Giovanni Valle is a licensed architect and LEED-accredited professional and is certified by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB). He is the author and managing editor of various digital publications, including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place.
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When renovating an old house, don’t be fooled by its charm—it’s almost inevitable that you’ll run into underlying problems at some point. Fortunately, most issues may be remedied with the help of renovation professionals so that you can get the place looking as good as new.
When renovating an old home, expect to run into electrical problems, foundation issues, mold or dry rot, lead paint, asbestos, and outdated plumbing systems. Before beginning, reach out to professionals to have the home inspected for dangerous materials.
Older homes offer the charm of old-world construction, but they often need a lot of love and care. Read on to learn more about what to expect when renovating an old home.
1. Electrical Problems
Depending on the age of the home and whether there have been prior renovations, the electrical system likely needs an upgrade. Outdated home electrical systems are not designed to handle modern-day appliances and gadgets. Attempting to use them on an old wiring setup could overload the circuits, damaging the system or causing electrical fires.
During renovations, assess the wiring and update it as you run into problems. Unfortunately, rewiring an old home is costly due to the difficulty of accessing the wires. Still, homeowners must set aside money for this purchase to avoid losing the home and its entirety to a house fire.
Unless you’re a licensed electrician, you should call in a professional. However, you can at least learn to recognize the signs of electrical problems in old homes.
Signs of Electrical Problems in Old Homes
- Dimming or Flickering Light Fixtures – Lights that intermittently dim or bulbs that flicker could be a simple fix, like a loose bulb. On the other hand, the problem could indicate something more serious such as a loose connection. Loose connections can lead to arcing, a hazardous situation that can cause house fires.
- Light Bulbs Continuously Blow Out – If you’re replacing light bulbs regularly because they keep burning out, it could be caused by faulty wiring, overheating caused by nearby insulation, or a loose connection in the circuit. All of these problems require immediate resolution.
- Outlets Stop Working or Feel Hot – Blown fuses or tripped breakers could cause “Dead” outlets. If, after checking the two, the outlets still have no power, it could be a loose or burnt-out connection. You might even notice scorch marks on the outlet. In addition, a hot outlet is a serious safety concern often caused by frayed or melted wires.
- Frequently Tripping Breakers – If running certain appliances causes the breaker to trip frequently, you’re likely overloading the circuit. This could be because the electrical system is outdated and not equipped to handle modern appliances. You may need to update the electrical system as a whole within the home.
Electrical problems in old homes are caused by many different issues, from old wiring to improper grounding.
Many old homes used aluminum wiring. After decades of use, aluminum wiring begins to break down, as it is prone to oxidation and overheating. Sometimes it’s not the wire that’s causing problems, but the insulation. Over time, insulation becomes brittle and damaged. If insulation fails, the exposed wires could cause a short, electrical arc, or house fire.
2. Foundation Issues
Many old homes weren’t built to provide proper water runoff. As a result, water pools around the foundation, causing many issues. Foundation problems have the potential to cause extensive damage to the home’s structure. It’s essential to know and recognize the signs of foundation damage so that they may be remedied as soon as possible. In addition, the home should be properly inspected by a professional.
Signs of Foundation Issues in Old Homes
If you notice any of the problems listed below, have the problem addressed immediately. The sooner foundation issues are addressed, the better the outcome.
Moisture beneath the home can cause the earth beneath to shift and settle, leading to a tilted floor. Sometimes the signs are subtle—windows and doors don’t shut properly, cracks in drywall, etc. You can even drop a marble on the ground and watch how it rolls to check for slanted flooring. Fortunately, there are solutions for uneven floors, but they may be costly.
The settling of a home’s foundation can put pressure on pipes, causing them to crack or break. Water leaking from the pipes can seep in from the ground up, leading to wet basements or moisture seeping through the slab. Unfixed slab leaks can cause considerable damage to a home, including mold, rot, and additional settling due to soil erosion.
Cracks in Interior and Exterior Walls
When a home’s foundation breaks down, there may be telltale signs inside the house, including cracks in walls and windows. It’s even more concerning if there are large cracks on the home’s exterior, especially brick.
3. Mold Contamination
It’s common to find at least a small amount of mold in old houses. Mold develops over time as a result of moisture contamination. Some homes, however, have extensive mold damage—in those cases, the repairs are more costly.
Signs of Mold in an Old House
Mold in an old home can cause extensive damage to the house and your health. Fortunately, mold is usually easy to detect. However, homeowners mustn’t attempt to clean up mold by themselves—it could be dangerous, and there’s the chance that you won’t get it all, allowing it to spread further.
If you’re concerned that your old home might have mold, check out these key warning signs:
Visible Water Damage or Mold
If there are signs of long-term water damage, mold is likely nearby. Look for water stains or discoloration on floors, walls, and ceilings. Examine the walls for bubbling, cracked, or peeling paint or wallpaper. If you see signs of water damage, look for mold. Some molds appear as clustered black spots that spread out, whereas others are white and fuzzy. Some mold is gray, brown, black, or green. If you’re unsure, get the help of a professional.
The Home Has Flooded Before
Homes that have experienced flooding are highly susceptible to mold. The home must be cleaned and dried out within 48 hours to remove mold—and sometimes even that is not enough. All carpeting, drywall, floor tiles, and insulation must be removed as well. If your home has previously flooded, you may need to gut the entire house.
Stale, Musty Odor
Sometimes mold presents with a stale, musty odor. The stronger the smell, the worse the mold issue is likely to be. Not all mold has an odor, so if you suspect mold but don’t smell anything, it’s still important to have the home inspected. If you catch the mold before you smell it you can save yourself a great deal of trouble, health issues, and money.
Sometimes the people in the home might show symptoms of mold contamination. If you’re experiencing any of the following symptoms, but they seem to get better when you leave the house, it could be a sign of mold:
- Dry cough
- Runny nose
- Difficulty breathing
- Sore throat
- Watery eyes
- Itchy skin
Some molds cause life-threatening illnesses to people and pets. When renovating an old home, it’s imperative that you have it inspected for mold before making any repairs.
4. Rotting Wood
While hardwood is typically durable, over time, it starts to wear down. The wood in old homes is more susceptible to rot. If wood rot is left untreated, it can spread and compromise the structural integrity of the home.
Signs of Wood Rot
Rot is a common problem in older homes, but it’s not always noticeable until beginning the repairs. Wood rot is caused by a fungus that grows in wood exposed to moisture.
Some signs of wood rot include:
- Brittle Wood – Wood infected with rot darkens and becomes weak. When inspecting a home for wood rot, look for cracks in windows and door frames and under cabinets.
- Musty Odors – Like mold, wood rot causes a musty odor. In areas like the basement, attic, or crawlspace, the smell may be more prevalent.
- Blistering Wallpaper or Paint – In old homes with wooden walls covered by paint or wallpaper, wood rot can cause bubbling and blistering.
Wood contaminated by this fungus becomes soft and crumbly, so it can cause significant damage to the home if found in structural beams. Unless you replace the wood, dry rot can spread to other wood in the home.
5. Lead Paint
Older homes often have lead-based paint, sometimes hidden under wallpaper or layers of new paint. Unless the paint cracks, peels, chips, or is wet, it’s unlikely to cause any health issues. Still, it’s best to remove it to avoid it causing trouble over time.
Determining if Your Home Has Lead Paint
There are a few ways to determine whether your home contains lead paint:
- Research the age of any paint in the home.
- Purchase lead kits online. I recommend 3M Leadcheck Disposable Lead Detection Swabs from Amazon.com.
- Get a professional lead test done from a lab.
You cannot simply examine paint and determine that it’s lead-based. Lead is confirmed via test only. There are, however, two common signs that might point to lead-based paint.
If you notice either of these signs on the paint in your home, have it tested as soon as possible:
- Cracked, Scaly Paint – Paint that’s cracked, wrinkled, or appears scaly is a sign that the paint may be lead-based.
- Chalky Paint – If the paint rubs off when you touch it and produces a chalky residue, it might indicate lead-based paint.
Another common harmful material found in old homes is asbestos. Asbestos is not dangerous until it’s disturbed through cutting, scraping, sawing, or drilling. Disturbing asbestos turns it into a fine powder that can be inhaled. When inhaled, asbestos can cause severe lung damage.
Homeowners often come across asbestos in HVAC systems, vinyl tile, insulation, roofing, ductwork, old drywall, and popcorn ceilings in attics, basements, or while doing pipework. Old homes must be inspected for insulation before beginning repairs, as these fibers can easily pass through dust masks.
7. Outdated or Failing Plumbing System
Homes built before the 1990s may have plumbing that’s made from materials no longer up to code. The plumbing system might have been replaced if the home was renovated recently, but it’s better not to assume. Have the plumbing inspected to ensure that there are no surprises.
Three types of outdated plumbing that need replacement include:
- Lead – Lead is one of the oldest materials used for plumbing systems. Unfortunately, this metal is extremely dangerous to the health of those who drink or shower using water from lead pipes.
- Galvanized – Galvanized pipes are common in homes built before the 1960s. This pipe is susceptible to corrosion and, later, cracks or complete breakdown. Most become clogged with rust.
- Polybutylene – Around the 1980s, polybutylene was a common material used in old homes—mainly mobile homes. The pipes, however, were ineffective. Chemicals used in public water systems reacted with the material, causing breakage.
Another potential issue is failing sewer lines. Failing sewer lines can lead to significant problems in an old home and create health issues for tenants. Because sewer lines are pretty much out of sight, it’s not an issue that people look for until it causes significant problems, such as sewage leaking into the ground or backing up into the house.
Sewer lines on older homes were not built to withstand food from garbage disposals, water and waste from dishwashers, and toilets that use more water. Naturally, these sewer lines have been under a great deal of stress, and it’s not uncommon for them to fail, especially if there have been updated appliances.
Outdated Fixtures and Supply Lines
Many old homes that haven’t been renovated in a while have worn fixtures that need replacing. Sometimes the supply lines are outdated or worn down. If you notice insufficient water pressure, restricted water flow, or leaks, it’s time to replace these fixtures and connections.
Renovating an old home is a way to restore a weathered dwelling to its former glory. It’s a long process, but a rewarding one—but it’s important that it’s done right.
When renovating an old home, there are many unexpected problems that you are likely to run into, even on well-maintained homes. It’s best to err on the side of caution and extend your budget by 15 to 20 percent for any unexpected repairs.
Once you’ve had the home inspected by a professional for hazardous materials, you’re ready to begin the journey of old home restoration. Good luck!
- Tim Kyle Co Electrical Service: Beware of Frayed Electrical Wiring
- Wire Chief Electric: Purchasing An Old Home With Outdated Electrical Systems
- Barton’s Lumber: Solutions for an Uneven Floor
- Old House Online: The Lowdown on Mold
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Mold After A Disaster
- Richardson & Starling: What’s The Difference Between Wet Rot and Dry Rot?
- Environmental Protection Agency: Protect Your Family From Sources of Lead
- Amazon: 3M Leadcheck Disposable Lead Detection Swabs
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