5 things to consider when purchasing an older home

To some, buying a ‘fixer-upper’ seems like a dream proposition and for others, it is the only option that their budgets allow for. However, even though older homes often have great character features that most new homes do not, they can also be the stuff of nightmares if buyers are not careful.

Estate agents will often recommend buying the worst property in the best area and in many instances, they are correct” says Claude McKirby, Co-Principal for Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty in Cape Town’s Southern Suburbs and False Bay. “You are likely to get a better return on investment once you have renovated”.

It allows you entry into a stronger market and a better neighbourhood than you might be able to otherwise afford so that when the time comes to upgrade, you are on a far better footing all around”.

Advantages of buying an older property:

A larger property: older homes were generally built at a time when land was not as scarce or expensive and they therefore have larger gardens which not only adds to the property’s value, but it affords the resident better privacy from neighbours.

Solid construction: many newer homes are built with inexpensive, builder-grade materials which does not mean that they are structurally unsound, but rather that the quality is not as high or durable. In older homes, materials used were often designed to last and to better withstand wear and tear.

More character: a lot of the new homes built today are somewhat cookie-cutter in nature – they tend to look alike, and they have similar features. When purchasing an older home, you will have more of a unique asset, often with a lot more charm than newer properties on the market.

But, unless you know what to look for in an older home, these benefits can come at a much higher price than you are willing – or able – to pay, in terms of money, time, and stress.

Cobus Odendaal, CEO of Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty in Johannesburg and Randburg says that buying a home can be overwhelming and with so much information overload during a viewing, especially if you have fallen ‘head over heels’ in love with a property. “It is very possible to miss important details and to forget to ask the important questions”.

And whilst certain imperfections may not be perceived as ‘problems’ by all buyers, with many being happy to fix small issues once they have moved in, there are several issues that cannot be overlooked”.

Odendaal suggests making a list of factors to check and questions to ask before you view a property so that you can make an informed decision based on facts rather than emotion:

  1. Foundation or structural faults: the foundation of a house is arguably the most important part of the entire structure and one of the costliest repairs. Although minor cracking may only be a sign of settling in the home, large cracks can be an indication of serious structural problems and they need to be checked thoroughly. Another sign that a home is possibly experienced structural problems is when multiple door frames do not appear to be ‘square’ or, the doors seem to have difficulty closing. If you are unsure, ask for a structural survey before proceeding. Loose ridging tiles on the apex of a tiled roof might also indicate unwanted movement.
  2. Poor drainage / grading: most water problems in a home are directly related to poor drainage or grading but it is not always easily detected. The most obvious sign of poor drainage is pooling water, but another is a ‘bouncy’ bathroom floor that can be evidence of hidden damage such as a leaking shower drain. If the yard has mini lakes or continually muddy patches it likely has poor drainage, which can also lead to water problems inside the home. Rising damp is often best spotted on the exterior so look for bubbles on outside walls as this could indicate that the damp course was not put in during construction. This is much more difficult to fix at a later stage.
  3. Electrical wiring: house fires caused by faulty electrical wiring are not as uncommon as one would like to believe, especially in older homes that often do not have the same ample supply of power and number of electrical outlets as more modern homes. It is typical to see extension cords running from room to room in older homes which places a burden on the electrical system. Another common electrical problem is exposed electrical wires, often the result of DIY repairs. Any wire that is exposed is susceptible to physical damage and if this occurs, it is sure to wreak havoc. This is high priority, and it should be corrected by a licensed electrician.
  4. Roof: always ask about the edge of the roof as most have a lifespan of around twenty years. Slate tiles out of alignment or cracked roof tiles are often tell-tale signs of potential roof leaks so it is worth climbing up to see where the water goes during heavy rain. If buyers do not want to do this themselves, they can ask a builder to inspect the roof.
  5. Poor overall neighbourhood condition: it is important for buyers to remember that when they are purchasing a home, they are not only purchasing the specific erf and the property itself, but they are also investing in the neighbourhood. Buying a home in a suburb that is deteriorating or that has increasing criminal activity can be a costly mistake and significantly diminish return on investment. Look for signs such as boarded up properties or a high number of vacant homes or shops in the area.

McKirby adds that it is not only the big issues that can cause headaches and, although certainly not dire, there are several potential hiccups that can cause significant stress and add to the bill at the end of the day.

It is important to ensure that the pool isn’t leaking and having the seller say the pool is only topped up once a week isn’t enough, especially with older properties, so check the water bill and, if necessary, ask for a structural soundness report on the pool”.

Poor water pressure can also be an issue because cursing your way through your morning shower because your home’s plumbing just isn’t up to scratch is no way to start the day – every day”.

Also, if there is a wood-burning fireplace, find out what the extraction is like as you don’t want to smoke out your family when trying to keep them warm in winter”.

And you will be more than a little frustrated if most of your oversized furniture won’t fit through the narrow front door – and you know longer have French doors to throw open for moving large items in and out.”

It is also important to understand the difference between an old and a heritage home if you are planning extensive renovations.

The general rule of thumb is that homes built before 1990 are considered older homes,” says McKirby, “and if it’s older than sixty years it could well be a heritage property in which case there might be significant restrictions regarding the alterations you are allowed to make to the property.”

If you are in any doubt, rather commission a professional property inspection before you put in an offer to purchase,” says Odendaal.

An old house may come with work, but if the basics are sound, it can also be a sound investment. Just make sure you understand exactly what you’re signing up for before going through with that purchase.”