Fall House Hunt

Fall House Hunt: What to expect when you buy an old house

Emily and Kevin Hoffman on the front porch of their Needham home with daughters Ruth and Mckenna. The house was built in 1914. Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

While Emily and Kevin Hoffman were working from home, they realized their home wasn’t working for them.

Last year, the couple and their 2-year-old daughter were cooped up in a 1,000-square-foot, two-family home in Boston’s West Roxbury neighborhood. The Hoffmans — she works in information technology and he’s a school administrator — felt as if the walls moved inward by an inch or so overnight.

So like countless other Americans, they moved away from the city to get more space for their money. Knowing that suburban tract homes were not for them, the Hoffmans chose a charming old house in Needham, paying just over the $1,365,000 list price — and waiving an inspection — to edge out other buyers. Just before another daughter was born in January, they moved in.


Built in 1914, the 3,000-square-foot New England Colonial-style house retains many of its original elements, like a built-in china cabinet, crown molding, hardwood floors, and creaky stairs (“I love that — even with two babies at home!’’ Emily Hoffman said.) But that old-house charm came with tradeoffs: knob-and-tube wiring and inadequate insulation.

A post-closing inspection helped the couple decide how to spend their $50,000 contingency fund. About $5,000 went toward replacing the old electrical wiring, and much of the rest paid for refinishing the floors, removing the popcorn ceilings, and making other aesthetic improvements.

“If you appreciate the character and charm of an older home, it takes a contingency fund and good contacts with tradespeople to make it work,’’ Hoffman noted.

The Hoffmans gave their kitchen a cosmetic update, adding new light fixtures, repainting, and refinishing the floors. – Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Many times, an old house — say, 100 years old or more — comes with a unique set of headaches involving the foundation, inadequate insulation, and sketchy electrical wiring. “When some of these old houses were built, there were no regulations at all, so things like the plumbing and electrical are antiquated,’’ said Fred Cowen, founder of Natick-based Cowen Associates Consulting Structural Engineers.

But don’t be afraid. With proper foresight, the help of experienced professionals, and a budget for contingencies, buyers can update and adapt old houses into a Version 2.0 that’s better and more beautiful than ever.


“I think there’s a subset of people who have a passion for owning an older home. It has a history, and they become stewards of the property,’’ said Dana Bull, a real estate agent with Sagan Harborside Sotheby’s International Realty. “It’s a totally different mind-set from someone buying a new construction.’’

As someone who has owned historic homes over the years, including one built in 1790, Bull encourages buyers to put aside $30,000 for upgrades. The agent has compiled a checklist of what potential buyers should look for when house hunting.

■ Is it in a historic district? If so, the required period-appropriate doors, windows, siding, and roofing typically cost more to maintain and replace.

■ Is the basement damp? Look for water and water damage, which could indicate foundation issues. Other red flags include visible cast-iron pipes, asbestos, termite damage, and ancient heating and cooling systems.

■ What kind of wiring is used throughout the house? Upgrading old knob-and-tube wiring and its successor, BX wiring, is not only safer, it likely will reduce homeowners’ insurance premiums.

 Is the house comfortable for modern living? Inadequate insulation means drafty rooms. A choppy floor plan and tiny kitchens both involve costly renovations.


Some of these issues are readily identified by an experienced home inspector. But deeper problems call for an assessment by a licensed structural engineer.

“I usually show up when a house inspector has written a report — putting a warning out when they think there’s a structural problem,’’ said Cowen, the structural engineer in Natick.

Much of his work involves faulty foundations. “In 100-year-old houses, they’re normally fieldstone-rubble walls, and they can fail for a number of reasons,’’ he explained. One is poor drainage around the house. “Water collects around the foundation, and in the wintertime—because many basements aren’t heated — very cold weather will cause water in the soil to turn to ice and push against the walls.’’ When the basement walls are bulging, the foundation has to be replaced, and the best way to do that is with a masonry wall, Cowen said. “It’s easier to get concrete blocks inside the basement than to pour concrete.’’

Cowen’s firm details the work that needs to be done, and the homeowners’ contractor should provide cost estimates upfront. Prices vary widely depending on the scope of the job. A small section could take $15,000, but serious problems can reach $100,000, Cowen said. But jobs typically range from $20,000 to $50,000, he said, adding that “the big problem today is getting people to do the work.’’

This three-bedroom circa 1730 Saltbox in Westborough underwent several improvements and had an accepted offer after only four days on the market. Robbi Rubenstein of RE/Max Executive Realty has it listed for $694,000. It sits on a quarter acre. – RE/Max Executive Realty

Contractor Nick Falkoff stresses the importance of drainage, even if the foundation is structurally sound. “If water is draining next to the building, we’ll put a French drain in,’’ said Falkoff, owner of Auburndale Builders in Newton. “Then we’ll seal the basement walls with new concrete and apply waterproof paint and/or a membrane.’’ If the space is prone to flooding, Falkoff will install battery- or generator-powered sump pumps that can run even when the power goes out.


His team can also tackle insulation deficiencies, ideally as part of a larger renovation. For example, if the exterior siding has to be replaced, the contractor recommended adding a 2- to 4-inch layer of foam and plywood underneath the new siding, a project that can add another $30,000 to $40,000 to the project, depending on the size of the house. In renovations of interior spaces, Falkoff recommended insulation both within wall cavities and over the wall studs themselves since they also conduct heat. This process increases the thickness of the walls by about an inch but can improve a wall’s energy efficiency by another 25 percent, Falkoff said. Insulating over the wall studs in a space that has been gutted costs roughly $800 per room, he estimated.

Before undertaking any project, check with MassSave to see whether you qualify for rebates and zero-percent-interest loans for energy-efficient improvements.

It’s important to note that many insurers forbid adding insulation around knob-and tube wiring, commonly used in homes built between 1880 and the 1940s, because it’s a potential fire hazard. Moreover, since this type of wiring isn’t grounded, it’s a safety threat in the event of a power surge, said Jesse Kuhlman, a licensed electrician at Kuhlman Electrical Services, which has offices in Lynn and Weymouth.

Again, replacing obsolete wiring is least expensive when it’s part of a larger renovation. Many homeowners see this as a good time to add electrical outlets and light fixtures, as well as upgrade the electrical panel. But even when the drywall or plaster remain standing, an electrician can cut small holes in the walls and fish new electrical wiring into place. Projects are typically priced per item, said Kuhlman, who estimated that completely rewiring a 2,500-square-foot house could cost roughly $15,000 to $25,000.


The effort and expense when upgrading an old home are worth it, Kuhlman said. “The design, the woodwork, they don’t build houses like that today,’’ he said. “I love the crown molding and curved staircases with cool banisters.’’

Located in the Central Massachusetts town of Hardwick, which borders the Quabbin Reservoir, the property has four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a big barn, and an accepted offer. Suzanne Moore of Real Living Realty Professionals has listed it for $339,500. – Driscoll Photography

Resources: You don’t have to go it alone

From the outside, the 1939 Tudor-style house in Brookline oozed charm and character. But on the inside, every scrap of architectural detail had been stripped away in a 1980s renovation. Nevertheless, one intrepid couple paid $3 million to buy the home and several million to bring it back to life.

“To preserve something old is the best thing you can do,’’ said Kati Curtis, a New York-based interior designer who, along with an architect, helped guide the restoration. But where to begin when so many of the home’s original elements are gone?

“There are historic catalogs. We have records and books. If we can find old plans and photos, we can replicate details from that,’’ Curtis said. “Sometimes it’s a best guess and we take architectural liberties’’ that are appropriate to the period.

Many buyers want to adapt their home to modern living while respecting its historic character. Here are some resources to help identify period-appropriate finishes, along with specialty companies and craftspeople who can make old homes look new again.

■ For details about a specific house, a good place to start is town hall. Emily Hoffman, who with her husband, Kevin, bought a 1914 house in Needham, visited the local building department to request historical documents related to their house and its permit history. “There was a trove of interesting stories in newspaper clippings,’’ she said. Documents also showed that an original owner had petitioned to build closer to the property line. “It explains why we’re very close to one of our neighbors,’’ she said. The Boston Public Library has an online guide to researching the history of houses throughout the Commonwealth.


■ Historic New England maintains an extensive collection and archive of architectural drawings, wallpapers, paint colors, and furnishings. “It’s a great resource to look at time periods or specific styles and possibly match a sample you may have,’’ said Leigh Schoberth, a senior preservation services manager who is based in Waltham. The nonprofit offers premium memberships, starting at $500 per year, that give homeowners personalized support and answers to old house questions.

■ Preservation Massachusetts maintains a directory of consultants, contractors, and tradespeople who specialize in historic homes throughout the region. (Note that it is a paid directory and not an “approved’’ list.)

■ The Institute of Classical Architecture & Art offers a broad range of educational materials, including books, lectures, walking tours, and trips to see classic architecture. Membership fees range from $45 to $5,000 per year.

■ Historic Wallpaper Specialties, a company that provides wallpaper-conservation services, maintains a list of resources for historic patterns, as well as decorative paint and plasterwork.

■ Mouldings One in Middlefield, Ohio, offers a virtual Museum of Historical Millwork that documents architectural styles across the country. It includes a catalog of millwork from a number of periods.

■ Massachusetts has two programs that offer rebates and loans for homeowners who want to add insulation and/or remove hazardous lead, which was used in paint before 1978 and plumbing before 1986.

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