The DC Metro area is full of some really beautiful old homes…really old. Now, it’s not often that homes old enough to have witnessed the birth of the nation come on the market, but it’s not uncommon to see 100-150 year old homes for sale, especially in Old Town or some of the other historic districts.

Buying an older home has lots of perks. Owning something with history makes for sweet conversation starters, and you may have some really interesting architectural elements that you don’t find in new construction, such as transoms, leaded glass, stained glass, and artisan-hewn woodwork. Restoring an older home, for some people, brings satisfaction deep down in the soul – as if doing so pays homage to the beauty and artistry of days gone by.

No matter how romantic you may find the notion, buying an older home is not without its drawbacks. Even if you buy a home that’s already restored, there will likely be costly repairs down the road. And if you are planning to restore an older home, then you need to know which ones have “good bones” and which ones are too far gone to save (at least on your budget).  So, it’s important to know what you are getting into, and what to look for.

Structural Issues

Construction materials and procedures are quite different today than 100 years ago. In many cases, older homes that have been well-maintained can be stronger and more structurally sound than newer construction.

Older homes that have faced periods of neglect or that have been damaged by shifts underneath the foundation may have structural issues. Fixing such issues can be extremely costs, exceeding $10,000 in many cases. And insurance will not cover it.

One way you can tell if the home you want to purchase has structural issues is to inspect the foundation and the walls at the corners of windows and doors inside the  home. If you see cracks in the foundation or visible cracks leading out from the corners of interior window or door frames (or evidence of a recent patch job), then you may have a structural issue. You may also notice uneven floors, or windows/doors that don’t open or close easily.

If structural issues are not repaired, it can lead to water damage, mold, and a whole host of other issues. You will want to make sure you have the financial resources to tackle such an issue before you purchase the home. Get quotes from contractors and consider bringing in a structral engineer to evaluate, and use them as a bargaining tool with the seller.

Electrical and Plumbing Issues

Older electrical and plumbing systems can pose significant hazards. Knob-and-tube wiring is not insulated the way newer wiring is, and can cause fires. Cast-iron pipes are prone to costly leaks.

Updating these systems can be extremely costly, as it requires tearing into walls in order to remove the old and install the new wiring and pipes.

It’s critical to ensure that electrical and plumbing work completed in the home was not a DIY job. You will want the repairs to be up to code, and you also want to make sure there aren’t hidden problems. For instance, we have seen newer wiring tied into the old wiring, so from the outlet it appears that the wiring has been updated. It was only after tearing into the wall was it discovered that the new wiring was spliced into the hazardous old wiring.

If it’s unknown as to whether a qualified professional updated the systems, then you’ll want to have the systems closely inspected. If it’s determined that the systems need updating, then have your Realtor® work with the seller’s agent to arrange for a lower price or other concessions. 

Hazardous Materials

Asbestos was considered a high quality insulation material, until it was discovered that exposure to asbestos caused cancer. Homes built after 1980 do not have asbestos, but it can be found in the insulation, roofing, and gas fireplaces installed prior to 1980.

Lead was a major component of paint prior to 1978, and was still used in plumbing pipes until 1985. Lead exposure can cause severe neurological and cognitive issues in children and adults. If not safely removed by professionals, lead can leach into the ground and water supply.

Another hazard that can be found in the home is radon. Radon is not caused by the materials used in construction of the home, but naturally occurs in the environment as uranium molecules break down. Radon gas can become trapped in the home, and exposure to this gas causes cancer. Little was known about radon prior to 1970, so older homes were not constructed to minimize the risk as they are now.

Outdated HVAC Systems

Heating and cooling systems have changed dramatically since the turn of the 20th century. Many old homes used oil or coal heat, and forced air systems were not available. Many used radiators to distribute heated water to each room. Some have wood stoves or furnaces. Updating these outdated systems can be an expensive prospect, since installing the necessary ductwork for a forced air system could require cutting into walls.

Many older homes do not have A/C, unless they use window units, because the ductwork was not added. If the home you want to purchase has already been outfitted with updated more modern systems, have a professional check them out, along with the ductwork, to make sure it’s all installed to run optimally. 

Insect Infestations

We aren’t talking spiders, although those would be bad enough. The type of insects that do the most damage to homes is the termite. They are drawn to soft wood, so older homes that have experienced some water damage over time may be particularly susceptible. Eradicating termites is an expensive endeavor, and homes that have sat vacant for a long time or have been neglected could have significant damage to the integrity of the overall structure. This is another home disaster that is not covered by insurance, so be prepared for sticker shock.

Old homes that have been lovingly restored are a treasure, and we wouldn’t want to deter anyone from taking on a project home. Just know what you are getting into and what repairs you may have to make, and the financial commitment required, to accomplish your goal. When it comes to buying or selling your home, we are here to help answer any questions and guide you through a better understanding. Please do not hesitate to contact us at or phone us at 202.800.0800.





Tags: Tim Pierson, Northern Virginia, Home Improvement, Restoration, Historic Homes, Preservation, Home Repair