The Seduction of an Old House

Enveloped in the siren call of an old house, potential buyers can sometimes be lured into its inevitable pitfalls. It’s always better to make your offer with your eyes wide open and with the inevitable costs of updating figured into the offer. Even first time home buyers are usually aware of the need for cosmetic changes, or appreciative of the ones that have been done. However, I can attest from experience that there are a few easily overlooked items and it’s a good idea to have a cushion for unforeseen surprises whenever you buy an old house.

Blinded by the beautifully remodeled kitchen and lovely character of the 1923 Burbank, California house we planned to own, my (now former) husband and I neglected to count the electrical outlets. Older houses frequently don’t have enough per room. Our Burbank house had only one in each room: you’d be surprised how quickly you MUST HAVE three electrical devices in one room. You can’t charge your phone, listen to your stereo and get dressed in the light at the same time. Can’t have the electric blanket on, read in bed AND have the electric clock set to wake you up. Forget having a TV in your bedroom with only one outlet – my brain is shorting out just thinking of it. Technically, there should be one outlet every ten feet in every room, but just because it’s required, doesn’t mean it’s been done. Perhaps you are buying a “For Sale By Owner” without a buyer’s agent to help you or perhaps the lack of outlets has been disclosed, but not updated. Installing as many as ten or twelve electrical outlets as soon as you move into a new house can be a rude awakening and not nearly as fun as buying a roomful of Thomasville furniture. Best to get a few estimates from reputable electricians and adjust your offer accordingly or put it in the offer as a condition for the seller to fulfill.

It is not uncommon for bedrooms in older homes to be without closets, as the use of wardrobes used to be widespread. If you like using wardrobes that may not be a problem for you, but if you feel you’ll need more storage, be sure to take that cost into account. It cannot technically be called a bedroom unless it has a built-in closet, and for good reason. The utility of a room is stunningly limited when this delightful modern addition has been left out of the plan. It might be a good idea to have a contractor give you an estimate on installing more realistic storage because it can get expensive. Again, if you make your offer knowing this, you can adjust either the offer or your loan (and your brain!) to allow for the extra expense.

The best heating system I ever used was the gravity heater in the Burbank house. The unit itself was in the crawl space under the house and the vents were huge and on the floor, so the house got warm in literally two seconds (heat rises!), plus it was very quiet because it wasn’t “forced” air. The worst cooling system I’ve ever had was in the same house – an evaporative cooler mounted on the roof with ceiling vents. If you were going to use the evaporative cooler, the heater vents had to be closed in every room and then you had to stand on a chair and open the cooler vents in every room. A cool September? Close/open those vents. Santa Ana winds? Close/open those vents. Cool morning? Hot afternoon? Cool evening? I think you get the picture. Fall and Spring were tough seasons, and this was BEFORE I started getting hot flashes. Evaporative coolers work best in very dry climates and even the slight humidity in Burbank was not ideal.  How did they settle the San Fernando Valley before the advent of air conditioning and the passing away of corsets? I cannot EVEN imagine!

But it was a lovely house…


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