Published February 27, 2014
Older homes have their charms, but they can also come with a slew of problems. As building codes have been updated over the years, many of these homes have been left in the Dark Ages. If you’re looking to buy an older home — or if you currently live in one — here are some things to watch out for.
Impossible to detect just by looking at it, lead paint is a much-feared danger in older homes. So how do you know if your home is at risk? If the house was built before 1978, there’s a chance that you have a layer of lead paint beneath the surface. While older homes are at risk of containing this potentially troublesome toxin, lead paint isn’t really a problem until it starts chipping and peeling. Curious children or pets might swallow poisonous paint chips, and peeling paint can cause lead particles to become airborne. If the paint on your walls is intact and in good condition, it’s best to just leave it be. But if you notice peeling paint and suspect that it might contain lead, you should have it tested by a professional. If it tests positive, you’ll need to hire a specialist to remove it. Whatever you do, do not sand or strip walls that are potentially coated in lead paint because you could fill your home with a toxic cloud of lead particles.
A common form of insulation and fire retardant until the 1970s, asbestos has since been linked to lung cancer and mesothelioma. Complicating matters, asbestos is both difficult to detect and incredibly pervasive, showing up in floor tiles, duct work, roof tiles and many other building materials. While it is common and potentially deadly, asbestos shouldn’t cause immediate alarm for homeowners. For the most part, the material is unlikely to become airborne, and the Environmental Protection Agency recommends leaving it alone in cases where it is contained. However, the material can become a major hazard in some cases, for instance when used in duct work or during construction projects. In cases like this, or any instance where it can become airborne, you’ll need to call in a specialist skilled at asbestos removal.
If you cut open the walls of many older homes, you’d probably find that that there is either terrible insulation or even no insulation at all. As a homeowner, this can leave you forever shivering and dealing with sky-high utility bills. To make matters worse, the cost of removing the drywall to lay down a layer of insulation will often be a lot higher than the energy savings you’d see. However, blow-in insulation, which involves cutting small holes in the wall and pumping insulation into the wall cavities, is a nice middle ground. It won’t be as effective as rolls of fiberglass insulation, but it can be done for much less money.
While the lack of good insulation in the walls is a problem, it is only one of the reasons that older homes leave owners feeling cold. A properly insulated home is really just a battle against leaks, and unfortunately, older homes have plenty of leaks. The most common culprits are cracked and drafty window frames, poor quality windows, uninsulated electrical outlets and gaps around doors, all of which could be inflating your monthly energy bills. To track down leaks in your home, grab an infrared thermometer and hunt for cold spots to see what needs to be fixed. Fortunately, adding weather stripping around door and caulking around windows is a pretty simple task, and one that can save you real money.
Potentially one of the more dangerous problems in older homes, an outdated electrical system poses the risk of fires and electrocution. Unfortunately, potential problems can be hard to diagnose on your own because there are so many things that can go wrong with an electrical system, including outdated aluminum wire, cracked or frayed insulation on the wiring or an outdated circuit breaker. If you notice things like flickering lights, frayed wires, or if your circuit breaker is constantly tripping, you might have a problem. Your best option in cases like this is to hire a trained electrician to do a thorough inspection.