Restoring an old house can be one of the most creative and exciting experiences of your life. But a pre-1914 house can also be a trap for the unwary.
Behind the charming facade may lurk a host of mechanical and structural faults that will tax your patience and empty your bank account.
The most important part of buying an old house is knowing what you are getting into. Just about any flaw can be corrected - if you are willing to invest enough time and money. What is required is a sober appraisal of the physical deformities of your favorite old house - and balancing these against your reserves of cash and energy.
Everyone can identify those superficial aspects of an old house that attract list is designed to help you focus on some of the more mundane, but get totally carried away by that beautiful window and that lovely fireplace.
This guide is not designed to take the place of an evaluation by a professional house inspector. Getting to the opinion of a reputable professional will usually cost between $50 and $150, and it is a sound investment when you are seriously considering a purchase. This check list will, however, help you eliminate from consideration those houses that are in too bad shape for your budget to handle.
If you already own an old house, use this check list to guide for an annual check. Thorough inspection at regular intervals will help you catch little problems before thay become big ones.
A sound, tight roof is the first line of defense against the No. 1 enemy of an old house - water.
Pitched roof: Any sign of missing, broken or wraped shingles or ties? This mean that there is water damage inside. Binoculars can give you a good closeup view if it is impossible to actually get up on the roof.
Asphalt shingles: Does roof look new but lumpy? New roof may have been applied directly over old shingles. No way to tell what defects may have been covered over.
Flat roof: Any sign of bubbles, separation or cracking in the aspnalt or roofing felt? Roofing should be flat and tight to roof.
Flashing around chimneys and valleys: Any sign of rustly, loose or missing flashing?
Chimney: Is the Masonry cracked or crumbling?
Gutters: Are there any loose, rotting or missing gutters?
Do exterior walls seem plumb? You can check with a plumb line: a weighted string will do. Out-of-plumb walls can be sign of serious foundation problems.
Do doors line up squarely in their frames? Out-of-square doors can be another sign of possible foundation trouble. Almost all old houses settle in a haphazard manner. Some sags require no remedy; others can be cured with a few extra support posts. Still others may require major foundation surgery.
Is paint peeling, curling and blistering? This could mean a serious water problem - either a leak or lack of sufficient vapor barrier in wall.
Masonry walls: Any signs or cracks? Horizontal cracks and hairline cracks in bricks are not a major probelm; cracks that run vertically through bricks and motar are more serious.
Termites: Any sign of veins of dirt on interior or exterior walls?
Clem Labine is an old house restoration buff and publisher based in Brooklyn.