If These Walls Could Talk: Managing Risk With Old House Inspections
When you perform a home inspection on an old house, you’re turning a page in history. You see historical construction methods, old or outdated materials, and fascinating (or worrying) structural designs. This makes old houses and historic homes both exciting and risky to inspect. Time leads to decay, shoddy repairs, and concealed defects, which can turn into a complaint call or a claim if you’re not careful during an old house inspection.
Meanwhile, statistics show that home inspectors are increasingly likely to encounter older homes during inspections than newer ones. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) analyzed the 2019 American Community Survey (conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau) and found that a surge of US homeowners live in houses over 50 years old. For example, in 2009, 30 percent of owner-occupied housing stock was over 50 years old. When they measured it again in 2019, that percentage rose to 37 percent.
There are a few reasons for this movement: the first, of course, is time. More houses are built every year than are torn down. This causes the housing stock to increase, while the old homes remain and continue to grow older. Second, older homes offer some of the best options for affordable housing with desirable locations. Consequentially, homeowners trying to save money are remodeling older homes to meet modern expectations rather than tearing down old houses to build new.
So what does this mean for you? We will explore what to expect and how to avoid risk when inspecting an older home.
What common issues will you find during old house inspections?
The age of old homes that you can expect to see fully depends on your area. Census data shows that the highest median home age is in the northeast of the country. This makes sense when we recall that American settlements began in the east and moved westward. Of the inspectors we interviewed, many from the east coast had inspected homes older than the founding of this country in the 1700s. In other parts of the country, you can still expect to find old homes to inspect that are over 100 years old.
Whether they’re 50 or 300 years old, older homes present similar strains of issues. According to our interviews, these are some typical issues to watch for during inspections.
Framing and Structure
Popular architectural styles and materials change in waves of trends over time. As a result, you may find uncommon or unfamiliar structures in homes over a century old. For example, while stick or platform framing has been used since the mid-20th century, houses before then may have balloon framing or post and beam framing. As Dean Currier of Renovation Consultants LLC in Maine explains, inspectors inexperienced with these older styles may not know how to identify remodeling issues related to the home’s original structure.
“A lot of these [older] houses are still standing and were built very well,” Currier said. “But contractors are not familiar with the old framing methods and may remove certain structural framing components of a house that should never have been removed.”
These days, it’s a popular remodeling practice to create open space by removing a supporting wall or beam. As a result, the structure may begin to sag—an issue that could go unnoticed until the roof or second floor falls through. This is especially true with post and beam structures, Currier stresses with new inspectors he trains.
“Everything was cut and notched together, hand-hewed, and held together with wood pegs. And if any one of those members is disrupted, you’ve potentially damaged the structure of the whole home because it all acts as a system,” he said.
“Not up to code.”
Conversely, some inexperienced inspectors may raise red flags for issues that are not as detrimental as they think on an old house inspection.
“When you see some sagging here and there, [you need] to understand the difference between a structural deficiency, and the fact that the lumber’s not the same size throughout—it’s an old home and that’s the way it was built,” Currier explained.
The conflict is this: if something is not up to code, is it a serious issue? Sadly, there is no clean-cut answer.
Dusty Jameson of Inspector Cluseau in Tennessee shared that he is always careful not to turn a normal inspection into a code inspection, just because certain aspects of the construction would not meet current standards. Instead, he reports the irregularity with a boiler plate comment. The comment explains that, although the observed structure does not meet current standards, it’s still stable. He also encourages clients to follow up with a code inspector or contractor.
Many clients actually appreciate the quirks of an older home, especially ones with high-quality craftsmanship. Part of their longevity comes from being able to shift or settle, while remaining unaltered. As Sue Reider of Keystone Home Inspections in Massachusetts always tells her clients, “She’s been standing around for 150 years. She’s allowed to lean a little bit.”
As mentioned earlier, remodeling can sometimes do more harm than good in an older home. This is especially true for cheap, do-it-yourself remodels or work from uninformed contractors. Without the right reinforcements, even new additions like hot tubs can compromise an old home’s structure, Reider said.
Contractors or homeowners need to account for these changes, along with heavier flooring or other finishings, by reinforcing the structure—and if they don’t, the home inspector should strive to note any resulting issues they see on an old house inspection. But structure isn’t the only issue—not by a long shot.
Unprofessional work often leads to cutting corners and aesthetic deficiencies. What’s worse, however, are the bigger issues potentially hiding underneath. Have their repairs covered up water or pest damage? Have they tried to repair old masonry with the wrong mortar mix? Whatever it is, these mistakes are hard to spot, and they cause serious—and costly—problems for old homes in the long run.
To avoid missing these issues while inspecting an old house, look for common signs of remodeling, such as:
- Areas with newer paint
- Modern architecture, design aesthetics, materials, or finishings that don’t fit the home’s period
- Areas that appear to be added on (porches, extra rooms, nooks, etc.)
You can also cover your bases by encouraging clients to look up permits for any construction performed.
Outdated Systems and Materials
The major components and systems in a home have expiration dates. With newer homes, there’s a good chance you won’t live there long enough to notice. But with old homes, you should learn to expect them.
The HVAC system (if there is one at all) is often damaged or outdated. The roof, if it has not been replaced or repaired, will have had plenty of wear. Water damage is almost always an issue. It can feel overwhelming once you consider all the systems that may need to be replaced. Thankfully, you can make your home inspection of an old house easier by knowing the life expectancy of each major component.
“Everything has a life expectancy. Every single thing,” Bryan Finley of California Property Inspections Inc. shared. “So, if you just figure it out, ‘How long is this pipe rated for?’ Oh, it’s rated for 40 years and it’s been 80. We better have this checked.”
Below are some common issues arising from outdated materials and systems that you should be aware of while performing an old house inspection.
When talking about electrical issues for an old house inspection, knob-and-tube wiring always comes up.
“In my experience working on all the homes, it was very common to open up the wall and see a 10- or 12-foot section of knob and tube wire where all the insulation is just completely gone off it, and all the timbers are all charred and burned,” Currier said.
Knob-and-tube wiring was the predominant wiring method from about 1880 to 1940 (Croft & Summers, 1987). Knob-and-tube wiring is characterized by “knobs” and “cleats,” which run wire along property walls, ceilings, and beams. Meanwhile, “tubes” run wires through beams and partitions (Myers 2010). Although remnants of knob-and-tube wiring exist today, this type of wiring system is generally considered obsolete due to its lack of a grounding conductor, its susceptibility to deterioration, and the modernization of wiring methods to meet increased demands for household electricity.
Another issue is aluminum wiring. This is more common in old houses built between the ‘40s and ‘60s, Reider said. He continued on to warn that many older homes, even with electrical upgrades, will likely have at least one case of ungrounded receptacles, energized switches, or energized fixtures. Simply put, expect to perform a lot of testing.
Chad Fabry of StructureSmart, LLC in New York has learned that many of these older homes have outdated plumbing. Thankfully, this makes your reporting a bit easier.
“You can say, ‘All of the plumbing is obsolete. Expect to replace all of the plumbing,’ rather than listing 12 defects and naming them out,” Fabry suggests.
Plumbing is a common concern because it is difficult to see, and it’s usually not replaced or checked until an issue arises. Also, the plumbing’s condition depends on the material used.
“Unless they’ve updated [the plumbing], you’ll always see cast iron pipes. You often will see a lead pipe. You will very, very often find little pinhole leaks. Below that, you usually see a little brown stain on the floor where it’s dripped through,” Reider said. “Some of [the leaks] are really, really bad. Others are just starting [to form]. But that’s a very common finding on the antiques.”
To overcome this, many inspectors use sewer scopes to evaluate otherwise-inaccessible pipes. In fact, due to the prevalence of cast iron drain lines, Finley requires it for homes built before 1968.
“Always, always, always order a sewer line inspection for a house built prior to 1968,” Finley pleads. “There’s a bunch of case laws where the inspector didn’t recommend [a sewer scope] and there was a problem. And that pipe is $10,000 [to replace].”
Furthermore, you will see during home inspections on old houses that they often have poorly maintained septic systems. If the home has since been connected to the sewer line, the septic tank or barrel may not have been properly decommissioned and filled, which can cause issues for the homeowners if it collapses or releases noxious gases.
Termites and powderpost beetles can greatly impact the structural integrity of an older building. When a home has stood for a long time, or is mostly made out of local timber, these pests have plenty of time to secretly destroy the home from the inside by eating at the wooden support beams and walls until the already-strained structure is compromised. Many years, and many little mouthfuls of wood later, you have a lawsuit against an unaware inspector. Powderpost beetles can easily hide from an inspector’s eyes, since they cause slow and steady damage from within the heart of the timber they were hatched in.
“Powderpost beetles will go in and lay their eggs, and the larvae will feed off the starch in the wood. It’s a continued life cycle,” Currier said. “Then, they basically turn a post or a beam into powder from the inside out.”
No less concerning than powderpost beetles, termites can spread quickly and should be reported if you are offering a pest or termite inspection on an older house. If inspecting for pests is not within your standards of practice (SOP) or the scope of your inspection, report the evidence you saw and suggest that your clients have a pest inspection performed.
To prepare for potential pests, Currier suggests researching your inspection area to see if it’s prone to powderpost beetles or termites. If you’re inspecting in a forested region, you might find records of common insects likely to infest nearby homes.
Some of the materials that builders used in construction, particularly in the mid-to-early 20th century, are toxic. Asbestos and lead paint are common concerns for people moving into older homes. The issue for home inspectors, however, is that SOPs often exclude asbestos and lead paint from the scope of an inspection. That does not stop clients from worrying about it and potentially suing you if they find asbestos or lead down the road.
To prevent this, tell clients in person and in the report to get a professional to test the home for toxic materials. For example, Jameson includes an environmental section in every report for properties within a certain age.
“I’ve got three different things at the bottom [of the report] that talk about lead-based paint, asbestos, and buried oil or fuel tanks,” he said. “Those things are only going to be present on an older home. So, as I’m writing my report, if the home was built before 1980, that’s where I start triggering some of those comments to automatically populate.”
Managing Risk with Older Homes
With all the issues that come with remodels, faulty materials and systems, and the natural wear and tear of time, are old house inspections worth the risk? Absolutely. In fact, many inspectors actually prefer inspecting older homes to newer ones. But you need to take some preparations to protect yourself and your business that you would not need with newer homes. The inspectors we interviewed recommend the following steps.
You don’t know what you don’t know. Therefore, the first step to properly inspecting an old home is to get training from someone who does know what to look for. While training new inspectors, Reider exposes them to unusual defects that they should recognize in the field: post and beam construction, vermiculite, knob and tube wiring, Federal Pacific panels, and asbestos tiles, to name a few. Even having a mentor to turn to with questions after training can eliminate uncertainty.
Since so many aspects of older homes are out of date, many training courses will not cover them in depth. In cases like that, nothing beats practice. Finley recommends offering your services to flipping companies that renovate old homes. Offering to inspect before they begin their renovations can give you a great training ground for evaluating older components on your own.
On top of hands-on experience, never forget the importance of personal research, Fabry explains.
“The greatest resource is cracking a book,” he said. “If you want to study old houses, you need to study old house construction techniques, recognize when those techniques were in play, and when they progressed on to the next style.”
For older homes, allocate enough time to catch all the common major defects (mentioned above) that come with an old home, as well as the issues coming from layers of remodels. Finley typically reserves double the time that he would take on a newer home, whether that means 4 hours or a whole day.
Along with allocating more time for thoroughness, price yourself accordingly. To minimize pushback, educate and set expectations with your clients about the unique challenges of older homes. Even with extra time, you can’t expect to get every defect. For example, Fabry informs clients that many aesthetic defects in newer homes are less detrimental in older ones.
“[I tell them], ‘I’m going to be in this house for six or eight hours out of 200 years. Understand, I won’t find everything wrong with it. If you’ve got peeling wallpaper, peeling paint, or a broken doorknob, it may or may not make it to my report because there are other things that I’m far more concerned with.’ I’m hunting for bear, not for quail,” Fabry said.
Subcontract if you need to.
As much as training and time can help you perform a thorough home inspection on old houses, you can always turn down work that you don’t feel comfortable doing. Whether it is testing for toxic materials or mold, finding underground oil tanks, or performing a sewer scope, you should expect to either hire someone to help you, or exclude certain ancillary inspections in your agreement. You can always recommend in the report that your client hire someone more specialized.
Disclaim, Disclaim, Disclaim
You can often assume that homes of a certain age will have problems associated with their age. While you cannot positively confirm any deficiencies you have not personally seen (and only suspect), you can mention the likelihood of the issue in your report and recommend a more invasive inspection by a professional.
A major disclaimer, or suggestion, that you can give your clients is to pull permits. Pulling permits yourself is outside a home inspector’s scope. However, homeowners often avoid obtaining proper permits. Point out obvious renovations for your client so they can do some detective work. If former owners renovated without permits, then they renovated without inspections, Fabry stresses.
Furthermore, while we suggest knowing the life expectancy of certain systems in the home, do not report components’ ages or remaining lifespan. This is outside of most standards, as it’s difficult for an inspector to accurately gauge. Instead, our claims team encourages inspectors to offer general “good,” “fair,” or “poor” conditions. You might even state that something’s in the first or second half of its life. But don’t report specific ages or remaining life estimates.
Protect Yourself with Your Standards
While inspecting an older home, you’ll be tempted to say something about a system or component that’s outside your SOP. In doing so, you’re opening yourself up to increased liability in the case of a lawsuit.
A great example is offering ancillary inspection services that are typically excluded from your SOP. If you’re planning to perform lead or mold testing, and your pre-inspection agreement isn’t modified to include it, then your agreement won’t protect you against claims involving that service.
Another common claim arises when clients accuse inspectors of missing defects that would require a more intrusive inspection to find—something very common in flipped or remodeled, older homes. Most SOPs define a home inspection as a visual, non-invasive examination of a home’s physical structure and systems. Because you can only inspect what you can see, you cannot inspect anything hidden from view. By emphasizing and sticking to your standards, they can protect you when a client finds deeper issues that were impossible to catch during your visual inspection.
Now, you can still suggest that they have another professional perform an invasive search for issues you expect to be in an older home. But you have to be careful when reporting something that is technically outside of your SOP. Always disclaim that you are merely offering a suggestion based on what you have seen with similar homes.
Out-of-Date Homes Require Up-to-Date Protection
The next time you’re in a home older than you and your grandparents, you’ll want to focus on the job—not worrying about whether you can afford a claim from missing one of its myriads of defects. To get that peace of mind, you need solid coverage and a supportive claims team behind you.
Our claims team has over 10 years of experience handling both general liability and errors and omissions claims for home inspectors. Apply today to receive a general liability and errors and omissions quote for your home inspection business, at no obligation.