I like old houses, I don't like the lack of basement headroom or wonky old wiring and plumbing, but an old house in reasonable shape usually has a nice yard and parking that is lacking in a new home. A lot of things about old houses are either inconvenient or inadequate, if you have power bars plugged into extension cords, or the bathroom light switch is behind the door you know exactly what I mean.
Take this furnace for example:
This is a Rheem gravity furnace. It's called a gravity furnace because it does not have a blower fan and depends on the physics of hot air rising and cold air falling to heat the house. In 1940, which is approximately when this old girl was installed, this was a pretty good system, even if the power went out the house would stay warm. Gravity gas furnaces were upgrades from the old gravity coal furnaces that occupied the neighborhood.
My grandparents were the last people on this street to switch from coal to natural gas in, I think, about 1975. My Grandma was afraid of gas because she thought the house would explode and no amount of pointing out that none of the other houses in the neighborhood, which had gas furnaces, had exploded would convince her. Grandpa would run out of coal every time it got real cold and at 30 below zero we would go to the Starkey mine for a load of lump anthracite coal. We shovelled the coal in and hauled ash pails out. Grandpa would jiggle with the dampers to create heat and as a young kid I thought about it not at all except when I was shovelling coal or hauling ashes.
All the people in the neighborhood had, by this time, switched to natural gas with furnaces like the one in the picture. These monsters gobbled up the whole cellar, which was, in those days just a place to store coal and huge furnaces. They were a still an upgrade and a boon to everyone except the coal salesman.
The first gas furnaces worked exactly the way the coal ones did. Gravity, which the Rheem brochure called "smooth heat".
So here we are looking at an original gravity furnace in a house just down the street from where my Grandma's house used to be. Gas furnaces are safe Gramma.
What does a house inspector say about a 76 year old gravity furnace? A couple of things: it has been recently professionally serviced and the heat exchanger was tested in 2014. Furnace technicians can often go their whole career without seeing one of these, just like new automotive technicians can work their whole career and never see a carburetor, but the home owner did find someone who could service this unit still.
The key to gravity furnace operation is that the cold air has to have an easy path to the furnace so the hot air knows where to go. With a blower, air does, more or less, what it's told, with gravity, woe be tide the person who closes a door in a room, because the heat would magically, stop.
A small child could, and often did, sneak into the central cold air return ducts, in those days they were built of heavy sheet steel, riveted together and covered in asbestos.
Our parenting skills, like duct work and furnace technology has changed and we hardly ever let our kids play hide and seek in the cold air returns anymore.
Change the behemoth furnace? Possibly, yes but not absolutely necessary, it's a small house with four large cold air returns and when we looked at it, the house was warm. All the interior doors were open. The big issue is terrible energy efficiency, expect at best about a 50% efficiency, compared to a new furnace at 95%. Upgrading to a high efficiency furnace would probably cut the gas bill by more than half and cost $6-8,000.00 to do so. Part of the reason it is so expensive to upgrade to a modern furnace is none of the ducting is compatible and there is probably going to be asbestos in the system which requires professional abatement to remove.
Old houses like this, particularly in a blue collar neighborhood tend to get upgraded by amateurs, cheap to buy, handypersons often do creative things to make the house more liveable.
Speaking of upgrades:
This is some pretty creative plumbing, that black thing on the steps in a drain line from the bathtub to the soil stack which is itself conveniently located in the middle of the stair run. Lack of access might be a reason the furnace has never been changed, it also tells me the house was probably built before there was a sanitary sewer on the street so the sewer was done after the home was built, or maybe it was remodelled, but based on the style of door knob in the picture, I doubt it.
That drain line did not need to run over the tread, but I guess it was a "what the hell" moment and the owner didn't have any 45 degree elbows to run it along the back of the stairs and didn't feel like driving to Home Depot to get two, beer may also have played a part in this decision.
The basement is dry but useless except to hold the furnace and hold up the house.
The block wall is not original, nor is it particularly well done, but it's a basement and there are some jobs that can be done badly without effect; nobody is going to see it or want to improve it, so why bother to point the mortar?
This house is probably the cheapest liveable bungalow in a neighborhood you'd actually want to live in; nice lot and the main floor is well decorated. The folks who asked me to look at it with didn't want to go downstairs and once I convinced them to, they were sure that a media room was not in their future.
1) There are cardboard boxes on the basement floor and they are old and dry, this is good.
2) The gravity furnace works after 70 years, this is good, although in the face of the new carbon tax this furnace will make the owners mad every time they get the gas bill.
3) The electrics were upgraded to a 100 amp service, this is good.
4) There is one electrical outlet in each bedroom, not good.
5) There are two outlets and a gas stove in the kitchen, the fridge is on an extension cord, not good.
6) The house is loose; it is doubtful there is any insulation in the walls, maybe insulbrick under the siding, essentially if you looked at modern building envelope sealing techniques, you would find none of them here. It needs a monster furnace to keep the place warm because heat loss is so high, but if you keep the water away from the foundations and learn how to hand roll window putty, you could keep it alive indefinitely.
7) The deal killer? There is old wiring in the attic, worn insulation and very brittle wiring because of people putting 100 watt blubs in enclosed fixtures and cooking the wires. You can live with the furnace, but the wiring has to go. I didn't take any picture of it because I was busy trying not to disturb anything. I could write a book on why you should not put 100 watt light bulbs in old style fixtures. The wiring is unsafe and must be replaced. I know several electricians who love to fish wires through tight spaces, they do good work but they aren't cheap and once you start the process of upgrading you have to do it all.
The attic was insulated with wood shavings, probably an R5 rating, which for my purposes was ok because if the insulation was any deeper I would not have been able to examine the wiring, I just wish an electrician had checked the attic when he upgraded the panel.
$190,000 is not a lot of money for a detached house, we can expect to spend $20,000 on upgrades and have a house worth maybe $200,000.
The costs look like this:
Fixing holes: $1,500.00
After all this you still have a house with old windows, no insulation in the walls and a goofy kitchen.
I make jokes about some of these things only because, I know how to fix them; for the average person this home is probably way too big a project, there are old renovations to redo and new work to be undertaken, much of it without any satisfying effect of praise from your house guests or your spouse.
Get it inspected: buying and old house is not for the ill prepared or shallow of purse.
Elniski's BestHomes Inspections Ltd.