Old Construction Trends You Don’t Want in Your Home
Buying a fixer-upper is the new American dream. Not only are older homes more affordable - which is a must for less-wealthy millennial buyers - but they are also imbued with heaps of sought-after charm.
Unfortunately, underneath all that charm could lurk some serious problems with the home. In the past, home builders were less regulated, and we generally knew less about how certain building materials aged and affected homeowners’ health. Before you buy an older property - or before you start knocking down walls in the fixer-upper you purchased - you should double-check for the following issues, which are expensive and dangerous in your home.
Humankind has known about and used asbestos for centuries in construction, textile manufacturing, hygiene products and more. Now, you likely know all about the extreme danger of asbestos - how it causes respiratory problems and often results in an extremely aggressive form of lung cancer called mesothelioma. However, the toxicity in asbestos wasn’t suspected until the turn of the 20th century, and even then it wasn’t regulated until the 1970s. In truth, asbestos still isn’t banned in the U.S.; many products still contain asbestos.
If you own a home built between 1930 and 1980, you could have asbestos in your drywall, ceiling panels, floor tiles, insulation, cement and even your pipes. Unfortunately, removing asbestos makes it even more dangerous, and remodeling homes with asbestos features adds immense expense to the ordeal. You should avoid purchasing a home that contains asbestos - period.
Copper prices rise and fall almost as unpredictably as gasoline. Many elements of houses are made of copper, which means home builders often plan their construction around the copper market. Perhaps the most important copper feature of any home is the wiring, which conveys fast, safe electricity to homeowners.
Unfortunately, sometimes when copper is too expensive and/or too scarce, home builders turn to other materials. In the middle of the 20th century, a construction boom led to a copper strike, that skyrocketed copper costs. Instead of shutting down, builders instead substituted aluminum, believing that this conductive metal would work as well. Aluminum wiring does work - but over time, the metal compresses, leaving space between wire connections. In this space, the electricity can arc, and that arc might catch a flammable material like insulation or fabric, resulting in a house fire.
Replacing all the wiring in your home can be expensive and destructive. Fortunately, some home warranties will cover issues related to the electrical system. To understand what your home warranty does cover, you should talk to potential warranty providers before you buy a home with aluminum wiring.
Plumbing is another home feature that is best done in copper. During that same housing boom and copper strike that resulted in aluminum wiring, builders often substituted galvanized steel pipes for copper pipes. In some cities where copper is always more difficult to obtain, galvanized steel was used almost exclusively during the first half of the 20th century. Again, this solution seemed fine at first, but after a couple decades, the galvanized steel is revealing a number of serious problems.
Galvanized steel corrodes easily, especially at joints, which means leaks are more common in this type of plumbing. Additionally, the corroded material as well as other gunk will build up in pipes over time, narrowing the diameter of the pipes and increasing the chances of blockages and water pressure problems. Finally, many galvanized pipes were dipped in naturally occurring zinc, which is impure and often contains traces of lead.
Not only will a home with galvanized pipes need to be fitted with all-new pipes, but until that replacement occurs, you will struggle with all sorts of plumbing issues. Like asbestos, this plumbing problem should be a giant red flag over a potential home.
Another plumbing problem that makes homeowners scream is orangeburg. This is a type of pipe made from layers of tar paper - and as you might expect, paper isn’t a good material for plumbing. Orangeburg, so named for the town in New York where it was manufactured, was installed in homes between the 1860s and the 1970s for water delivery and sewer lines. Orangeburg works fine as a quick plumbing fix, but over time, the paper warps, folds and splits. That means homes that use Orangeburg for their water and sewage lines need to have this material replaced ASAP, before a major plumbing disaster occurs.
The problem is that water and sewage lines run deep. Depending on the neighborhood, these pipes might be anywhere from five feet to 20 feet underground, and that kind of depth is dangerous for workers. Anytime danger is involved, costs skyrocket. If you find a house you love that has Orangeburg pipes, you should try to negotiate a lower home price to accommodate this necessary fix.
Older appliances, dated light fixtures, funky color schemes and other issues are nothing compared to asbestos, aluminum wiring, galvanized pipes and Orangeburg. Fortunately, now that you know about these must-miss home issues, you can find a more fabulous fixer-upper that fits your budget.
Jenna Heitlinger is a writer, cat mom and recent first-time homeowner who invested in a fixer-upper with an embarrassing number of the above-listed issues. Ask her about her mistakes (and her journey to fix them) by connecting with her on Facebook or eventually on her (perpetually under-construction) website jchwrites.com