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What does the year your house was built tell you about it's impending issues?

Updated: Apr 27, 2020

Let me preface this week’s blogpost by saying I am by no means an expert in this issue, and this is definitely not an exhaustive list of products or problems you could run into when buying a home. Home building materials have changed significantly over the past 150 years and each time a new product hits the market, it takes time to figure out whether this ‘amazing new product’ is actually decent, hazardous to your health, or just plain junk. For this reason, you should always have a house inspection done, and your inspector should always comment on the electrical, plumbing, and structural aspects of your home.

With that disclaimer, let’s dive into some common issues you could run into with “homes through the ages”.

Pre 1940’s

“Character homes”, “Historic homes”, “Victorian homes”. They can go by a lot of names, but essentially these are old houses. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – any house that has lasted this long (and is still in reasonably good condition) tells you something about the structure and the quality of materials that have gone into the house for it to still be standing.

But there are also significant downfalls with old houses. Ever heard of knob and tube (K+T) wiring? If you have, it was probably never spoken about in a positive context. Knob and tube wiring was used up until about the late 1940s, back when houses didn’t have the need for as much electricity as they do now. It’s not necessarily a faulty wiring system, however the main issue with K+T is that it lacks a grounding wire. This grounding wire offloads excess electricity through the earth and decreases your chance of starting an electrical fire if you overload the circuit. Houses built before the 1940s did not need outlets for iPhones, iPads, laptops, TVs, drones, etc., which is why if you look at an older house, each room probably only has one electrical outlet.

Which in today’s age, seems crazy.

But what happens is people add power bars to increase the number of outlets, thereby overloading the circuits and potentially causing massive electrical issues. Long story short – you don’t want knob and tube wiring unless you’re planning to only plug in a single low-voltage lamp in each room. In fact, many home insurance companies won’t even insure a house that has knob and tube wiring, so you have to get it replaced. Depending on how much wiring you actually need to replace, expect to spend anywhere from $1,500 up to $12,000 to re-wire an entire house, which is no small sum. If you want to learn more about the costs of re-wiring a house in 2020, check out this helpful article.

Insulation… one of the key components of keeping your electrical bill low. And something you might not fully appreciate unless you’re lacking it – like we currently are. We had months last winter where our heating bill was $700/month. We couldn’t understand why it was so high since we had JUST installed a new heat pump in the fall. But, once we had someone from Nova Scotia Energy check out our ‘efficiency rating’, he told us that our house had no insulation in the attic and none in the walls. Essentially, our house was letting out all of the warm air that our heat pump was pumping in. Because our house was originally built somewhere in the early 1900s, what they used for insulation is not what they use now. In our case, it’s a mixture of seaweed and horsehair, which was normal for that time period. Back in the day, they also used to use newspaper, sawdust, sand, and corncobs as insulation.

Your home inspector is not likely to bust open walls to see what type of insulation is inside them, however you might ask him to check what the insulation in the attic looks like. Most likely, if the insulation in the attack is subpar, the walls will be the same. However, if the insulation in the attic seems upgraded, this does not necessarily translate to the wall insulation having been upgraded as well. This may seem counter intuitive but it is much easier to re-insulate an attic than it is to re-insulate walls, therefore the previous homeowner may have spent money to put new insulation in the attic but not bothered with the harder-to-reach walls.

If you’re wondering how to inspect your current insulation and even how to replace it, click here for some extremely helpful tips.

1940's - 1970’s

Before 1960, windows were not the energy efficient, double-pane vinyl window you see in the updated houses of today. Instead, they were mostly single-pane windows, some with ‘storm windows’ attached, and shutters were used functionally to protect the windows from wind, rain, and snow (not decorative like they are now!). If you’re buying a pre-1960s home with single-pane windows and are looking to upgrade to vinyl double-pane windows, expect to spend anywhere from $8,000 to $12,000, depending on how many windows you need to replace. This is a great upgrade to make however since this will save you a substantial amount on your heating bills.

If you’re looking for a cool and in-depth understanding of how houses have changed throughout the decades - while it may be based on UK houses - this is an interesting report to peruse.

1970's – 1990's

Lead and asbestos were used in houses until almost 1980, so if you’re buying a house built before 1980, have your inspector look for these two issues. Specifically, asbestos was used between 1930 and 1977. Lead was banned from interior paint in Canada in 1976, however it is unlikely that any house built after 1960 will have a significant amount of lead paint.

Lead can not only be in paint, but it can also be in plumbing. While your inspector might not be able to tell if you have lead in your paint, he should be able to tell you whether it’s in your plumbing. If you do have lead plumbing, you’ll want to add this removal cost onto your list of renovations. If you already own a home and are wondering if you might have lead plumbing, read through this local CBC news article about how to tell if you have lead pipes or not.

On the topic of plumbing, there’s another little ‘catastrophe-waiting-to-happen’ that you need to look out for. Between the 1970’s-1990’s a new type of plumbing hit the market that was all the rage – Polybutylene plumbing (or Poly-B). It was considered the ‘plumbing of the future’ because it was bendable and super easy to install, therefore was used extensively for a number of years until it was realized that chlorine (and other common household chemicals used in drains) actually erode the plumbing over time, leading to burst pipes and complete overhauls of the plumbing system. I actually dealt with this in a house last February and had the seller cover the cost to replace it as I wasn’t able to get house insurance until it was replaced. If you’re wondering if your house might have Poly-B plumbing, check out this fact sheet to learn more.

Moving onto asbestos… Asbestos can be in a lot of things – insulation, flooring, roofing, ceiling tiles, wrapped around pipes, and more. The general rule of thumb is that asbestos is not dangerous unless it is airborne. Essentially, if you disturb a wall/flooring/wrapping that contains asbestos, the fibres become released into the air where you might inhale them. So, if you do have asbestos in your flooring and don’t want to pay the high cost to remediate, you may consider laying new flooring on top of the existing flooring rather than rip it up and risk it becoming airborne.

1990's – Now

Congratulations! You are considered to own a ‘new home’. Though if your home errs on the side of the 1990s, likely the paint colour, tile choice, bathroom and light fixtures would beg to differ. These are cosmetic issues however and are generally less costly (and less immediate) upgrades to a home.

More interestingly, where are we going with future homes? And I don’t mean a Jetsons home, but rather an energy efficient or ‘net-zero’ home. Really cool materials are coming out now that let you make the most of your energy, as well as harness natural energy. Solar panels that capture sun energy, turbines to gather wind energy, and recycled rain water for drinking and washing are just a few of the options people are taking to make their homes more energy efficient.

And you can go even simpler than that: in-floor heating and concrete countertops, energy-efficient lighting and even adding plants into your house! There are so many options to integrate the newest (and simplest) products into your home.

Looking to learn more about energy efficient home building products? Check out my friend Matt’s company, Rise, located in Fredericton, NB.

Queen Stella likes a warm and cozy house – right now I accomplish this with lots of couch blankets… but in the future I’ll be integrating more of the above-mentioned products into my house!

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