I will say, the house was beautiful. My husband and I were looking for a house that would be in between our two far-flung jobs to make our commutes mostly manageable, and in hindsight, I don’t think we knew what we wanted. Because we weren’t sure, when we walked into the rambling yellow house full of gorgeous hardwood floors and brightly colored walls, we fell in love.
The house was also built in 1920. For the last 30 years, it had been with just one family, and they showed us all kinds of maintenance they’d done. This isn’t one of those stories where we buy a house at what we think is a reasonable price and then it turns into a money pit and a nightmare. However, we just didn’t know very much: we had been blissful apartment dwellers and thought we would continue in a similar lifestyle despite moving into the 100-year-old house.
Two and a half years later, I can confidently say that we didn’t know much about basic upkeep on an old house. Even a new house can have these issues, but especially if you are considering older homes, I’ll tell you right now that the following expenses may show up in your future. Almost everything about living in an old house is quite satisfying, so it’s worth it, but the costs can sting a little when you aren’t expecting them.
1. Hot Water Heaters Break ($600)
Our hot water heater had been flagged as “on its way out” by our home inspector before we even bought the house, but we didn’t know it’d give up within two months of moving in. We got to explore the section of the local Home and Garden store that I’d never been in, way at the back, where capacity and energy efficiency and gas versus electric all mattered. I learned a lot that day about what makes a good hot water heater; when my husband and I settled on one, it was my turn to comparison shop for the best deal. This is something I have gotten good at doing despite disliking shopping-for-shopping’s-sake; with digital coupons and free delivery at stake, it felt like I was saving us real money on something we definitely needed to buy.
My husband chose to install it himself, with a quick verification from a neighbor and friend who knows houses really well. It has held up ever since!
2. Roof and Chimneys Falling Apart ($2,200)
Old homes can have all kinds of roofing problems, but for us, it was an old chimney that was basically just stacked bricks, no mortar to speak of, and the bricks were starting to fall out of place. There was a very real risk that a brick could, out of nowhere, fall off our house and hit someone in the head. We got three quotes on what it would cost to repair, and the high bill (because they’d also put something called a “cap” on the chimney, to keep animals and other things from getting into the chimney) really wowed me. The insurance alone for roofers who work on steep roofs like ours is very high, so expect high bills when it comes to chimney repair.
Still, there is something deeply satisfying about knowing that my house isn’t actively falling apart every time we have a blustery thunderstorm. We did not DIY even a bit of this experience, letting professionals do their thing.
3. Windows Let in the Drafts (and Sirens…) ($200 per window; would have been MUCH more with installation)
Our old house had beautiful wooden-framed windows, but we could hear everything that went on around us, including the sirens blaring as ambulances approached the hospital two blocks away from us. We also felt like the upstairs could never get truly warm or cold enough for comfort because so much of the HVAC was seeping out of the house. The old wooden windows were part of both problems, so we got quotes for some stronger vinyl ones.
My husband’s father works in the window industry, so he was able to help us realize that there is a ton of money made in window installation when, fundamentally, replacing windows isn’t too difficult. We ordered the different sized windows we needed and have been slowly replacing them as good weekend days arrive when we can do so. The cost has been minimal compared to the comfort of having our bedroom finally retain heat in the winter and cool air in the summer.
4. Basements Flood (Quoted at $3700; we spent $100 and are seeing how it goes)
Our basement has had no less than FIVE drains installed in it; it allows the water from the washer, for instance, to drain out of the house, which is nice. However, when the city’s old infrastructure cannot handle a very fast rainstorm, the water backflows up our drains and fills our basement with nasty dirty water. Delightful, right?
We got a quote from the city and a private contractor that putting the industry standard of a “backflow prevention” valve on our five drains would cost more than $3,700; even with a government incentive, that seemed high. My husband researched online and figured out that there was another invention, a standpipe backflow preventer, that he could make for only $100 of pipe and materials. So far, it is working, but it is expected to not be as long-lasting a solution as the industry standard items. A compromise, in our case, to avoid a big bill.
5. One Bathroom and Four Bedrooms Is a Hard Sell (Anywhere from $1,500 for bare bones to $6,000 for a truly gorgeous re-do)
We’re in the process of trying to add a bathroom right now. This house, like many in our neighborhood, has one bathroom on the second floor, and four bedrooms. Part of why we got the house for an affordable rate is that most people want a first-floor bathroom and more than one bathroom in general, especially with that many bedrooms. It works for us, but we know that getting a little half-bath into the house will dramatically increase the sale price if we move.
It’s clear that we have a lot of decisions to make on the bathroom reno front, since we have a fairly big closet to work with and could possibly do the whole project without removing any walls, but the more we try to change the structure and make the bathroom larger, the more it will cost. These are the day-to-day choices that we find ourselves making even when we aren’t actively in the process of paying for a repair or change.
One major takeaway I’ve had from being an old-home owner is that women, and young people in general, benefit a lot from knowing how to DIY things on houses. While I was offered these opportunities as a kid, I didn’t take advantage of them, and the way my husband did learn these things has saved us a lot of money over these years living in the house. It makes me aspire to greater handiness, while also acknowledging that I owe a lot to good and honest electricians, roofers, and maintenance folks of all types. While I love a cheap solution, good home repairs are worth the money.
Laura Marie is a writer and teacher in Ohio. She blogs about the stories behind family recipes at Recipe In A Bottle.
Image via Unsplash