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Buying an Old House: Our List of Top 10 Considerations

Within two hours of looking at a 73-year-old farm house, we made the decision to buy it. Crazy? Our family and friends initially thought we were.  Our real estate agent was floored, too.  What sounded insane to others made perfect sense to us, as we'd been looking for the right house for a number of years. Over time, we had developed a list of requirements and considerations that, in the end, helped us know when we'd found the right one.  Believe it or not, we made an offer on this little gem over the phone on the drive back home, not wanting to give anyone else the chance to snag it from us.  We knew it was a real fixer-upper, but the house had a lot going for it, and we were prepared for what we were getting into.  Below is our list of considerations when buying an old house.

Choosing the Right Location

First of all, we wanted to make sure we were conducting our search in a community where we wanted to live.  That meant becoming familiar with the town, spending time there, learning about the schools, public library, parks, and other amenities of the area.

We also took a drive around the neighborhood and waved at neighbors.  Do people seem friendly? Do the other houses look cared for?  Can we imagine riding our bikes on these roads and going for walks?  We even chatted with a few neighbors who happened to be outside.

As paranoid as I am, another consideration related to location is whether the house is in any hazard zones.  Floodplains, tsunami zones, cliff erosion, and the like scares me, not only for my family's safety but also because these are issues you usually can't insure against, or if you could it would likely be too costly to do so.

Street Appeal

The exterior charm immediately drew us in.
Considering a home's street appeal is important, not only for your own enjoyment of the house, but also for it's resale value later on.  How appealing is the home from the exterior?

As we approached the house, we also needed to consider where it sat on the land.  When buying an old house, it seems like many older homes end up too close to the road, as the surrounding land has been subdivided and roads widened over time.  Being too close to the road is an issue for street noise, privacy and pets.  Our cats sometimes get loose, and it would be devastating if one of them were run over.  Funny, deciding not to buy a house because of a cat, but there it is.  We passed up dozens of charming houses for this very reason.

The old house sits in the middle of 2.5 acres.


The square footage of the space isn't the only issue to think about when it comes to a home's size. What is the overall feeling of space in the rooms?  Are the ceilings high enough? How big are the doorways?  How many bedrooms and bathrooms, and what types of other rooms are there?  If a room is too small, is it possible to change it by removing a wall? Many older homes have smaller rooms, so it's really important to think this through.

Floor Plan 

A few odd transitions upstairs, but we don't mind.
Most of the older homes we've looked at have been added onto, some multiple times. The end result can be a house with strange transitions and odd spaces. For some people, an odd layout is interesting - maybe even charming - but for others it is a challenge. If you need to sell the house later on, an odd floor plan can make it more difficult and lengthen the amount of time it's on the market.

If you want to change the floor plan in some way, how much cost is involved in the remodel? This is definitely something to think about when buying an old house.

Water and Sewer

Does it have a well and septic or is it on public water and sewer? All of these options are acceptable for most people, but it's good to know going in.  The condition of a well and septic tank must be considered due to the cost of replacement.

If there is a septic tank, where is the drain field located? If the drain field fails, is there room to put in a backup field? We've come across homes that don't have enough room for a backup drain field, and that is highly problematic as it means that system failure would result in having to connect to sewer. Is there a public sewer system nearby? If so, how far away is it and how much would it cost to do so?  


Updating old wiring is an enormous undertaking.  Before buying an old house, be sure to examine the power panel to assess the age of the electrical system and to gauge whether there is capacity for adding anything more. You never know what you might want to add to the house later on.

Wiring for cable, internet and phone is also important. We usually ask our real estate agent about the service providers in the area, and consider whether the service will be adequate to meet our needs.

Heating & Air Conditioning

There are many different ways to heat homes today.  Regardless of the type of heating system, its age and condition need to be examined, as replacement can be very costly.  We've also found that certain types of heating can scare off buyers, depending on where you live.  For example, in my neck of the woods, oil furnaces terrify many people. And, if it had oil at some time, find out whether it was decommissioned properly.  If it wasn't and the tank has leaked, it could mean hefty clean-up fees. This is definitely something to look into before buying an old house.

Depending on where you live, air conditioning can be a desirable feature in a home. The age of the unit and its condition should be inspected.

Overall Condition of the House

Is the structure sound?  We always look for the scary signs of a home's condition, such as roof leaks, water damage, mold and mildew, weak floors and cracked foundations. When it rains, where does the water run off to? If there are any low points next to the house where water could collect, it poses a problem for flooding. As developments have cropped up around an older house and the land has changed, it's possible that there could be flooded areas around the house at certain times of the year.  Look for telltale signs like cattails growing in lower points on the land.

Charming path to front door -- yep, house needs paint.
Also important is finding out if the house has any asbestos or lead paint.  Both have special handling considerations for removal.  With asbestos, there is also the discussion of whether it should even be removed - some believe that if it's in good condition, it could be left in place and managed.  I'm not sure how I feel on that matter; regardless, the cost of removal should be factored into the plan.

Some of the big ticket items when looking at a home's condition are the roof, windows, and flooring.

Kitchen and bathroom updates are usually based more on the owner's preferences for style than for whether they are functional, but if these rooms are really outdated they may need to go on the list.

Once we've finished our list of required updates, we start assigning estimated costs for each.  Then we think about the timeline.  What would need to be done before we can move in, and what can be updated later, over time, as we can afford it?  All of this boils down to the realization of whether or not we can even afford buying an old house.

Making the Offer

Living room looks out to the barn.
While we knew there were definitely many issues and updates that have to be addressed in order to make our home livable, our 73-year-old cape cod farm ended up being a unified, solid "Yes!"

We didn't take the leap without putting precautionary measures in place, however.  We always make a house offer contingent upon an inspection, and in this case we also added in a feasibility study.  The feasibility study allowed us the opportunity to review whether there were any restrictions against using the land for a micro-farm. Composing our offer in this way made it more comfortable for us to get an offer in quickly, as the inspection and feasibility study would provide some time time to make sure we knew what we were buying.

Our Theory on House Buying: When It's Meant to Be...

Do you also subscribe to this theory? If it's meant to be, the house will be ours. If it falls through, then it wasn't meant to be.

We've always felt this way, and everyone we talk to about house hunting has agreed.  A home is a big investment. It's a shelter and a haven for family and friends, where we go to at the end of the day, and where most of us look to for a sense of peace and contentment. It's important to find the right one, and if everything falls into place, then it was meant to be. This is why we pay attention to our gut instincts all the way through, and act accordingly.