Problems with Older Homes

Eight Common Major Hazards (cost items) to look out for when buying an older home.


Radon is a naturally occurring gas that has been identified as the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. It usually enters the home through cracks in the foundation.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one in 15 homes in the United States has a high level of radon.

“Options might be as simple as sealing the basement floor and installing ventilation or as costly as tearing up the floor and pipes and redoing it,” says Gehman.

The costs to deal with radon range from $400 to $500 if you only seal the basement floor; $1,000 to seal and install a vent pipe up the exterior of the house; or as much as $5,000 to $6,000 for a new foundation and plumbing.

Cracked foundation

In addition to admitting radon, a cracked foundation left unaddressed can be a prescription for disaster. Common foundation materials used back then, such as cement and cinder blocks, crack and leak over time, especially if they weren’t sealed on the exterior side, which also was common in those days. Water seepage can lead to both structural threats (rot and termites) and health issues (mold and mildew).

“There are numerous sealants that can be applied on the inside of the block, but if there is a lot of hydrostatic pressure from the outside, it can just peel it off. Then you would need to do some sort of an interior drain on the inside of the foundation walls and pipe that into a sump pump pit and discharge it,” says Gehman.

An easy external tip: Make sure downspouts are draining water away from the foundation. Raised beds and extended runoffs might save you thousands in foundation repairs.

Lead pipes

Even after lead pipes were replaced in the late 1940s, the earliest galvanized steel pipes still contained lead until it was changed over to zinc. Lead also was present in much of the solder used to join copper pipes as recently as the mid-1980s.

The easiest way to take care of lead in water pipes is with a filtration system. A kitchen system would run $500; a whole house system around $2,000.

It could cost upwards of $5,000 to replace all pipes in the house depending on how much of the structure has to be destroyed to get the old pipes out.

Lead-based paint

Lead-based paint is a tricky issue in a vintage home. In its solid form, whether on interior or exterior surfaces, it is not harmful unless ingested, such as by an infant chewing a sill. In all likelihood, the interior paint has already been painted over several times and is well encapsulated in a Latex-based product.

But when it peels or flakes off of exterior siding, particles can become airborne or drop into soil where children or pets might ingest them or they could contaminate a vegetable garden. As a result, contractors typically prefer to remove exterior siding altogether rather than sandblast or attempt to strip layers of paint that could contain lead.

To remove and replace siding, get ready to shell out between $12,000 and $15,000.


This household hazard was most commonly used to insulate furnaces and boilers, as well as the water pipes leading to radiators. It also was commonly used in vinyl floor coverings, a cement-and-fiber siding called transite, and in a similar composite roofing material.

The health threat (asbestosis) comes primarily from the softer “friable” form found in insulation; when you touch it with your finger, it sends up a small puff of toxic dust. Remodelers won’t, and legally can’t, touch the stuff without a permit.

“Some of it is still safe and some of it isn’t,” says Tyson. “Anytime you see a white cloth covering ductwork, you’ve got to assume that that’s asbestos, and you need to bring in a licensed professional to remove it.”

Interior repairs generally will run you between $500 and $1,000. The exact cost depends on the type and extent of the work required:

  • $8 to $16 per linear foot for pipes and ductwork;
  • $7 to $14 a square foot for wall and ceiling plaster; and
  • $1 to $3 per square foot for floor covering.

The rule on exterior asbestos is let it be.

“It’s a good insulator and moisture barrier, and because it’s non-friable, chances of an asbestos particle flying free are pretty slim,” says Gehman. “If it’s in good shape, just leave it there.”

If you must redo the outside because of exposed asbestos, the cost will be $12,000 to $15,000 to remove and replace siding.

Grounded outlets

Electrical wiring in older homes differs from modern wiring in several respects.

The electrical box of yore was typically 60 or 100 amps. Today’s standard is 200 amps.

Wiring was typically not grounded. You have a visual clue here: two prongs on the outlets instead of three.

And parts of the older home where water is available (bathrooms and kitchen) were not fitted with a ground fault interrupter (GFI) circuit or outlet, which cuts off power immediately if an appliance comes in contact with water. Today, GFI also is required in at least one outlet in the garage because of the potential for water from vehicles and weather.

Rewiring your old house can be done room by room or all at once. In homes where behind-the-wall wiring is not practical, a good alternative may be concealing the new wiring behind the baseboards.

A single GFI outlet can cost as little as $75. The cost to rewire a kitchen so every appliance has its own circuit runs from $750 to $1,500. And if you have to rewire the entire house, expect to spend from $7,000 to $10,000.

Oil tanks

This was a common heating fuel source for many older homes. Most states require contractors to obtain a special environmental permit before removing buried heating oil tanks. Samples must be taken from the soil around the tank to assess contamination.

Disposal guidelines vary. In Pennsylvania, Gehman says tanks are usually taken to a scrap metal yard where an acetylene torch is used to cut the tank in half, thereby igniting (and burning off) any remaining oil, while in North Carolina, tanks must be taken to a tank farm. Filling tanks with sand or rock may be an alternative.

If your old fuel oil tank didn’t leak, it will cost around $2,500 to dispose of it.

Wells, cesspools and septic tanks

Many vintage properties long ago converted to public sewer systems, leaving unused wells, cesspools and septic tanks on the property.

When a remodeling contractor unearths one of these surprises, the solutions vary, from draining the contents to filling it in some manner. If building is planned over the area, an old septic tank may have to be removed.

It costs around $1,200 to $1,500 to fill a septic tank, $2,000 to remove it.

Regardless of the type of hidden hazard that might lurk within “This Old House,” don’t count on your home inspector to pick up the cost of fixing surprise problems.

Home inspectors have a clause in their contracts called concealed conditions. While it is possible to inspect the inside, outside and even crawl in the attic and underneath the house, they don’t have X-ray vision and will exclude liability for concealed problems.

Adapted from an article by Tyson and Dennis Gehman of Gehman Custom Builders in Harleysville, Pa. and reproduced for information only.
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