What to Know When Purchasing an Older Home

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Don't let an emotional response distract you from important questions about a property.

A MOTHER EARTH NEWS editor talks about problems when purchasing an older home.

What to Know When Purchasing an Older Home

The house I fell in love with was a four-story, century-old Kansas farm house with a great old barn, granary and a 30-by-70-foot outbuilding on 10 rolling acres. Only 15 miles from the city and my office, it seemed like the perfect find. The owners were selling the house privately, and, due to my financial situation, I didn’t have to deal with a bank. I came, I looked, I bought.

I soon discovered a few wee problems: no central heat or air conditioning on the second floor; one of the breakers blew each time I ran the clothes dryer and air conditioner simultaneously; and the storm windows didn’t fit flush with the window frames. None of these problems were a major hindrance to my life.

Although I enjoyed the rural life and my country home, my priorities changed a year later, necessitating a move into the city. Instead of trying to sell the house myself, I hired a real estate agent since I was not available to show the house during the day. While buying the house had been relatively painless, selling it was not going to be so easy. First, I faced answering — honestly — the questions on the required seller’s disclosure form. Although I had tolerated the house’s peculiarities, it was difficult to admit them to people looking at the house. And folks did come and look — and just look. Finally, after lowering the price, I had an offer — contingent on a whole-house inspection. My momentary glee turned to gloom.

By this time, I was aware that the house had some significant defects. After a hard rain, water pooled in one corner of the basement. The bedrooms, tolerable in wintertime under a heavy comforter, were insufferable during the sultry summer months, even with the room’s air conditioner blasting away. My other inspection concerns included the jerry-rigged wiring in the basement, the very steep and worn stairs to the basement, the narrow doorways and the absence of wall insulation.

Fortunately, the inspector was familiar with the realities of older homes. He was wise enough to tailor his expectations for a 113-year-old structure, and wrote an honest report about a house that was not capable of meeting current building codes. Even with its shortcomings, the buyers were satisfied and the house sold.

I know I was lucky, and have learned from my mistakes — especially the biggest one: emotion. My Kansas country house not only resembled my childhood home in upstate New York, but its attic smelled exactly like that house. I was hooked before I knew what hit me. Next time, my house-shopping will be by committee — lots of knowledgeable friends and professionals who will help make sure that my decision not only stirs my heart, but also is based on buying smart.

Heidi Hunt