House Hunting Nightmares: Red Flags in Old Houses

old house in need of love

Older homes sometimes have lower prices because they need work or lack appeal among modern buyers. You might be considering buying one to save money. You might want to restore an old house because you love the ideal of doing it. Either way, the purchase price of an old house might save you money upfront, but you can expect it to demand hefty amounts for repairs and maintenance going forward. As you shop for an old house, watch out for these red flags in old houses because they are certain to make that house a money pit.

Red Flags in Old Houses That Mean Nightmare Bills

Any house that you buy will produce repair costs. Occasionally, they will be costly. But bills for red flags in old houses will be extra large and deserve to be called Williams.

Widespread Water Damage to Plaster Walls

You can expect to find some water-stained areas near plumbing where leaks historically got the walls wet. If you see signs of water damage to the plaster walls throughout the house, you are looking at major renovations to the walls instead of a few isolated patches.

Warning signs of water damage to plaster:

  • Discoloration around windows and doors because moisture has been penetrating the frame.
  • Loose wallpaper or flaking paint
  • Dark blotches indicative of mold growth

Prolonged water damage can compromise plaster to the point that it needs to be completely removed and redone. If you have to do this in every room in the house, then you are looking at a lot of labor and materials.

Water and humidity can foul the interior of a home if it has damage that leaves it open to the outside. Multiple roof leaks, bad plumbing, and poorly sealed doors and windows can let moisture enter the building for years and perhaps decades.

Obsolete Electrical Wiring

Wiring that is no longer up to code or wiring that has been patched together over the decades will cost you big money. If you need to rewire a house, make sure that the price that you pay reflects the cost of making the place habitable and safe.

Bad Plumbing

Similar to wiring, the plumbing may have been installed decades ago. Materials and seals have had time to fail and leak. The main sewer line may be infiltrated by tree roots. A bad sewer line will obligate you to excavate the yard and replace the pipe. If you have to update the plumbing throughout the house, you are looking at thousands of dollars in labor and material. Walls and floors will likely need to be torn out and rebuilt during this process, so that adds more expenses to your renovation budget.

Previous Renovations

Renovations are not always a good thing. Shoddy work done by contractors cutting corners or people who were incompetent or lacking in critical knowledge can cause expensive problems. You may need to tear out the work and start from scratch.

Problems that can arise from bad renovations include:

  • Plumbing leaks
  • Moisture buildup due to ventilation errors
  • Too many electrical outlets or light fixtures added to existing circuit
  • Structural weakening due to added loads or removed walls

Building Additions

Additions on older homes are pretty common. I would always consider additions to be among red flags in old houses until proven otherwise. Adding onto an existing building is always tricky. If it’s not done by an experienced and conscientious builder, the addition will cause problems. Problems tend to be related to the roof or foundation. The connection between the old and new structure is botched in some way and results in leaks or an uneven floor connection between old and new spaces.

An addition could also create problems with heating and cooling if it adds more square footage than the existing system is designed to handle. Similarly, electrical updates may have been skipped and now the circuits are strained by the added wiring.

Compromised Structure

Many old homes due to the fact that they are still standing were built to last. They have robust structures built to last for perhaps centuries.

Unfortunately, good construction can get messed up. Rot can set in on floor or roof joists and wall frames. This means you will have to complete a major rebuild to ensure that the floors or roof remain functional.

When you are in an old home’s basement, look for signs that someone has cut into the floor joists to run wires, pipes, or ductwork. These cuts will weaken the joists and result in sagging floors and cracked walls.

Bad Foundation

Foundations that may once have been great can deteriorate. Good drainage around a foundation can be ruined by the presence of new buildings or parking lots that send water toward a foundation that was previously dry. This could make the foundation leak or cause soil settling that cracks the foundation.

Settling is something that happens to every building, but shifts underneath should not alter the home by more than one inch. If you feel a noticeable incline on the floors or doors are difficult to open and shut, the house has settled more than is good.

Foundation issues are fixable. However, you need to find a foundation contractor, and you will need to wait for this specialist to schedule your job. As a specialist, the foundation contractor can charge premium prices.


Asbestos causes cancer when people inhale the dust or fibers of the substance. Asbestos was used widely in old buildings due to its ability to resist catching fire. An old house may have asbestos inside it. This is not necessarily a health risk unless you tear or cut into the asbestos-containing materials and release asbestos dust.

Where asbestos lurks in old homes:

  • Old boilers and furnaces
  • Vinyl floor tiles
  • Some popcorn ceilings
  • Shingles
  • Siding
  • Pipe insulation
  • Joint compound around fireplaces
  • Old wallpaper

Asbestos gets expensive because when asbestos-containing items are removed, workers need to wear hazmat gear and take extra precautions. You also have to pay for special disposal of the waste.

Historical District Rules

This may or may not be a red flag, but you should know how a historical district will impact your remodeling costs. Historical districts impose rules that require homeowners to follow standards that maintain the historical character of the neighborhood.

This means that your renovations cannot erase or compromise the appearance of the building that currently represents a specific historical era in terms of architecture, decorative elements, and sometimes color.

Historical district regulations will force you in many situations to work with specialty contractors capable of restoring or replicating architectural looks and decor of the past. This means hiring people with knowledge and skills necessary for materials that may no longer be mainstream. You may need to employ hard-to-find artisans. All of this means more money and longer waits because you are looking for people with rare heirloom skills, like wood carving or stained glass restoration.

Reasons Why People Buy Old Houses

Despite the risks of red flags in old houses, people buy them for many of the same reasons people choose any home. The house is in your price range in the location that you want.

Location can be a big influence to buy an old house. From small towns to cities, the old houses will be in the original sections of town, which may still be near desirable things like hospitals, universities, and parks. Hospitals and universities in city centers employ many people, and some of them love the chance to live very close to work so that they can bicycle or walk to work.

For a passionate minority, they buy older houses for the purpose of restoration. They love the thought of bringing something cool back to its former glory. This is very satisfying but expensive.

Many people living in old houses choose them as a matter of taste. They can have tremendous character and artistic details that add value to daily existence. The style of old homes is simply not available in newer construction that tends to be very “cookie cutter” and soulless.

Finally, some people live in old houses because that is what they could afford. They may not be in love with the thought of living in an antique dwelling, but it fits the budget.

Cool Things About Old Houses

Red flags in old houses that give people financial nightmares are common, but the fact remains that old houses can be very well-built. That sturdy foundation, frame, and roof might last centuries with proper care and maintenance.

Old houses in historical districts give people an opportunity to live in a place with an interesting character. The environment is stimulating in terms of architecture, mature landscaping, and a community of people who appreciate their surroundings.

Old houses can feel very special to people. On the inside, they create a different world, like you’re a character in a novel. The walls have overseen lives for generations, and that energy permeates the place with a collective energy. Rarely, this emerges as a haunting, but mostly it is perceived as evidence that this is a place where people belong.

Old houses can look awesome. Visitors will comment “I love our house” because it is so different and stimulating compared to whatever box they live in. For this reason, many old house owners have a great pride of ownership. They know they have something special, and they have the receipts for all of the red flags in old houses that they have fixed.

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