Should I Buy A New House Or Buy An Old House?

Many people want to buy a new home, expecting that they will have fewer problems with it. I want to give you several things to think about to help you compare an old house to a new house.

Functional Obsolescence

Most people do not think about functional obsolescence because it is automatically part of deciding if they like the house. Older homes were often smaller and had smaller closets. Some of the small 1920's two bedroom, one bath homes had wonderfully efficient floor plans but they can be very difficult to expand. Creativity can make a big difference but maintaining the charm of an old house at a reasonable cost while expanding it can sometimes be challenging. The bay area climate is mild. Simple well maintained homes can last a long time and be enjoyable to live in.

Roof Replacement

Roofs are one of the most common and expensive repairs needed. The roof is generally easy to inspect, to estimate how much longer it can last, and to estimate how much it will cost to replace it. Costs to replace the roof can range from perhaps $10,000 to $50,000 with the high end likely to be an upgrade to premium materials such as slate or tiles. Replacing roofs seldom requires special skills or dealing with major unknown problems.

Water And Termite Damage

Water and/or termite damage is the most common problem encountered with homes. Dampness often creates a more attractive environment for termites. New homes are just as susceptible to termites but the longer a home has existed, the more likely something has happened that let termites do damage. Most often termite activity is detected before it becomes a structural problem. Getting access to the termite infestation can sometimes be difficult and thus costly. A leaky shower pan can lead to either rot or a termite infestation which can only be repaired by removing much of the shower. The amount of damaged wood may be small but it can not be readily replaced.

Most homes are inspected for termites when they are put up for sale. Most often some problems are found and the cost to repair the problems is most often well below $10,000.


Galvanized pipes eventually plug up from hard water deposits or rust through. If you buy an older home and have to replace the water pipes, this would probably be a one time expense for you because properly installed pipes can easily last over 50 years. Copper pipes can be damaged by freezing or a weak solder joint can fail over time, but otherwise copper pipes are very long lasting. For an average sized home a major water pipe replacement might cost $5,000 to $10,000.

Homes with slab floors have their own special problems with plumbing. Some homes were built using hot water flowing through pipes in the slab floor to heat the house. If the pipes develop a leak, repairing it is sometimes difficult. Many companies have no difficulty removing a section of the slab floor to repair the leak but sometimes especially if galvanized pipes were used, the stress put on the pipe can cause it to fracture and leak in a new place, requiring that the original hole cut in the slab to be expanded. Often homeowners look for alternative heating sources if the pipes begin leaking. If you own a home with heating pipes running through the floor it is important that you watch for signs of leaks (increased water and heating bills) because the leaks increase humidity which can cause mold and increase the likelihood of termite or "dry rot" damage.

Locally some homes were built in the 1970s using plastic pipes. Some of the pipes were created from contaminated plastic which failed with age. This would be one of the instances where an older home would have actually been a safer choice.

Sewer Line

Sewer lines can be damaged by tree roots. If the sewer line develops a leak, roots are likely to be attracted to the moisture leading to roots plugging or even breaking the sewer line. This normally happens in the yard rather than beneath the house, so repairs are relatively easy.


Modern life uses much more electricity than earlier times. Many older homes have had modifications done to their wiring. Not all modifications were done correctly. When a home is put up for sale a property inspection is most often done which includes inspecting visible electrical components. Sometimes main circuit breaker panels are considered inferior to current models and suggestions are made to replace them. Additions to the wiring can sometimes be detected at the main circuit breaker panel but not always. Of course it is also possible that mistakes were made while building a brand new home. Inspections do not guarantee that everything has been tested only that the work appears to meet current codes.

Fires caused by faulty electrical wiring are rare but do happen. Review the property inspection report and give attention to the recommendations.

Foundation and Structure

Few older homes were built to meet current earthquake standards. The home may not be bolted to the foundation or may be inadequately bolted. Some homes were built with a short wall extending from the foundation up to the first floor of the house. This wall was not braced to resist earthquakes. Locally most homes were built after the 1906 earthquake so the only large quake they have experienced is the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake which measured 6.9 on the Richter Scale.

Most of the homes in the bay area are built on flat adobe soil. Adobe soil expands and contracts significantly during wet/dry cycles. The movement of the soil can move the foundation leading to cracks in walls. Most homes are built using wood framing which is minimally affected by the movement. The cracks are often more of a cosmetic issue than a structural issue. Masonry walls can also be cracked by the soil movement leading to more significant issues. Exterior cracks should always be patched to prevent water penetration.

Even recently built homes having sturdy foundations can be affected by the soil movement. It may take several years to know if a new home will be affected. Additionally a new home is typically built using lumber which is not as dry as it will ultimately become. As the lumber dries, walls can move slightly leading to minor cracks in sheet rock. A brand new hardwood floor may also experience wood shrinking because it has dried. Experienced floor installers measure the moisture content of the wood they use and try to be certain is close to its final expected moisture content before installing the floor.


Some older tract homes were built with appliances having non-standard sizes. Replacing an oven my require installing a smaller oven with trim around it. Locally, kitchen remodels are very popular and this is likely to be a minor concern.

Furnaces have become more and more efficient. An older home probably has a less efficient furnace. Most of the time a furnace can be replaced without facing any special challenges. Some older homes have few heating ducts. Although the Bay Area has a mild climate it may be desirable to install additional ducts or to add electrical baseboard heating. Electrical baseboard heating provides to opportunity for each room to be set to its own desired temperature, saving energy.