Are “old” houses dangerous?

November 23, 2009 | 218 Comments



The older your home, the more charming and beautiful it may be, but its age also increases the odds for problems. From lead paint to asbestos, here’s what to check for, and what to do if you find a potential danger.

By Christopher Solomon of MSN Real Estate

More than 30 million homes are at least 50 years old. That means 1/3 of old beautiful homes in the US could have lots of potential problems.

What should you look out for, whether you’re the owner of a Victorian painted lady or a Beaux Arts brownstone? Here are a few potential problems that come with older homes. 

  • Old electrical systems

Why it matters: A study by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in the 1980s found that fires occurred disproportionately more often in homes that are more than 40 years old.

Over time, wiring in these homes can corrode. Wires using rubber compound that were widely used before 1950 are known to become brittle with age and when “they are subjected to bending, abrasion or harsh usage,” UL says.

The only way to really know what kind of problems you have is to hire a trusted electrician to inspect the house, the experts say.

Common warning signs of electrical problems in older homes, according to the Electrical Safety Foundation International:

  • Circuit breakers that frequently trip or fuses that often need replacement
  • Dim and/or flickering lights
  • Unusual sounds and smells from your electrical system
  • Hot switch plates
  • Electrical shocks

Two professionally installed updates to your old home can help reduce the fire danger significantly, the foundation says:

Electrical inspections will vary by location, but on the average about $100.

AFCIs cost $25 to $50; GFCIs cost just $5 to $10.

  • Old or leaking oil tanks

Why it matters: Many old homes relied — and still rely — on oil fuel. That fuel is either stored in tanks in the basement or buried in the yard. Typically, the old steel tanks have a life expectancy of just 10 to 15 years.

The mess from a leak can range from trivial “to tens of thousands of dollars if oil has leaked from a buried oil tank into surrounding soils or, worse, into nearby waterways or wells,” Friedman says.

How to know if you have a problem:
If your tank is inside your house: Know your tank: How old is it? What type is it?

  • “We recommend an ultrasound test that measures thickness of the tank steel along its critical bottom section, the area more likely to be corroded and leaky,” he says.
  • Water is terrible for tanks. Look for signs such as rust and debris in the oil filter or at the oil burner when it’s serviced, he says.

If you think the tank is outside your house:

  • First, track down the tank. Look for fill or vent pipes in the yard or sticking out of the house.
  • Only a pretty bad leak will be obvious to the eye. Hire a pro. A specialty company can test surrounding soil and do a low-pressure test of the tank to check for leaks. If you suspect any water, have the oil company pump it out.

What to do: If there are no leaks, either an above-ground or buried tank can be abandoned in place, Friedman says. That could be as simple as making sure it’s empty and leaving it — or emptying it and filling it (in the case of a buried tank) with something like sand (more expensive).

The cost: An ultrasound test for an above-ground tank is roughly $125, Friedman says. Adding limited-term insurance is roughly $100.

Removal or replacement costs vary widely by location, tank size, etc., but can be significant: Removing an old above-ground oil tank and installing a new one can run $2,000 to $4,000, according to 
  • Radon

Why it matters: Radon is a cancer-causing natural radioactive gas that emerges from the ground, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s information site. You can’t see, smell or taste it, but it kills about 20,000 people annually in the U.S., the EPA says.

How to know if you have a problem: Radon naturally dissipates into the atmosphere; every home that sits on or in the ground has it, but some homes trap it too well.

Homes with a radon level of 4 pCi/L (that’s picocuries per liter) need to be fixed, the government says. 

How do you know your home’s level? Test. In fact, the U.S. Surgeon General recommends that every homeowner test his or her home for radon.

The test kits are cheap and easily available. Here are a few things that can increase the odds of radon in a home, says Marianne Saulsbury, co-owner of Pittsburgh-based Saulsbury Environmental Consultants:

  •  A lot of the ground floor is underground. (This is often true of homes in the Northeast, she says.)
  • “Any crawl spaces with dirt or gravel floors or porous surfaces; those are potential entry points.”
  • If the lowest level of the home has double-paned (i.e. well-sealed) windows, or no way for radon to escape the home.

What to do: Get a reading slightly over 4 pCi/l? You might want to do a long-term test through a pro before deciding whether to fix the home, Saulsbury says. If the measurement is a lot over that mark, the home needs to be fixed quickly.

One part of a solution usually involves sealing cracks in the foundation. Also typical is a “radon reduction system” — a pipe-and-fan venting system from the basement floor out through a wall.

The cost: A home-test kit often costs only about $20. A pro will charge between $125 and $150 for a test, Saulsbury says. Mitigation costs can vary widely; depending on the severity of the radon problem, a few pipes might be needed. Expect the cost of a fix to be $800 to $3,000, according to the EPA.

  • Lead paint

Why it matters: Lead paint is trouble: Exposure to the stuff seriously harms the development of fetuses and young children.

Unfortunately, it was also really popular; 98% of homes built before 1940 contain lead, says the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development. (It was banned in 1978 for use in homes.)

How to know if you have a problem: Lead paint in a home is “absolutely” something that can be managed and lived with.

First, survey your home:

  • Walls: Look for peeling or flaking lead paint that children could put in their mouths, or that would reveal the lead paint beneath younger layers, Hintz says. You can also hire a professional to do a site analysis. (A special “gun” can be pointed at a wall to discern whether there’s lead paint on it.)
  • Windows: Lead’s main danger in the home comes at the windows, where the paint gets worn off and then gets into the air, Hintz says.

What to do: Here’s what you don’t want to do: stir up the lead.

On the walls, “If they’re in good shape or not peeling or flaking or delaminating, then you can often just paint over them,” he says. “And if there’s anything coming off, then it would need to be stabilized — the loose stuff removed, and then painted over.” For housekeeping use a HEPA-filtered vacuum cleaner. 

Larger projects that would involve disturbing lead and lead paint are a dicier matter. If you do undergo a remodeling project, or have a professional do it, be sure to separate the remodeled area from living areas.

The cost: To have a hygienist do a full-on home inspection (with his lead-seeing gun) would cost about $500. Professional lead-paint removal will vary based on your location and size of the project.

  • Mold

Why it matters: Mold is all around us; mold spores constantly float around the environment. Damp indoor spots — especially places like floors, walls and carpets —provide a great place for the spores to settle down and start growing.

Why bother? Mold can help bring on or irritate existing respiratory problems such as allergies and asthma, and cause coldlike symptoms such as a stuffed-up nose, watery eyes — the works.

How to know if you have a problem: Mold often makes itself known by its musty smell, and by coldlike symptoms you may experience, Saulsbury says. If you suspect mold, but can’t find evidence, consider an air test by a professional.

What to do: First, stop any leaks and condensation so the problem doesn’t get any worse. After that, your strategy depends on the extent of the problem:

  •  On the surface. You can remove mold from hard surfaces with commercial products, soap and water, or a bleach solution, the CDC says.
  • Down deep. If you can’t “clean and treat,” as above — that is, if the mold has settled deep into drywall or other parts of the house — then “removal and replacement” is the other option, Saulsbury says. Either you or a pro need to remove that moldy stuff from the house. A mold remediation checklist by the EPA can be useful for larger projects.

The cost: Mold testing costs, on average, about $200 to $300 for a few air samples and a follow-up report including recommendations, Saulsbury says. Since the extent of mold problems can vary so much, “fees for mold remediation vary dramatically,” she says.

  • Lead in water

Why it matters: Lead is particularly bad for small kids and fetuses because it’s absorbed faster by them than adults, and even low levels of exposure over time can harm brain, kidney and nervous-system development.

Drinking water contaminated with lead is common in old homes because many homes built in the early 1900s used lead pipes for interior plumbing.

How to know if you have a problem: The only way to really know if your water has unsafe levels of lead is to have it tested. The EPA’s lead pipes fact sheet is a great place to start or you can call EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791.)

However, there are some signs that can help tell you how much risk you face:

  • Your home has lead pipes. They’re pretty easy to spot; they’re dull gray, and soft enough to be scratched with a knife or a key.
  • Your home has copper plumbing and/or chrome-plated fixtures, which are usually made of brass or have lead solder.
  • There are obvious signs of corrosion (rust-colored water, stained laundry).
  • You rely on water from a private well (more likely to have lead plumbing).

What to do: Your solution could take many forms, from a few Brita filters or other lead-blocking filters on taps around the house, to under-counter systems, to a whole-home purification system. You won’t know until you know how much lead you have and its source.

If you’re uncertain, look for a consultant who can steer you in the right direction. Or if you go it alone, make sure you filter correctly.

The cost: Test kits begin at about $25, and tests can run up to $100, the EPA says.

For more information on testing your water, call the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Hotline at 800-426-4791. The cost of lead-blocking water filters ranges hugely, from perhaps $25 for a pitcher, to several hundred dollars for a reverse osmosis unit.  Do your homework.

  • Asbestos

Why it matters: When asbestos’ tiny fibers are released into the air and get taken into the lungs, people can develop lung cancers or asbestosis, a serious scarring of the tissues of the lungs for which there’s no good treatment, the EPA says.

Trouble is, as a strong heat- and chemical-resistant material, asbestos was used all over the place: in ducting and exhaust systems, roofing shingles, floor tiles and glue, artificial ashes in gas-fired fireplaces — even that fake snow people used to spray on their Christmas trees.

How to know if you have a problem: First, don’t panic just because asbestos lives in the house. Remember: The key to asbestos’ danger is if it is “friable,” or loose and entering the air where you can breathe it in.

“If the material is in good condition — if it’s not worn out, it’s not frayed, it’s not loose and crumbly — then there’s absolutely no reason to not have it there,” Hintz says.

  • Play the inspector. Where to look? Check out pipe insulation and duct wrappings, old worn tiles, places where nails have been pounded in for pictures. “You’re going to want to look for deteriorated materials.” In Hintz’s experience, the golden age for homes with asbestos was from the late 1930s through the late 1980s.
  • Hire a pro. “Ultimately, the recommendation would be for a homeowner to have a qualified consultant come in and do a risk assessment,” Hintz says. A pro knows exactly what to look for, and can categorize things based on damage and recommend any sampling, if necessary.

What to do: Asbestos is a snake: If it’s not bothering you, don’t disturb it.

When to take action? “If it is deteriorated, if it is worn, if it is becoming compromised” so that it is entering the air, Hintz says.

Jobs can be simple, like “encapsulation” (wrapping a sliced-open asbestos pipe-cover) to complex (pulling up an entire kitchen floor and replacing it). But leave them all to a professional contractor who has dealt with asbestos; do them wrong and you’ll send out still more fibers into the air, Hintz says.

The cost: An inspection can cost between $375 and $675, with sampling an additional $20 to $30 each. Remediation is expensive and varies widely. To have a certified asbestos contractor pull up 20 square feet of flooring and clean the area would cost a minimum of $1,500 in California, Hintz estimates


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