Older or historic homes provide some unique challenges for inspectors and prospective buyers.
Homeowners may have strict limitations for renovating and updating a home. Major updates might require special permits and committee approval. While safety is a primary concern for home inspectors, customers interested in historic or vintage homes might find themselves in a balancing act between preserving the past while living in the present.
In older, historic properties, you can expect to find led paint. These older homes probably have lead-based paint on siding, trim, doors, windows, staircases, ceilings and sometimes even floors. Most buyers looking to purchase an historic property understand the likelihood of lead-based paint, but that is not always the case. Buyers should be informed about the prevalence of lead in older houses and how to test for lead. That is especially true if the buyers have young children, who are more susceptible to lead-related developmental issues.
As with lead paint, asbestos is probably present in many parts of an historic house. Regardless of the home’s age, asbestos might have been used for renovations over the years. For example, loose attic insulation in an old house could easily contain asbestos. Flooring that looks like linoleum might contain asbestos as well. Some builders also mixed asbestos into plaster for texture on walls and ceilings. In basements, you might find boiler pipes wrapped in asbestos insulation.
Many vintage homes have unusual or outdated heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems. The challenge becomes fitting modern equipment into the house without disturbing the architectural features. There might be an old coal or oil burning furnace in the basement. Registers in floors and ceilings might appear to lead nowhere without ductwork, but their function was different. The allowed warm air to travel to upper floors. Cooling systems might be non-existent.
Historic staircases may have multiple safety issues. If you have never walked a staircase in a historic house, you might be in for a surprise. There were no standards for their construction. Some are narrow and steep; some are grand works of art. Handrails are a significant issue with historic houses. Many interior staircases might have no handrails at all. Where railings do exist, they are often lower than what is considered code today with balusters that are spaced too wide. That is another issue for buyers with small children.
There will most likely be issues with access and clearance. What is considered safe and accessible today was not a consideration in the past. It is not uncommon to find an upper bedroom with only one window too small to qualify for egress during a fire. Doors might also be too narrow. In some cases, houses settling can cause doors and windows to stick, creating another fire safety hazard.
As with other issues in an older house, buyers might face limitations with repair and upgrades. Historic register committees may have a say in what is allowable and what is not. Historic houses still have definite appeal to many home buyers. For buyers who have done their homework, structural oddities and renovations are an expected part of the process. For those buyers that have fallen in love with their first historic house, the issues and the level of authority held by historic registry’s might come as a surprise.