Historic homes or hysterical homes

When I have a client purchasing a historic home, one of the first questions I ask is, have you ever owned or lived in a historic home? We have had clients move from a newer low, maintenance, energy-efficient home into a high-maintenance, poor energy efficient historic home, which could shock many "new to them" historic homeowners. Historic homes are great for the right individual or family. Also, in some cases, the prospective home purchaser has the budget, resources, and expectations that can come with buying a historic home. Are they buying on emotion, love of history, or the desire to preserve one of these old beauties? Be aware that some homes listed on historic registries and specific directories may have strict requirements for future modifications and remodeling, including siding, roofing, color, and windows.

Let’s review some of the concerns associated with some of these older homes. Some common problems with historic homes may be decades of deferred maintenance or poorly implemented repairs. Many older homes have a maintenance history of triage, repairing things as they arise rather than a comprehensive approach to the house. Some historic homes have been cobbled together with a limited handyman approach. Older homes have been remodeled, some renovated, and some fully restored. There is often no history of modification or repairs, and the lack of building permits or licensed contractors. There were no building codes when some homes were built, as the NEC wasn’t implemented until the 1800s and early 1900s. So, when discussing “code,” the prospective homeowner must understand that code will not apply to most of these homes. Some common considerations include hand railings, picket spacing, safety glass, and electrical safety devices, which were not considered or developed.

Many older homes still need to be adequately updated to meet current insulation and energy performance requirements. Some other common considerations include “settlement,” often historic home column an overstated or misused term that may also infer improper modifications to the structure, framing compression deflections of the framing members, and in some cases, true foundation settlement. Often, out-of-level floor, door frame out of square, and irregular roof and siding lines may indicate internal concern due to water and insect damage resulting in compression or failure of the framing supports. The framing may also exhibit sagging of the slope or ridge because of inadequate framing systems, such as undersized rafters, a ridge pole, and collar tiles, or improper modification of the ceiling rafters resulting in the walls bowing out. Some older foundations, especially stone, may be more at risk for seepage and water intrusion. These are usually all fixable, but the client needs to have the resources and budget for these repairs.

Some other common issues may be antiquated wiring, such as knob & tube, rag wiring, and fuse panels. Many lenders and insurance companies may require updating these systems to keep insurance and ensure a loan. Older lead plumbing poses a health risk and should be replaced and removed. Older galvanized piping may be at risk for corrosion, clogging, and failure, and the prospective homeowner should be budgeting for updating all these systems and components.

As with many older buildings, some inherent environmental concerns exist, such as buried fuel tanks or USTs (an entirely new subject). More common issues may include asbestos and lead paint. You may want to obtain the services of an environmental specialist to find out what is needed.

Historic home fuse panel

Now let’s review some of the positives that revolve around historic homes. Many get the coolness factor, the house's history, location, designs, architect, and systems. We have inspected some regionally famous historic homes and buildings throughout Maryland, including Annapolis. Some of these historic homes have an incredible history, story, unique designs, and architectural details. It is common for many of these homes will have hand-hewn timbers, Roman numerals showing the position of the timbers, pegged rafters: mortise and tendon framing connections, handmade nails, and wavy glass—the type of wood lathing and whether it is hand-split or machine-cut. Loose for the old horsehair in the plaster browns-coat mix penetrating the backside of the wood lathing. We have even had the old keel from a wooden ship used as a main beam of a house. The slate or cobblestone may have journeyed from Europe as the ship’s ballast.

Learning about your area’s historic homes and buildings or when you tour cities such as Charleston, New Orleans, and Key West can be enlightening. Then there is also local folklore. For example, why are ceilings on porches painted light blue? In some regions, it’s to keep bugs away; some are in the event of a death in the house, for the spirits to know where the sky is. One of the main stories that started in Charleston is for” Haint Blue” to keep evil spirits, such as a boo-hag, from entering the home. You can also learn about architectural features, such as the five classic column orders, Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Composite. You can also learn about balloon framing, English and Flemish brick bond, rubble stone, Greek dental moldings, and more.

So, history, culture, design, and folklore can be a big draw to unique homes. The love of old buildings and revisiting where someone grew up can all contribute to the desire to live in and own a piece of history. You can also check with local and state historic trusts and historical societies to see if there are grants or money available for maintenance and updating. No matter what the house is, you should enjoy looking at and learning about the designs and history of homes.

Stephen Lee Showalter, NACHI® CMI, ASHI ACI
Home Inspector, Environmental Consultant
Maryland State Home Inspector License #29634
ASHI ACI Certified Membership
NACHI® CMI Certified Master Inspector
InterNACHI® CPI Certified Membership
Certified Commercial Property Inspector Association
FAA Certified UAS Pilot #3987636
CRT Certified Residential Thermographer

Showalter Property Consultants providing quality home inspections and environmental testing throughout Maryland since 1988.

For a quality historic home inspection contact us on schedule online.

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