Homes and home building have changed enormously over the past 50 years. In the eternal debate as to whether to buy an old property or a newer one and the arguments as to which is best, people forget that before becoming an investment, a home has to provide safe shelter, there are very solid reasons why owning an older home may actually provide, not only, a better investment but a safer shelter. Here are a few:
All across Canada there are building 200 years old and more. In places across Europe, people live in homes 1,000 years old or older. It is unlikely many of the homes in the modern subdivisions in Canada will still be here in 60 years, let alone 200.
While opinions differ on this point, with some experts saying that today’s components and techniques, properly applied, should create a structure that’s long-lived it is that caveat, it is the issue of maintenance that is the real problem.
Maintenance — in the hands of homeowners — is a big factor. As long as homes are well maintained and wood destroying organisms and rodents are kept at bay, there is no reason to expect a house is going to fall down in 60 years is there?
Let’s look at this a little closer. First and foremost the building codes are standards derived as a compromise to the various building codes from multiple different communities. Because of that compromise, they are a bare minimum. None of the codes in existence today considers a home that is going to last 100 years.
As the population increases, and the demand for more, and cheaper housing increases, the will of the builder to build homes that exceed these codes, or for the homeowner to pay for it diminishes. This means that the majority of modern houses are made with the cheapest material, using the cheapest labour to the lowest legal standard possible to provide the cheapest house at the greatest profit the market will bear.
Take any house still standing that was built in the early 1900s and they are all “overbuilt” to today’s standards. Some people say that in their defence newer homes are more likely to withstand strong storms or earthquakes than older ones. To those people, I would say, that if the house is built in an area where there are strong storms or earthquakes, the older house has already proved it can withstand these forces of nature, the newer house has yet to prove itself.
Older properties are less prone to moisture absorption and loss lumber failure.
Newer lumber is taken from “farmed” trees. These are rapidly grown trees that are trimmed regularly and grown over 25 years before being harvested. The trimming process encourages the growth of new limbs which are in turn pruned. Each new limb creates a knot in the sawn lumber. Each knot is a possible failure point.
Younger trees also hold more moisture, and the wood from the trees are processed quickly so when the lumber is installed it inherently holds more moisture too.
Put this lumber into a sealed property with the heat turned up, this moisture evaporates from the wood and the wood shrinks and warps. This shrinking, apart from creating cosmetic issues like causing drywall and floor tiles to crack, and caulked seams to pull apart, cause knots to fail prematurely raising structural concerns.
Just because of the properties age, moisture shrinkage in the older property has already happened and any cracks have likely appeared and been repaired.
Older lumber is just better.
Older wood is harder and stronger than newer wood. It sounds strange to hear but it’s accurate. Ask anyone who has ever worked on an older property and had to use a hand saw to cut into the timber framing.
Older homes were normally framed with lumber from “Virgin Forests”. These forests provided highly compressed wood from trees that were hundreds or even thousands of years old, unlike the softer less dense wood harvest from the trees described above.
The sheer strength of this “old” lumber cannot be matched by today’s “farmed” lumber. The structural integrity of property nowadays relies less on the sheer mass of the lumber and more on engineering principles.
As a complete engineered product, today’s homes are as sound as an older home. The problem is every component in a modern “engineered” home relies on the connection and interaction of others. If one breaks or gets damaged it can compromise others. The effect can sometimes be a catastrophic chain reaction similar to a domino effect.
Faculty members at the University of Florida, who specialise in design and engineering have stated “A house is a system of connected parts. If there is one weak link in the system, the whole house can be damaged.” with modern homes having substantially weaker components engineered to make up for the strength and mass of older building components this risk is amplified.
Older framing techniques fare better with fire and water.
Engineered trusses, as opposed to the older solid lumber stick-built roof construction, are, I believe, another example of a backward step with respect to safety. Truss manufacturers have put out marketing to suggest that these issues are just hype (here) but independent research (here) seems to indicate that modern construction does indeed fail quicker in a fire situation. There are a number of reasons for this.
Older lumber, being more dense and compressed, takes longer to burn. The younger “harvested” wood has more air in it, so once a fire has penetrated the outer core, the fire can feed on itself easier as it has both fuel and air.
Because the newer construction is based upon engineering principles as described above, it is lighter and contains less mass and therefore it’s temperature is easier to elevate and therefore ignite. It’s just physics. Ask yourself given the same heat source which boils first, a cup or a pint of water. The principle is the same, the larger the mass the slower the heat absorption.
In addition, trusses usually have gusset plates to hold them together as opposed to the solid wood-wood connection of older homes. These gusset plates are made of thin steel which readily absorbs the heat in a fire. While they might protect the wood beneath them for a period of time, as the steel heats up it expands. This opens gaps for the fire to get to places it could on a wood-wood connection. If they get hot enough they will become malleable and fail completely. The temperature at which this malleability occurs is a lot less than the melting point of steel and also less than the ignition point of wood.
Joists are strong beams used in roofs and floors to bear heavy loads. They were and often still are made from long, straight pieces of sawn lumber, but here they suffer in modern houses from the same issues that the framing does. But an innovation — the engineered I-joist — often is used these days instead.
Like trusses, I-joists are manufactured from “composite” wood. To make composite wood, scraps and lower-quality logs are broken into smaller strands and combined with glue products to become super-strong for their size. A board called a “web”, normally made of oriented strand board (OSB), is framed by lengthwise “flanges.” Cut into a cross-section, the beam looks like an “I,” hence the name.
I-joists aren’t cheaper, but they are not all bad either. Straighter and lighter than dimensional lumber and uniform in size kept dry they shouldn’t shrink or warp. Fewer natural resources are wasted and I-joists let architects and designers span long distances to create larger, more-expansive rooms without increasing the number of supports. They do have problems when it comes to water damage. The OSB can act like a sponge and resemble Papier-mâché. Imagine having your main joists as two pieces of 2×4 sandwiching Papier-mâché?
Also, like engineered trusses, I-joists are more vulnerable to fire than solid lumber. In a 2008 test by the Underwriters Laboratory (UL), engineered lumber collapsed in less than a third of the time that it took fire to burn through traditional wood components. The solution? UL says to protect lightweight building components with half-inch gypsum wallboard.
How many basements where these I-joists are used are finished? Home many are finished with 1/2 as opposed to 3/8 drywall, or drop tiles, or worse? How many basements don’t have two readily available heat sources (Furnace and Water Heater)?
Roofing was stronger in older houses, and easier to fix.
Older houses war usually sheathed (the bit that is underneath the shingle cover) with what is known as common boards. These were planks of lumber laid parallel up the rake of the roof. Modern houses are constructed with Plywood or OSB both of which as a panel offers greater area strength but both a really susceptible to water damage. Ply at least returns pretty much to its normal dimension although not its former strength once it dries out. OSB, on the other hand, takes longer to dry out making it more susceptible to decay, but worse than that anyone who has fallen through an OSB sheathed roof will tell you that it never regains its structural strength. The solid lumber common boards are just wood. They get wet, dry out, they are still wood. Common boards also grip nails better than ply and much better than OSB so your shingles are less likely to let loose in a gale.
Newer venting can create fire hazards of its own
Older roofing is vented through a series of gable vents of rake vents made of metal. The newer venting systems such as ridge vents and top rake vents are made of plastic. Plastic vents melt in a fire which stops the thick acrid smoke from escaping. This forces the smoke back into the dwelling and poses a higher suffocation risk for the inhabitants and firefighter who attempt to put out the fires.
Craftsmanship is worse today.
Whereas older homes would have been made by small multi-skilled builders, today’s homes are manufactured in a factory type environment in component form and then shipped to the site where they are assembled by relatively unskilled labour. When components don’t fit or need adjustment on-site the skills that were readily available, to make adjustments safely without compromising the structural and long-term integrity of the home, is no longer there.
Were the older craftsmen better than the modern craftsmen? Unlikely. A craftsman is called a craftsman for that very reason. Their ability to craft something special has never been in doubt. The difference is modern pressures to do things faster and cheaper for more profit has led to a larger percentage of “sloppy” work. In a recent study, a group of experts including a home builder and engineers and two material scientists discovered that only 15% of older properties have issues with “sloppy craftsmanship” whereas 40% of newer homes had issues for the same reason, and over 15% of new homes had serious defects.
With new materials and new techniques, old skills have been lost or at least become harder to find. A home builder 50 years ago was more than likely able to understand the relationship between the structure, cladding, roof, footings and foundations. They would recognise the way in which the roof, framing, cladding and internal fittings all worked cohesively. Most modern builders are financially focused businesses. They employ specialists who know their own area well but have no understanding of how their work necessarily affects the work of another or if that effect will be positive or negative. They also employ generalists who all too often know little much of anything except how to work a nail gun or glue gun.
So is an older home always the best?
Older homes have their share of problems, some real, some perceived and some pure hype. Depending on when the house was built, and whether it has been updated you can find issues such as drafty windows and lack of insulation, creaky floors, lead paint, galvanized or lead pipes, old and undersized drainage, knob and tube, aluminium or old wiring, or the good old chestnut asbestos. Do any of these make the home worse or better? Let’s take them one at a time.
Drafty windows and lack of insulation
It is true that older homes were not built as tight as newer properties. That’s because fuel was cheap when they were built. There was no need to insulate the home because it was cheap enough to heat. The interesting side effect is this lack of insulation and excess of gaps in older homes, and especially balloon framed properties served as ventilation which actually increases the chances of keeping the framework dry and free from decay. Also, the majority of older properties still standing had heating systems that were overbuilt and many hydronic radiant systems that would heat the properties in past winters worse than any we see nowadays. Closing up an old house without losing some of these benefits is not a huge cost, and in most older houses it has already been performed.
As wood dries out it shrinks. Many older homes have wood on wood and many wood floors are laid counter opposing which actually increases the strength of the property. The floors were often nailed, not with the small floor nails we use nowadays but with large 1/8th-inch shank nails. Because the nails were larger, they were used less. These two things in conjunction come together to give that characteristic creak. Always worse in the winter than in the summer, but something many of us grew up with. Modern houses creak for very different reasons. When a modern home creaks it’s usually a sign of poor installation or worse, water damage. Give me an old creaky home over a new creaky one any day.
This is a misnomer. The paint isn’t actually Lead, it is paint, with a Lead compound added to it, either for aesthetic or practical purposes. Lead is added to paint to speed up drying, increase durability, maintain a fresh appearance, provide vibrant colours, and resist moisture that causes corrosion. All of these would be seen as good points except for the fact that Lead is a poisonous metal that can damage nervous connections (especially in young children) and cause blood and brain disorders. But it doesn’t just jump out and get you. For lead to be inhaled it has to be in an airborne form. This happens when the paint is sanded prior to repainting or when it is burned off by a blowtorch. In the former case, a simple NIOSH mask protects the worker, and in the latter case, a good quality NIOSH mask (available from your local box store) or full-face respirator (available from your local scaremonger) will protect you. I strongly recommend using masks when sanding lead paint, especially if you are a young child.
Lead paint can be treated with products such as ECOBOND which minimise the risks. Lead paint is still used for painting the roads, and painting military vehicles!
Galvanized and lead pipes.
OK here is where things get interesting. Lead pipes are definitely a no-no. Ingesting lead deposits suspended in water will lead to Lead poisoning. At one time the only cure for this was to have the pipes replaced. Now a range of filters are available that reduce or remove the lead completely, these can be found at the NSF (former National Sanitation Foundation) website here, here and here. Because Lead is a fairly dormant element Lead pipes can last a long time, luckily Galvanized pipes were installed as a Lead replacement. Unfortunately Galvanized pipes have their own issues, and that is they corrode from the inside out, and eventually leak, For those that don’t leak, the plaque build-up of the zinc coating on the inside can severely restrict water flow and lead to loss of water pressure.
The life expectancy of a Galvanized pipe is around 70 years, but this is reduced by poor plumbing practices. Most homes with Galvanized pipes have probably experienced a leak and have had the pipes changed to copper. This in itself has issues and is dependent upon the timing of the changes and the way in which the copper was connected to the galvanized pipe. If a dielectric coupling was used, and problems are minimised, however, if a straight copper to galvanized to brass connector was used, a galvanic reaction creates a small electrical current between the two metals which can leach lead in solder from the copper pipes (soldered before 1989) and speed up the decay of the Galvanized pipes.
Galvanized water pipes are still sold for plumbing, and there are cases where replacing a punctured Galvanized pipe with a new one is the only option. This at least renews the life expectancy to another 70 years. In most cases replacing Lead and Galvanized steel pipes with Copper is the best way to go.
Old and undersized drainage
Modern homes have been designed and built for modern appliances. 50 years ago there were no washing machines and dishwashers. There were no waste disposal systems. In older houses, some waste pipes to the main waste stacks are only 1 1/2″ in diameter and cannot take the flow rate of these newer appliances. Many older waste systems don’t have the air venting required to allow the water to escape the systems. This can be a real issue but is correctable by modern waste plumbing. Retrofitting an older waste system with newer plumbing is neither difficult nor should it be exorbitantly expensive. Unfortunately, many plumbers don’t realise there are dispensations in the codes for Heritage homes and demand that the code is applied to the letter. Old cast iron stacks do corrode. Their life expectancy is 100-150 years but they need to be maintained. If they are left to rust, they will deteriorate quicker. Well cared for and regularly painted there is no reason why these pipes can’t outlive most of the owners.
knob and tube, aluminium or old wiring
Issues with electrical systems are a fact of life. They don’t just affect older homes, then crop up just as often in newer homes too. The issue with the older homes is the fact that modern lifestyles require more from electrical systems. Knob and Tube wiring, left intact as was originally installed is no less safe now as it was when it was installed. This is recognised by the Electrical Safety Authority and the Insurance Board of Canada. The problem comes when it is altered. Knob & Tube, like many children, does not play well with others. It has limited capacity for carrying electrical current so when attached to a breaker or fuse of higher capacity, it becomes a radiant heater behind the walls. A fire waiting to happen. Replacing the knob & tube in an older property does not have to be as expensive as it’s made out to be. Most older homes have those gaps in the walls that everyone complains about. Those gaps come in handy when replacing knob and tube because new wires can be “fished” along the gaps, replacing the Knob & Tube in their entirety without having to tear down the walls.
Aluminium wiring has a similar bad rap. Aluminium, properly sized, will conduct electricity as well as the next metal, copper included. Again, like Knob & Tube (and some kids) it doesn’t play well with others, particularly copper and air. In the air, it’s surface reacts easily with air creating Aluminum Oxide, which is a bad (really bad) conductor of electricity. This causes the Aluminum to heat up, but that in itself is not a safety issue. The problem is in the way Aluminum reacts when it heats up. Like all metals, Aluminum expands when it gets hot. It expands more and faster than copper. Likewise, when it cools down it contracts more and faster than copper. It is these actions that are the real problem. This constant difference in expansion and contraction amounts and rates between copper and aluminium means that Aluminum wiring eventually works itself loose. Loose wiring of any type leads to arcing, which in turn leads to fires. The simple solution s to ensure that if a home has Aluminum wiring all the receptacles, light fittings switches and breaker panels are compliant with Aluminum. In addition, it is worth employing an electrician once a year to inspect and tighten all the fittings in the home and provide an ESA certificate of compliance for your insurer.
Old wiring that is either Knob & Tube or Aluminum has two issues. The first is that it usually doesn’t have a ground wire, and therefore lacks the protection a ground circuit gives the consumer. This can be overcome by fitting GFCI receptacle which can be wired to detect errant current between the Hot and Neutral outlets. This is not as good as a ground but is better than no protection at all. The second issue with older wiring is its covering. The older wire is usually sheathed in rubber and cloth wrapped. The rubber actually has milk products in it to keep the rubber supple. This eventually breaks down and the sheathing becomes brittle and can crack when it is bent. The outer case is cloth and also can break when bent. Cracked sheathing and outer coatings can lead to arcing and again a fire hazard. The good news is that these wires don’t get moved that often if at all, so left alone are not dangerous, except if there are rodents (rats or mice) in the walls. They like the taste of the milk products in the wire sheathing and are attracted to eating them. It’s curtains for the Mouse or Rat, but it doesn’t do much for the home either.
Asbestos exists in many many products, and a home doesn’t have to be old to have asbestos products in it. Again, left alone, Asbestos-Cement boards, tiles, insulation or anything poses no great threat. It’s when it is drilled broken damaged or otherwise tampered with, it can release fibres into the air that then pose a slight, but a very real threat to health.
I know this has been a long read for some. It was a long write for me, but in Summary, in my personal opinion, the advantages to owning a well-maintained, updated older home far outweigh the detriments and go a long way to making the argument that the older home is a better constructed, better value investment than a newer one. As with any home purchase, Caveat-emptor applies. Buyer beware! If you ensure you become an educated buyer, employ good well-skilled professionals to help you and in the case of a new home purchase choose your builder carefully, then you risk is minimised. In every case, choose a Home Inspector that understands your needs and understands more the property he or she is inspecting. An inspector that only inspects newer homes will not have the understanding needed to inspect an older property. Vice-versa is also true. Choose your inspector carefully, and don’t just shop for the cheapest option. It the same as shopping for the cheapest house, you will get what you pay for.
I myself came across this problem when my wife and I purchased a new house some years ago. Following the foundation and frame build, the wiring was completed. Then the HVAC contractors came in and ran the ducts, and then the plumbers came an did the piping. As part of the plumber’s work, they had to move the ductwork in the master bathroom to pipe the supply lines and drains. Then the drywalling contractors came in a covered everything up. Spot the problem? The plumbers never said anything to the construction manager. The drywalling contractors who must have seen the disconnected duct said nothing to the construction manager. The building inspector missed it (or didn’t get to inspect it).
To add insult to injury the sales contact, at the construction company, tried to hide the issue by covering the register with the shower door, presumably in the hope that I wouldn’t find the issue and have to claim on the Tarion program
So if you are considered a purchase of a home the costs $900,000 and it’s only going to last 60 years it doesn’t show much for its investment potential. Buying a house that’s already lasted 60-80 years and is in good shape should show that it is, with proper maintenance, likely to withstand the ravages of time for another period longer than that.