My husband and I are looking to purchase a new home. Our first home was a townhome from the 80s. The town we are looking in has a lot of older homes. One in particular we are looking at is from 1890. The information on it says it is updated, but we have not been able to view the property yet (still waiting on logistics regarding our mortgage).

I work for a licensed structural engineer, and he will be doing the home inspection when/if the time comes. What are the issues to look for when doing a home inspection on a house this old? My husband and I don't want to put much money into the structure of the home, but are looking to at least up date the kitchen and yard.

Also, the bathroom has a high tank toilet, with a pull chain flush. I have 3 young boys and am kinda worried about that toilet. Is that an easy update?

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The structural engineer should be able to tell you if you have serious problems structurally.  In most cases if a house has been standing for 125 years and still looks pretty good, it doesn't have major structural problems, though.  If so, they often are related to remodeling damage, such as removing load bearing walls, studs etc. in order to open up rooms or to make additions or enclose porches.  More generally, the places where old house buyers get into money in a way that newer house buyers don't are roofs, paint, wiring and plumbing.  

Old houses often have complicated roof lines and/or traditional roofing materials.  So, roofing repair or replacement is more costly than a 1980s townhouse, and a cheap job will look bad.  

Exterior painting is again much trickier than a more modern house.  For example, old houses have many more windows to paint, and typically demand several colors to look right. Painting often creeps into thinking about new gutters, which are more costly to replace if they are or should be traditional 1/2 rounds. Porches are especially labor intensive, and when painting repairs often must be made if there are wood rot problems (perhaps related to roofing or guttering problems).  Artificial siding looks awful on a Victorian house, so if your inspector suggests that, then you know he knows little about old houses.  Similarly, don't be scared about the cost of replacement windows if that comes up during the inspection, because you shouldn't do that to an old house anyway.  Many people think that replacement windows are a necessary cost to "update" an old house, but if you search through this forum, you will find many a thread about the cost of trying to get rid of replacement windows and get old style ones.  That is expensive and often nearly impossible.  On the inside, painting is more predictable, but it can be very time consuming.  If it has been poorly done in the past, then there is a lot prep work to get it ready for painting.  Doing that prep work means sealing that room off from the rest of your house, so that you can keep lead paint dust away from your kids, so it can be inconvenient. If the house has a lot of previously natural woodwork that has been painted over, then realize that stripping such wood back to natural is a serious commitment that most are unwilling to take on when faced with the reality of the time (or cost if you hire it out).  None of my paint commentary is meant to sound gloomy, by the way.  A well painted Victorian, inside and out, simply can[t be beaten for looking good, but do realize that it can't be done in a few weekends.  

Wiring and plumbing hides inside the walls, and if it is really old will need replacement eventually.  The serious cost of that replacement work is repairing the damage to the walls in order to get at the wires and pipes.  

Others may have a different take than I do, or may want to add to my list, and my list is very dependent on the house that you are looking at.  If it is a simple Victorian design, then many of the things I mention above are less of an issue.  A small house with an open ceiling in the basement and an unfinished attic make wiring and plumbing issues easier to deal with than a 4,000 square foot house with a finished 3rd floor and a complicated and leaky radiator system, etc.   

Thanks! I guess I should have been more specific. Its a smaller 1000-1100 sq ft 2 BR home.

Everything is easier with a small house!

Like Phil said, definitely you need to find out about lead paint. Also 2 or 3 other points.

First, 'updated' can mean a lot of different things. Anywhere from "well, we put in new kitchen appliances and cabinets" to "every old plaster wall was removed and replaced by sheetrock, and several walls were removed." See if the current owners can tell you exactly what they've done. Maybe even a written list.

Water infiltration, from the bottom up or the top down, is a big question. Have someone check the roof carefully. A leaky roof is an expensive roof. In one house we looked at, I was in the attic on a sunny day and the light pouring through the roof made it look like a sieve. The seller refused to knock down the price to reflect the required roof repairs, and we walked.

Not to say you shouldn't do it, but a smart well informed buyer will try to figure out what they have to spend before they sign to buy. It may be worth your while to get different contractors to take a look. I.e., get a plumber, an electrician, a roof contractor to all visit and opine. They might miss something, but anything they pick up will help you make a more informed offer, and will also give you written reasons for why you're offering what you are. Which means you have a letter to show the seller why you think the price needs to be $15K lower to reflect the fact that the house needs a new roof. And if the seller doesn't want to move the price, it gives you more data to decide whether you want to assume the risk.

Good luck.

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