There are a lot of good reasons to buy older homes in Portland, like established neighborhoods, high-quality construction, price, and character. But a stunning older home is a little bit like a well-preserved celebrity—it’s hard to be sure exactly what work has been done to keep up appearances.
An older home that’s been taken care of is a wonderful investment. But one with hidden problems can be a never-ending money pit that will make you rue the day you bought it. Having been around the block a few times ourselves, we can tell you exactly what you might come across and what you should be looking for.
Types of Older Homes in Portland
Portland is filled with charming bungalows built about a century ago, especially on the east side of the city. These often have an unfinished basements, less room for parking, and smaller lots. You’ll also find a lot of older ranch homes, which usually have bigger lots and more room for parking. Tudor homes were built for the city’s wealthy during the first part of last century, so you may find yourself looking at some of these grand homes, too.
For more about different home styles in Portland, visit our blog post about home architecture in Portland.
Possible Issues with Older Homes in Portland
Basements and Crawl Spaces
The most likely problem you’ll encounter with an older home in Portland is water in the basement or crawl space. Older homes are more likely to have cracks in the concrete walls that allow moisture in, and moisture in these areas can cause structural damage, rot, mold, and mildew.
You may need to waterproof the basement or encapsulate the crawl space to prevent future problems with water. You may also need to upgrade the home’s drainage system or, sometimes, just clean the gutters and downspouts.
Old homes have electric systems that were simply not designed to work with today’s energy usage. Think about it: your grandparents may have had a lamp on, the radio going, and the fridge running. You probably have a TV in every bedroom, multiple devices plugged in, and a lot of high-energy appliances running throughout the house. We just use a lot more electricity than people did 50 years ago.
Be especially aware of knob and tube wiring, which was prevalent from the 1890s to the 1930s. Blown fuses were often traded for fuses with higher currents, which is a big fire risk. Knob and tube wiring can also be a problem because it was chewed on by rodents, was damaged during home renovations, or it has damaged insulation. If you’re interested in a home with knob and tube wiring, you may have a hard time getting home insurance or a mortgage until it’s been replaced.
Even if the home was not built with knob and tube wiring, it’s very likely an older home will need an upgrade—homes used to be built to handle 60 amps of power, and a modern home may need around 200 amps. This will require upgrading your electrical service panel, and if your house is more than 40 years old, you may need new electrical wiring, too.
It’s never guaranteed, of course, but old pipes are more likely to leak than newer pipes are. They’re also more likely to have issues with low water pressure. You should be especially wary of galvanized or cast iron pipes, which are susceptible to leaks and deterioration.
You should also have a special camera scope the sewer line that goes from your house to the road. These used to be made of clay, cast iron, and even tarpaper (say what?!) during WWII. These can get clogged, disintegrate, or become inundated by tree roots, causing flooding and other nasty problems.
Older homes can have cracked, sunken, or leaning foundations. These have to be addressed to keep the home safe and liveable. A few settlement cracks in the foundation may be normal, but you’ll need an inspector to tell you whether or not they’re something to worry about.
Older homes may also have damage to the sill plate, which is what the entire home rests on (it’s on top of the foundation). The sill plate can rot due to water, or it may have insect damage. This should be checked carefully by an inspector.
Both foundation and sill repairs are major, expensive undertakings that you absolutely want to know about before you buy the home.
Asbestos is an inexpensive, fire-retardant material that was used extensively in homes built from the 1940s to the 1970s. If the material is in poor condition and the asbestos fibers are exposed, they can be easily inhaled and cause lung cancer. The good news is that if the material is in good condition, it’s not a health hazard. Asbestos is commonly found in some types of:
- Insulation on basement boilers and pipes
- Vinyl floor tiles, linoleum, and floor glue
- Window caulking and glaze
- Roofing and siding material
- HVAC duct insulation
Materials containing asbestos should be removed by a licensed specialist. While you can legally do it yourself, it’s a big pain to follow all of the proper procedures and it’s probably better left to a professional.
If the home was built before 1978, there’s a good chance that the original paint contained lead—a certified lead inspector can tell you if there’s lead present in the home or not. Lead-based paint is one of the most common ways someone gets lead poisoning, and that’s especially bad for young children.
If the paint is in good shape, especially under newer layers of paint, it’s not usually a problem. If it’s peeling, chipping, or cracking, you’ll need to have it removed by a lead-certified contractor.
Termites and Other Bugs
Termites chew through wood and wood-like materials–flooring, drywall, and structural supports, and can be massive headache in any home, but older homes are especially prone to termites because of foundation or drywall problems. Powderpost beetles are also a problem, and as their name suggests, they can reduce wood to nothing but powder.
You’ll need some heavy-duty pest control to get rid of the pests, and depending on the damage that’s been done, you may need repair work done, too.
Older homes often come with some serious quirks that you’d never find in a newer home—steep staircases, low ceilings, old laundry chutes. Luckily, most jurisdictions are pretty lenient about these problems if the owner is occupying the home.
However, taking care of these issues will make your home more liveable and will likely improve its value.
What You Need to Make a Smart Decision
There are two invaluable things you can do when you’re looking at buying an older home. While neither guarantees that you’ll get a home that’s exactly what it seems, it gives you much better chances.
Find a Good Home Inspector
An experienced home inspector (don’t worry, we can recommend some!) can make or break everything. Getting one who has experience with older homes is a great idea, and some people recommend paying a second inspector when you’re buying an older home. Let’s just say that another opinion is never a bad idea when you’re spending this kind of money.
You may also find that you want specialized inspectors to check out some of the problems above if they come up during your standard inspection. They’ll be able to give you better advice about what you’re getting into.
Find an Experienced Realtor®
And most important, find an experienced Realtor® who knows something about old houses and common problems you should look for. If you’re looking for a home in the Portland area, give us a call! We have a lot of knowledge of our area and can help you find something that fits what you’re looking for.