Copyright 2016 James MacNaughton DBA AnnRuel Home Inspections 19 West Street Fairfield, Maine 04937 (207) 861-1227
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Vintage Homes (100 or so years old)
I am often asked what makes a vintage Home inspection more labor intensive than a modern home. This is where experience and education means everything. Too often I have heard of people hiring the cheapest home inspector instead of the best which is just throwing your money away verse paying for a detailed informative inspection report. Consider how much money and years of your life you will be dedicating to the preservation. It can be a labor of love or a money pit depending on how well the bones of this property have been thoroughly inspected by an informed inspector.
I would like to explain here several items that are very important to a vintage home inspection and what your inspector needs to know and have experience with inspecting.
1.Ceilings & Walls: Usually we see some form of Lath & Plaster. I have experienced several types of lath & plaster which usually consist of the lath strips and 3 coats of plaster. When you see the back side of the wall you see plaster (often a lime based mortar that later was replaced by a Portland cement mix) seeping between the lath strips and this plaster is called “The Keys” as this is what holds the plaster to the laths. laths are usually 2 inch by 4 foot long wooden strips that are usually 1/4 inch thick. A good inspector knows to check in closets or anywhere he can get to the back side to see if these keys can easily crumble and is likely to fall apart if anyone tries to remove any wall paper or paints from the wall. Originally all laths were wood but around the turn of the century we saw more and more homes (around 1910 it was very common) to see rock board laths aka Button board used that had gypsum crystals on it that helped keep a strong bond between the lath and the plaster (many homes that were remodeled have had this used to replace the wood). We also have to view vinyl, flocks, metallic, paper and Mylar wallpapers to determine their condition. We do this with a soft light sponge method and visual inspection with an experienced eye. There are many other issues but I think this gives a pretty good idea of why an experienced professional is best here. There are also metal Laths attached by wire ties called “nippers” that has to be inspected in a close manner as the ties often have come loose if they were not correctly fastened. When going into an attic or a crawlspace we can often see and get a good picture of the construction on the ceilings which are usually the same as the walls. When we see thin horse hair plaster we know the house is over 100 years old as this was not the practice after around 1940 in many homes so this is another thing we use to verify the date of a home. Horsehair plaster cracks very easy making it a high maintenance product. Often it was accompanied with an ornamental texture especially on the ceiling. BEFORE disturbing any plaster wall you should check for lead which is one of the harmful chemicals you may find in a vintage homes construction
2.Doors & Windows: I did a home inspection in Gardiner Maine where an unexperienced inspector of vintage homes (he was a local franchise owner of a national Home Inspection company chain) missed everything about the Doors and windows not to mention many defects in the chimneys, mainly because his mail order training was not customized to deal with old New England. Historic wood Doors and windows are constantly being torn out of homes today and being replaced with inferior products of plastics, fiberglass and metals. Now I often recommend adding the newer Dual paned and Argon gas filled windows where needed but often I see a solid door that has lasted over 100 years and will last another 100 years being replaced with a new 30 year door. I do recommend replacing a window that goes down to with one foot from the floor with a newer tempered glass window as this is a major safety feature. I also love seeing actual working shudders compared to the decorative useless ones that often replace the real thing. I find the big issue when inspecting these homes is to take special care to closely view the flashing. When looking at a vintage door we must look at the hinges and the door casing. Today most door casings are pre-hung meaning the casing and the door was put together in a factory with little concern to the nature aging of the door jam. In most cases I will suggest removing a door and replacing the wood around it and adding new flashing instead of replacing a door if need be.
3.Floors: Living in Maine we see mud, snow and rain water carried into our homes and taking a toll on our floors. Something people in other parts of the country have never had to deal with. Where newer homes have laminate floors an older home will often have real pine or oak flooring. The beauty of this is that it can be lightly sanded and refinished; the bad point here is that it most likely has been sanded down and refinished. An experienced ear tapping on the floor in different areas can help determine if the wood is thick enough to last another sanding or not. How we do this is first to tap near the wall in a few areas which is less traveled/ worn and then knock on the heavy traveled areas. We also need to use Thermal Imaging here to check on the moisture levels we do not see with the naked eye. Verifying that there is a good velar coat seal on the floor is also a major concern due to the weather here.
4.Trims: Crown molding and base molding can either make a property look great or they can hide moisture and trap mold and mildew in your walls. I inspected a home a few years ago for an insurance company that had to replace the crown molding due to a recent leak in the bathroom in a room in the floor above and the over $4.500 (yes costly) worth of new crown molding was the least of the issue as I found that for years mold had been rotting the wood and a small creaking on the second floor was actually coming for a wall below that was sagging and falling in. They were lucky that USSA insurance covered the entire job which was over $12,000 and that they hired me to inspect it.
When I am inspecting a vintage home I often look close to see if any of the trim is coming away from the walls as this also is a good way to detect additional issues as stated above
5.Exterior Walls: The first thing I would like to make perfectly clear… Wood siding will demand more care than any other type of siding. Now with that said I hope you understand that not only will this be more time intensive for you but we must be well aware that if the previous owners over the years did not put in the time needed to maintain this property you may be looking at a money pit. This is why Brick homes rule! Stone homes and bricks may have to have repointing done from time to time but this is not a common issue and is not that expensive. Again I mention flashing because we must understand no flashing is made to last over 100 years or so unless it is stone. Any wood be it siding trim or flashing needs to be painted or sealed on a regular basis. When you hear about metal siding called “Forever siding” understand it is not forever as all siding will need some form of care and often aluminum siding needs cleaning and some painting and when sections become loose, it may need to be refastened.
6.Roofing: No roofing is water tight; roofing is made to shed water off of the roof as fast as possible. This is a simple fact that many people do not understand and with older houses often becomes an issue. If you have curling and breaking old shingles they can pool water allowing the water the opportunity to leak thru the roof. The number one issue I find with older homes is that there are often more than 2 layers of shingles on a roof which is a big hazard and many insurance companies do not want to insure anyone with more than 2 layers. I recently found a home with 5 layers and the really sad thing when I entered the attic I found all of the roof decking was rotted. Rotted roofs are a common problem when someone covers leaking shingles with new shingles trapping the moisture on the roof and rotting the wood. When you add new shingles to a roof you should always remove the old shingles. Many roofers are lazy and just put new over the old added extra weight and moisture trapped in the roof both is bad. Sometimes people do to just to save money as it will cost more to remove the old ones and to haul them off to the dump. Again flashing to push water away from an area that may allow water to pool and to seep into wood is important to keep in good condition moving the water away. All siding needs to be at least 6 to 8 inches from any plants or soil. Older house may have sunk allowing the siding to touch the soil and this is a problem. Water weeps upward in wood. People understand that water runs downhill but often have a problem understand that it weeps uphill in wood and that by just touching the soil it is allowing water into the walls.
7.Chimneys: Many 100 year old homes have a chimney without a flue liner. This was acceptable back then when we did not understand all the issues caused from inhaling smoke and when they were built they were actually a lot tighter. As the years passed by these once tight chimneys are now pretty loose and a major fire hazard and indoor air quality issue. In my opinion NO chimney indoors should be allowed without a flue liner and most townships agree with me. It is also a good rule to add a chimney cap as years ago rain water coming down the chimney may not have been a problem but today I do not know of many people who would welcome it in their living room.
8.Electricity: Knob and tube wiring was the first electric wiring added to homes and in Maine you will often come across it. It is usually connected to a 60 amp or a max 100 fuse boxes. Today knob and tube is hard to get insurance for. I personally believe it is fine for lighting in a basement or garage and that is about it. I have found many older houses where someone has updated the fuse box to a circuit breaker box and updated the 2 prong outlets to 3 prong grounded outlets but often did not update the actual wires. This is a major problem because the old wiring was only 2 wires and all current wiring is 3 wiring including the ground wire. If you use the old wiring in a new 3 prong grounded outlet you do not have a true ground and the slightest surge can fry your electronics. Newer homes I only check 1 or 2 outlets per room for proper grounding but in older homes we have to spend extra time checking every outlet.
9.Plumbing; The first thing I need to mention here is “First draw lead water test”. A first draw water test is when we take a sample of water when it has been off for at least 12 hours and the water is the very first water that comes out of the faucet when we turn it on. This is not a water test but actually a test of the lead levels in the pipes in the home. You may have heard about the problem with the water in Michigan, but many people do not listen close to the details that the water issues have come from the older pipes not really the water or its source. A visual test is also needed to see if there is an excessive amount of lead solder used on the pipes and if there are lead pipes used.
10.Decks, Stairs and Railings: especially on a second floor and a roof where recently there have been a few tragedies in the news headlines. All decks need proper flashing and to have. Decks need to be secured to a house correctly with on the ledger board with secure lag bolts. Originally these houses were not designed this way but the decks most likely have had major repairs several times over the years and support post have most likely moved.
Nachi Certified Home Inspector