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When Buying an Older House, Ask Plenty of Questions


Question: We're considering buying a house built in 1925. What concerns should we have, compared to buying a newer house? We're wondering about the condition of the brick fireplace, the basement and the foundation. Also, how do we find out if the house has insulation?

Answer: It goes without saying that older houses were not constructed to contemporary building standards. In fact, the first edition of the Uniform Building Code was not published until 1927.

Before that time, building standards were a matter of accepted trade practices, rather than legally enforced requirement. Foundations were usually constructed of non-reinforced masonry or concrete, and the standards for mixing concrete and mortar were not as exacting as they are today. This is why decomposition of such materials is a common occurrence with many older buildings.

Current building standards stipulate the recipes for combining sand, grout, water and aggregate when mixing cement-based materials, and all such mixtures are required to be free of impurities that might compromise the strength of the finished product.

In the days of pre-code construction, a builder might use pond water or beach sand, whatever was readily available at the building site. These materials seemed to be substantial and adequate when they were new, but with age and exposure to weather and ground moisture, some foundations, fireplaces and other masonry construction have become soft and crumbly.

Even when older foundations have remained stable and intact, they may not meet seismic and structural safety standards that apply to current foundations, so anchor bolts were not installed and bracing was either rudimentary or nonexistent.

With older fireplaces, brick chimneys were unlined, non-reinforced and lacked spark arresters. Most of these unlined chimneys were installed in direct contact with wood framing in attic areas, acceptable at the time but in violation of current fire safety standards.

Insulation, of course, is a minor concern compared with the structural and safety-related conditions already discussed. But this is certainly another area in which most older houses will be substandard compared with newer ones.

Other important considerations involve the plumbing, heating and electrical systems and the roof. For example, is the electrical system adequate for current power demands? If it was upgraded, were the alterations performed by a qualified electrician?

Are the original pipes still in place? If so, are they still functional or do they need replacement?

How about the heater? Is it adequate and safe?

And the roofing: How many layers of material are installed on the structure? This list could go on.

Be sure to hire a qualified house inspector before closing escrow. An experienced inspector will consider these and many other concerns in the evaluation of the 1925 house, providing you with the information necessary to make a wise and informed purchase decision.

Seller Can't Disclose What He Doesn't Know

Q: I am advertising my house "for sale by owner" but am concerned about the disclosure laws effecting sellers. I'm aware of the requirement to disclose normal building defects, but a friend says I must also inform buyers about the presence of lead paint. Frankly, I haven't the slightest clue whether the paint in my house contains lead, nor would I know how to acquire such information. Please let me know if lead paint disclosure is now a requirement, and if so, what to do about it.

A: In 1996, regulations issued by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development took effect, requiring disclosure by those who sell, rent or lease certain residential properties built before 1978.

These rules do not require that sellers or landlords perform tests, hire inspectors or otherwise pursue discovery of lead-containing paint. The primary requirement is to disclose whatever information you already possess.

If you are unaware of the lead status of paint in your house, that is all you need to tell a prospective buyer or renter. The only additional information you must provide is a copy of a federally approved lead-based paint hazard pamphlet. This can be obtained from a local real estate office.

The one further requirement is that you allow buyers a 10-day contingency period during which they may arrange for professional lead testing of the painted surfaces. Buyers may waive this right, but sellers must make the option available.

If lead-based paint is found in the building, removal is not a legal requirement and parties to a transaction should not become unduly alarmed, as lead does not pose a health threat by its mere presence. Of primary concern are small children, who have been known to teethe on painted woodwork, such as window sills. Lead paint can be harmful if ingested, particularly by young people.

Regardless of the risk level associated with lead paint, the disclosure law should be taken seriously. Failure to comply may subject property owners to penalties including criminal prosecution, court-imposed punitive damages and fines up to $10,000.

Exceptions to the lead paint disclosure law are limited to two types of property. Houses that were acquired through foreclosure by banks or other creditors are exempt because the owners in such cases are presumably unaware of specific property conditions, having not been in personal possession or occupancy.

Also excluded from the lead paint disclosure requirement are houses designed for elderly or disabled people, particularly when children younger than 6 years old are not in residence.

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