50-Year-Old House Warrants Special Scrutiny

By Barry Stone
Saturday, July 22, 2006

Q: DEAR BARRY: I'm considering buying a house that was built in 1951, and I have some questions. Are plumbing systems from that era consistent with today's standards? (I think the pipes are steel.) Are electrical systems of that age safe? Can they provide enough power for today's electrical needs? -- David

A: DEAR DAVID: Construction standards have changed considerably in the past half-century, especially with regard to plumbing and electrical systems. The use of galvanized steel water piping was abandoned in favor of copper in the late 1960s, and now the plumbing industry has moved from copper to PEX (cross-link polyethylene). The problem with old galvanized pipes is that they usually have internal rust build-up, which reduces water volume. The most obvious symptom of corroded water lines would be changes in shower flow when other plumbing fixtures are operated.

Electrical systems in the early 1950s had much less capacity than today's systems because people used less electricity then. Typical breaker panels from that period provided from 50 to 70 amps, and some systems were still equipped with old-fashioned fuses. Today, the minimum service size is 100 amps, and homes are wired with many more circuits than they used to be.

Many aspects of a 1950s home are obsolete by today's standards. Therefore, be sure to hire a highly qualified home inspector before closing on this property.

DEAR BARRY: Our homeowners insurance company recently sent an inspector to our home to make sure the value of our policy covered replacement costs for the building. They now say the property value has increased by about $75,000, so they are raising the premium to pay for the additional coverage. Are insurance companies allowed to do this? It seems to me that the increased value is largely due to inflated land costs, not increased value of the building. What can we do? -- Nicole

DEAR NICOLE: The state agencies that regulate insurance companies often have review processes whereby complaints can be considered. You should check to see if such recourse is available to you. Inflated land costs, as you have said, should not increase the cost of replacing a home. However, the significant jump in construction costs in recent years may weigh in favor of the proposed premium increase.

Barry Stone is a professional home inspector. If you have questions or comments, contact him through his Web site,http://www.housedetective.com, or send mail to 1776 Jami Lee Ct., Suite 218, San Luis Obispo, Calif. 93401.

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