Buying an Old House: The Good & The Bad

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buying an old house_ the good and the bad

One of the things I love about inspecting homes is when a client of mine is buying an old house.  Nothing gives me more excitement when on an inspection than to poke around a house that has stories to tell with the families who have lived there.

But not all old houses are taken care of the same or built the same for that matter.  Oftentimes, those buying an old house in the Twin Cities are finding them in St. Paul or Minneapolis, and so many of the houses are beautiful.  Occasionally you find one that needs a lot of attention and has been neglected by either one or multiple owners.  

But even the old homes that appear to be in tip-top shape and have been gorgeously restored may have some of the dangers and pitfalls that a neglected old house may have too. 

And if you’ve already gone through the process of buying an old house and you’re currently living in it, there are some important things you should be aware of when it comes to the environmental health inside your home.

Either way, old houses are a breed of their own, and in relation to creating a healthy home environment, there are different things you’ll need to address and watch out for.  A home built last year has an entirely different environment inside in comparison to a house built 100 years ago.

So if you’re in the market for buying an old house, or you currently live in an old house, be sure to keep reading in order to know just how to use your old house to your advantage when it comes to health and wellness.

THE GOOD THINGS ABOUT BUYING AN OLD HOUSE

There’s more good about buying an old house or owning an old house than just the adorable charm and character that often comes with the unique floorplan, original woodwork and ornate details.   I:n fact there are some really great features and qualities that often go along with an older home that make it a healthier environment than some of the more recently built homes.

More AirFlow:  Generally speaking, an older home has more spots for air to escape and filter in naturally.  This air flow idea is referred to as an air exchange.  An air exchange is basically the idea that the indoor air is escaping your home and fresh, outdoor air is coming in to replace it.  Once the air in your house has been completely replaced by the fresh outdoor air, you’ve got one full air exchange.  

Many older homes have somewhere between 1 and 5 air exchanges per hour.  A newer home generally  has 1 air exchange every three hours.  The reason this fresh air is so important to the health of our homes is because of the toxins we have inside our homes. Those VOCs and toxins can build up within our air, however with frequent air exchanges, the potency and concentration of these toxins is much less. This post will walk you through some very simple ways to improve the indoor air quality in your old or new home.

Fewer Synthetic Materials:  Again, as a general assumption, older homes have less things like laminate flooring and carpet.  If you’ve read my post on toxins in carpets, you know that older carpet in homes can house many toxins and ruin the indoor air quality within your home.  Oftentimes, older homes have original hardwood flooring and natural tile within the home, which contain fewer toxins than carpet and vinyl flooring.  (I’ll give you a disclaimer that this is not always true, however, depending on what era the home was updated in).

New homes are built with a lot of synthetic products like laminate, plywood and manufactured wood.  These products are often installed with harsh adhesives and solvents that contain formaldehyde and other VOCs.  When you’re buying an old house, be sure to look for things like original wood planking underneath the floors and in attic spaces to ensure that there is less plywood and formaldehyde in the home.

Higher Quality Finishes: Typically in older homes all natural wood is used rather than medium density fiberboard, vinyl and composites containing plastic and toxins.  Wood is often the best material when it comes to avoiding toxins.  However, you must also be wary of the stain and clear coat that are applied to the wood, but this can be changed without removing the wood itself oftentimes.

Natural ceramic tile is also another low and no toxin finish that older homes have.  It’s much better than having vinyl or synthetic linoleum, which some homes have been updated with. Finding a home with solid wood cabinets, doors, flooring and trim can be a great way to ensure little adhesive, cheap additives or other chemicals are being used.

Reusing Instead of Building New:  While this doesn’t necessarily play into the the health of your home, when you’re buying an old house, you’re essentially reusing what’s there instead of building something new and creating additional waste in our community and environment.

One of the principles behind creating a healthy house is using fewer brand new items and creating an indoor space that is healthy using natural items that are already in the world.  This is the exact principle that comes into play when buying an old house.

the health benefits to living in an old house

THE DANGEROUS TOXINS OF BUYING AN OLD HOUSE

Not everything in an old house is rainbows, however.  Because an older home has often had several owners, materials may have been updated during different eras.  Some of the eras in a home’s past could include using extremely toxic materials like lead, asbestos and plastic in the wrong applications.

It’s important to know how to identify these dangerous toxins when you’re buying an old house as well as if you currently own an old house.

Asbestos:  Asbestos is a cancer causing material (ASBESTOS STUDY) that can be present in many different areas of an old house.  Asbestos exposure has been linked to lung cancer and abdominal cancer as well as mesothelioma (ASBESTOS RESEARCH).

Asbestos becomes airborne as tiny particles and dust and is often inhaled into the lungs.  This is why oftentimes, if asbestos is not disturbed, it poses less of a risk to humans.  That being said, we have many habits in our lives that may be disturbing asbestos on a regular basis.  

Asbestos can be present in attic insulation, flooring (check for 9×9 vinyl floor tiles in a old home, which likely contain asbestos), ceiling tiles, popcorn ceilings, and even drywall.  If you’re buying an old house, obviously, get an inspection and make sure you ask your inspector if they can identify asbestos before you hire them.  You can also get a simple kit from amazon to send a sample into a lab to have it tested for asbestos. You also have the option of contacting a special company that will inspect for just asbestos in your home.

Lead:  Lead was widely used in paint and pipes in older homes.  If you’re buying an old house built before 1978, there’s potential that you have some lead paint in the home.  Now, lead paint, undisturbed and free of chips is no problem at all.  Once it starts to chip, the dust can become an issue with members of the home inhaling the particles.  

Lead exposure is a problem in terms of health, especially in children, where it can build up to poisoning levels and affect learning and behavior. (LEAD EXPOSURE STUDY).

Lead pipes can also be present, however, most often it’s only in drain pipes within the home.  A simple scratch test can help you identify if you have lead pipes.  Lead pipes are dull and gray in color.  When scratched with a key or fingernail, an indent will be left that is often shinier in appearance.

When buying an old house, an inspector who can identify lead in a home (either in paint or pipes) will be a huge asset.  If you own an older home, you can purchase a rapid test with a swab to help you identify parts of your home that have lead within them.

Formaldehyde: Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and is found in many applications throughout both new and old homes.  This post I did has information about formaldehyde and where to look for it in your home.  Essentially any place in your home where adhesives are used (think cabinets, countertops, flooring, etc), there’s a potential for formaldehyde to be present. This is why it’s important to know what type of finishes are in your holder home.  If you’re buying an old house, make sure you know what decade it was updated in, or assess any upgrades that have been made to vinyl or laminate.

Formaldehyde never stops off-gassing, especially in older materials, where the concentrations are higher.  FOrmaldehyde affects the respiratory system and can increase problems with asthma.  It has also been linked to various kinds of cancer in high concentrations. (FORMALDEHYDE INFORMATION)

This indoor air quality monitor by Awair is a great addition to any home when you’re trying to assess if VOCs and formaldehyde are present.

indoor health hazards and toxins found in old homes that you want to be aware of

Radon:  While radon is not necessarily a problem only present in older homes, it CAN be more prevalent in older homes due to their foundations.  Radon is an odorless carcinogen in the form of a gas that enters our homes through the soil beneath it.  Homes that have more cracks and gaps in their foundation typically have higher levels of radon if it’s in the soil.  Radon is everywhere outside, however when it enters the home, it becomes highly concentrated in lower levels.  

When someone is exposed to high levels of radon it increases their risk of cancer, especially in children, those with lung tissue damage and smokers.  This blog post I did talks about EVERYTHING you need to know regarding radon and your home.

I recommend EVERYONE gets a radon test whether buying an old house or a new house.  If you’ve already purchased your home, getting either a one time test or a continuous radon monitor is a great idea to make sure you don’t have elevated levels of radon in your space.

Mold:   Again, mold can be in ANY house, and sometimes newer homes have more present within the walls just because of building practices that were being used during the time the home was built.  However, generally speaking, older homes have had more moisture intrusion and can have more humid environments due to poor air circulation, which contribute to mold growth.

Many old homes didn’t have fans in humid spaces like bathrooms and kitchens originally.  This means that these spaces had periods of time where they probably didn’t dry out as well as they should have.  

Basements in old homes can also have levels of high humidity due to the type of foundation block or stone used and the lack of drainage around the home.  Check for levels of high moisture and do a visual inspection for mold when you’re buying an old house to make sure you’re avoiding potentially BIG problems.

This page can help you with mold in any home.

buying an old house and the benefits and toxins you need to be aware of

BEST TIP FOR BUYING AN OLD HOUSE:

Get an inspection and ask LOTS of questions BEFORE you hire your inspector and during the inspection.  Use this printable sheet to help you hire your inspector

These resources are also going to be very helpful when buying an old house or any house for that matter:

the benefits and pitfalls to your health of buying and old house and living with them

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