Homebuyers, do you know what’s really important to look for in a prospective home?
In an HGTV-loving culture where beautiful new kitchens and spa-like bathrooms reign supreme, buyers can fall in love with the style of a home and fail to assess what’s truly important.
New backsplash is great. Massive shower heads are awesome. But the heating, foundation, and electrical wiring are far more important.
Compared to these major systems, minor things like a backsplash cost next to nothing.
This article isn’t intended to make you a master electrician (nor should you expect your real estate agent to be one), but it should help you perform a basic assessment of a home’s major systems before buying.
While it’s true that a home inspection would inform you of any issues, the idea here is to help you be informed as early as possible. There’s no rule against buying a home with an old electrical system, but better to know about it before rather than after you fall in love with the home.
This is all about helping you make a decision based on logic and what’s best for your family, instead of getting swept up in emotions.
The first thing you should know is that many major systems break down every 20 to 27 years, typically.
That means if you’re viewing a 25-year-old home with all original systems, it could be on the brink of an expensive overhaul.
Secondly, you should find out the “generation” of each major system in the prospective home.
Here’s everything you need to know:
First Generation – Knob & Tube
This type of wiring goes back to the invention of electricity! It’s not only a fire hazard; it could be more than 100 years old. Consider that a modern family uses more electricity in a single day than a 1920’s family did in an entire year. This system will need to be replaced, and the cost could easily land in the tens of thousands.
Second Generation – Cloth Wire
The replacement of knob & tube was known as “cloth wire.” It became prevalent in the mid 1900’s until roughly the late 1970’s. While not as unsafe as knob & tube, cloth wire systems typically don’t have a ground wire. Thus, these systems don’t provide as much safety as today’s standard. In addition, the lack of ground wire means the outlets in the home probably only have two slots for a plug. This can be a real pain for those of us who use a computer, vacuum, TV or other electronics that have three-pronged plugs. Three prongs and two slots don’t work real well 🙂
Third Generation – Plastic-coated Wire
Plastic-coated wire is the most current system available. Even so, you should find out when the system was installed, to give you an idea of when it will need to be replaced.
First Generation – Fieldstone
This is the earliest type of foundation you’re likely to encounter. It’s made of rocks that the builders probably gathered from nearby. While this foundation can be strong and stable, it can also be vulnerable to water damage. That means if you buy this home, you’ll want to be prepared to take preventive measures against flooding.
Second Generation – Cinderblock
Cinderblock foundations are slightly less permeable than fieldstone, but still not as airtight as today’s foundations. Laid in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s and used sparingly today, cinderblock foundations could require some extra protection against water damage.
Third Generation – Poured Foundation
If the home you’re assessing has a poured foundation, rest assured it has the most modern foundation available. While this doesn’t guarantee against water damage, it does make it far less likely.
First Generation – Coal
Coal stoves are some of the oldest forms of residential heating! If you encounter one in a prospective home (which is unlikely), make replacing it a top priority. This system is neither efficient nor convenient.
Second Generation – Oil
By the mid-1940’s, oil took over as the main source of heat for many areas of our country. While this system may heat the home effectively, it probably won’t heat it efficiently. This is the top reason to have it replaced. Keep in mind that you could encounter an original, oil-based system that hasn’t been replaced since the 80’s!
Third Generation – Propane and Natural Gas
Propane and natural gas are today’s preferred heating fuels. In addition to the machines themselves working more efficiently than older models, this fuel type is likely to be the least expensive.
Delivery of Heat
First Generation – Steam
The oldest heating systems ran on steam. Typically, coal was burned to heat water, which created steam that traveled to radiators throughout the home. It was a simple, yet effective, system. You’re not super likely to encounter it during your house hunt.
Second Generation – Boilers and Baseboards
Slightly more advanced, boilers pump hot water through the baseboards of the home to heat it. If you’re assessing an older home, it could still have a boiler, though they’re less common today. Boilers are very simple machines, so they can last up to 40 years, but they aren’t as efficient as today’s systems and would cost you a lot in fuel.
Third Generation – Forced Air
Today’s HVAC systems use forced air and ductwork, allowing for central air conditioning. While these systems are very efficient, the machinery is more complex than older systems, so they won’t last as long: 25 years max. That’s why it’s essential to find out when the system was installed.
Don’t Fall for Flooring, Countertops or Showers
Assess the truly important parts of the home before, rather than after, you fall in love with the relatively minor details. That’s how you can avoid an emotionally driven decision that burdens you with serious costs.
NEVER MISS AN UPDATE! Join our mailing list to receive these articles directly in your inbox.
Matt Mittman and Eric Rehling are the owners of RE/MAX Ready in Conshohocken, PA. See articles from them about making the boring choice, diversifying your workweek, creating the best possible offer for your client, the importance of inefficient communication, the Eagles, thriving during your busy season, magic wands, perfecting your customers’ experience, good training, measuring profitability, routines, taking the right kinds of risks, real experience of being a real estate agent, communication styles, building an audience, and more.