Inspecting Historic Homes

by Nick Gromicko and Kenton Shepard 

What is a "Historic" Home?
This old home's roof is made of asbestos shingles.

You may be asked to inspect something your client calls a "historic" home. This term may mean that the home is old, or that it has some significance to the client or to the community. It may also mean that the home has been “landmarked.”

Landmarked homes may be privately owned or may belong to a jurisdiction.  A home may be designated an official landmark by a city, county or state, or by the federal government. Generally, landmark status makes the owner of the property eligible for low-cost loans or grants that can be used to repair, stabilize or improve the landmarked structure.  In return, the owner agrees that changes to the structure or other work performed on it will comply with certain requirements. Most of these requirements have to do with maintaining the historical appearance of the structure.

Requirements can vary widely with the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ), and the degree of control each landmark committee sees as appropriate. Some committees are demanding and insistent in requiring applicants to adhere closely to committee-approved designs. Some committees are less involved. Policies may be highly developed at the federal level and increasingly vague toward the city level.

How Does This Affect My Client?

Many people have plans to make alterations to a home once they’ve bought it. They may need to expand certain parts of the home or make custom changes to adapt it for a specific use. If the home has been landmarked, your client may not be able to make all the changes they want.

Unless you offer inspections of landmarked homes as an ancillary service, you’re not required to advise your client on the limitations connected to the landmark designation. If you know that the home is landmarked, you should mention that fact in your report. You should also include a narrative that advises them to determine any limitations which might affect their future plans for the home.

If your client has done this due diligence before you perform the inspection, then, before you start, you might want to ask them about specific areas of concern.

How is Inspecting a Historical Home Different than a Standard Home Inspection?

When you inspect a historic home, whether it’s been landmarked or not, you’ll be inspecting it in the context of the time period in which it was built balanced against contemporary, acceptable building practices, and the general quality of the home.

Experience counts for a lot in evaluating older structures when you’re less familiar with the building practices and codes used for building the home. The more older homes you look at, the better your understanding will be of what was considered acceptable at the time the home was built.

The laws of physics haven’t changed with time, however, so many things that make a building safe or unsafe haven’t changed either. Older buildings, especially those that have been poorly maintained, present good opportunities to study the failures and successes of the various home materials and systems.

The elements that cause deterioration of different home components have had longer to work on older homes. You’ll want to look especially carefully at parts of the home that are exposed to the elements, such as the foundation, wall coverings and roof.

  • Foundation

The foundation is probably the main priority, since it’s the component that bears the load of the entire home. Foundation failure or repairs can be especially expensive, and parts of it may be hidden.  So, looking at the foundation is a time to do your best.

  • Wall Coverings

The wall coverings often provide clues to any foundation movement. Soil or foundation movement typically shows up as diagonal cracks emanating from the corners of doors and windows. You may also see stepped cracking in masonry walls, especially near exterior corners or below windows.

  • Roof

The roofs of older homes are typically wood shakes or shingles. Some jurisdictions no longer allow the installation of wood roofs. This may create a conflict with a landmark committee.

If the roof will need replacement soon, the owner may be facing not just removal of existing layers, but installation of solid roof sheathing over the original spaced sheathing that was typically installed with wood roofs. You should make your clients aware of the potential extra cost.

  • Structure

Older homes may have undergone work by someone not familiar with acceptable building practices. Although it’s often difficult to see floor and wall framing, watch for problems such as the structure being out of plumb, out of level, or not flat.

You may see work done that employed methods quite different from modern methods. Check for failure before calling something a defect just because it looks different.

  • Exterior

You may want to recommend a lead test of the soil of the home's perimeter. When lead was used as an ingredient in the manufacture of paint, the exterior paint coating would eventually oxidize, and a lead powder would form on the surface, ultimately washing into the soil around the home's exterior by the rain. Over time, lead can accumulate in the soil to a level at which it represents a health risk to children and pets.

  • Windows

It’s often difficult to tell whether a window is original, and it’s a question that’s often asked. Your concern as an inspector is to describe the window's condition. You’ll be looking for failure of the finish coating and decay on wood-frame windows, especially in the corners of the sill. You’ll be checking for hardware condition, and proper operation of the hardware and window itself. Single panes are not a defect.

  • Electrical Systems

In inspecting an older home, you may find that the electrical system is original, that it’s new, or that it has had work done on it over the years. It’s not unusual to find electrical components from multiple eras in one home.  They may all be energized, or they may be partially energized.

Most inspectors, when they’re confronted with these older systems, recommend a specialist inspection by a qualified electrical contractor. The liability connected with electrical systems is high, since these can burn down the home or cause serious or fatal injury. It's better to pass on this liability unless you feel very confident in your own expertise.

  • Plumbing Systems

You’ll be looking for evidence of plumbing leaks, as usual. There are still a few homes around with galvanized supply pipes, so you’ll check for functional flow at fixtures. Also, you should mention any unsafe conditions, such as missing or obsolete traps. In the past, lead distribution   pipes have been a problem, but very few currently exist.

  • Heating Systems

Serious problems can develop from poorly understood venting of furnaces, boilers and water heaters. Condensation is one problem. Water is a solvent and will deteriorate many materials.

Where heating equipment has been vented through older brick chimneys, look for damage to the brick at the exterior, at the interior, and to the lining. Check for a proper cleanout, and check to see that the chimney has a lining.

Toxic Materials

You may encounter toxic materials when inspecting older homes. Watch for asbestos-like material on heating system exhaust ducts. Asbestos was also used in vinyl products, such as flooring, and in the process of manufacturing roofing tiles. The amount of asbestos in thermal insulation has been exaggerated, but most thermal insulation releases particulates into the air when it’s disturbed, so you should wear a respirator in attics and crawlspaces where you may encounter exposure.

Report Recommendations

Your inspection report for a historic home will be similar to a typical home inspection report.

You’ll need to be careful to include in your report a disclaimer emphasizing that your inspection does not include comments on a building being appropriate for its intended use. You’ll want to pass on the liability for discovering limits imposed by the landmark status to your client.

Also, be sure to include a disclaimer explaining that the visual inspection is limited to inspection of only those items you can see.
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