buying an older home

Homeowners may discover that their plumbing, electrical, or support structures do not meet current codes. These often add many unforeseen expenses. (Photo: Shutterstock)


Karen Libin, KL Realty

Karen Libin, KL Realty

NIWOT – Building codes are constantly being revised to ensure homes are safe and structurally sound. Starting in the late seventies, code changes started happening more frequently due to the discovery of some unhealthy and unsafe older practices. So what should a buyer beware of when purchasing an older home? What unforeseen issues might a buyer encounter when living in and/or remodeling an older home?

Lead paint
Prior to 1978 lead paint – a toxic material – was the norm. Currently a seller completes a disclosure form that notes if they are aware of its presence in the home. But this form puts no onus on either party to take action during the selling/purchase process. When remodeling, however, certain protocols should be adhered to when dealing with this substance.

Prior to 1980 asbestos – another toxic material – was used in numerous home components: floor tiles and ceilings, around boilers, ducts and sheeting, in pipe cement and joint compound. Asbestos becomes a hazard when it is airborne. If a homeowner decides to remodel (or in any way disturb the asbestos), it has to be dealt with and disposed of following a
strict protocol.

For a period of time in the 70s aluminum was extensively used in homes for wiring when the price of copper soared. But problems were identified with the small gauge connectors that sometimes resulted in fires. Further compounding the problem, some of these houses did not have the grounding wire that is code today. Another potential issue: Certain makes of older electrical panels have been identified as problematic. Often the seller has no idea that the panel may be a bad one until the buyer’s inspection occurs, and the buyer requires its replacement as part of the purchase.

Energy costs and codes have raised the bar on insulation standards. Decades ago houses were built with two by four exterior wall framing, severely limiting insulation possibilities. Attics were nominally insulated. This isn’t a dangerous issue just an uncomfortable one, and it will make the house more expensive to heat and cool.

Furnace and water heater
Old furnaces were robustly built and forty-year-old units can still be encountered. They may appear to work fine, but could be – and should be – on their last legs. Water heaters don’t last anywhere near that long; any water heater over ten years old is liable to need a replacement soon. While they may be pricey, the efficiency of new units far exceeds that of the older ones.

Basements and crawl spaces
Older houses were not built with vapor barriers in the crawl space nor with any insulation. Instead they were well ventilated. The current recommendation is to insulate even the walls of the crawl space, but certainly the basement walls, and to seal the exposed dirt from the under-house space to prevent moisture ingress and help with radon mitigation. New construction will have a perimeter or under floor drain and sump pump system that may be absent in older houses. With sealed basements and houses, it is now common to include air exchange units into the design.

Sewer lines and septic systems
Older homes may have damage to the main sewer line from subsidence or tree-root ingress. 

This can be a very costly repair. Septic systems have a finite life, too.

Remodeling and building codes
Homeowners may discover that their plumbing, electrical, or support structures do not meet current codes. These systems may have to be modified or replaced when remodeling a particular portion of their older home. These often add many unforeseen expenses.

Setback codes
Older homes may not be in compliance with current setback codes. Existing structures are grandfathered in, but replacements or new additions are required to follow current codes. For example, if a homeowner wants to replace an old deck, they may find they cannot have the new one as close to the property line as the old one.

By Karen Libin, KL Realty. Karen Libin is the owner and managing broker of KL Realty, and has more than 29 years of experience in the Boulder County real estate market. Contact Karen at KL Realty, call 303.444.3177,
e-mail [email protected] or visit