5 Questions to Ask Before Buying an Old House

Protect yourself from costly repairs with this checklist.

By + More

With home prices down as much as 30 to 50 percent from their peak several years ago (especially certain real estate markets), many people are deciding with good reason that now is the time to jump into home ownership or invest in real estate. While living in a brand new home has its perks, these newer homes are also often lacking in charm and personality.

[In Pictures: The Worst States for Millionaires.]

This is why some people are drawn to older, historic homes, which are often oozing with character. However, the downside is that they can also be money pits and cause endless frustrations for homeowners. As the owner of a historic home myself, I'll be the first to say that owning an old home isn't for everyone. But in spite of the time and money I've poured into my 1910 Craftsman-style house, I'd still much rather live here in than in a swanky new subdivision. So how do you know if owning a historic home is right for you? Here are five questions you should ask before you sign on the dotted line.

1. Is the foundation solid?

Old homes often have foundation issues, which are incredibly costly to fix. When you're looking at a historic home, leave the living room and bedrooms for last. The most important information you need to know is down in the basement. First, check the foundation for signs of cracks or shifting. Also detect and test for mold in the home, as it can be a sign of a weak foundation and other problems. You'll likely need to get a thorough home inspection service to tell you for sure if the foundation is solid, but if you see signs of crumbling or cracks then it's best to move on to the next house.

2. How old is the electric wiring?

Many old homes still have the original knob and tube wiring. Although it works, it can pose a fire hazard, especially in the attic (where it's likely to be covered in insulation). Evidence of the knob and tube wiring will be in the basement. If the home's wiring is outdated, then make sure you consider the cost of updating it. It's a huge, expensive job. I know, because I had to rewire my entire home after I bought it.

3. How old is the plumbing?

If the house still has the original cast-iron pipes, then you might need to replace them eventually because of mineral build up, corrosion, or leaks. Make sure you closely inspect any exposed pipes in the basement to see if they're in working order. Mineral buildup in the pipes won't be noticeable until you're trying to take a shower and realize that very little water is coming out. And if you're wondering, yes, I had to replace all my plumbing too. It wasn't fun.

4. How is the house heated?

Old radiators may add character, but they're an expensive way to heat the house. Make sure you carefully analyze how much fuel oil you'll need to heat the house and stay warm in the winter. If the home has central heat, then check to see how old the furnace is. This is another expensive replacement.

5. How's the roof?

Replacing a roof is one of the most expensive home repairs you'll make. I replaced mine recently, and I could have taken a plush Euro-vacation on what I spent. Make sure you check the roof and the attic carefully for leaks. If the roof is more than 10 to 15 years old, then realize you might need to replace it sometime during your ownership of the house. This is another potential cost you need to tack on.

[See 10 Smart Ways to Improve Your Budget.]

Final Thoughts

As you can see, owning a historic home is fraught with potentially expensive repairs, but don't let that scare you off from considering buying one. The are definitely some pros to owning an older home, starting with the fact that they are typically incredibly well made, built with good, sturdy materials and strong craftsmanship. They also usually contain beautiful old wooden floors, gorgeous trim and molding, heavy wooden doors, and cozy fireplaces that beg to be lit on winter evenings.

Old homes are often in neighborhoods that are full of character, where you can walk downtown or sit on your deep front porch and visit with the neighbors. And if you're really lucky? Your old home might come with a friendly ghost to keep you company. Mine sure did. Would you consider buying a historic home? Why or why not?

Heather Levin started The Greenest Dollar to share her thoughts and tips related to "going green" and green living to save money and the environment. Heather also frequently contributes to Money Crashers, one of the top personal finance blogs.