Are Older Homes Really Built Better?

by Steve Crossland, REALTOR in Austin TX on December 20, 2007 · 19 comments

I really miss the old house we use to live in on Newning Street in Travis Heights, and the neighborhood. We lived there from 1991 to 1996, when S. Congress was still gritty and not yet “cool”. We certainly didn’t call it “SoCo”. It was still plain old South Austin and Travis Heights.

The home was built in the late 1800′s. We had no dishwasher, no disposal, no A/C, a dirt driveway, single pane windows, bad plumbing and wiring, and no Cable TV. BUT, it was a true vintage home with wood floors, high ceilings, great archetecture, great trees, great location and certain indescribable charms and nuances about it. Our youngest daughter was born at home there in the corner bedroom in 1996. After the second child, it got a bit rougher with no A/C, so we migrated further South to the Cherry Creek neighborhood, where we bought a more modern 1976 home with central A/C (and aluminum wiring).

We’ve subsequently lived in homes built in 1998, 1969, 2003 and now have now moved into another home we just completed this year.

While I miss the old Travis Heights charm and ambience, as a couple in our mid 40′s with school aged kids, Travis Heights and old houses just don’t fit into this phase of our lives, though we hold very fond memories of pushing the kid buggy through Stacy Park and swimming in the pool there. Would we trade in our modern brand new home for an old clunker in Travis Heights? Probably not while we still have kids at home. The old house had a lot of problems, and now that were are spoiled by living in an energy efficient home where everything functions properly, it’s going to be hard to ever go back to Old Time living again.

One of our inspectors, Bob Petersen, wrote an overview of the differences of older homes versus modern homes built today, which I share below.

By Bob Petersen
How many times have you heard ‘they don’t build ‘em like they used to’? Why do people say this? Is it true? Absolutely NOT!

Besides a FEW things that were better with older homes (no ‘finger jointed’ studs or trim, better quality wood, no hollow doors or ‘pressboard’, better doorknobs and no computer controlled appliances), modern homes are much better in many ways. Here’s a partial list:

Roofing/Insulation: Before 1982 lasted maybe 15 years. Now roofs last a minimum of 20 and some are hail resistant. Older homes had little or no insulation; newer homes have lots of it & much better attic ventilation.

Foundations: Pier and beam or early slabs have lots of problems. Modern slabs have NO problems if properly constructed.

Wiring: Before 1961 homes had ungrounded outlets (with cloth insulation before 1950!). Before 1978 there were no GFI outlets or smoke & CO detectors. Older homes had fewer circuits and fewer outlets per room; or even worse, aluminum wiring.

Plumbing: Homes built in the 1950s and earlier had steel waterlines prone to corrosion and internal scaling.(who thought of running water through steel pipes? That was dumb). The tub and sink fixtures had rubber washers which wore out & needed replacing. Newer homes have washerless fixtures. Older homes have cast iron (or felt paper!) sewer lines which crack, scale up, fall apart and corrode. Homes since the 1970s have pvc which is virtually indestructible. Drainlines are larger in diameter too. Water heater relief valves and flues are much better now than in the 1960s, which makes homes a lot safer. Septic systems are cheaper, smaller and better for the land + have no drain field to replace!

HVAC: Few homes even had central A/C till the 1960s. Remember window units and space heaters? They were awful. Newer A/C and Heating is very efficient, quiet and MUCH safer. The freon used now is better for the environment too…

Appliances: Homes before the 1960s rarely had a dishwasher or disposal and certainly no microwave (how did we exist without those?). Cooktops and ovens had pilot lights which stunk up the kitchen with gas fumes when they went out. Modern dishwashers are very quiet compared to older ones. Older homes often had vent-hoods which blew into the attic! (fire hazard anyone?). I do however prefer the old appliances for one reason, they didn’t have computer controls which are very expensive to repair compared to the older electromechanical controls of yesteryear. Countertop technology has progressed light years since the 1980s!

Building Codes: Are constantly changing for the better which make homes safer and more energy efficient. There were NO codes prior to the late 1940s and fire safety concerns didn’t even exist. Energy efficiency concerns didn’t exist prior to the 1980s. HVAC, insulation, attic ventilation, windows and solar screen technology are light years ahead of even 20 years ago not to mention toilets and appliances which use a lot less water. Homes are much better sealed than they used to be.

YOU can have the ‘good ole days’ if you want ‘em, I like 2007 !

By Bob Petersen
Precision Inspection, Since 1983
(512) 282-0455
used with permission

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Debbie M December 20, 2007 at 3:41 pm

Interesting. My problem with newer houses is the poor workmanship. People are so worried about getting houses up quickly and cheaply that most houses are built with the cheapest materials possible in the quickest way possible given the building code at the time. Why use 30-year shingles when you can use 20-year shingles? Why spend any time making sure the walls are straight, flat, or vertical? I’m much less worried that my house from the 1950s will disintegrate than I am that houses built in the 70s, 80s, and 90s will. And although appliances could be better, the appliances that come in new homes are usually pretty awful.

Maybe I’m being stupid, though. What Bob says all seems true. I definitely had the cardboard (“felt paper”) plumbing! (At least it’s not lead! Like the Romans used.)

2 Steve Crossland December 21, 2007 at 8:54 am

Hi Debbie,

Yes, the materials used today are a combination of much better and much worse than the past. As far as workmanship, a lot of the older homes have really crooked walls that are not obvious until you try to instal new cabinets. Since they were often constructed with built-in cabinates, there was room for error back then.

The starter homes of today are definately built with cost savings in mind and are often what I call “apartment grade” in the quality of the doors, fixture, lighting and appliances.

Steve

3 Kate Hodgins December 21, 2007 at 2:51 pm

Hello,

I understand where you are coming from, but I much prefer holder homes. My house was built in 1978 and I live in Cherry Creek– Although it is not considered an older home by your article, I think my neighborhood has more personality and charm than any of the new neighborhoods— where the houses somehow look all the same and are soul-less. It depresses me sometimes too look at the houses in newer even richer neighborhoods- cookie cutter in my opinion with poor choices in stone and wood. I would rather gradually update an old house than live in some of the vanilla ice cream neighborhoods with double pane windows.

4 Steve Crossland December 22, 2007 at 10:55 am

Hi Kate,

I love Cherry Creek and the homes there. Great area. Super location. When we lived there, we liked it a lot but stumbled on a great deal in Oak Hill and took it. We would eventually have outgrown that small house too though, since the kids were only 1 and 4 at the time.

Merry Christmas,
Steve

5 Debbie M December 25, 2007 at 7:49 pm

Thanks, Steve,

Maybe I’ve only ever looked at starter homes before. Although once in the ’70s my parents and I went to look at an expensive new subdivision where everything was so fancy they had some walls at 45 degrees to each other, but they definitely weren’t plumb.

Thanks for the eye opener. I definitely need to update my place. I’ve already re-roofed it and replaced most appliances, and the people before me added central heat and air conditioning. That leaves plumbing and electricity as the obvious next candidates.

Another thing that has changed is windows. I have aluminum frames which means nothing has rotted and no one has painted anything shut, but it also means poor insulation, plus the cranks are mostly stripped and thus no longer open the windows. I plan to just replace the cranks, though.

My slab foundation seems fine.

Better not touch my asbestos shingles, though.

6 walt satan December 27, 2007 at 12:31 am

One thing that people never talk about is the outgassing of materials used in modern homes. Everything from carpet to paint to fake wood floors contain chemicals that degrade and release noxious fumes over time. Combined with increased air-tightness of today’s construction, new houses don’t ‘breath’ and (in my opinion) can cause lots of health issues.

I like my all-wood house built in the 1930′s!

walt

7 Jeremiah December 27, 2007 at 8:59 am

After reroofing and getting an Energy Star certification on my 1982 Northwoods home, I don’t think I’m missing anything in new homes. Having built and remodeled homes with my father growing up, I see some of the worst workmanship in new homes. Friends of mine who bought new recently are constantly trying to get things repaired. Cracking driveway slabs, leaks and mold, shoddy fit & finish…. It’s sad really. And then try to complain to the builders or take it through Texas’ builder-run mandatory arbitration process! Fat chance! A quality older home with some cost-effective modernization and an inspection by a truly independent home inspector is the way to go. Frankly, I question this Bob Petersen’s independence by writing a piece like this.

8 Steve Crossland December 27, 2007 at 8:59 am

Hi Walt,
You make an excellent point. Our desire for energy effecience comes with side effects.

My favorite home to live in would be a vintage 1930′s home that has been updated in all the important areas, but still maintains it’s vintage appeal and charme. I really like our brand new home, and it’s the “nicest” home we’ve ever owned from a quality standpoint, but there is something missing that one only finds in the graceful aging of an older home.
Steve

9 Steve Crossland December 27, 2007 at 5:46 pm

> Frankly, I question this Bob Petersen’s independence by writing a piece like this.

Really? Why? He’s inspected more than 20,000 homes in Austin. Many of our buyers have used him and he’s equally as tough on the newer ones as the older ones.

Steve

10 M. A. December 31, 2007 at 8:06 pm

I asked my home inspector, whom I’ve used 3 times, whether he thought my 1976 ranch was better built than the newer homes he inspected. He agreed with Bob Peterson;when build as specified new homes are much better quality, are better engineered. He did say I would have an easier time remodeling my ranch as the framing was simpler with load-bearing framing/beams easier to identify and work around. M. A.

11 Dan March 8, 2008 at 10:17 am

Everything in older houses were built like a tank. For example, my house was built in 1968 (40 years old!) and the original hot water heater just went out this week. The expected life of a new hot water heater is at best 15 years and typically around 10 years. My hot water heater was not the exception to the rule, all but one house in this neighborhood that I looked at when I was home shopping all had the original hot water heaters in them.

12 Spector March 11, 2008 at 10:37 am

Well fixtrures and steel pipes and kitchens are one obvious thing, but what about the quality of structure? Are new, post-1980s or 90s or whatnot, homes, on average, built with the same structural strength in the walls and rafters etc, as would have been older homes, where everything would have been site built with brick or hammers and nails and less plywood, prefab rafters, prefab floor joists, etc?

Also, would older homes built from brick or cinderblock be more energy efficient in terms of wall insulation than newer homes that use fiberglas placed within 2×4′s?

Energy efficiency is so critical these days — but I can’t tell what the “cut off” point should be? Are 70s homes better or worse than 80s homes, or 60s homes, 50s? Or are brick and mortar homes built in the 1800s or 1920s more energy efficient than them all, etc.?

13 Keith July 22, 2010 at 1:43 pm

What does it mean to be “built better”? What are the criteria? What is an “older home”? There’s a big difference in a bungalow built in the 1930s and a ranch house built in the early 1970s, although both would be “older homes.”

If the criteria are quality of materials, durability, workmanship, and architectural pedigree and charm; and excluding technological advancements (otherwise it’s not a fair comparison), to me there’s no contest. Old (meaning pre-WWII) house are infinitely better built.

Our house, which was built in 1925, has a stone foundation and beams the size of my waist. You can update an old house, which we’ve done. But you can’t make a new house like an old one without tearing it down.

14 Lana J. Simons August 18, 2010 at 5:53 am

You just can’t make a blanket statement about all older homes. Our home was built in 1978 with solid steel beams and very good quality materials and craftsmanship. The true craftsman such
as brick masons are becoming rare. It is true some features have improved with technology
but from what I have seen alot of poor materials and work is disquised by fancy details.

15 vicky January 8, 2011 at 10:39 am

I agree with Dan- my house which was built in the 30′s just had the water heater and furnace changed-and both were in working condition… The quality of products “in the good old days” is definitely a consideration.

16 Dave H November 25, 2011 at 10:27 am

Fun to read this thread. Here’s my take- if you can find a layout you like with an old house and it has been updated to correct things we’ve learned in the last 40-100 years, then sure, the charm is hard to find. Most “charm” comes in lighting, trim, maybe fireplaces. All things that can be achieved with a new home. But, even if things were built to last 40 years longer, your 40 years have been used up! I tried hard to find an older home that works well for a family of 4 in a city lot, and all had drawbacks- small closets, no foyer for boots and coats, low ceilings, 1 car garages, tiny kitchens, closed off layouts, no master bath, bedrooms not on same floor. Finally, found an old house whose time had come to be demolished. This one was not built to last. With a custom builder, you can build with modern amenities and still have old house charm. Course, there are old houses that have overcome all the drawbacks- I just can’t afford one. Sorry for the biased post, but I tried to convince myself the old houses would work for me- even made some offers that didn’t work out. But, I felt I was giving up a lot to live in the city.

17 Steve Crossland, REALTOR in Austin TX November 25, 2011 at 10:40 am

Thanks for all your comments. In July 2010 we bought a 1978 home and have been updating it the past 6 months. This was a Doyle Wilson tract home in Westlake. It’s has solid bones, built-in-place cabinets (brown stained though), popcorn ceilings, the whole 1970s list of things. I guess I would say that the wood I see used in the framing is certainly better wood than used on today’s new homes, including the solid plywood cabinets, but after peeling this home back some, it’s hard to say it’s “better built” in terms of insulation, modern electric, etc.

Ultimately, the location is unbeatable and we’ve scarified on the other creature comforts related to space and size. So far, we’ve updated both baths, replaced siding and repainted exterior, and just this month replaced all flooring with solid wood and replaced the baseboards at the same time with modern 6″ baseboards. The house is looking good. Still more to do.

Steve

18 Jack Brydges February 13, 2012 at 8:45 am

I also grew up in a house (in Michigan) that was built in the late 1800′s and loved it so much I bought one in the same neighborhood. Most of the problems mentioned here are things that can be upgraded in an old house. I ended up having to rip out all of the plaster and lath walls, rewire, and have a pipe fitter remove and upgrade all pipes. I also added a forced air heating and cooling system, Also because of the demolition I was able to insulate the house to today’s standards, I put period siding on the outside and had a new roof installed. Some of the biggest benefits are that the structure of the house is superb – very solid, and it has hardwood floors that are 100 years old and real hardwood – once restored they look brand new. Also one of best benefits I got, and this is why I bought this house, is the beautiful wood trim in the house. It would cost a small fortune to buy the same quality of wood used around the windows, the stairs and banister, the post and door trim, and many other beautiful wood features around the house. All of is restored to it original beauty. Now I understand I had to spend a lot of money to do this but if you have the resources and you like the late 19th century style you can modernize an old to today’s building standards. As far as appliances go you can put new appliances in just about any home so it’s not a real problem with older homes. I haven’t had one person that has come to my home that hasn’t made a comment on how beautiful my home is.

19 Steve Crossland, REALTOR in Austin TX February 16, 2012 at 11:34 am

Hi Jack,

Thanks for your comments. Good points.

Steve

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: