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Historic Home Inspections. Not Harder, Just Slightly Different

Home inspections

Even graceful ladies sometimes hold a lot of secrets.

The appeal of a historic home, or one that’s got the same birthdate without the special designation, is the stuff of dreams for a lot of people. There’s just something about a peaked Victorian or sturdy Craftsman that sets hearts aflutter. But with older properties comes the potential for a mishmash of home defects.

Inspecting an old house isn’t necessarily more difficult than inspecting one that’s got fewer wrinkles. But it can be a bit different. Here’s what you might encounter on the job.

Landmark Status Could Affect the Owner

Historic landmarks often fall under strict rules for preservation and renovation. Whether your client intends to buy the house and restore it or update it to have a more modern appeal, local or federal historic preservation societies might have a say.

Although you don’t regulate historic properties, you could bring the prospective buyer into the loop as a service by recommending that they contact the local historic property governing body. How disappointed might the buyers be if, after closing, they learn that the preservation or alteration they dreamed about either isn’t permissible by local code or it’s forbidden by the local historic property ordinances?

Legal Versus Safe (Versus Period-Correct)

Current code doesn’t really have much bearing on whether an old house and its systems are legal, at least not until or unless there’s a renovation effort. Then code often comes into play, except under certain circumstances that deal with historic preservation. But safety is something different.

Just because wider baluster spacing and low handrails were the norm in 1890 doesn’t mean they were ever safe, so they might make it into your report as an issue. And if the buyers plan to address the staircase, they might either be faced with a total update that ruins the historic appeal or they might be stuck with a low handrail that looks the part but isn’t safe.

Home inspections

Old plumbing can carry a host of problems that aren’t readily visible.

Parts of an Older House That Need Extra Attention

In some cases, a historic house will outperform new construction on almost every front. But that’s not always true. For example, the foundation has borne the weight of the house for a very long time. It will likely be the first area to show signs of distress and damage.

If the roof and windows are original, they might not be up to code. But replacement might also put the new owner in hot water with the historic committee. Here are a few other areas where you’ll need an eagle eye:

    • Plumbing: Corrosion inside the pipes might render the water supply dangerous as well as pitifully low-pressured. And lead pipes are never safe for potable water.
    • Heating systems: If the home has a modern HVAC system, that’s ideal. But many don’t. Old furnaces and boilers might have a number of issues, some of them dangerous, so they should be checked out by a skilled HVAC technician.
    • Electrical systems: As with HVAC, the electrical might be updated. If it’s not, the buyer should factor in an expensive update. Not only is old knob-and-tube wiring unsafe if it has degraded, but the whole system is likely unable to handle the electrical demand of a modern household. It could be a fire waiting to happen.
    • Hazardous substances: Asbestos and lead are two common materials found in older homes. Where there are layers of paint, there is probably lead. And where old floor and ceiling tiles exist, asbestos is probably present. Abatement could be an issue for the buyer.

For all of the charm, historic homes come with more than their fair share of potential problems. And in extreme cases, the buyer simply cannot win. If local code requires upgrades to modern standards when any work is performed, those requirements could butt against the restrictions that come with historic preservation.

Enthusiastic buyers might not realize what they could be in for. So although it’s not really in your job description, a word to the wise could prepare them for the responsibility and the potential cost that comes with owning one of America’s great examples of architecture.

Home inspectors never have the same job twice, especially with older homes that have stood for generations. And your training can help buyers gain a much-needed understanding of what they’re about to finance. Are you ready to start working toward this rewarding and valuable career? Enroll now with ICA School and study at your own pace.

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