. Hi neighbor! Ohio has some great resources for you.

Your statewide non-profit is Heritage Ohio and your SHPO is Ohio History Connection. Depending on where you are in the state, some of the businesses listed in the Michigan historic resource directory I linked above may be close enough to help you out, or Heritage Ohio has their own list.

Also, Ohio SHPO has restarted their "Building Doctor" clinics - there are a few upcoming dates.
posted by Preserver at 4:20 PM on August 24, 2021 [1 favorite]

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