Thoughts by Jim VanErmen ABR, CRS, e-PRO Trainer

Considering an Older House?

". . . a few items for your consideration"
If you are buying an older home, the information below is provided for your consideration.  It is my recommendation you always require the seller to provide you a disclosure and always obtain a home inspection from a reputable home inspector.  The information below is not intended to provide you advice but to provide you with a starting point in discussions with an appropriate licensed professional(s).
Concern Dates Issues
Synthetic Stucco

may still
be used
Exterior Insulation and Finish Systems (EIFS), commonly known as synthetic stucco, is an exterior cladding system composed of an adhesively or mechanically fastened foam insulation board, reinforcing mesh, a base coat, and an outer finish coat. Its exterior appearance looks almost identical to conventional stucco, although conventional stucco is comprised of multiple layers of cement over a wire mesh  

A separate EIFS page is a part of this web site to further discuss this building technique.
Polybutylene Plumbing
"For thousands of home owners, Polybutylene plumbing has become a recurring nightmare . . ." Ed Bradley - CBS 60 Minutes.

Note:  Polybutylene is NOT PVC which stands for PolyVinyl Chloride and is currently used for pipes along with copper.

Polybutylene is a form of plastic resin that was used extensively in the manufacture of water supply piping from 1978 until 1995. Due to the low cost of the material and ease of installation, Polybutylene piping systems were viewed as "the pipe of the future" and were used as a substitute for traditional copper piping. It is most commonly found in the "Sun Belt" where it is believed that oxidants in the public water supplies, such as chlorine, react with the Polybutylene piping and acetal fittings causing them to scale and flake and become brittle. Micro-fractures result, and the basic structural integrity of the system is reduced. Thus, the system becomes weak and may fail without warning causing further (in some cases extensive) damage.  Courtesy Plumbing Express
Aluminum Wiring
Aluminum Wiring was used for general wiring in homes in the early 60's to the mid 70's.   A discussion of the topic including additional links can be found on the web site's  Home Inspector web page.  Aluminum  wiring has been sited for causing home fires which may occur when their connections become loose. Although most  housing codes forbid the use of aluminum wire by 1980, electricians were allowed to use their inventory on hand until it was depleted.
Lead Paint
Paint used in homes prior to 1960 could have contained lead concentrations of up to 50% by weight.  Lead was removed from paint by federal law in 1978 (It had been removed in France and many other countries before 1920).   A separate lead paint page explaining the hazards with additional links is available on this web site.
Cardboard Sewer Pipe
Coal Tar Impregnated Wood Fiber Pipe ("Orangeburg" pipe), or Pitch fiber pipes (the Orangeburg, New York, plant closed in the fall of 1972) were first laid in the 1960’s as a cheap alternative to clay pipes and over time have been the cause of many blockages. Orangeburg pipe is actually a kind of tarpaper that's rolled up about 10 layers thick to create a tube.  It is bound together with a special water resistant adhesive and treated under pressure with hot liquefied coal tar pitch to repel rodents and roots.  It is used as the sewer pipe that runs from the house to the street sewage system or to your septic tank. The pipework can become porous, allowing water to leak.  If the pipework leaks it may attract tree or shrub roots causing further damage.  PVC pipes eventually replaced Pitch fiber pipes.  The home owner may or may not know if this pipe has been changed as eventually they all will fail.  I have gone through this process with a house I owned which was built in '72 but I doubt if the current owner of the house is aware the pipe to the municipal sewer pipe had been replaced.
Slab Foundations
still in use
There are 3 types of foundations and their variants which are used to support a house;  1) Basement   2) Slab  and 3) Conventional.  Generally in this area due to water table,  soil composition and lack of freeze/frost line there are very few basements. Most homes constructed are built on "slab on grade" meaning the slab is actually on top of the earth surface. Older homes sometimes have conventional foundations since the use of concrete was not that common.  Conventional foundations provide an access under the home and its plumbing etc. while a slab does not readily permit any access.  Lastly slab foundations can crack.  A cracked slab cannot be "repaired" (it will always be cracked) but a number of stabilization processes have been developed.  Although a home inspector can identify some of the signs of a cracked slab the expertise belongs to a structural engineer to provide an accurate assessment.
Lead Solder Plumbing

But, lead solder was 
after 1980
Most of the lead in household water comes from the plumbing in the house, not from the local water supply. Corrosive water (soft, acidic, or low pH) can dissolve lead from the supply pipes, faucets, or, solder and flux, used to connect copper pipes. Some brass components such as pump impellers and faucets also contain lead which can corrode and contaminate water.  Lead solder was still used until the 1980s because it was thought that the amount of lead that could leach into water from the solder was negligible.  Homes with plastic drinking water lines should not have problems with lead contamination from pipes, because fittings are glued together rather than soldered.  For more information on obtaining a lead testing kit - Clean Water Lead Testing Inc.
Two Ply Wiring
Before 1950
Grounded electrical outlets (two ply wiring provides only a hot and neutral wire and NO grounding wire) were either not required by code or only required in locations where water is present such as kitchens and baths.  If you're not sure if your outlets are grounded, check them.  If they're two-pronged, instead of three-pronged, they are not grounded outlets. Even if you have  three-pronged outlets further check as I have seen where some home owners have changed the two prong outlets to three prong for ease of use but the outlet provides NO ground.
Exterior Wall Insulation
The following was extracted from Yahoo Answers:

My wife and I bought a lemon of a house a year back. It seems it is incredible hard, and costly, to keep the house cool in the summer and warm in the winter. How can you tell if your home has been insulated? If it has not, is foam insulation the best, or only, option?

Answer:  "First take the covers off the switch/outlet boxes, a lot of times you can see into the wall around these. It will be a small slit around the box so the viewing isn't great but it's a place to start. Some of the electrical boxes you might be able to see pretty good, others very little. Second: You also could take a few pieces of trim off around some windows and doors, you should be able see some or possible create a slightly larger opening to see better but don't go bigger than what the trim will cover back up. This may work on some of the doors/windows, depends on the width of the trim and the framing...  Down the road if you plan on siding the home have them add sytrofoam sheets before putting on the siding."

The infrared camera as described in the
Home Inspector web page can be useful in determining the insulation inside a wall and its effectiveness.
Knob and Tube Wiring
Today you can expect a new home to have 200 amp service provided through an electrical service box containing circuit breakers.  Power is provided  by two 120 volt service lines which are combined to provide 240 volt service to the home which is necessary for electric clothes dryer, HVAC etc.

Older homes may have any of the following:  1) Single line service which prohibits the use of 240  volt appliances,  2) Fuses instead of circuit breakers,  3)  Lack of a grounding wire as listed above,  4) No ground fault interrupt (GFI) outlets,  5) The service head may have a large thick wire providing service to the electric meter instead of a pipe or underground service,  6)  And in the older homes two single insulated copper wires (hot and neutral) ran separately  within wall or ceiling cavities, passing through joist and stud drill-holes via protective porcelain insulating tubes, and supported along their length on nailed-down porcelain knob insulators.  A circuit was provided by connecting to both wires.  K & T wiring was used from1880 to 1930's when electrification was first provided to residential homes.
Septic Tanks If you live in the city your home is connected to the city sewage system and you pay a utility bill to have your waste water treated.  If you live outside a municipal sewage system, in the country, you have your own sewage treatment system which is generally referred to as a septic tank.  Where is your septic tank? In the Montgomery application process you are required to submit a plot plan which is kept on record so a call to your county health department would be a good place to start to locate your septic tank and drainage fields and see if the installation had a valid permit.

If the city sewage system was installed after a home was built you may be living in a city  WITH  a septic tank.  I know of some locations in Prattville and Millbrook where this occurs.  So, before you assume you are being serviced by the city sewage system, it is well worth asking the question.  A separate web page on the subject of septic tanks is available on this web site.
The above information has been researched on the Internet with suggestions, corrections and expertise provided by Dwight Leary owner and inspector of Home Check Consultants who is also featured on the Home Inspector web page a part of this site.
Copyright 1998-2009© VanErmen Real Estate Productions, All Rights Reserve, Web Master reviewed 1/21/2009