Are Older Homes Really Built Better?

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

Posted by Steve
8 years ago
Steve

Steve is a Real Estate Blogger, Husband and Dad, UT Austin Grad, Runner, Real Estate Broker and owner of Crossland Team and Crossland Real Estate in Austin TX.

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Debbie M - 8 years ago

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.)

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Steve - 8 years ago

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

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Kate Hodgins - 8 years ago

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.

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Steve - 8 years ago

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

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Debbie M - 8 years ago

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.

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walt satan - 8 years ago

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

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Jeremiah - 8 years ago

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.

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Steve - 8 years ago

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

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Steve - 8 years ago

> 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

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M. A. - 8 years ago

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.

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Dan - 8 years ago

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.

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Spector - 8 years ago

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.?

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Keith - 6 years ago

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.

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Lana J. Simons - 6 years ago

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.

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vicky - 5 years ago

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.

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Dave H - 4 years ago

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.

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Steve - 4 years ago

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

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Jack Brydges - 4 years ago

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.

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Steve - 4 years ago

Hi Jack,

Thanks for your comments. Good points.

Steve

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Laurie Miley - last year

I have a home that has a moisture problem but it must be between the walls. I never see a wet wall but if there is an eletrical outlet on that wall it no longer works because of water damage. And it is on what I call an outside wall. What I mean is theother side of that wall is the outside not another room. Amything pushed against that wall will cause the wallto grow mold. The only outlets inour house that work now are putlet on a wall that has another room on theotherside not the outside. I am sure behind my book shelves in my room is mold on the walls. Is the only hope for this house to be torn down and rebuilt so water don’t caisemold to grow and electrical outletss not to work?

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Steve - last year

Laurie,

Call a carpet cleaning/restoration company and they can come out with a moisture detectore to isolate where the moisture is located. Step 2 is to determine the source and then eliminate the source.

Good luck, Steve

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davedale - last year

As a self described old house freak, I would not buy anything built after the mid 50s. My house was built in 1950 and has plaster walls, raised foundation, cedar shake roof, original wood frame double hung windows, solid hardwood floors and cement float tiles in kitchen and baths. In san diego, there is not a great need for insulation.

I like the feel of the smooth plaster walls and the look of the real brick fireplaces. The new houses built after the 50s have drywall, veneer hardwood floors , cheesy or un original countertops. But the worst thing about new houses is many have composition tile roofs, that tar paper crap. WE are the only wealthy country in the world that has houses with such ugly roofs. In Europe they are all clay tile.
Cedar shakes can now be fireproofed, although no one believes. it. The hysterical and litigious American population have outlawed them in many areas because of fire, even though pressure treatment does actually work.

Many people can’t live in the dry wall crap they are throwing up today once they get used to the old stuff. Men used to be very skilled, and very few skilled carpenters even exist any more. Hate to break it to you but your new house has allot of plastics and particle board, which are not going to age well. A new house ages like Kathleen Turner, and old like Sophia Loren.

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davedale - last year

The guy who wrote this must be a builder, in most cases older houses are much, much better. Before the mid 1950s a just slightly upper class house, say 1800 square feet in a slightly above average neighborhood , had many materials that were great. Plaster walls, raised foundations, SOLID hardwood floors, framing with horizontal skip sheeting in walls, real 2 by 4’s, and tiles in kitchen and bath floated out in cement.

In addition, houses even older built before WW2 frequently were designed by architects and had great style , with detailed wood and masonry work unavailable today.

Today, real masonry fire places are gone. Not only are materials crappy and fake, but we don’t have the workers. Men are no longer trained to build real houses, so the new ones are snap together pre fab jobs. A mid level new house will be on a slab which sucks, have drywall, no masonry work, hollow core doors, and is put together either by recent immigrants with little training or tweekers the contractor got off craigslist.

We devalued men, and what they do. wE sneered at the skilled trades, and now we suffer. Buy an old house built before the mid 50s in a decent neighborhood, it will rise in value. In the future, only the rich will be able to afford a single family house in a good city, and we will fight over super expensive older homes like some kind of priceless antiques.

It’s already happened in parts of LA, where a bungaloo near the ocean built for assembly line workers are now bought by the grandsons, for seven figures by a tech millionaire. They put some cesarstone and expensive appliances in a 1000 square foot house that originally sold for 12000in the 50’s , and sell it for 1.3 million. People love the smooth plaster walls and hardwood floors, and they new plastic versions go begging for a buyer.

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Cathy - last year

Hello,
Fixing to buy our 3rd home and this one is in beautiful Roswell GA. We are native Floridians. I was born in 1959 and this was my first home built by my father. He had wonderful foresight into how a home should be built. Plenty of mature trees and an attic fan was all we needed to be comfortable. In 1990 it was our turn to buy a first home and returned to the same part of Tampa to purchased a home built in 1957, going backwards not forwards. Our second home was built in 1990 and although larger and had new things in it, I longed for the old house we left. Now, here we are in Georgia with our only child away at college. We are closing on a beautiful traditional home built in 1983 and can’t wait. The house is surrounded by mature trees from 30+ years of growth. This house has a real solid feel to it. Wood floors and moldings. Sort of a “Father of the Bride” house two story. Never would consider a 2 story in the heat of Florida. About Florida builders: They come in and rape the land, set your new home down with a token 5 foot oak tree in the front. Welcome home. I see the same thing happening here in Georgia with new construction and no thanks. We looked in older neighborhoods that have that tree shaded settled look. No lead paint in 1983 and we filter our water anyway out of the tap.

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Mintchip - last year

Hi, just had to add my thoughts. It is absolutely true that there have been great improvements in building technology over the years. However, everything has a trade off. The older homes may lack modern conveniences, but those can almost always be added to the home by owners who expect to have to do so. Plumbing and wiring wasn’t done incorrectly when these homes were built – they were up to the standards of their day. True, standards were not rated and regulated as they are today, if a home was built poorly and collapsed – obviously changes were made.People weren’t fools when those homes were built as has been implied by the inspector. Consider the fact that these old homes are still standing having survived the numerous storms and tornadoes that are on the increase. These homes are survivors. Concerning building materials most homes built early in the twentieth century and before had more soundproofing between rooms than any homes today. Lath and plaster really squash sound from moving from one room to the other. Today, bathroom flushing sounds are heard in nearby rooms. Older homes have a charm all their own, people either love them or hate them. Folks buying such a home should realize that all kinds of unseen and unsung work will need to be done.(wiring, plumbing, heating, insulation etc.) They must have the budget for the repairs they will need to do. Although all that work isn’t visible to the eye- it is vital to their enjoyment of the home.

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Jeff - 11 months ago

New Homes built on just footings do they last as long as older homes?I guess if a house has a basement will it last longer than a house with just footings?

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PCL - 9 months ago

I finally ditched my 37 year-old TV after the flyback failed and was amazed at how much material was invested in the huge, heavy cabinet and metal chassis that held it together; the new one has a much bigger screen, but is little more than a screen in a plastic case; and I’ll be lucky if it lasts 10 years, let alone 37. But no one would argue that all 1978 TVs were built to last 37 years; in fact the plant that made mine was known for bad quality until Sanyo took it over in 1976. It’s also easy to get nostalgic about the old buildings that are still around and have survived without being molested by non-stop “modern makeovers”. But it should be pointed out that most such buildings were the cream of the crop when they were built, and that most of the buildings built 30, 50 or 100 years ago either didn’t survive or had major defects that were fixed at one point or another. I was recently helping a friend move equipment into a commercial building; he noticed the modern foundation and speculated that the place couldn’t be more than 60 years-old, but I pointed out remnants of knob&tube wiring that wasn’t used after the 1920s. The place must have been built with a masonry foundation that failed and was replaced with concrete. The problem with new buildings is that they are so precisely engineered that with each structural or cosmetic element made just thick enough to serve its purpose, they feel light and flimsy. The same engineering can make them more storm resistant, quake resistant, even fire resistant than their more substantial fore-bearers, if that is the aim of their designers. That’s not to say that all of them will actually be that durable, but 100 years from now, people will probably marvel at the ones that survived and speak of how much better things were made “back in the old days”.

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Bonnie - 7 months ago

Hello, I have enjoyed the thread, but I most say, everyone has quite valid points but in my opinion I feel the older homes (110 years old to 80 ) were build much better than modern homes. Yes it is true that everythings is much more energy efficient , but the workmanship and blood sweat and tears of the older Victorian, or colonial style homes by far surpasses the modern homes of today . Why do u think they are still standing at 100+ years old.!

None and I mean NONE… Of these newer modern home will be standing 100 + years from now,.. Why u ask? Because they are put together in 7 weeks or 3 months if u are on their butts, about craftsmanship they cut corners and skip steps like for instance concrete has to cure it takes it 30 days to fully cure at 7 days concrete is 700 times stronger then day 1 builders now a days pour concrete and start building the next day if not the same day, the slab isn’t even dry yet, so this is why your house in 5 years if ur lucky starts to shift and the foundation cracks and ur tile and flooring becomes unstable or walls become unattached from the ceiling, I can go on and on, there is no love, blood ,sweat and true workmanship in that!

It’s let’s get it done quickly and get paid! That is it that is All! It truly sad really! Now I know the older homes have their issues as well as far as outdated plumbing and wiring but with money and the right person for the job if not ur self those things can be fixed and dealt with and u can have a home that will continue to stand another 100 years . So basically what I’m getting at is modern has its perks but older has unfailing stood the test of time and has so because of the time blood and true workmanship that was put into it and there is nothing built today that will ever surpass the wonderful homes of yesterday. And I promise they will not be standing in the next hundred years.

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Darko - a few months ago

Of course a house reflects heavily the era of which it was built.

Modern houses flawlessly match our societies view on everything! Disposable, cheap, and most likely coming from China.

Why on earth would you even think of making a dwelling with seasoned timber, plaster, solid oak floors, and walls thicker than 1 cm.

When you can have your 2016 suburban dream knocked up using one box of nails, plywood and pine! Use those tack boards with a few cms of gaps between the timbers line up the plywood for the walls, ceiling, and of course roof. Rip out the sawzall cut a rough hole hammer in a window call it done.

I have seen entire sub divisions knocked up as if it were a game of monopoly. My fiancée had the misfortune of living in a house made in 1992 and it is a piece of work. Half of the electrical outlets in the basement –the ones that do work– are wired into the garages circuit. The front door frame was actually flipped upside down and the house sagged on top of so the door was actually scrapping against the ground and you have throw all of your might against it to open it. The walls are so thin if you dare play a guitar the house shakes. Her family can hear every word said.

There’s black mould, the house was built over a sink hole, the phone outlets broke, and the front screen door broke off the house and is hanging off of its hinges whilst the rear slider on the porch broke completely.

Call me silly, but I find it hilariously pathetic that my 1930’s home I grew up in had very few issues. Yes the boiler died (last repair date 1947) yes the original copper water piping needing replacing.( good run for something installed in 1929) But the radiators heated the house flawlessly, the solid walls keep it insulated, and the bath tube was spacious.

This small home had a family with four kids before us. So honestly you can gladly keep your plywood house of cards. I’ll be happy in my Victorian house using a 1950’s refridgerator. Because both items weren’t made to last and be serviceable.

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