Tips on Buying an Old House

Posted by Jo-Anne Larre on Friday, July 5th, 2019 at 4:02pm.


Old homes are attractive with their unique architecture and 'Old World' artistry, rarely found in newer homes. They are seen as affordable fixer-uppers, but no buyer wants to discover that beneath the surface of this charming home lays a shipwreck waiting to happen.


The foundation is one of the most important aspects of any home – more importantly in older homes for two reasons. First, a serious problem called "sulphate attack" can occur because of a chemical reaction between the soil and the concrete, causing the foundation to crack and crumble. Naturally, sulphates occur in the soil and may build up from lawn fertilizer over the years. Modern foundation concrete is formulated to resist sulphate attack. The second concern with older homes is that the centre beam of the home can begin to sink. This results in sagging roofs, bowed walls and sloping floors. To fix these problems is expensive and would require jacking up the house to replace the foundation, and restore the centre beam. The cost of these renovations can range from several thousand dollars to $50,000, depending on the size of the home.

Electrical Wiring

Do the lights flicker? Is the current steady or do the lights fluctuate between bright and dull? Is there adequate lighting in the home? Faulty wiring or an overloaded circuit could indicate these problems. Touring an older property after dark will help you solve these questions, and is also a great way to find out if there are obvious problems with the state of the electrical and lighting system of the home. It's important to have the wiring carefully inspected by a qualified home inspector or an electrician.

Many homes built or renovated from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s used aluminum wiring, which was less expensive than copper wire. Unfortunately, many homeowners discovered over time that aluminum wiring posed a serious fire hazard. Ask your inspector to check for aluminum wiring and, if necessary, factor the cost of rewiring into your offer price.

Are there enough outlets in the home to suit the needs of a modern household? Ask your home inspector or electrician if it is possible to safely install more outlets and to run a number of devices at once such as a television, computer, stove, etc.

Galvanized Pipe

These pipes rust out eventually. Most insurance companies now refuse to cover water damage caused by leaks in a home with galvanized pipes.

Lead Paint

Many old buildings still contain lead paint. Lead paint was common in older homes and was used as a while pigment in paint until the mid-1950's. Once the paint was dry, some contained as much as 50 percent lead by weight. The federal government passed regulations in 1976, limiting the amount of lead in interior paint to 0.5 percent by weight (exterior paints may contain more lead).

Call in a professional renovation firm or use lead-safe dust masks and goggles if you are planning to strip the paint in an old home. Wear long pants and shirts when working and wash your face and hands thoroughly before eating. Children and pregnant women should not be in the home during renovations. In some cases, new paint has been applied over the old lead paint, in which case, you may not need to remove the old paint.

A home inspector and/or an environmental renovation company should be able to tell you if the paint in a prospective home will be a problem. You can also use home test kits available at many paint, hardware, and home centre stores. To use these kits you would apply a chemical to the paint then look for a colour change, indicating the presence of lead. According to the National Research Council Canada, the most dependable method of detecting lead-based paint is to have a sample analyzed by a commercial testing laboratory. Several samples will have to be taken from different parts of the house. The most reliable laboratories are those certified by the Standards Council of Canada or the Canadian Association for Environmental Analytical Laboratories.


In old homes, asbestos was used in carpet underlay, textured paints, roofing felt, electrical wiring insulation, acoustic ceiling material, and insulation. In the mid-1970s, doctors discovered that asbestos caused lung disease. The tiny particles of this mineral are inhaled deep into the lungs and over a period of years begin to damage the tissues. Your home inspector can let you know if you have asbestos or you may wish to consult an environmental association.

Rather than consulting a contractor, hire a structural engineer to examine your home. They can give you an unbiased assessment of the home's structure. A structural engineering report is also more detailed than reports by home inspectors. Both types of inspectors should be used when purchasing an old home.

For some buyers, renovations are not a deterrent but a challenge, particularly if they can purchase the property at a good price. To determine the price you are willing to pay, add up the estimated costs to renovate the property based on a thorough assessment of the house. Next, subtract that from the home's anticipated market value after renovation, drawn from comparable real estate prices in the neighbourhood. Your real estate professional can help you determine the market values. Allow for an additional 5 percent for cost overruns and unforeseen problems plus inflation. What's left should be your offer. If it's in your price range, you may have the home of your dreams after all!

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