They Don’t Build Houses Like They Used To! That’s actually just fine.

Some Colorado home buyers believe that home construction quality has all but evaporated in favor of making a fast buck.  Is this true?

Realtors hear the phrase above frequently from some Colorado home buyers, when voicing their belief that modern homes are inferior to those built between twenty years and a generation or more ago.  Having studied residential construction for a few decades, we at Colorado New Home Specialists would like to bring our perspective to this important discussion.  First, we are Realtors, not home inspectors. At the end of this article you might be surprised to learn why it is important to get much of this information from a Realtor’s point of view, not just that of a home inspector.  If you are considering an older resale home, this article might be a handy primer for additional study.  While we do not intend to treat the subject exhaustively, we can just about promise that you will discover things in this article that you were unaware of.

Compared to today’s homes, what is generally better about homes built in the period from around 1930 to 1970 and even newer?  Having owned several homes from this era as well as having listed and sold more than a few, we are pretty familiar with the subject matter.  The numerous classes in building technology that we have been fortunate enough to take have been informative as well.

What things are better about the older home?

  1. These homes tend to be very solid in basic construction techniques.
  2. They sometimes possess a charm that people find irresistible.
  3. Often these homes have extensive exterior architectural detailing such as elaborate brick and stone work-possibly even metal work.
  4. They have stood the test of time.
  5. Solid craftsmanship is evident in many older homes.
  6. They often have extensive woodwork such as doors, trim, and flooring. One may find heart pine floors, walls and ceilings – or even woods thought of as exotic today due to scarcity.
  7. Often you’ll find things like heavy plaster moldings and dramatic features cast into ceilings, fireplaces and walls.
  8. Speaking of fireplaces, these homes sometimes have them in excess, although often bricked in for a host of good reasons.

What’s better about new and newer homes?

  1. The rooms: Newer homes within the same overall size often have wider and larger rooms than their older counterparts.  This is due to span limitations of the older dimensional lumber used vs. newer materials able to safely span greater distances.  Have you ever wondered why the rooms in older homes are typically narrow and long? Now you know.
  2. The layout: Newer floor plans reflect the changes in how people actually live in their homes.  More space is now devoted to common or gathering areas.  Far less space is devoted to the seldom desired formal rooms of old.  Think of total square footage as a budget, you only have so much.  How should that total space be applied or divided into rooms?  In showing homes built as recently as the late 80’s, the way we hear the above illustrated is simply, “No, this just won’t work for us.” When asked why (we generally already know) the answer is simply, “The layout!”
  3. Air infiltration: The modern phrase “thermal envelope” was a legitimate response to research conducted in the 80’s that up to 50% of a home’s heating losses are from air leakage.  The basic idea is to create a non or minimally air permeable barrier around the living space.  Air losses are virtually eliminated.  These losses have nothing to do with insulation. They are leakage losses caused by holes in areas such as wall to floor and roof to wall connections.  Sealing penetrations for electrical wiring and plumbing was not done when that home was built.  Tyvec and similar products now greatly reduce air infiltration while still allowing moisture to get out of the walls, which is absolutely critical.  However, thermal envelope systems were not even required by code as recently as just a few years ago in many jurisdictions.  We would not advise buying any home without a modern thermal envelope of some kind.   Insulation can be added to an older home, but that by no means creates a thermal envelope.
  4. Insulation: Today’s homes are insulated with foam, cellulose or fiberglass in various forms.  Many older homes were simply not adequately insulated.   Some of them were insulated with a substance called mineral- wool or Rock-wool, which was very functional.  However, the placement and amounts of the insulation found in older homes are now generally inadequate.  As building science has evolved, defined guidelines for insulation have helped ensure consistency and energy savings.
  5. Plumbing: Plumbing materials have become more reliable, standardized, inexpensive and very adaptable to changes and remodeling.  Many older homes have an elaborate combination of cast iron, terra cotta, copper and plastic plumbing, retrofitted over the years.  These systems are less than reliable and subject to failure at any time.  Repair on them requires special skills, much more expensive than many homeowners realize.  Another issue is that of polybutelene piping, created and used extensively as recently as the late 80’s. Chlorine in municipal water supplies reacted with the pipe itself causing leaks so serious that hundreds of thousands of homes have had their entire water supply systems gutted and replaced.
  6. Heating and air conditioning:  These systems are similar to plumbing, in that virtually all of these HVAC systems in older homes have been “created” by cutting into the original framing.  The problem here is that for a 1950’s home which had HVAC installed in the 1970’s; newer techniques and air-flow models have been refined.  In order to match a modern system’s performance, many of these systems need to be retrofitted again.  These concerns are not present in newer homes.
  7. Sheetrock: Some homebuyers believe that studs on 16-inch-centers with ½” sheetrock walls are “cheap,” compared with a plaster on lath wall. The truth is that there is good reason that plaster became obsolete for most residential construction.  Repairs to systems in walls and ceilings are very expensive when dealing with plaster.  Remodeling is also an arduous task with plaster.
  8. Electrical wiring: It is common knowledge that older homes can have serious issues with wiring. Most have already been brought up to date.  A lesser known problem is that of aluminum wiring used in residential structures in the mid to late 50’d and sometimes beyond.  Oxidation at connection points can lead to electrical arks and even fires in extreme cases.  These days, aluminum wiring is used only for larger power feed connections.
  9. Windows: Windows in newer homes present few headaches.  The days of wood windows are nearing an end in any region with even a moderately wet or cold climate.  Vinyl clad, vinyl on wood, metal or even composite windows offer a superior solution when standing up to air leakage and water damage.  The single pane or even storm window of yesteryear offers no comparison to the double or even triple pane windows found in new homes.  Most areas have required low-e windows for a few years now, which are designed to allow solar gain (free heat) in winter and reflect away the sun’s rays and heat in warmer parts of the year.  Finally, the bill for bringing the typical older home’s windows up to modern standards easily starts at $35,000 and quickly climbs depending on many factors.
  10. Water issues: Water intrusion has always been a major issue in homes.  The biggest issue of late is water buildup inside of walls due to winter condensation.  As warm moist air travels from inside to out through the walls, water condenses out of the air. It can build up in the walls causing major mildew problems as well as damage.  This issue of winter condensation is one of the driving forces behind the development of thermal envelopes.  The thermal envelope so greatly reduces the amount of air leaking through the walls, that the moisture present has the opportunity to evaporate and escape to the outdoors – as opposed to building up inside the wall.  Water intrusion can also happen at window flashings, which can leak inside exterior walls due to poor design and installation. Builders have woken up to this major problem and have responded with better solutions.  We have seen homes built as recently as 2000 with defective window flashings.  For plumbing, showers now have pans designed to give water a place to go in the event of tile failure.

Hopefully you have a new appreciation for that gorgeous 1930’s home in Denver that has been lovingly restored at great expense through many years.   The items above are might make up half of what it took to bring that residence up to something approaching today’s standards.  Even at that, there are things that simply cannot be updated due to structural realities.  However, for the vast majority of home buyers, refurbishing an older home is just not in the cards.  What we hope you take away from this piece is that we started out talking about old homes and ended up mentioning problems from the 80’s right up into the year 2000! We don’t know about you, but for us, that is pretty recent history – all the more reason to buy smart.

While many of these issues would show up on a home inspection, many would not. Home inspections are about “serviceability,” they are not about what is ideal.  The inspector’s job is to determine what works, what does not and what issues you may run into in owning the home that you contracted them to inspect.  Home inspections are not about advising you on what era to buy a home from.  The inspector’s assumption normally is that the buyer already did the due diligence and research, unless you instruct them otherwise.  Give us a call at Colorado New Home Specialists with any questions you may have.  We know residential Real Estate.