Charm, Character, and Potential Money Pit: Tips on Buying an Old House

It's becoming more common, and even trendy, to buy an older home and then renovate it. In some cases, it's done out of necessity, when there is a lack of other real estate available in a city or town. Some buyers may be attracted to an older home for the more reasonable price point -- perhaps they even want to flip it. And for other buyers, they simply love the charm and character of an old house. No matter what the appeal may be, it’s important to consult experts and be aware of some common problems. No buyer wants to discover that beneath the surface of their dream home lays a dilapidated wreck!


One of the most important aspects of any home is the foundation.  This is even more important in older homes for two reasons:

  1. A serious problem called “sulphate attack” can occur as a result of a chemical reaction between the soil and the concrete causing the foundation to crack and crumble.  Sulphates occur naturally in the soil and may also build up from lawn fertilizer over the years.  Modern foundation concrete is formulated to resist sulphate attack.
  2. In older homes it's possible that the centre beam of the home can begin to sink.  The result can be a sagging roof, bowed walls and sloping floors.  The remedy for both these problems is expensive and would require jacking up the house to replace the foundation and shore up 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

Taking a tour of an older property after dark to find out if there are obvious problems with the electrical and lighting system of the home. Do the lights flicker? Is the current steady or do the lights fluctuate between bright and dull? Is there adequate lighting in the home? Any such problems could indicate faulty wiring or an overloaded circuit. Even if you don’t find any problems, it’s important to have the wiring carefully inspected by a qualified home inspector or an electrician.

Many homes built or renovated in the 60s-70s used aluminum wiring. Unfortunately, aluminum wiring can pose a serious fire hazard. Ask your inspector to check for aluminum wiring and, if necessary, factor the cost of rewiring into your offer price.

Also consider whether there are 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

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

Lead Paint

Lead paint is common in older homes. In 1976, the federal government passed regulations limiting the amount of lead in interior paint to 0.5 percent by weight (exterior paints may contain more lead).  However,  many old buildings still contain lead paint.

Do yourself a favour if you buy an older home - call in a professional renovation firm to deal with the lead paint. If you really do want to tackle the job yourself, use a lead-safe dust mask and goggles. 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.


This naturally-occurring mineral makes a very effective fire- and heat-resistant material but unfortunately, in the mid-1970s doctors discovered that asbestos caused lung disease. In old homes, asbestos was used in carpet underlay, textured paints, roofing felt, electrical wiring insulation, acoustic ceiling material, and insulation. Your home inspector can let you know if you have asbestos or you may wish to consult an environmental assessment firm.

Ready to buy that old house?

Rather than consulting a contractor, hire a structural engineer to examine the 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 an exciting 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. 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.

Adrienne Alexanderbuyers