Thursday, December 24, 2009

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'!

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