September 6, 2016

10 Tips for Inspecting Historic Houses Before You Buy

Victorian Home

photo by: laurascudder/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Buying a historic house could involve expensive, complex renovation.

In our ongoing series about buying a historic home, we've covered how to find a historic house, determine its architectural style (parts One and Two), and finance the cost. Today we're on to the next step in the process; how to inspect the house to make sure it is in good condition.

Of course, a professional inspection—which will cover many of these same areas, but with greater depth and accuracy—is necessary once you move from looking to buying, but knowing what to look for while you're shopping around can help you make your decision.

1. Make a list. Before you get started, make a list of all the areas you want to look at, including the roof, chimney, interior and exterior walls, porches, windows and doors, foundation, fireplaces, attics and basements, bathrooms, etc. This will help ensure that you don't miss any critical elements, and can also help you prioritize the work that needs to be done once you become the owner.

2. Take pictures. Having photos to refer back to will help you remember what you've seen. (Be sure to ask the owner or their representative for permission first.)

3. Start at the top. From a distance, examine the roof and chimney. Look for a sagging roofline, leaning chimney, and any sort of obstructions. Closer in, examine the roof shingles or tiles for signs of rotting, cracking, or other damage. Check the chimney for loose or missing mortar, and verify that the flue liner is intact.


photo by: Garen Maguerian/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Before buying a historic house, check if the windows have no cracked or broken glass, or damaged sills or rails.

4. Examine the walls. Like the roof and chimney, a house's walls need to be looked at both from near and far. Different kinds of exteriors (wood, masonry, stucco, etc.) will show different kinds of wear. And don't neglect the interior—while paint color and wallpaper are easily changed. Make sure those aesthetic choices aren't covering up signs of leaks, loose plaster, or other damage.

5. Spend some time on the porch. And not, alas, just drinking iced tea and reading a book. Look for weak floor boards and peeling paint, which are signs of rot, and take a moment to look underneath to make sure the piers holding up the porch are stable and not pulling away from the house. Also, make sure the stairs are in good condition; be on the lookout for missing or damaged railings.

6. Look out the windows. Are they original? Moreover, are they in good shape—no cracked or broken glass, or damaged sills or rails? If the windows are not original, are they compatible with the house?

Tip: If you're not sure about how to handle a house with historic windows, check out our 13 Things You Should Know About Retrofitting Historic Windows toolkit.

7. Walk around—and up and down. In other words, pay attention to the floors and the stairs. Listen for squeaks and feel for springiness, sags, and tilts. Pay particularly close attention to the floors near sinks and tubs—is there water damage? Peek under the carpet when possible to assess the state of the flooring below, and look along the baseboard for ridges that indicate a floor has already been sanded down. (Most can only be sanded one or two times.)

8. Go underground. How is the basement? Keep your eyes peeled for signs of water damage. Puddles, clogged drains, or a sump pump make it clear that water has been an issue, but stealthier signs often include furniture and books up on risers rather than on the floor.

9. Are all systems go? Don't forget to look at the basics that we all take for granted: heating, hot water, and electricity. Many houses that have been renovated have newer systems, but not all will. You'll want to be sure that everything is functional and safe before buying the house.

10. Don't forget the attic. There are several key things to pay attention to in the upper reaches of a historic home. Make sure there's no wildlife (look for signs of animal damage, nests, or hives), holes in the roof not visible from outside, or water damage. Also, check for climate-appropriate insulation.

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Sarah Heffern, the National Trust's former director of social media, embraces all things online and pixel-centric, but she’s also a hard-core building hugger, having first fallen for historic places in a fifth grade “Built Environment” class.

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