Reviving Your Old House: First Steps

Finding the Right House

You may be in the process of looking for a house to renovate at this time. Once you think you have found the house of your dreams, you need to give some serious and objective consideration to it, lest it become the house of your nightmares.

First, you should learn something about the various processes involved in buying and financing houses. Next, you need to know how to inspect a house. Finally, you must consider with cold objectivity your needs, including the time, both in years and in hours per month, available for renovating a house; your notions of the ideal neighborhoods in your area; the styles of houses you prefer; and the size house and number of rooms you need. If you follow the guidelines outlined in the next few sections, you will save yourself the great anguish of buying a house beyond your means or capabilities or of buying a house that's a very poor candidate for renovation.

Searching for an old house takes time and patience. Some cardinal rules should help you avoid painful mistakes:

• Don’t be hurried.

• Don’t be intimidated into

• Limiting your search

• Forgetting your needs and expectations

• Examining the house less than thoroughly

• Meeting the seller’s conditions

• Don’t be blinded to your needs by “falling in love” with a house.

• Don’t pay the asking price (or anywhere near it) without trying to get it drastically reduced.

Consider the Costs of Buying an Old House

Before you begin to skim the classifieds or contact a realtor you should consider

• The ideal, as well as the highest price you might be able to afford

• An estimated monthly budget for restoration projects

How to Estimate Monthly Mortgage Payments

For each $10,000 borrowed for 20 years:

Interest Rate










Monthly Payment*

$ 77


$ 90

$ 96

$ 103

$ 110

$ 117

$ 124

$ 132

* Approximate figures method of compounding will cause some variation. Figure 1/10 of this for each additional $1,000 borrowed.

Due to the compounding of interest, the amount one eventually pays for a house is astounding. In the early years of a mortgage most of the payment goes toward the interest, and only halfway through the term of the mortgage does the payment begin to make a good dent in the principal. Several rules of thumb will help you make a rough estimate of how much your house will actually cost over the term of the mortgage.

Long-term Cost of Mortgage:

Interest Rate

Length of Time

How Much You Will Pay





20-year mortgage

20-year mortgage

30-year mortgage

30-year mortgage

twice the principal

three times the principal

three times the principal

four and a half times the principal

Kinds of Mortgages

It pays to become informed about the various mortgages that banks offer. Shopping wisely for your mortgage can save you many dollars over the life of the mortgage.

Fixed-rate mortgage. The interest rate and the monthly payment remain the same over the time of the mortgage. If the interest rate charged is low in an inflating economy, a fixed-rate mortgage is a borrower’s delight because the monthly payment gets progressively less in real money during the years of the mortgage.

Adjustable-rate mortgage. The interest rate wanders up and down according to the current inflation rates. In an uncertain economy, it's a banker’s delight and cuts the bank’s losses if there is a high inflation rate during the term of the mortgage. The saving feature for the borrower is that this mortgage usually has a cap on how many percentage points it can rise, as well as a provision that a certain number of years must pass before each new increase. Without these safeguards, it's potentially deadly for the home owner.

Second (or third) mortgage. This mortgage is usually secured by the value of the property only after the first mortgage is paid off. A second mortgage is sometimes used to finance the down payment or even the closing costs. It is sometimes provided by companies other than banks, by individuals or relatives, or some times by the seller as an incentive to buy the house.

Other Costs Involved in Buying a House

In addition to the mortgage itself, a variety of other costs typically arise when you purchase a house.

Points. Sometimes points have to be paid to the lending institution. One point is 1 % of the loan.

Loan application fee. This is sometimes, outrageously but decidedly, nonrefundable.

Closing costs. These are sometimes from 5 to 10 % of the total loan, and include such items as the costs of

• Checking the title

• Checking your credit

• Administering the loan

Earnest money. You pay earnest money to the seller when you contract to buy a property. It serves as a guarantee that will be awarded the seller should you withdraw from your agreement to purchase for any reasons other than those stipulated by the con tract. It goes toward the down payment if your offer is accepted. Earnest money is usually held by a real estate company or a lawyer. An amount of 1 to 10 % of the sale price might be acceptable. It is advantageous if this money is placed in an interest-bearing account, with the interest tied to the principal. If this isn't possible, the earnest money should be as little as possible.

Escrow. Some banks may make you put money in escrow when you enter into extensive renovation. This is an account (usually at low interest) upon which you will draw for repairs as needed.

Property taxes. Taxes are usually divided up, with the former owner and the new owner each paying for his or her share of the year.

Other costs. You may be invited to buy out remaining fuel oil or time left on an existing homeowner’s insurance policy. The latter may be to your benefit, as old houses are sometimes hard to insure.

Diplomacy and Commonsense as Bargaining Strategies

• Do not do anything to degrade the house to the owner.

• Do not make an unnecessary enemy out of the realtor.

• Do not rely too much on the realtor to protect your interests, for he or she represents the seller and is thus trying to get the highest sale price possible.

• Do not let anyone know that you have made up your mind to buy the house under any conditions until you have a contract in hand.

• Do not make up your mind that the house is yours until it's yours.

Cutting the Price

It is rare, particularly when dealing with older houses in need of renovation, that a seller expects to receive the asking price of the house. It is up to you, the buyer, to pay as little as will possibly be accepted. Here are some suggestions for your negotiating strategy:

• Exercise the most extreme politeness, even if you don’t trust those you are dealing with.

• Gently but firmly mention the flaws you have found and how much they are apt to cost you to fix.

• Let it be known that you are looking at other houses as well as this one.

• Make an offer twice as low as you expect to pay; the seller will surely not accept your offer, but will make a counter offer.

• Ask the owner to include certain repairs as a part of the deal.

• Ask the owner to include in the deal certain items, such as

• Furniture

• Tools

• Appliances

• Dishes

• Restoration materials

• Ask the owner to pay your closing costs or give you the time remaining on the insurance policy to reduce your start-up costs.

• Explore the idea of the seller’s giving you a second mortgage at a lower rate than the bank is giving you the first mortgage; if the seller is planning on investing the profit from the sale, the interest you are willing to pay him or her may be more than bank or other investment interest will yield.

FYI: Watch out for sharpies who just want to make a lot of money on a house that's worth little.

FYI: To get you through the legal technicalities, hire a real estate lawyer at an hourly rate. You may find you actually save legal costs incurred in broker-handled closings. Make sure your lawyer protects your interests adequately.

Owner-Sold Houses

The great majority of houses that are sold are handled by realtors. Even when you see For-Sale-by-Owner signs, you must remember that many of these will eventually be sold by a real estate company. Owner-sold houses may be a great bargain for the buyer, particularly if, for one reason or another, the present owner has a pressing need to sell.

• The owner maybe willing to sell for less because no commission will be taken from the profit by a realtor.

• Because many people will not buy owner-sold homes, you may find you have the negotiating advantage of a buyer’s market.

Special Cautions for Owner-sold Homes

If you are taking out a mortgage, the bank will protect its own interest by requiring proof that the title to the property is free and clear. Nevertheless, make sure that your lawyer certifies the following points:

• There are no liens against the property. Liens are of varying sorts:

• General claims against the property

• Mechanics’ liens for labor or materials

• Surety bail bonds

• Tax liens

• The deed or the contract does not stipulate easements (right of someone else to use your property) or restrictive covenants.

• Every condition of sale is written down and everything that's included is specified.

• You are dealing with the legal owner.

Included in a Contract (even when not specified):

• Anything piped into the plumbing

• Anything wired into the electrical system

• Trees or shrubs that are planted in the ground

FYI: Gas space heaters, dishwashers, chandeliers, ceiling fans, mantels, self-storing storm windows, stained-glass windows, wall-to-wall carpets, therefore, are included. By all rights, because they are permanently installed, gas ranges and gas dryers should be included, but usually people think they shouldn't be: be sure to clarify your understanding, in writing.

Not Included in a Contract (unless specified)

• Appliances not attached to the electrical or plumbing systems

• Furniture

• Wall hangings

• Mirrors

• Clocks

• Area rugs

• Building materials

• Restoration materials purchased for the house by former owner

• Firewood

Precautions when Negotiating

• When in doubt, ask.

• When verbally assured, write it into the contract.

• Remember, the realtor who is selling the house is representing the seller, not you. Nevertheless he or she can be a great resource in finding houses for sale to show you, as well as in explaining local real estate laws.

Kinds of Real Estate Contracts on Houses for Sale

A seller has several options when he or she puts a house on the market. Each brings certain advantages and disadvantages.

Exclusive agency. The listed broker can sell the house, but if the owner sells it without the broker’s help, the owner pays no commission.

Exclusive right to sell. One broker collects a portion of the commission no matter who actually sells it. Brokers may put more effort and advertising money into properties on which they hold an exclusive right to sell.

Multiple listing. Any licensed broker can sell it. The successful salesperson and the listing broker share the commission.

Open listing. Property is offered for sale and a commission is paid to any broker who sells it.

Net listing. Owner sets a price and the broker collects anything above that price that he or she can get from the buyer. Understandably, this is illegal in some places.

Understanding the vocabulary and processes attached to house buying and selling is a big step toward educating yourself about your project. You now have considered

• Your own financial resources

• Costs of renovating and mortgaging a property

• Kinds of mortgages available

• One-time costs incurred at the time of purchase of a property

• Techniques for getting the best price possible

• Advantages and disadvantages of purchasing an owner-sold house

• Special legal precautions

• Real estate terminology

With these facts in mind, you are prepared to take a hard look at the house you are hoping to buy.

Checking the House Out

This section is about shopping for an old house that's your house, a house that will respond to your dreams, your values, your lifestyle. Because it will be a house that you will put a lot of yourself into, it's imperative that you choose well. Use the items of this section as a checklist to be read before and after seeing the house you are considering. If you think bringing this guide along might make you appear to be a novice, print out the checklist below to carry with you and note all the things on both the debit and credit side. A realtor will rarely mention the negative things to you, and he or she may not have even a ghost of an idea about the best of all the good points: the potential of this house for renovation. Such note-taking shows you to be a knowledgeable and careful prospective buyer and may actually strengthen your negotiating position if you find yourself in an adversarial relationship with a realtor or seller.

Later, you are going to make a list of the things to be repaired, restored, or remodeled, the number of months it might take you, and the dollars you will likely spend on each project. Ultimately, if you decide to buy the house, you will go through the list again and rate the things to be done in order of priority.

Why Inspect?

After your first guided tour though the house by the owner or realtor, your interest is peaked and you want to know everything possible about the house. You have two options: You may find it economical or convenient to hire a reputable home inspector — or even a knowledgeable friend — who will go over every inch of the house with you, discussing all of the pros and cons he or she notes; such an inspector may charge a flat or an hourly rate, which you should agree upon in advance. Alternatively, you can undertake such an inspection yourself, following the guidelines below. Even though you aren't an expert and your estimates are fairly wide of the mark, they will surely supply a more accurate appraisal of the house than no consideration of them at all. The long-run benefits of such an inspection are real:

• The inspection will give you confidence in whether to go for the house or to forget it.

• If you turn up any architectural scandal but you still want to buy the house, you not only can estimate the probable cost of renovation, but you also may be able to negotiate hundreds or even thousands of dollars off the purchase price. One termite-eaten sill, one leaky sewer pipe, or one rotted-through porch floor may bring the price down by thousands.

• Consider that this likely will be the biggest investment you will ever make; you must go into it with as much knowledge as possible.

Some real estate brokers may discourage you from doing an inspection or appear to be inconvenienced by all of this. You are the one who is forking out the money, however, and a year from now you will be glad that you inspected thoroughly.

Equipping Yourself for the Inspection

Let’s say you have walked through a number of houses and have finally found one that really stirs your hopes and imagination. It’s time for a more serious look. For a thorough inspection you will find the following equipment valuable:

• Old clothes or coveralls

• A ladder

• A pair of binoculars or opera glasses

• A powerful flashlight

• A ball bearing or marble

• An ice pick or penknife

• A pad and a clipboard

The old clothes are for romping around in dirty places. This is no time to look pretty—save that for when you are trying to get a loan at the bank. This is serious detective work. You are searching for a diamond, albeit a diamond in the rough.

Carrying along a ladder is, admittedly, a lot of trouble but it's foolhardy to buy a house as you’d buy a pig in a poke. You will need a ladder to get into the attic space to look for leaks in the roof, to spot problem areas in the ceilings, to check the quality of the chimneys, and to unearth any critters who might be living up there.

The binoculars (not for looking at the neighbors, as you might have thought) are of inestimable value for inspecting roofs, gutters, flashings, chimneys, peaks, and dormers without risking your very life.

The flashlight is for looking in attics, basements, and other dark, scary places.

The ball bearing or marble is for testing the level of floors. You don’t necessarily expect that everything will be level in an old house, but it certainly is interesting and revealing to know which way things slope. and I wouldn’t give you a nickel for a renovator who doesn’t know which way his or her floors slope!

The purpose of the ice pick or penknife is for poking at things to see if they are rotten or termite damaged.

Inspecting Underneath the House

Begin your inspection by looking under the house. If it's built low to the ground with no basement, you may have to peer under it with the help of your flashlight and try to examine the following in ways short of crawling under the house on hands and knees like a common alley cat.

Look at the sills (the part of the structure that rests on the masonry foundation), the main supporting beams, and the posts that hold them up. You are looking for soundness, absence of rot, and termites. You also hope to ascertain that there aren't foundational elements missing. Use the ice pick to test the soundness of the wood. On sills or large beams, the sapwood (the outer layer beneath the bark that was the younger, softer portion of the tree before it was cut) will often be dry and crumbly, but your pick should go no further than one-half inch before hitting something solid. If you find a soft spot in the wood, dig the surface away with your ice pick. Long hollow places going with the grain of the wood are evidence of termites, as are mud tunnels going up the masonry surfaces from the ground to the wood. These tunnels look rather like dried vines at first glance, but they are the termites’ link with the earth, which most species of termites must have in order to stay alive. In some areas of North America, professional termite inspection is required before mortgages are granted or insurance policies are issued on a property.

Carpenter ants are another fairly common insect pest. While they don’t usually cause damage, they are attracted to wet, rotten wood. If you find carpenter ants, look for leaky roofs and pipes that might be soaking the framing.

Although post-and-beam construction is illustrated in this drawing, later building forms, such as balloon-frame, use similar terminology.

The outer portion (or sapwood) of old beams is often dry and crumbly, but on a sound beam, a probe should hit hard wood about 1/2 inch beneath the surface.

Water and Sewer Lines

While you are under the house, look at the sewer lines (usually 3- to 4-inch cast-iron pipes, though you may find copper or even plastic) and evaluate their quality, neatness, absence of leaks, and location. Note in which direction the primary sewer pipe exits the basement; this might tell you something about the distance to the sewer main and thus enable you to look around on the ground for any evidence of leaks or recent repairs. Never assume anything about sewer lines or even sewers. I have seen them installed in such a way as to cross three different lots before they go into the public sewer main. Watch for sewer lines wrapped with friction tape or duct tape, an indication of rotted-out or frost-cracked pipes under the tape.

Water lines (usually 1/2- to 3/4-inch pipes) visible in the basement are a good measure of those in the walls that you can’t see. Look for leaks. Powdery green stains around joints indicate leaks that were never corrected and will probably leak again. Scratch the pipes with your ice pick to ascertain whether or not they are lead:

Lead is so soft that the pick will sink into it as if into wood, whereas the pick will scratch metallically against cast iron. Lead pipes must be replaced, as they are known to cause lead poisoning, cancer, and sterility. The experts are now even sounding the alarm about old copper pipes that were soldered with lead. If there are old copper lines, consider the complexity of the job if you ever decide to replace them.

Look carefully at the bottom of the first floor from underneath. Along with evidence of termite infestation, check for signs of leak age or rot, especially around places where you can see plumbing fixtures overhead.

Watch for moisture and its apparent cause—surface water from outside or plumbing problems. Is it run-through water that could be stopped by a drainpipe along the outside of the foundation? Could it be run-off from faulty downspouts or from the absence of both gutters and downspouts on the house? Very frequently this is the case. On the other hand, its location could indicate leaking sewer or water pipes.

To solve problems in wet basements requires an engineering triumph, but they can surely be solved, and some of the solutions are very simple. Generally you can assume that where there is a big water problem under a house, originally there was not this much water, and that some correctable drainage problem exists. The surest cure is to dig a trench around the entire foundation and lay in plastic drainpipe. This can be expensive if you don’t do it yourself by hand and it can be difficult if your property is quite close to neighbors.

Knob-and-tube circuitry may go through joists, as shown at the left, or be attached to them, as shown at the right.

Electrical System

Look at the wiring that's visible from under the house. What type is it? If you find a knob-and-tube or other cloth-sheathed, non- grounded system, you know the wiring is old. Even many flexible conduit systems used insulation that gets crumbly with age. Open a junction box or two and look for overcrowding and particularly for crumbling insulation. Examine the overall condition of the wiring. Are there many places where new lines have been tied into the old wires with friction tape splices? Are the splices that you can see carefully done? What is the quality of any obvious additions to the system? Is it careless, crooked, and ragged, or a basically neat job? A lot of demerits earned on these questions will mean that you will need to make a major investment in wiring soon after you buy this house.

Hot Water Heater

Check out the hot water heater if it's in the basement. If you don’t find it down here, it could be squirreled away in a closet, under a staircase, or standing hideously in a corner of the kitchen or bathroom. Hopefully, there is one someplace; never take such a fact for granted, however. Wherever you catch up with it, look it over for an estimation of its age. Sometimes the connecting pipes and the fittings, where they have been screwed onto the heater, will give you a better clue than the enameled cover of the heater itself (which is only a cover, not the tank itself). Heaters that are as old as Methuselah, sometimes have nice clean enamel covers on them. Feel around the bottom for evidence of drip or rust, which usually means that the tank itself has succumbed to old age and is rusting away. Note the capacity of the heater. A30-gallon natural gas heater will recover only about 27 gallons per hour.

Is this heater gas or electric? In spite of the fact that in most areas of North America electric heaters are a more ex pensive way to heat water, many you decide to change over to a gas-fueled water heater, you will have to install a chimney or vent pipe to take off the fumes. If your house currently has an electric heater, it may be that the former owners installed it because they were unwilling and /or unable to install a vent and to run a gas line over to the location of the heater.

All gas heaters and most electric heaters have a setting so you can choose how hot to make the water. On electric heaters the setting is often under the shield where you can’t see it readily. If the heater is too small for your needs, you can increase the setting in order to make the same amount of water go further. Do not set it higher than 1600 F. or it might scald someone, particularly if you have young children or elderly people in the house.

Gas hot-water heater.

Heating System

Examine the heating system if it originates in the basement. Various heating systems are now in use, most commonly wood, coal, oil, or natural gas used in a steam, hot water, or hot air system. Make a note of the furnace type and condition as well as the location and state of deterioration of the heat supply lines. You may be an antique collector of considerable dedication -- most old house buyers are -- but you can surely do without an antique furnace. You may discover an old coal furnace converted to gas or oil. If it does not look all rusted out, it may be acceptable, though in most cases these old conversions are inefficient.

If an electric hot water heater fails to heat and the electric circuits aren't broken, look bra reset button on the front of the heater or behind a metal shield. If a gas heater fails to heat, check to be sure the pilot is lit.

Inspecting the Interior of the House

It’s time now to move to the interior of the house. Here, you will again examine the wiring and plumbing, in addition to general spaces and the condition of walls, floors, and trim.


You have seen the plumbing from the underside. Now consider whether bathrooms and sinks are located in approximately the right places or whether you are going to have to move everything. The old-timers sometimes put bathrooms in some unlikely places. As often as not they put them on a porch, sometimes without even taking the slope out of the floor before they installed the fixtures. These porches were sometimes half rotten before they were converted and poorly insulated after they were done over. Another common technique was to build an addition on the back of the house or a little privy-shaped box on the side of the main structure.

Do pipes that supply the upstairs run right up the surface of the walls or is it a sensible and tasteful installation? Check out all the taps and see how fast the water runs and whether rust runs out Check also to be sure the hot water taps are operable. A lot of rust probably indicates really rusty pipes or a problem at the source of supply. Rust in the hot water only often means a dirty or badly deteriorated hot water heater.

Low pressure might mean a poor situation on the city water system or pipes almost filled up with mineral deposits. (I’ve seen them so clogged up that just a trickle comes out of a fully-opened tap.) Look underneath sinks to see whether the drain pipes show signs of leakage, indicated by greenish, or sometimes white, crystals around the joints.


Consider whether you could improve the existing bathroom(s) or whether major remodeling must be done. If the floors are of ceramic tile, observe whether the tiles are tight, loose, or missing altogether. If the floors are badly deteriorated, the holes may have to be filled and the tile covered with vinyl flooring. Small areas of damage may be patched with concrete or, better, repaired with tiles from another bathroom floor that's beyond salvation. Inspect ceramic bathtubs, sinks, and toilets for cracks and breaks. If the toilet rocks, it should be re-set. Evaluate the porcelain finish on cast-iron bathtubs and sinks.

Healing System

If the house has radiators, note their location. Check them for leaks, especially at the valves. Turn the valves on and off to see if they work. Sometimes radiators are missing. Although the original number may have been more than needed, you will certainly need at least one radiator in every room, except perhaps in the room directly over the furnace. You will have to go by guess on many of these things if it's summer. If the owner is present, be sure to ask about efficiency of the system, or, better still, ask if you can see heating bills from the previous winter. If they are no longer available, the utility company may be able to supply copies.


Notice the location and size of the kitchen. Are they both accept able, or will you use its diminutive size and inconvenient layout as an excuse for serving an exclusive diet of TV dinners and frozen pizza four nights a week? Is there space in the kitchen (or elsewhere) for a laundry area? I don’t know about you, but my idea of an old, renovated house does not preclude the basic conveniences that our advanced civilization has given us.

Living Areas

Is there a space for the kind of parlor or formal living room you would like? If you contemplate a library or music room are there spaces for them? Where would you put the TV and the stereo? Are there enough rooms for bedrooms for your brood—and the contemplated size of it in ten years?

Don’t buy an old house that's too small, because luxurious size is often one of the bargains you get in an old house. Perhaps you, like I, have never seen a house, smaller than a mansion, that was too big for you. Other people seem to feel guilty when they aren't using all of their space all of the time. You’ll just have to decide how you feel about things. But if you live in a part of the country where winters are long and cold, remember that you will have to heat all of that lovely space somehow, unless you install heat zones and can close off unused parts of the house and leave them unheated.

Does the layout of the house give enough privacy for your family’s lifestyle? Another of the great luxuries of most old houses is that rooms are laid out in such a way that you can get away from each other’s noise. If this is desirable to you, make sure that this house suits that need.

Electrical System

Continue your inspection of the different components to the electrical system. Is the house served by a circuit breaker or a fuse box? What is the total amperage? A 200-amp service is more than adequate for a large family in a large house, but many old houses have only a 60-amp service. If the service is this small, you will have to rewire. If a fuse box, how many fuses are there? If the house has circuit breakers, it may have been completely rewired recently, though not necessarily. Can you determine ii the hidden wiring is modern cable or an old, knob-and-tube system? What you can see of it in the basement and attic where it passes into the walls of the house should help you to guess. The knob-and-tube or two-wire system isn't necessarily bad unless it has been carelessly repaired or is deteriorating because of age. The wire sizes are usually too small for anything but lights, however, and there is no ground, so you should replace it, if possible.

Look for the number and evident condition of electrical outlets and light fixtures in each room. Are they in working order and do they look safe? Blinking lights may indicate loose switches or outlets; these are dangerous and will need to be replaced as soon as possible.

If the house has a minimum number of electrical outlets as well as a minimum number of fuses, you will probably have to rebuild or extend the system, although sometimes one can balance the usage of the circuits. By avoiding placement of the refrigerator, color TV, microwave oven, toaster, and attic fan all on the same circuit and eliminating altogether very heavy users of electricity, such as electric heaters and air conditioners, you may be able to get along with the existing system reasonably well. If there are too few wall outlets, you will need to extend the system in order to avoid the use of extension cords, even if that means there will be too many outlets on one line. One can hardly imagine a more volatile electrical system than one largely made up of a mile of aging extension cords. For systems overextended with outlets, you simply will need continually to lecture your co-dwellers that just because there is an unused outlet on the wall doesn’t necessarily mean that one can safely plug an electric popcorn maker into it, or a fuse will blow.

(A) Fuse box. (B) Circuit breaker.


Take note of the ceilings. Give a light tap here and there. A hollow sound indicates that the plaster or the lath has pulled away from the joists underneath. Any sags in the ceiling should be investigated or mentally marked down as a mandatory need for a new ceiling. If you can lift the ceiling a half an inch or more with a broom handle, the ceiling obviously is loose. (When you push, do so very carefully or the whole shebang may come down on your head. I have seen one come down more or less in one piece, and to experience it's awesome!) Generally, ceilings, because of the force of gravity, aided and abetted by people jumping around on the second floor, and the absence of wallpaper, are likely to come apart and need replacement sooner than walls. Over the decades, wallpaper seems to preserve plaster better than mere paint does.

You probably ought to consider marginally adequate ceilings as candidates for recovering with gypsum wallboard (sometimes called plasterboard or drywall, or by the tradename Sheetrock). If the plaster has pulled away from the ceiling above it, however, because of its tremendous weight, it must all be torn off and the wallboard nailed against the lath. Be forewarned: It is a filthy job getting all that old plaster out of the house.

Ceiling joists may be strengthened by nailing a piece of plywood against the sides of the joist and the rafter above.

Many old houses have the distressing feature of brick chimneys on top of ceiling joists, with nothing but the ceiling to hold them up. Look for them especially over kitchens and bathrooms with no living space above them. There once was even a commercially prepared kit in which a stovepipe opening was bolted to the ceiling and to a saddle made of 4x4s upon which the bricks were then laid. When these chimneys were taken out of service, they were some times merely cut off at roof level and roofed over, leaving the main part of the chimney still in the attic. Because ceilings often contain minimal dimension joists, such piles of bricks frequently cause a whole ceiling, or part of it, to sag down five or six inches.

Sometimes the ceiling will retract a considerable distance when the bricks are removed. In other cases, the bricks must be re moved, the ceiling jacked up, and a strengthening joist nailed alongside the sagging joist. Alternatively, one can tie the sagging joist to one of the roof rafters. To avoid placing all of the stress on one point of the rafter, nail a section of plywood against the sides of the rafter and joist (see illustration). Use a lot of 6d, preferably cement-coated nails and 1/2-inch plywood.

All stains on the ceiling plaster should be investigated for a source of leakage above. This is of utmost importance because it may be your only way of determining the condition of both the upstairs plumbing and the roof. If there are spots on the ceiling approximately under plumbing fixtures upstairs and no evidence of recent repair (new parts should be ob you will probably experience the same leak under some or all conditions. The spots could be from an overflowed tub or stopped-up toilet, but are more likely the result of a leak.

Rarely does plumbing ever repair itself: About the only exception is a small leak at the joint in an iron pipe just after you have replaced the joint. In this case a one-drip-a-minute leak, for example, will probably dry up in two days time.


Observe the walls as you move through the house. Rough, broken surfaces should be noted. At the least, any plaster pulled away from the lath on the walls will need to be removed and patched by plastering or inserting wallboard. In extremely bad cases, entire walls may need to be replaced.


Check out the quality and the condition of the woodwork in the house. Are all the doors present and original, or are some of them modern replacements? For places where you absolutely must have original, good quality doors, could you substitute doors from elsewhere for nonexistent or inappropriate doors? Some of the replacement doors may be old enough to complement the house; it's not uncommon to have one or two doors with horizontal panels (usually made after 1910) mixed in with the four-vertical-panel doors that were common in the last century and in the first decade of this century.

Windows and Doors

Watch for broken windows and rotted window sash. Sash is apt to rot at the bottom where the water settles as it runs off the glass, usually first at the joint between the bottom and the side piece of the sash. Gently test these areas with your faithful ice pick, and make a judgment on which you would need to replace. Look, too, for replacement windows that don't match the originals. It is most important for the front windows and other street-side windows to be original or authentically matched. Side and rear window re placements might be allowed to stay if they are in good shape and not monstrosities. The general, overall effect of a house is so often determined by its windows that they may be the most important architectural feature of the building. If you must replace “modern” windows to regain that beauty and integrity, it's well worth the investment.

Check the fit of both windows and doors. A common problem is doors that are badly warped or that have been fitted by one who was a wood butcher rather than a carpenter. In fact, it's rare to see an old house that has not yet been renovated or restored that doesn’t have some nasty little scandal such as this. There are several ways to solve this problem: good weather-stripping, a storm window, thicker window or door stop, or even a piece of wood glued on the edge of the door or sash to fill up some of the empty space. Avoid nailing extension strips into doors, because nails tend to work loose and cause problems, and they make planing nearly impossible.


Are the floors good? Would a thorough cleaning and afresh coat of shellac or polyurethane be all they need or must they be sanded? Or are they so bad as to require wall-to-wall carpeting? I have seen floors that looked like a plowed field due to moisture underneath. There may be little hope for such a floor except to carpet it or lay another floor. On the other hand, don’t discount the rich beauty of a floor that seems hopelessly banged up. Once you have sanded and beautifully finished it, and then partially covered it with a braided or oriental rug, it will be transformed. This is especially true if your taste in antiques runs in the direction of primitives.

Generally speaking, no floor is too rough for sanding. It may take a tremendous amount of sanding to level it, however, especially if the boards are warped, as is often the case with oak floors. True, some floors are hopeless:

• A floor so warped that all the nails, tongues, and grooves that hold it together will be exposed when it's sanded level

• A floor with a long seam or joint running across the grain at a prominent part of the floor

• A floor patched with mismatched lumber that can't be cured by staining or replacing the patches

As you examine the floors, watch for obvious dips, sags, or slopes. Your ball bearing should be of help here. When you find a slope, look along the baseboards at the floor line to see if there is a large crack showing a fairly recent settling. It may be as big as an inch or two. Floors will often slope toward a chimney, but the tell-tale crack should warn you of a recent problem. A room that shakes badly when you walk or jump on it may also have some problems underneath. Such settling, sloping, and shaking might be the result of a number of problems, either serious or inconsequential. Investigate and try to form an educated opinion about the causes.

Give special consideration to the floor in the kitchen and bath room. Check for rot around the toilet and near the sink with your ice pick. One sometimes finds a toilet or bathtub that, were it not for the sewer pipe holding it up, would drop into the basement.


Note any absence of decoration throughout the house such as moldings, paneling, and the like.


If there are fireplaces, observe if they have been ruined by the loss of tiles or modernization of the mantel. If they have been cemented shut at the flue, it may be a blessing in disguise, both because old fireplaces are often unsafe and because they can suck heat out of your house almost as fast as your heating system will produce it. If the fireplace opening itself has been covered over, tap on it to determine how difficult it might be to reopen it so that it could become beautiful again. It may have just a thin wall of bricks or wallboard covering it.

Serious Problems

• Rotted sills. posts, or joists

• termites making their dinner out of something underneath

• Someone’s engineering mistake in previous remodeling attempt

• Missing bridging (the criss-cross supports between the joists at the middle of the span.

Inconsequential Problems

• Too much weight on the foot-

• A settling that has not stabilized

• A not-serious weakness in the original design

Looking in the Attic

The attic may be hard to get to, or you may have to look in through a ventilator or up through a small hole in the ceiling of some closet. You may suspect all sorts of creepy-crawlies up here, but, in fact, sealed-off attics are usually free of such things. In the summer, however, watch out for wasps! A careful sweep with your powerful flashlight will reveal a great deal.


Is the house insulated? How deep is the insulation? Often the blown-in kind of insulation settles a great deal and you may be surprised at how little is left, even if the owner said it was seven inches thick. Don’t worry a great deal about this, because this kind of insulation is very easy to add to. It is, however, just one more thing you’ll have to do.

Asbestos insulation is now judged to be dangerous and government standards call for its removal. It is of particular concern if it's exposed to the heating system or has other means of getting into the air of the house. You may suspect that any old, fibrous insulation contains asbestos, but there is no way to be certain of its content without professional testing. It is a bargaining chip worth several thousands off the house because professional removal is quite expensive.

Unwanted Visitors

With your eyes and with your nose test for evidences of wildlife. You don’t wish to buy an amusement park for squirrels or a bird sanctuary or a place for bats to hang out after a nighttime of fun. Pigeons will be known by the feathers and trash connected with their nests. Also, you will almost certainly see them roosting around on the outside as if they owned the place free and clear. Bats create a strong, dirty, musty odor. The first step in eliminating these nonpaying visitors to your house, if you should buy it, will be to put screening over vents and repair any holes in the roof, eaves, or walls that allow them access. Screening decreases the opening by about one-half, so be sure the vent is adequate for the space being ventilated. All of these critters believe in the validity of squatters’ rights, and can't be expected to go away without industrial-strength intimidation.


Check out the wiring up there in the attic and compare it with the wiring in the rest of the house. Watch for damage by rodents. Squirrels are known to form a taste for old wire insulation when they get hungry enough. They are likely to eat only wires that are in plain view, so your main concern is to evaluate what is visible.


Most important, here is the place to find out about the roof from the underside. Make a mental note of any irregularities or peculiarities in the roof so you can see how they look from the outside later on. Looking through the cracks of the roof boards, can you see what the original roofing material was made of? If there are merely slats with wide spaces between, the roof was originally wood shingles, slate, or tile. Determine how many roofs have been nailed on top of the original roofing material, if possible.

Watch for evidences of leaks in the roof especially where you saw stains in the ceiling below. You might see dark wood where a suspected leak has occurred, particularly right under a valley in the roof or near a chimney flashing, where most roof leaks occur.

Watch for rotted out roof boards or holes in the eaves, evidenced by light coming through where the slope of the roof begins. These are places that will have to be repaired immediately.

Look at the chimneys as they go through the attic, noting their location and condition. Watch for unused chimneys as described earlier. One of these could explain that horrendous sag in the kitchen ceiling that you were worried about earlier.

A Walk around the Exterior

How is the siding and exterior wood? Are there any bad areas that will likely need replacing? Look for any vertical area of the siding where the paint is peeling off it's usually a dead giveaway that there is water seeping in behind the wall, either from a leaky or backed-up gutter or even from a leaky roof. Poke any place that looks rotten with your ice pick. Paint will never stick to rotten wood for very long.

Watch for leaks in the eaves (the roof overhang), manifested by missing or rotted boards or peeling paint.

Check all windowsills within reach to see if they are rotted. Test for softness with your ice pick if they look rotten. If they are for the most part badly worn, you will need to go back in and check out the ones you can’t reach from the outside by opening the windows from inside.

Around the eaves or near ventilators look for feathers or bird droppings, which indicate the existence of avian doorways into your attic.

Watch for any missing or deteriorated original decoration. Take note of the difficulty or ease of replacing this decoration. Some times it's missing because it rotted and fell off. In other cases, the house was the injured party in a criminal scheme of remodeling that remuddled the hereditary beauty of the house.


If this house has a masonry exterior you will be looking for other sorts of things in your examination. If the window casing and sills are wood rather than masonry, check there for deteriorated wood, as well as checking all other exposed wood, such as eaves and cornices, as described above. Owners of stucco, brick, or stone houses often tend to forget that these parts must be painted and otherwise maintained as with an all-wood exterior. Your main concern, however, is to assess the condition of the masonry walls. Usually brick or stone houses will have a crack or two running from bottom to top. It is caused by an ever-so-slight amount of settling at one point or another that can be filled with caulk and forgotten. Watch out, however, for evidence, such as large cracks, bowed walls, or many fallen bricks, that a whole wall or section of the house is falling into the street. If it's , it's usually because a foundation is settling for one reason or another. This exact situation has caused the Tower of Pisa to lean, and various bright ideas as to how to correct the problem have only made it lean farther. This could happen to you, and while Pisa’s leaning tower has become a tourist attraction, yours is likely to attract only the building inspector.

Watch for rotted mortar between the bricks or stones. Test with your ice pick at numerous places. If it's bad all over, you are in for a long project of tuck-pointing the mortar if you buy this house. Bricks themselves can be damaged by moisture or freezing, especially if they have stayed wet, if ivy has been grown on the building, or if the bricks were no good in the first place. Small areas of decay can be plastered or painted over if they are first wired or covered with lath.

If the house is constructed of stucco over wood lath, look for the dark spots that indicate that the lath is rotted under the stucco. Take note of how much stucco needs to be re-plastered.


Porches are usually the worst disaster on the exterior of an old house. You may find them in an advanced stage of gangrene or already amputated. Worst of all is when they have suffered reconstructive surgery at the hands of a mechanic who had no taste in old houses, for the remodeling of porches has probably destroyed more homes than termites have. I could wax eloquent about the perfectly beautiful homes I know of that have been destroyed by rooms built on porches. Whenever I see such a house, I think of an exceedingly beautiful maiden who is wearing wretched, ill- fitting clothes. In the case of the maiden, the solution is simple. In the case of houses, the solution is complex because the damage is permanent. These old porches were often very large and are indeed expensive to rebuild. To the buyer’s benefit, however, it's not unlikely that on some houses, the absence of an original porch in mint condition could devalue the house quite substantially. The only qualification is that you be able to see the potential in the building as it stands. With your savings, you may be able to pay for not only a new porch, but also a garage, a fence, and several other items.

If the house still has more or less original porches, check out the railings, balusters, and porch posts for rot by poking your ice pick at the bottom where the water settles. There are remedies for any problems you turn up, but it's good to know what you are up against.

If there originally was gingerbread (ornate, sawn-wood decoration such as brackets, posts, and finials), is it present and in reparable condition? If not, could it be duplicated with the original or a similar pattern?

Watch for peeling paint on the porch ceiling as a sign of a leaky roof. If the ceiling has been recently painted, the sign of leaks will be dirty spots where the water dripped through.

Test the floor for sturdiness by jumping a little on it. (Not too hard though: you wouldn’t want to go through.) Look at the floor boards. If they are in good shape, you are probably looking at one well-kept house, because porches are mighty hard to keep in top condition.

Stand back and view the house with its porch in mind.

• Was this the profile of the original porch or does it look like something out of a mail-order catalog stuck on an empty wall?

• Are the posts too long or (more often) too short?

• Is the porch too wide?

• Should the porch be wider than the house itself with wrap around ends?

• Are posts placed in a pattern that obscures the windows?

The Roof and Its Parts

While you are off at a vantage point looking at the lower parts of the house, begin your evaluation of the roof and related matters. Now is the time to use those binoculars.

Look carefully at the condition of the roof shingles. Watch for torn shingles, patches, or unevenness due to curled shingles and missing pieces.

As mentioned on above, it would be helpful to know how many layers of roofing are on the house. If there are three or four, then you are due for a fresh start the next time you need to put on a roof. Roofing builds up tremendous weight and , furthermore, the top-most layers of an overloaded roof don’t stay nailed very well. The number of layers of roofing that a roof can withstand is determined by the pitch of the roof and the kind of rafters and roofing materials. Large diamond-shaped shingles, for example, are much lighter than the common 3-tab, horizontal shingles.

Are roofs on porches and additions in good condition?

Check the flashing (sheet-metal protection) around the chimney and at places, such as dormers, where a vertical wall adjoins the roof. Check the condition of roof valleys (places where two different pitches of the roof adjoin).

Look at the gutters and downspouts to check for deterioration. Give special attention to built-in gutters, which can be real owner breakers. If the roof needs replacing, you might consider at the same time covering these with plywood, re-roofing the whole roof, and then attaching metal gutters to the edge of the roof.

Look for sags on the surface of the roof that might mean a broken rafter or some rotted out boards under the roofing, occasionally caused by a leak that has been allowed to exist for many years.

Look for sags and dips in the ridge of the roof (the horizontal line formed where one side of the roof meets the other side). There has to be an explanation, either old or new, for an irregular roofline, and you need to make some guesses about the cause and then try to confirm them. The sag in the middle or dip on one end might represent:

• Weakened foundations

• Termites in the walls

• Rotted places in the walls

• Exterior walls that have bowed out in the area directly under the sag

If you can determine that whatever caused the sag has been corrected or halted and that an on-going process of deterioration does not exist, you can simply enjoy the picturesque beauty of an old house with a sag in the roof. Settling of a house might be a natural part of the building process. In some areas, for example, frame houses were built on piers that were merely bricks laid directly on the ground. The foundations usually settled by the time the windows and trim of the house were installed. Then, instead of lining windows and doors up with the floors, they were installed in plumb and level.

The roof and its parts, especially dormers and chimneys, demand careful inspection.

A sag in the eave line might indicate a broken (or rotted) eave. If both the ridge and the eave sag down on one end, you might suspect:

• Settling in the foundation

• Termite damage in the wall directly below the sag

• Improper foundation and settling at the weak place

• A very heavy chimney that might haven't had a sufficient foundation for its weight, and thus pulled the part of the house to which it's attached down with it over the years

• Some sort of drainage problem that keeps the ground continually drenched under the foundation

Stand Back and Look

While you are on the outside, take a few moments to look at this house and imagine its potential. Is it really your house? Is it beautiful in outline and details? Are the windows the right shape for this style of house? What would be the effect of shutters, a front door more in keeping with the style of the house, or the replacement of the ugly, aluminum storm door that some practical soul installed? Is the silhouette of the original house and its additions a nice one or does it look like an unplanned collection of rabbit warrens? If chimneys, porches, shutters, or decoration are missing, can you imagine how the house would look after these essential ingredients are replaced? Would it be necessary to replace them in order to have the house look right? Consider how the house might be improved in its look. What if it were given a multicolor paint job to highlight its gingerbread?

Your inspection of the house has given you hard information about:

• The underside of the house, including sills, beams, posts, sewer and waterlines, possible drainage problems, wiring, hot water heater, heating system

• The interior of the house, including bathroom and kitchen plumbing; radiators; location and size of kitchen; overall space and layout; electrical system; ceilings; walls; woodwork, windows, and doors; floors, especially in kitchen and bathrooms; fireplaces

• The attic, including insulation, possible animal life, wiring, roof underside

• The exterior of the house, including siding; eaves, missing decoration; if masonry, cracks, leans, rotted mortar; railings, balusters, trim, floors, ceilings, and overall design of porches

• The main and porch roofs and their parts, including roofing materials, flashing, gutters, sags and dips in both the ridge and eaves of the roof

With this objective information in hand, it's now time to mull over your decision.

Inspection Checklist

Make a photocopy of this checklist to take along for your inspection tour. Use the “notes” column to remind yourself of materials, styles, or special features or problems of points under consideration.

Mulling it Over

You have done a thorough inspection of the house that you propose to restore. It is now your task to make a decision based first upon the data you have observed and collected. Use the following checklists to guide your objective evaluation of the property. Score each item on a scale of 1 to 5, from poor to excellent. Then calculate the average score for each section. After all these points have been considered to your satisfaction, you can allow yourself to pay attention to your less pragmatic, emotional reactions to the house.

Does the size and layout of the house suit your needs now and in the foreseeable future?

Unless you can somehow come to terms with your need for space by readjusting your priorities or reassigning space, then you will do poorly to buy this house if it does not score high on this list.





living room

Dining room






TV/music room

Recreation room


Storage area


Outdoor recreation




Possible ways to gain more space

• Addition to building

• Division of existing space

• Lofts in high-ceilinged rooms

• Development of attic or basement

• Adding additional building for shop or storage

Is the location of this house one that you can live with?

This checklist is serious business. Unless you and your family are going to be comfortable in this location you should be looking for another house. No bargain, no amount of beauty, can over shadow the fact that a house is located where you definitely don't want to live.




Near creeping slums

Near expanding business district

Traffic congestion

Close neighbors

Quality of schools

Distance to work

Distance of shopping areas



Factors to consider in estimating the growth or deterioration of the neighborhood:

• Number of restorable houses in the neighborhood

• Climate of restoration in the particular city

• Zoning (can the buildings be used as single- or multi-family residences? for business?)

• Zoning of surrounding area

• Number of houses renovated or in the process of renovation

• Average cost of old houses (Too high for private homes? Dirt cheap so that slum lords are apt to take over?)

• Encroachment of slums, subdivided rental property, and business in recent years

What did your thorough inspection of the house turn up? It would be well to go through your notes and make a list of all the serious negatives that are going to take a considerable amount of time and money to correct.

Next, make three lists, as described below, with a note by each item estimating the probable time and money involved:

• Major projects needed to be done before your family can move in

• Major projects required to keep the building from rapid deterioration

• Major projects required before you will consider this a comfort able and livable house

Will your budget be able to handle the proposed renovation? To determine this important factor, begin by listing your assets:

• Amount of cash available in a comfortable situation

• Amount of cash available in a worst-case situation

• Amount of cash available in a drastic search for funds

Revise your monthly budget to project what you will need if you buy this house. Include

• Renovation expenses

• Mortgage payments

• Taxes

• Insurance

List all the funds you could funnel into renovation by cutting back on other activities. Might you be willing and able, for instance, to cut back on funds spent on vacations, periodicals, movies and parties, eating out, or new clothes?

Re-plotting Your Time and Budget

If things don't effortlessly fall together, this does not mean that you can't afford or manage the house. If you’re short of cash for renovation you might:

• Ask the seller for a second mortgage

• Convince the bank to reduce the down payment required

• Plan on using more secondhand materials, which require more labor and less cash

• Take out a short-term loan or sell something

• Readjust priorities to put off expensive projects

If you’re short of time for projected renovation you might:

• Readjust your schedule

• Plan to hire help just for the start-up crisis

• Call on friends to help

You should now have in hand some very concrete data upon which to base your decision about whether or not to buy this house you have examined. You can consider the facts and figures of:

• Space and layout of the house

• The location of the house

• The nature of the neighborhood

• The extent of renovation required

• The adequacy of your budget and your time to deal with the renovation

Next: Organizing For Work
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