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5 Unusual Home Inspection Considerations for Historic Property

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A home defect is a defect, but property that’s on the historic registry has interested parties that reach far beyond the buyer. In some areas, homeowners have strict limitations for renovating and updating a home. Major updates might require months of paperwork and committee approval.

While safety is a primary concern for home inspectors, customers interested in a vintage or antique house might find themselves in a balancing act between preserving the past while living in the here and now.

Here are 5 home inspection considerations that historic houses routinely face.

#1: Modern HVAC Doesn’t Always Fit in a Historic House

Modern heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems were practically space-age when historic properties were built. As a result, many homes have unusual or outdated systems. The problem becomes fitting modern equipment into the house without disturbing the architectural features.

You might find an old coal 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 might be non-existent. That said, some homes might have cutting-edge HVAC. Mini-split heat pumps and high-velocity systems have tubes instead of traditional ducts, which helps avoid damaging historic property features during installation.

#2: Lead Paint is Nearly Always Present

For homes built in the 70s and 80s, there’s a question about lead-based paint. In older, historic property, you can expect it. Inside and outside, homes probably have lead-based paint on siding, trim, doors, windows, staircases, ceilings and sometimes even floors.

Many people who love historic property understand the likelihood of lead-based paint, but that’s not universally true. Buyers should be informed about the prevalence of lead in older houses and how to test for lead. That’s especially true if the buyers have young children, who are more susceptible to lead-related developmental problems.

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Handrails make an odd staircase safer, but homeowners might meet resistance from the historic property committee.

#3: A Historic Staircase Might Have Several Safety Defects

If you’ve never walked a staircase in a historic house, you might be in for a surprise. First, there’s virtually no standard for their construction. Some are so narrow and steep that you’ll wonder how many people have taken a tumble. Some are grand works of art.

Handrails are a significant issue with historic houses. An interior utility staircase between upper bedrooms and the kitchen might have no handrail to speak of. Where railings do exist, they’re often lower than what’s considered code today with wide-spaced balusters. That’s another problematic issue for buyers with children.

#4: Expect Asbestos Throughout the Home

As with lead, asbestos is probably present in many parts of a historic house. According to Environment Health and Safety Online, the 1800s saw a surge in asbestos mining and its use in residential properties.

Regardless of the home’s age, asbestos might have been used for improvements throughout 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 craftsmen also mixed asbestos into plaster for walls and ceilings. In basements, you might find boiler pipes wrapped in asbestos, as well.

#5: You’ll Probably Encounter Issues with Clearances, Access, and Egress 

What’s considered safe and accessible today wasn’t a consideration at all several generations ago. It’s not uncommon to find an upper bedroom with one window that’s too small for anyone to escape during a fire. In fact, many windows in old houses were nailed shut after the counterweights inside the jamb ultimately broke free from their cords.

Doors might be narrow, as well. And in some cases, uneven house settling could 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, as historic register committees may have a say in what’s allowable and what isn’t.

Love them or hate them, historic houses have definite appeal to many American home buyers. For people who have done their homework, structural oddities and renovation limitations are part of the bargain. But for those who’ve fallen in love with their first historic house, the issues and the level of authority held by the historic registry might come as a surprise.

Your focus as a home inspector is still on defects that impair safety and function. But if your area has a higher than usual volume of antique houses, you might need to fine-tune your inspection process and always expect the unexpected.

At ICA School, we have the tools to prepare you for almost anything that you’ll encounter on the job. If this sounds like the industry that you’ve dreamed of, enroll now and start learning today.

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