9 steps to take if you bought an older home.


By Vanessa Wolf

An older home comes with its own unique charm and challenges. Whether you're dealing with vintage architecture or a property with a rich history, understanding how to properly maintain, repair, and renovate your old house is crucial. 

In this guide, we'll explore 9 essential tips to help you navigate the nuances of older homes, from immediate tasks to long-term maintenance and ambitious renovation projects.

1. Learn your home’s history.

historic home with green lawn and treesIf you bought a home that’s 20, 30, 40, or 50+ years old, it’s worth digging into its history as much as you can. Not only might you find this information incredibly fascinating, but it can help you learn important tidbits that can help you take care of it and stay safe. 

For example, you might want to know if your home has ever experienced a fire or gas leak. Or, has it undergone major renovations, remodeling, demolition, or additions?

Here are some ways you can learn more about your home:

  • Ask your realtor.
  • Contact your local assessor's office.
  • Visit your local library.
  • Check out the Census Bureau website. 
  • Talk to your neighbors and other residents. 

2. Inspect the foundation.

horizontal crack in foundationThe foundation is the backbone of your home, playing a pivotal role in the integrity of the entire structure. As homes age, foundation issues may emerge, ranging from minor settling to more significant concerns like cracks or shifts. Understanding the importance of a robust foundation and proactively addressing any signs of distress are critical factors when dealing with an older home.

Your first step: inspection. Keep an eye out for visible cracks in your exterior and interior walls, uneven floors, or sticking doors and windows, which can be potential indicators of foundation problems. Early detection allows for timely intervention, preventing minor issues from escalating into major structural concerns.

If foundation issues have already come to light, it’s critical to seek professional assistance. Foundation repairs are specialized tasks that require expertise in structural engineering. Experienced contractors can assess the extent of the damage, recommend appropriate solutions, and execute repairs to restore the foundation's stability. 

3. Consider waterproofing the basement.

installing sump pump in basementFor older homes with a basement, waterproofing becomes a critical aspect of foundation care as well. Damp or wet basements can lead to mold growth, compromise the foundation's integrity, and negatively impact the habitability of the home. 

Employing professional waterproofing measures — including sealing cracks and installing effective drainage systems — safeguards against water infiltration, basement flooding, and foundation issues.

Related: What do I do if my house floods? How to prepare and repair.

4. Check for potential health hazards (especially asbestos and mold).

up close look of asbestosIn older homes, the presence of health hazards (like asbestos in popcorn ceilings) underscores the importance of a vigilant and proactive approach to ensure a safe living environment. 

Asbestos, once a common construction material for its fire-resistant properties, is now known to pose severe health risks when its fibers become airborne. Hiring a professional to conduct thorough asbestos testing is crucial, especially during renovations or repairs where disturbances can release these harmful fibers. 

To amplify these asbestos concerns, the prevalence of popcorn ceilings in older homes introduces another variation of this potential health hazard. Popcorn ceilings, popular from 1945 through the early 1980s, often contain asbestos fibers, making testing a critical step there as well. 

In addition, mold and mildew represent common health threats, particularly in damp areas like basements and bathrooms. A proactive stance involves regular inspections, prompt identification of mold issues, and swift remediation. Mold exposure can lead to respiratory problems and other health issues, emphasizing the importance of addressing these concerns promptly.

Related: Watch out for these 11 safety and health hazards at home.

5. Evaluate the roof and gutters for repairs.

old roof with broken guttersWhen it comes to maintaining and renovating an older home, your roof and gutter systems serve as the first line of defense against the elements. Addressing the unique challenges associated with older roofs and gutters is essential for ensuring their functionality and longevity.

The first consideration for homeowners of older houses is the material and condition of the roof. As roofs age, shingles may deteriorate, flashing may become compromised and vulnerabilities may emerge. Regular inspections, especially after severe weather events, can help identify potential issues. If missing or damaged shingles are detected, prompt replacement is advisable to prevent water infiltration and subsequent damage to the home's interior.

Gutters, often an overlooked but integral part of the roofing system, require careful attention. Clogged or damaged gutters can lead to water overflow, causing water to pool around the foundation, which can compromise its stability. 

Regular gutter cleaning is essential, especially if your home is surrounded by heavy foliage. Additionally, consider installing gutter guards to minimize debris accumulation and reduce the frequency of required maintenance.

For older homes, particularly those with historic or unique roofing materials, it's essential to hire experienced roofers and gutter cleaning professionals. The preservation or restoration of historic roofing elements may require specialized knowledge to maintain the home's original character while ensuring optimal functionality.

Related: 13 best roof maintenance tips for homeowners.

6. Upgrade the plumbing and electrical systems.

rusty metal pipe, old plumbing systemIn older homes, the electrical and plumbing often require refurbishing to meet modern safety standards. Outdated wiring and plumbing can pose serious risks, from electrical fires to water damage, making it critical for homeowners to prioritize safety when maintaining or renovating these essential systems.

One of the primary concerns in older homes is outdated electrical wiring. Aging wiring systems may not be equipped to handle the demands of modern appliances and electronics, leading to overloaded circuits and potential fire hazards. Upgrading the electrical panel and wiring to meet current safety codes is a prudent step and may even be required for code. An electrician can assess your system’s condition, identify potential issues, and recommend necessary upgrades. 

Similarly, plumbing systems in older homes may be susceptible to issues such as leaks and corrosion. Or, they may have been constructed of outdated materials like lead pipes. Regular inspections can help identify plumbing vulnerabilities, allowing homeowners to address concerns before they escalate. Upgrading plumbing fixtures, replacing old pipes, and installing modern, water-efficient appliances contribute not only to safety but also to improved water conservation.

When undertaking electrical and plumbing upgrades, homeowners should work with licensed professionals to ensure compliance with local building codes and regulations. DIY approaches to electrical or plumbing work can lead to safety hazards and may not align with the necessary standards. 

Related: When to skip DIY and hire a pro instead.

7. Improve your home’s insulation and ventilation.

pro installing new insulation in wallMany older homes lack adequate insulation, leading to energy loss and temperature inconsistencies. Addressing insulation and ventilation issues not only enhances comfort but also contributes to sustainable and cost-effective living.

Begin by taking stock of the insulation levels in key areas such as the attic, walls, and floors. Inadequate insulation allows heat to escape during the winter and infiltrate during the summer, impacting both comfort and energy bills. 

Upgrading insulation materials and adding layers where necessary can significantly improve the home's thermal performance. Consider consulting insulation specialists to determine the most suitable insulation type and thickness for optimal energy efficiency.

Ventilation is equally important, especially in older homes where outdated or insufficient ventilation systems may compromise indoor air quality. Poor ventilation can contribute to issues like excess humidity, which may lead to mold growth and affect respiratory health.

Installing or upgrading ventilation systems, such as exhaust fans and air exchange units, can help you maintain a healthy indoor environment by promoting proper air circulation and reducing pollutants.

8. Look for signs of rodents and other pests.

signs of pestsAs structures age, they might develop vulnerabilities that create inviting entry points for unwanted critters. To preserve the integrity of your living space and prevent potential infestations, it's crucial to proactively address and seal these access areas.

Begin by conducting a thorough inspection of the exterior and interior of your home. Look for any gaps, cracks, or openings that could serve as entryways for rodents, insects, or other pests. Common entry points include gaps around doors and windows, openings in the foundation, and cracks in walls or siding. Additionally, inspect the roof and attic for any vulnerabilities that may allow pests to infiltrate.

Once identified, promptly seal these areas using appropriate materials. For small gaps or cracks, use weather-resistant caulk or sealant. Larger openings may require the use of wire mesh, steel wool, or foam insulation. Pay special attention to areas where utility lines enter the home, as these are often overlooked but can provide easy access for pests.

Also, incorporate landscaping practices that discourage pests from approaching your home. Trim overhanging branches, maintain a clear perimeter around the foundation, and keep outdoor spaces free of debris. These measures create a less hospitable environment for pests and contribute to a well-maintained and pest-resistant home.

You can also hire a pest control service to perform a comprehensive inspection and treatment plan. They can identify specific vulnerabilities, provide targeted solutions, and offer ongoing maintenance to prevent recurring issues. Implementing these proactive measures not only protects your home but also safeguards the health and well-being of its occupants.

Related: 7 signs pests are hiding in your home.

9. Find out if you have heritage trees in your yard.

big oak trees in front of historic colonial home

Heritage trees are unique, big, and (often) have historical value. If you have an older home with a yard full of large, beautiful trees, find out if your city or county considers it a heritage tree. 

In some jurisdictions, you’re not allowed to cut or remove a heritage tree unless you get a permit, or unless the tree poses a safety risk or is unhealthy. So, before you dive into a major landscaping project that will involve tree removal, check with your city (or a local tree arborist) to find out if any of the trees are classified as heritage trees. 

Related: How to negotiate tree removal (and save money).

Find pros to care for your older home.

With rare exceptions, renovating and maintaining an older home demands specialized expertise. Thumbtack connects you with experienced professionals and home renovation companies tailored to your specific needs. 

From skilled plumbers and electricians to seasoned contractors, hiring the right pros ensures your home receives the care it deserves. Leverage the convenience of the Thumbtack app to assemble a reliable team for your home improvement projects.

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