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We want you to be an informed homebuyer, and each blog post is a question that we have answered for our friends and customers over the years. Hope they help you make a good choice for your next home.

   Here’s a list of things you and your home inspector should be on the lookout for in an older home you’re considering buying, beginning with the electrical issues:

1) Knob-and-tube (K&T) wiring was an early type of residential wiring, used between 1880 and the 1940s, with the wires stretched between porcelain insulating tubes. Today’s building codes do not require that it be removed, but most insurance company’s will not insure a home with K&T wiring still in place, and the wiring suffers from overheating, unsafe modifications over the years, and lack of a ground wire.

2) Screw-in type fuse panels, the kind with little round fuses with a window so you to tell if it’s blown, are considered obsolete. They typically have ungrounded circuits and, because the fuses of different amperage ratings are interchangeable in the older boxes, easily over-fused. Again, most insurance companies will not issue a policy on a home with a screw-in fuse panel still in use.

3) Undersized electrical service is another problem in older homes. When a family only used electricity for a refrigerator, a radio, and a few lights around the home, the size of the electric service coming into a home was smaller. Service is rated in amps, which is a measure of the amount of current flow/workload the system can handle. The first standard was 30-amps, then 60-amps in the 1930s and 40s, followed by 100-amps in the 1950s and 60s. An electric meter for 60-amp service is shown below.

    Today most residential electrical service is 150 or 200-amps, in order to accommodate the major electric appliances: range, water heater, air conditioner, furnace, washer, dryer, and dishwasher, just to name a few. If you want all the modern appliances in your older home, you may have to upgrade the electric service.
4) Non-grounded receptacles were the standard before 1962, have only two slots, and are missing the round hole for a ground connection that many modern appliances with a three-prong cord need. A ground provides a route for stray electric current that improves the safety of the appliance and, if you don’t have any three-slot receptacles in the home, you can’t safely plug in a modern refrigerator, for example. “Cheater plugs” that hardware stores sell to enable a three-prong cord to connect to a two-slot receptacle are an unsafe solution—because there is rarely any ground connection from the securing screw of the cover plate—that we see all to often.

5) Not enough wall receptacles is another problem in pre-1950 homes. It is not unusual to find only one receptacle per bedroom and none in the dining room or hallways. Running extension cords around the walls is not a safe fix. More circuits and receptacles are necessary for our homes filled with electric gadgets today.

6) Lack of ground-fault-circuit-interrupters (GFCIs), in homes built before the late 1970s, leaves you without modern shock-protection in the wet areas of the home, like the kitchen and bathroom.

7) Lack of insulation means higher utility bills than a newer home. Vintage homes were built with non-insulated single-pane windows, no wall or floor insulation. Minimal attic insulation that has compressed and deteriorated over the years, losing a significant portion of it’s original R-value, along with deteriorated or missing insulation on attic ducts—like in the photo below—can also contribute to higher utility bills.

    Air leaks around door and window openings due to deteriorated caulk may need to be repaired. While most older homes have had new attic insulation retrofitted at some point, floor insulation in homes with elevated floors is rare, and wall insulation—because of the difficulty to install—almost never happens.
8) Inefficient older HVAC systems also contribute to low energy efficiency in an older home. A 20+ year-old central air conditioning system has a SEER (energy efficiency) rating of 9. As the SEER number increases, the energy usage for the same amount of cooling drops proportionately. This means that a new 13 SEER system is about 40% more efficient. Newer gas furnace systems are also more energy efficient.

9) Buried fuel oil tanks are often abandoned and forgotten when homeowners switch to newer fuel sources. Long-term corrosion causes tanks to leak into the surrounding soil, and poses a safety hazard. Disposal guidelines typically call for removal of the tank or filling it with sand and gravel. Soil testing may also be necessary to determine if the tank has leaked underground. A buried fuel tank has a fill pipe and a vent pipe, like in the picture below, except that the fill pipe cap is missing in this photo.

10) Lead is a toxic metal that was once commonly used to make household paint and plumbing fixtures. While it has been banned in new construction for many years, lead-based paint and plumbing that aren’t removed may present a significant health hazard. Homes constructed prior to 1978 may contain lead paint (although use was significantly reduced after 1960), which can be ingested by small children or contaminate surrounding soil and vegetable gardens. It is easily identifiable by its alligator-like flaking pattern. Lead pipes, too, were used in homes up until the late 1940s, and they may allow lead to leach into drinking water. They can be identified by their dull gray color and the ease by which they can be scratched by keys or coins.

  1. 11)Asbestos insulation can increase the chances of developing lung cancer and mesothelioma. Loose-fill insulation was used in homes between 1930 and 1950. Asbestos insulation should be left undisturbed until it can be removed by a qualified professional, as its fibers can be inhaled when they are airborne, creating a significant health hazard. Asbestos siding and roofing, while not a threat as long as the materials remain undisturbed, also require removal by a qualified, professional asbestos mitigator when it’s time for replacement.
        While loose-fill asbestos insulation represents a greater risk, the more common type of asbestos insulation found in older houses is vermiculite, which contains asbestos fibers in the material. Zonolite was the most popular brand, and it was sold in the U.S. up until 1990. To read more about it, see our blog post “Why is vermiculite attic insulation a problem for both buyers and sellers of a home?”

12) Galvanized steel water pipe was used from about the mid-1950s through the 1970s. Unfortunately, it has only a 40 to 50 year lifespan due to corrosion. It’s easy for a home inspector to locate and show you bubbling rust scars on old galvanized piping, but the real problem is on the inside of the pipes where loose flakes of rust accumulate behind fixture valves and cause reduced water flow. Eventually, the pipes rust through from the inside-out and begin to spring leaks. Also, many insurers will not issue a policy on a home with galvanized steel water supply piping.

13) Cast iron drain pipe was used up until about 1975, when it was replaced by the newer plastics like ABS and PVC. It has an average lifespan of approximately 60 to 70 years and corrosion holes cause leakage of sewage at the end of its lifespan, typically along the bottom surface, and allow tree roots into the system.

14) Foundation problems are more prevalent in older homes simply because the soil underneath them has had more time to move. Also, trees have grown large in the yard over the years and roots extending under the home may have created additional foundation defects.

15) No smoke alarms were required in an earlier era, and some homeowners have neglected to install this very important safety device.

   The good news is that many older homes have already resolved most, or all, of these problems. But, if you miss just one of the major ones during your home inspection, be prepared for a big headache later.

    If you wan to learn more about evaluating older homes for potential rehabilitation, click below to download HUD’s Residential Rehabilitation Inspection Guide.



  To learn more valuable strategies for getting the best possible home inspection, here’s a few of our other blog posts:

  1. How can I make sure I don’t get screwed on my home inspection?

  2. Should I trust the Seller’s Property Disclosure Statement?

  3. Can I do my own home inspection?

  4. How can homebuyers protect themselves against buying a home over a sinkhole?

  5. What makes a house fail the home inspection?

  6. The seller gave me an old home inspection report from a previous home inspection. Should I use it or get my own inspector?

  7. Why are expired building permits a problem for both the buyer and seller of a home?   

    To read about issues related to homes of particular type or one built in a specific decade, visit one of these blog posts:

  1. What are the common problems to look for when buying a 1950s house?

  2. What are the common problems to look for when buying a 1960s home?

  3. What are the common problems to look for when buying a 1970s house?

  4. What are the common problems to look for when buying a 1980s house?

  5. What are the common problems to look for when buying a 1990s house?

  6. What problems should I look for when buying a country house or rural property?

  7. What problems should I look when when buying a house that has been moved?

  8. What problems should I look for when buying a house that has been vacant or abandoned?

  9. What should I look for when buying a “flipper” house?

  10. What should I look for when buying a former rental house?

While we hope you find this series of articles about home inspection helpful, they should not be considered an alternative to an actual home inspection by a local inspector. Also, construction standards vary in different parts of the country and it is possible that important issues related to your area may not be covered here.
© McGarry and Madsen Inspection.


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