Considerations in purchasing a wood-frame house for renovation

If you’re considering renovating an older wood-frame home, a thorough evaluation of the structure can help you to determine whether an investment in the home is worth it. In order to determine if it is worth rehabilitating, systematically inspect the house and compare the necessary repairs with the estimated value of the finished home. Inspecting the following components of the home should help you decide whether or not the home is worth reviving.

old-house

Foundation

You’ll want to check the condition of the entire foundation, watching for settling, in particular. Settling might distort the house frame or pull it apart. Some settling is normal, but numerous failures might indicate that a new foundation is needed, which can be quite expensive. If a new foundation is required, the odds are against it being a sound investment.

Foundation walls

Check the masonry foundation for cracks and crumbling mortar. Open cracks indicate a failure that may get progressively worse.

Damp basement

Damp basement walls can represent a major repair. The dampness may be coming from a clogged drain, clogged or broken downspouts, cracks in the walls, a lack of slope in the finished grade away from the foundation or a high water table.

Structural wood frame

Check the frame of the building for distortion due to foundation failure or inadequate framing. Also check for decay and insect damage. Look for the decay in wood that is close to the ground, in particular. Also examine the frame for signs of termite damage. Getting rid of termites will generally require a professional exterminator. If the frame is overall largely termite infested, this could be a good reason to pass up this investment.

Floor supports and framing

Floors are generally supported by wood or steel posts. Check these for decay, especially at points of contact with concrete. Look for sag in the girders that rest on top of the posts. Also examine any sill plates, or joists and headers, for decay and insect damage, particularly in basements that are damp.

You’ll also want to check the framing of the floor joists around stair openings, looking for levelness. If there is sagging, the framing will need to be leveled and reinforced.

Wall framing

Scrutinize the openings in a stud wall for squareness by opening and closing doors and windows. Look for sag in the headers above windows and in openings between rooms. If sag is noticeable, the headers will need to be replaced.

Siding and trim

Moisture is the main problem that can occur with siding and trim. Look for space between horizontal siding boards. Some cracks can be caulked, but general gapping or looseness might require replacement. New shingles will be required if they are badly weathered or worn.

Roof

Examine the roof for sagging of the ridge, rafters and sheathing. If the ridge line if not straight, some repair might be necessary.

Roof leaks can be detected by looking for damage inside the house. Also look for water stains on the rafters for smaller leaks. Asphalt shingles, the most common roof covering, become brittle and lose surface granules when they deteriorate. Also look for wear in the narrow groves between the tabs or sections of shingles. This wear might extend completely through to the roof boards. If the roof is covered in wood shingles, look for individual broken, warped or upturned shingles. If many of them are damaged, the roof should be completely replaced.

You’ll also want to look for corroded flashing, gutters and downspouts. If the roof does not have an overhang, consider adding one to reduce maintenance on the siding and trim.

Windows and doors

When inspecting the windows, check for tightness of fit and look for decay in the sash and sill. Keep in mind that if a window is not a standard size, the opening will have the reframed or a new sash will have to be made. Both of these options can be expensive. In cold climate, look for windows that are double glazed or for storm windows.

Exterior doors should fit without sticking. If a door frame is not square, it will have to be reframed.

Porches

If there is a porch, check to see if any wood is in contact with soil. You’ll want to correct this situation, if it exists, as porches are particularly vulnerable to decay and insect damage. Chimneys and fireplaces:

Start your chimney inspection by looking for cracks in the masonry or loose mortar. Make sure that the chimney is supported on its own footing, not by the framework of the house. Check to see that the damper in the fireplace is operating. If a damper does not exist, one must be added to prevent heat loss.

Flooring

Look for buckling and cupping of boards in wood flooring. Also take note if the boards are separated. Refinishing the floor may be possible, if it is generally in good condition, but you’ll first need to make sure the floor is thick enough to be sanded. Flooring cannot handle being sanded more than two to three times. Tile floors should be examined for loose tile, cracks, broken corners and chipped edges.

Walls

Most walls are covered in plaster, which almost always has some hairline cracks. Small cracks and holes can be patched, but you’ll need to apply a new wall covering if holes and cracks are large and numerous. If the walls have wall paper on them, check the thickness of the paper. There should not be more than two to three layers of wall paper. If there are, they’ll need to be removed before applying more.

Insulation

Old houses can be known to be drafty, but you can improve the comfort of the home by reducing air leakage. Weather stripping around doors and windows can do a lot to reduce air leakage. You’ll also want to check the attic to determine how much ceiling insulation is present. Wood-frame cavity walls and crawl spaces under floors also need to be fitted with insulation.

If you add insulation after the house was built and no vapor retarder is present, this can result in condensation in the wall cavities and attic. You can retrofit the house by installing vapor retarders or control indoor humidity by eliminating mechanical humidification. Also, be sure proper venting is present in the attic and crawl space.

Mechanical systems

Replacing mechanical systems can quickly become a huge cost, but new, modern systems will greatly add to the comfort and convenience of an old home. Start by assessing several faucets for water flow. Inspect pipes to be sure the service is large enough. If the house has its own water system, check the gage on the pressure tank. It should read a minimum of 20, but preferably 40 to 50, pounds. Test the water in a private well for purity. You’ll want to replace plumbing fixtures that are rust stained. Run the water for several minutes to check for clogged drain lines between the house and the sewer main.

The only way to see if the heating system is adequate is through use.

Many old houses do not have adequate wiring to accommodate modern electrical appliances. The service should be at least 100 amperes for a three bedroom home, with 200 amperes recommended for a larger home or if air conditioning is added. Examine electrical wiring wherever possible, looking for rust and deteriorating wiring or cable insulation.

After examining all of these components, you’ll want to determine if the cost of buying and renovating the house exceeds the fair market value of houses in the area. It is a sound investment if it does not. If during your inspection, you have found any of the following to be true, this should be considered reason enough to reject the house:

  1. The foundation is unrepairable.
  2. The entire frame of the house is out of square, generally decayed or termite infested.
  3. Numerous components must be replaced, or the number of repairs and replacements is copious.

This information should help you determine the soundness of buying and renovating the property. Hiring experts to examine the property and offer their advice is highly recommended. They can often see issues that you might miss, can determine the cause of a problem and can estimate the cost of repair or replacement.

This information is a summary of “Renovate an Old House?” by Gerald E. Sherwood, Forest Product Laboratory, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. For more in depth information about any of the topics covered, consult the full book.

 This information is a summary of “Renovate an Old House?” by Gerald E. Sherwood, Forest Product Laboratory, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. For more in depth information about any of the topics covered, consult the full book.