Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Effects of Light

I was walking past the second parlor a few days ago and saw this going on.  The sun was at the perfect angle to shine through the stained glass transom and onto the peacocks.  While you can see some of the band of blue and gold filtered through the glass in the picture, it's really cool in person.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Restoration of a Queen-Restoring & Refinishing Stairs

In my last house, the stairs to the basement were painted black by a previous owner.  I found it hard to tell where each step was, so decided to paint them in a lighter color for the sake of safety.

The problem was, my office and the laundry room were in the basement.  These were areas I needed to use all day, every day.  So, how do you work on a set of stairs while still being able to use them?

The answer is:  skip every other step.

Of course this only really works if you have legs that are long enough to step over the wet steps and probably wouldn't work for homes with small children.  Using the handrail helps for those of us that are fairly short.

Fortunately, we have two sets of stairs in this house, but if I were going to work the only staircase in the house (and all the bedrooms, etc. were upstairs), this is how I would go about it since it allows for a smooth finish across the entire surface of each tread and riser with no lap-marks.

Stripping treads and risers can be done half and half if needed-meaning, the left half or right half of the staircase so that you can use at least half of it during the prep process which is the time-consuming part of the project.  It's better to work the entire length of a riser or tread at the same time for the sake of color continuity.  When you work with strippers and such, your method-or rather the amount of time the stripper sets on the surface being stripped-may vary from one day to the next and sometimes this shows up as a change in the coloration of the wood (ie. the section that was worked one day may show a darker edge than the section you worked the next) when finished.  This is just an observation from my own years of painting and finishing.  So, it's better to strip on entire length of surface at once-if possible.

Either way you chose to strip them, start at the top so that and dripping stripper runs down onto an unstripped surface below.  Not only can you use the run-off to start removing the finish below, this method also keeps stripper from dribbling onto a raw wood surface-one cause for the color irregularities I mentioned above.  

Once you have a section stripped, wipe it down good with mineral spirits.  The mineral spirits neutralizes the stripper and if there is residue from the stripper on the wood, the spirits will cause it to ball up and it can be easily removed with a broom or vacuum cleaner.  Wipe with the spirits until no more residue comes off the surface.  Those blue shop cloths they sell at the big box stores work good for this as they're pretty durable and don't leave behind a lot of lint, etc.

Strip all of the treads and risers before moving on to the sanding process.  In a household that wears shoes all the time, you'll want to cover the stripped treads so that dirt and shoe prints don't get ground or pressed into the raw wood.  Heavy craft paper (sold pretty cheap by the roll at the big box store) comes in handy as it isn't slippery like plastic and is safer.  If you tape it in place, try not to tape it to the raw wood as the tape will likely leave behind a whisper of a residue that will need to come off.  Old towels will work just as well and without the tape residue.

Once everything is stripped, move on to the sanding process.  I like to use an orbital sander attached to the vacuum cleaner hose for this since sanding indoors is such a nasty business.  There will still be dust, but not as much as sanding with only the bag on the sander.  Every little bit helps.  After sanding, vacuum and wipe it all down with mineral spirits again.

When you're ready to start finishing, consider each tread and the riser above it as a set, working the riser first, tread second. 
While the bottom of your shoe will come into contact with the tread, the toe of your shoe is likely to come into contact with the riser above that tread.  That's why you want to work them together as a set.  You'll also want to do the entire staircase, (skipping every other set) in the same working time.  It's mentally easier-and safer-to maneuver an entire set of stairs when the rhythm is consistent than when it is not, i.e. step-skip-step-skip-step-skip vs. step-step-skip-step-skip-step-step-which becomes a trip hazard just from the confusion of it.  (I hope that made sense.)

It's easiest to do this task when the house will be empty for several hours-like while everyone is at work or school-as it gives the finish time to start drying while there is the least amount of  activity.  After everyone else has gone to bed works out pretty well too.

Put old folded towels that are easy to see on the treads that aren't wet.  Leaving something visual like that helps serve as a reminder of where to step.  I usually put some other obstruction at the bottom and top of the stairs to also serve as a reminder that there is work in progress in that area and to use caution.

Although there will be no one stepping on the wet treads, the nose of the treads will also be wet.  Since they protrude over the riser of the treads that are in use, they are vulnerable to being bumped by a toe on the way up and by the back of a pant leg on the way down-especially since you're having to jump over a step to get to the next one and will be descending at a greater angle than usual.

In my experience, the first coat of finish normally takes the longest to dry.  If you can keep from stepping on that coat until it dries, it's pretty much all downhill from there.  Fortunately, even oil based products (which are the only thing we use on wood surfaces) generally dry to touch in less than a work day, so the inconvenience isn't long-lasting.  Subsequent coats generally dry in a couple of hours in our climate.

When the first set of finished risers and treads have cured enough to handle normal household foot traffic, (usually a couple of days after the last coat of finish has been applied) move the towels to those steps and proceed in the same manner as before on the skipped risers and treads.  At this point, I'd avoid the craft paper on the finished treads as it may scratch your newly finished surface.  I'd also avoid anything rubber backed as it may also make marks in the fresh finish.  Something soft without a lumpy texture and preferably cotton, is nicest.  If you do use towels, be sure to also use the handrail as towels on that slick new surface can be slippery.  If the finished treads are well-cured, you should be able to use tape on them for added safety if you want to tape the towels to the finished treads-or if you want to just use the tape as the reminder that will work too.  Even though I haven't tried it, I'm thinking a smooth textured carpet pad might work great.  Should have thought of that in the first place!

Repeat the process on the remaining stairs.  Nothing to it, huh?

 If you are going to use a high gloss on the stair treads, be aware that they can be very slippery.  Once the treads are cured, wash them with a mild dish detergent and water to help knock down the slickness.  Don't ask me why, (and I suspect it's possibly the lime and minerals in the water) but it seems to help-a little.

Anyway, that's how I'd go about it and I'd have to have that high gloss shine like the ones in the examples as it really highlights the grain, movement, and color of the wood.  Aren't these beautiful?

(Original photo from

I probably should add that if there is a landing,you can either work it with the stairs or separately.  Either way, you'll have to work it half at a time, following the length of the boards.  Leave yourself enough room to be able to turn the corner of the stairs at the newel post when you work your first half without stepping into the wet.

If you'll be working the landing at the same time as the stairs, you'll want to plan out the pattern for working the stairs that includes a comfortable transition from the stairs to the landing.

In the example, working the stairs marked with 1 and the 1st half of the landing at the same time will keep anyone using the stairs from needing to be able to do acrobatic splits to get from the dry step to the dry part of the landing.  Use the arrows as a guide to traffic flow.  Make sense? 

Sunday, December 27, 2009

It's the Little Things...

that just drive ya nuts!

Donnie was working in the library and I was bored with doing prep work for tax time and tired of seeing this ugly little mess on the floor where the previous owners had a stove when they used this room as their "den".  It's been bugging me for 3 years and today I decided that mess was coming off since I didn't have anything else fun or interesting to do.

Under the stove, they had installed some brick veneer and had glued it to the hardwood floor.  When we took the stove out (because it got in the way of where we wanted to put furniture and we want to put a fireplace there one day) we pulled up the brick under it.  The good news was that it came off easily.  The bad news is that they used what looks like carpet adhesive-I think they loved the stuff or there was a huge sale on it somewhere.

So, today was the day that lumpy discolored nonsense came off the floor.  It will look like there has been something done there, but at least it will look-and actually BE clean and cleanable.  Woo Hoo! 

So, here's where today's little project started...creeeepy.

The tools of the day-1 heat gun and one putty knife.

I took a couple of hours so get it all off given that I took a few breaks and wasn't in a hurry.  When I de-funkified the half bath under the stairs, I learned about how well the heat gun works on that adhesive.  Apparently, someone had used it to apply mirror squares to the beadboard wall behind the toilet.  At some point the mirror had been removed and they just wallpapered over the lumpy adhesive and sections of broken glass.  They called it renovated, but I beg to differ.  Anyway, the heat gun worked wonders for getting the adhesive off the wall-as well as the broken glass, so I used the same method on the floor.

Since the removed stove was gas, there was a capped gas pipe right in the middle of what needed to be worked on and I was afraid of what might happen if I got close to it with the heat gun.  Using a little improvisation, I wrapped the pipe in a wet paper towel then covered it with aluminum foil to reduce the heat to the pipe.  Of course as an extra precaution, I kept a fire extinguisher handy, pin removed and ready-not that it would really do more than sneeze at a leaking gas pipe explosion, but ya do what ya can and hope for the best.

All went well and I managed not to blow anything up.  So, here we have one nasty section of floor stripped and rubbed over with mineral spirits and ready to go.

Fortunately, I was able to manage to shake enough tung oil out of the empty can to put a thin coat on it.  You can still see where the tampering was done, but at least it's CLEAN and won't try to rip the legs off the furniture if you scoot something across it.  Bonus!

A word of warning though.  The fumes created by heating that adhesive are possibly toxic-just something you may want to consider if you're thinking about using this method-and if the fumes don't kill you, the smell just might.  The stuff stinks!  (Think burning tennis shoes)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Where Did My Kittens Go?

 Baby Callie

Christmas Callie

Baby Duncan

Christmas Duncan

The Potted Cat

They're both probably about 8 months old now.  Can you believe it?  They're monsters-but they're SO sweet! 

Restoration of a Queen-Choosing the Queen You Wish To Serve-Part VI

Not much left for a lay-person to look at besides peeking into closets, cubby holes, and under cabinets and such.  If there is a basement, check it out to see if you notice a water line up the wall where the basement floods, have a look at the foundation from the inside of the basement, and inspect the joists that are holding up the floor above.  You'll want to note whether there is a subfloor to the floor above.  If you can see daylight through the overhead floorboards, there is no subfloor.

If there are stairs, check that the railing is stable and that the stairs are properly attached to the wall.  The following example is from a wonderful house in our neighborhood that was recently demolished to make way for a parking lot.  While the stairs themselves were solid and didn't pose any danger, it was apparent that they were pulling away from the wall.  In this case, it was a sign that some structural issues beneath the wall needed to be addressed and was correctable, but still something that needed to be considered.

Another thing that I like to do is to give the floors a good stomping.  It usually makes the agent showing the house a little nervous, since many of them assume that because the house is old, you'll fall through.  Well, if I'm going to fall through, I want to know before I buy the place, not after!

The houses we look at have, for the most part, been vacant.  If you are stomping in a house that someone is currently living in, please  keep in mind that this may dislodge any valuables they have sitting around, be respectful and don't break their stuff.

Generally, I start in the middle of the floor where the span between the joists is most vulnerable, then jump and land solidly on both feet-not like a ballerina, that won't tell you anything, but more like an elephant which should bounce the floor surface.  If the floor bounces significantly and everything in the room rattles, you may want to have the cause investigated.  It doesn't necessarily mean foundation problems as construction methods changed during the Victorian era and the bounce may just be caused by a 24" spacing between the floor joists vs. the 16" that came later.  In our house, we have both.  The dining room (and the two bedrooms upstairs in the original house) has quite a bit of spring, but the room is large and the joists are single boards that spans over 17', are set at 24" and unsupported in the middle.  Things shake when you walk in there.  The newer part of the house doesn't spring like the dining room as they are set at 16" centers.  Since there are more of them per room, they provide more support.  Springy floors on the ground floor can be stabilized by blocking between the joists and adding piers to support the center of the floor.  Springy floors are not necessarily dangerous floors.

Off the top of my head, I can't think of anything else that needs to be checked out as far as condition.  This is mainly to get you started at looking at things and making observations so that you can make better decisions which is all a layman really needs to do.  When I look at houses, I generally take a legal pad, a couple of measuring devices, pencil (which will write in the cold and upside down if need be) and a digital camera.  Most digital cameras have video capability and I use this to walk through the house and property and talk about what I see so that I have more than just a written record of the place when I get home.  A few other useful items are a small screwdriver (to use to investigate the wood decay) and a utility knife.

Some observations I have made while looking at properties and accompanying friends who are looking at properties are that the first viewing of something that really grabs you is usually very emotionally exciting and not the best frame of mind for making important decisions.  Generally I go to get a feel for the house and make subsequent visits to collect information.  Multiple visits also give you a feel for the house and point out areas where function can be improved.  I also like to spend some time on a Friday or Saturday night to see what the neighborhood is like since the agent cannot reveal much of this information.

Once you've collected all your data you should have a good idea of whether this project is right for you, your skills, and level commitment which is different for everyone.  If you think the house is right for you, there are a few other things that would be wise to look into before making an offer.

Insurance-I've come across may insurance agencies that will not insure houses on the Historic Register, houses over 100 years old, houses with asbestos siding and the like.  You'll want to look into who will insure the house and factor in the cost.

Taxes-Get your tax information on the house.

Previous utility bills-some places will provide them readily, other places won't.  Due to lack of insulation, drafty doors and windows, knowing what the previous owners average consumption was can be helpful when considering the budget.

When you've found your perfect queen, it's a wise idea to include a home inspection clause in the offer.  There are so many things that need looking into with older homes and a licensed home inspector knows where to look for problems and can often offer solutions to correct any problems found.  I think they run in the ballpark of $400-$600 but can save you the anguish of finding out the problems with the house after you've already bought it.  Most reputable inspectors will give you a printed breakdown of their findings.  They will also crawl under the house and go into the attic.  If I don't have to crawl under the house, it's worth the cost.  Being inspectors, they are also likely to have a network of contractors that do the kind of work that needs to be done if you don't feel comfortable doing the work yourself.  While the cost of the inspection comes out of your pocket before closing and may not be something you want to spend, it can save you in the long run by not investing in a money pit.  In my opinion, it's money well-spent.

There are several things I assume when buying an old house.  First would be that everything is lead.  You can't really do much about lead before a purchase except make a personal decision about whether or not it is acceptable.  If it isn't, you'll probably want to look at new houses as almost everything that is original in an old house is lead based.  Can you deal with that?

Second would be that if the house has gas heat, the heat exchanger is probably cracked.  Every house I've ever owned had a cracked heat exchanger when I bought it.  If the unit is older, plan on replacing it.  Part of the inspection process can be to contact a reputable HVAC contractor and have the unit inspected.  In some areas, the home inspector will inspect the unit.  In others, they will not.  HVAC contractors will usually have a look at a unit for free since if it is bad, they'll be hoping for the sale of a new one and can give you an estimate of what a new one might cost.  This is useful information to have.

Termites-to my knowledge, termite inspections are required by the mortgage lender before securing the loan.  A clause in the contract that stipulates that the seller pay for termite treatment if termites are found is pretty common.

Plumbing inspections-you might want to have a reputable plumber come out and have a look at the existing plumbing.  Again, this is probably likely to be at no charge.  They will crawl under the house and inspect for proper ventilation, leaks and other irregularities.  You can also include in you contract that the seller be responsible for a certain dollar amount in repairs.  Have the plumber give you an estimate of the cost to repair any discrepancies.

Electrical inspection-same as the plumber.  Get estimates for the correction of anything that isn't right.

Even if you are buying a house "as is" and the seller will not be making any repairs, having these inspections done will  give you an better idea of what you will need to do once the house is yours, and approximately how much it might cost to correct them.  Going into a project informed beats learning by hindsight being 20/20.

Once all of these things are accomplished, you should have a pretty good idea if you're up to the task and if you have the financial resources to accomplish them even if it takes time.  If the answer to both are yes, CONGRATULATIONS!  Git packin'!

Restoration of a Queen-Choosing the Queen You Wish To Serve-Part V

Finally, we get to the fun part.  Other than the fantastic exterior elements that the Queen Anne often has, the interiors are my favorite part.  It's easy to become so enamored over the details that you overlook the function of the house.

Check sinks, faucets, toilets, dishwashers, tubs and showers, and water hook-ups in kitchens, baths, and laundry for water damage.  Discolored, soft, or oddly sloped flooring around these areas can be an indicator of current or previous leakage.  If evidence of leaking is found, try to determine whether or not the leaks are active and whether the damage is caused by inappropriate use, deferred maintenance, or undiscovered plumbing leaks.  These areas will impact the function of the house more than any other interior rooms.  They are also likely to be the most costly to repair.

Inspect ceilings, floors, and walls and if you can, try to determine the building materials of each.  In our area as I mentioned before, it is not uncommon for houses to have tongue and groove wood floors, walls, and ceilings.  Other old houses have plaster and lath walls and yet others that have been updated or repaired have drywall walls.  Since many older houses (especially the ones we look at that have been neglected or have been empty for years) often have wallpapered walls and a common home improvement preference is for painted walls, it's good to know what kind of material is behind the wallpaper.  I'll explain some of the pros and cons of each.

The nice thing about wood walls is that they stay put and don't crack under normal circumstances.  You can also nail into them easily and hang heavy pictures, etc. without fear of breaking the wall.  They hold up to water damage much better than plaster.  Old growth wood doesn't rot as quickly as the the wood we have available today, so it can take a lot of water before the damage sets in.  You can drill into them to insulate or drop runs for new electrical without a whole lot of mess and the holes are easy to plug with filler.  Wood walls were meant to be papered-as were most walls during this era and even later.  In their original state, you will find wood walls and often ceilings with a top layer of paper on top of a layer of cloth that is tacked or nailed to the wooden surface.  The cloth created a mesh-like surface so that the wallpaper glue had something to adhere to.  It also helped smooth out the transitions between each board to give the wall a smooth appearance.

If you are planning to wallpaper, wood walls won't cause much trouble since the patterns in wallpapers help mask irregularities in the wall surface.  If you are planning to paint the walls, you'll need to think hard before considering a house with wooden walls.  The look of painted wooden walls is an individual preference, but if you like the look of a smooth, flat surface, wood walls won't get you there without some effort as you'll either want to line them with a heavyweight liner paper (which requires priming the wood, applying the paper, then priming the paper before you can paint it) or replacing the wood with drywall.  While there is the option of installing a thin drywall over the wood walls, I've never seen a single example of this that didn't look shoddy and cause ugliness around doors, windows, and baseboards. 
In our area where old houses are the exception, plaster is the most common wall and ceiling material.  Plaster is generally a smooth hard surface, but since it was applied by hand in multiple layers, expect to find that it is not extremely flat like drywall. The waves in the surface are part of the charm.  The upside of plaster is that it is an easily paintable surface and generally has a hard finished face that is much harder than drywall.  It resists surface dings and bumps well.  The downside is that hanging pictures and heavy objects can be a challenge as the plaster often crumbles on impact with a nail and it's better to predrill your holes for less damage.  Another consideration it that the area between the lath isn't solid enough to hold screws or nails, so you need to hit lath when hanging.  Hammering a nail into plaster is a good way to break those necessary keys as the lath bounces in resistance to nailing.  Pre-drilling and using screws into the lath will hang light to medium weight objects with minimal damage.

As you can see in the picture, I am removing the plaster and lath on one of the walls in our dining room.  This wall suffered a lightning strike at the chimney and caused a lot of damage to the dining room side of the wall.  Upon inspection, we discovered that there were many areas of loose plaster as a result of broken "keys" (which are the sloppy looking parts that overlap the backside of the lath but are necessary for keeping the plaster attached to the wall.)

Check for cracks in plaster walls as sometimes these may indicate structural issues.  Because plaster is hard and has little give, the visible cracks may just be as a result of the house settling on the property and may have been there for decades or may indicate surface wall failure without being anything to be alarmed about.  If you tap the wall surface, the sound of solid plaster is different than the sound of plaster that is missing its keys. Plaster that is missing its keys will fall off the wall in time and who wants that?  This particular wall was missing most of its keys and was inappropriately patched and covered over with wallpaper.  We removed the plaster and concrete patches from this entire wall.  It's a gritty, messy job that will dry out your skin and hair. 

Raw plaster with old joint compound patches

The plaster that I have encountered has always had a hard white surface, however, the newer part of this house introduced us to a different type of plaster that does not have the smooth hard finish coat.  As a result of time, whatever hard coat it once had, if any, is long gone leaving a gritty, sandy surface behind the wallpaper that regularly creates little piles of sand on the floor.  Most of the house has this problem but is something that can be corrected without learning how to plaster but is messy tedious, and time-consuming.

An area where the plaster was deteriorating and sand kept coming out from behind the mantle.  When the mantle was removed, the whole wall behind it fell to the floor in a pile. 

In larger cities and in the north or where the housing stock is likely to be older houses that have been renovated or updated over the years, drywall is probably more prevalent than it is here.  Anyone that has lived in modern housing is familiar with drywall so there isn't much to be said on the subject that most people don't already know.  It's smooth and flat, easy to repair, not very costly to replace, and is readily available.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Restoration of a Queen-Choosing the Queen You Wish To Serve-Part IV

Now that you've had a look at some of the major areas, you can start looking at other things.  Before going into the house to start your inspection inside, take note of the type and condition of any exterior siding, wooden posts and other wooden elements, porch flooring, etc.  Stand at the each corner of the house and look down the house wall from top to bottom for bulges in the house walls.  Bowing or bulging walls can be in indicator of foundation issues or extensive water damage.

When I look at old properties,  I like to go after or during a significant amount of extended rain.  Viewing a property during or just after a good rain can reveal things that you can't see when it's dry.  You can get a good assessment of the land itself during a rain as you will be able to see how the water flows away from the house.  You can see the low points in the yard and see where the water tends to accumulate on the lawn.  If it stops raining while you're making your assessment, you can also determine how long it takes for the water to drain or be absorbed into the ground.  You will also be able to determine whether the gutters are doing their job and if standing water next to the house is a problem.

I made several visits to a property one time, the last after it had been raining for several days.  The entire yard was a swimming pool and was standing several inches deep around the foundation of the house and running under the house through the foundation vents.  After some investigation, I determined that its location on a corner lot and the height of the streets on both sides was causing the problem.  The runoff from both streets was being deposited directly into the yard.  The walk to the front door was standing in a foot of water and being lower than the street, there was nowhere for the water to go.  On previous visits I had noticed that the ground was damp and that the lawn was pretty much entirely mud and weeds, so I was curious as to the cause of the problem.  The house itself wasn't in great shape and since correcting the water problem would involve regrading the entire property, I decided it would be wise to move on.  So, even though it isn't nice to visit a place in the rain, it can be incredibly revealing both inside the house and out.

Many old houses have water spots on ceilings from roof leaks and sometimes its hard to tell if they are old leaks or if the roof is actively leaking.  Older leaks tend to be more heavily discolored than active leaking.  This ceiling is a good example of wallpaper falling due to an old leak.  Notice that the roof failure is around the chimney, the likely cause is improper flashing at the junction of roof and chimney.

This is an example of an active leak.  There is a fireplace directly below the large wet looking area against the back wall.  Again, the culprit is probably flashing at the chimney.  In the foreground, there is a large area around the ceiling fixture that is mildly discolored.  This is also caused by a leak somewhere but probably hasn't been leaking as long as the one above the fireplace because its color is more faint.  There was an upstairs dormer on this house and I suspect the flashing where the wall meets the roof is the cause of this issue.  If you notice, these areas actually look wet.

So, these are some of the reasons I like to visit a property after or during a lengthy period of rain as it helps separate old roof problems from the active ones.

The house that I am demonstrating was built in 1929.  In our area, it isn't all that uncommon for the older houses to be built with tongue and grove pine floors, walls, and ceilings and this house was a classic example.  Being made of solid wood components, deterioration is different than it is with plaster.  With the evidence of considerable water damage over a prolonged period, plaster would have deteriorated and chunks from the ceiling probably would have been on the floor.  Since this house was constructed in wood, rot, mold, and termite damage were major concerns.  This was a water damaged area next to a window and close enough to inspect, so I pulled back the wallpaper and cloth to have a good look at the condition of the wood wall and discovered no damage at all to the wall surface.  While most people are skeptical about wooden interiors and consider them undesirable because you can't just paint them and have a smooth wall, this is one area where they exceed the desirability of plaster.  It was actually a very good house although it did need a competent roofer. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Restoration of a Queen-Choosing the Queen You Wish To Serve-Part III

Plumbing comes next.  The reason I address plumbing after electrical is that if there is no heat source, you can't keep your pipes warm and the result can be burst pipes due to freezing.

If the water is on in the house, check pressure, look under the cabinets and see if there is evidence of active leaking, standing water, mildew, etc.  Inspect the handles and faucet to see if there is leaking when turned on.  Fill a sink and flush a toilet and see if the water runs out in a reasonable manner.  If slow, there may be problems in the sewer or septic line or the plumbing vent may be stopped up or missing entirely.

Take note of the type of water lines you see-whether they are plastic, galvanized, etc.  Galvanized pipe coming in as the main water line is pretty common in old houses and is probably very old.   Over time, deposits of lime, calcium and other minerals accumulate in the pipe and narrow the opening for water to flow through and can be the cause of insufficient water pressure.

One thing I like to check is number and location of outdoor spigots.  In older houses where fire can spread quickly due to the some of the construction methods used at the time, having water nearby is always one of my concerns.

Find out whether the house is on city sewer or has a septic tank.  The agent should be able to tell you or you can generally find this in the property records at the courthouse.  In our state, this information is available on-line.  Without doing a lot of digging around in the yard, it will be hard to tell the type and condition of the sewer lines that run underground.  Testing the indoor plumbing can give you a little bit of a hint whether or not things are in order.  Keep in mind, old houses often have their old clay plumbing underground unless someone has encountered a problem in the past and had it replaced.

We were told by the previous owner that the sewer lines had been replaced with code-compliant plastic.  It wasn't until the day of the annual Teapot Historic Tour of Homes when the sewage backed up and ran out under the house that there was a problem.  Of all things, the dining room smelled like sewage and we had no idea where it was coming from.  After some investigation, I discovered the mess under the house and called a plumber.  Yeah, the line was PVC to about 5 feet into the yard, then it was the original clay pipe all the way to the street that was misaligned, broken, crushed and just plain missing in a couple of places.  Replacing septic lines is always an experience and not necessarily a fun one-but imagine all the gossip around town about our stinking dining room!  Small towns gotta have something to talk about.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand, just have a look around and see what can be seen regarding the plumbing.  Sometimes, the water company will turn on the water for a day or a few hours so you can test the plumbing.  It doesn't hurt to ask.