Buying an older home

If you’re one of the many homebuyers enamored by an older home, there are a few things to understand


What’s an “older home”?

For the sake of argument, we’ll define an older home as one being built before 1930. Many home buyers are magnetically drawn to an older home for its the old world charm and craftsmanship. The architecture is appealing to many people, as the majority of older homes contain those fine, hand-crafted details that you simply can’t find in today’s newer homes. If you are planning on buying an older home in the Indianapolis area, the following information is invaluable!

You’ve no doubt heard the expression, “They don’t build them like they used to.” This is a very true statement. Over the last 100 years, home building and the required building codes that go along with it have drastically changed. This is particularly important to know, especially when it comes time for your home inspection. The importance of finding a home inspector who is cognizant of the year the home was built — and the codes that go along with it — can’t be overstated.

Set realistic expectations

When purchasing an older home, it’s important to be realistic in your expectations about the home itself, as well as the home inspection. In most cases, there were very little to no building codes present at the time many of these homes were built. Today’s newer homes have literally thousands of codes that must be adhered to. So what can you expect when it comes to your older home and building codes?

Unless the home has been extensively remodeled recently, odds are there will be many things that are not considered to be up to today’s building code requirements and should be considered “typical of year built”.

There are many safety and health related items that still lurk in and plague older homes that are considered unacceptable today. Some of them include lead-based paint, Asbestos materials, balloon framing and knob-and-tube wiring. These are all things that your home inspector should point out to you during your inspection to help you make a better informed buying decision. However, it’s considered unreasonable to expect the seller of that older home to bring everything up to today’s code requirements. It is called grandfathering. The term “grandfathered” however, only applies to original and unaltered construction.

Remodeling in the gray

Now here comes the technical part, which is considered a gray area among many real estate professionals. If the home was “extensively” remodeled, then everything that was remodeled in the home would need to be brought up to the codes that were present at the time of the remodeling. For instance, back in 1920, there was no such thing as ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI) outlets. If the home was remodeled in 1990 and included a new electrical system, then the system would have to meet the 1990 code requirements (including GFCI outlets).

While many listing descriptions state that a particular older home has been remodeled, most cases are actually speaking of “cosmetics” (new carpet, tile, paint, stainless steel appliances and so on). If the home truly was remodeled, there should be a ton of receipts available from the work that was performed.

The date on those receipts is crucial to determine if the proper code requirements were followed. According to the Historic Homes Inspectors Association, the following are key home inspection points to look for before you buy:

  • Wiring
  • Foundation
  • Plumbing
  • Attic
  • Basement
  • Decks and porches

Do your due diligence

When purchasing an older home, practice your due diligence and find out if and when the home was remodeled. If the home was remodeled, obtain the receipts from any work performed by the seller. This will help you to determine if remodeling was cosmetic or if it truly was an “extensive” remodel. If the home is original and has not been altered in any way, then you can reasonably expect that the home does not meet — and is not required to meet — today’s building code requirements.

Finally, take the time to hire an experienced and reputable home inspector in your area who has the experience and knowledge inspecting older homes and understands the “grandfathering” term as it relates to building codes.