Buying an older home: The home inspection and building codes
If you are one of the millions of home buyers that are enamored by older homes, there are a few things to understand before making that final plunge and buying one.
First let’s define the “older home”. For the sake of argument, we will define an older home as one being built between 1900-1930. Many home buyers are magnetically drawn to these older homes due to their old world charm and craftsmanship. The architecture of many of these homes can certainly be appealing to many people as the majority of older homes contain those fine hand crafted details that you simply cannot find in today’s newer homes.
You have 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 built and the codes that go along with it cannot be overstated.
When purchasing an older home it is important to be realistic in your expectations of 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 while 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 would be 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.
Now here comes the technical part which is considered a grey 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 GFCI outlets. If the home was remodeled in 1990 and that included a new electrical system, then that electrical system would have to meet the 1990 code requirements and that would include GFCI outlets.
While many listing descriptions state that a particular older home has been remodeled, in most cases, they are 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 and the date on those receipts is crucial in determining if the proper code requirements were followed.
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 the remodeling was just cosmetic items 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.
Last but certainly not least, 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.