You looked past the creepy, the kooky, the mysterious, and the spooky to purchase that historic home in a great neighborhood. With a little work, you think, I can bring this place up-to-date. However, before you start doing the twist in the solarium while the butler belabors over the harpsichord, you should take a close look into every nook and cranny of your newly acquired real estate. These fun houses sometimes have pitfalls that may turn your visions of older home renovation into a horror show.

Pitfall #1: Lead

The EPA has trumpeted far and wide about the dangers of lead-based paint in older homes. Every sale on a home built before 1978 has to be accompanied by a pamphlet on the hazards of lead paint as well as a full disclosure of the presence of lead paint anywhere in the home. However, there may be another source of lead in an older home that most people overlook. Lead was commonly used in plumbing pipes prior to the late 1800s, and as late as the 1940s, it was still used as a component in galvanized pipes before being replaced by zinc later in that decade. Lead was banned from plumbing altogether in the US in 1986; however, up until that time it was still being used as solder in copper piping.

While it is unlikely that your older home has full-lead piping (although this is a slight possibility for an historic home), if the home still has its original plumbing, it may be worth having a professional plumber out for an inspection to assess the lead threat. Lead soldering will not pose much of a problem ordinarily, but for people who are highly sensitive to heavy metals and prefer caution over luck, there are home test kits that let you check your water supply for trace amounts of the metal.

Pitfall #2: Asbestos

Asbestos is another common building product that is more ubiquitous than you might think. Prior to the late 1970s, asbestos was considered a sort of panacea for all construction woes. It was cheap, fireproof, lightweight, and very long-lasting, so it was incorporated into a wide variety of building products, from insulation to acoustic tiles.

Unfortunately, asbestos was later discovered to be deadly. Prolonged exposure leads to a form of cancer called mesothelioma, and once asbestos is damaged or crumbling, its toxic fibers can be released into the air and circulated. When asbestos that is still in good condition is encountered in the renovation process, the advice is usually to leave it alone to prevent disturbing the fibers. However, if the asbestos needs to be removed, the work can only be performed by a contractor who is licensed in asbestos abatement and has the proper permits to do the removal.

Pitfall #3: Buried Wells, Tanks, and Cesspools

We take modern water, sewer, and heating systems for granted, but it was common for older homes to have those services located a little closer to home. Wells, cesspools, and buried oil tanks are commonly found lurking under older homes, and homeowners may not even be aware of them until a renovation project starts. Old wells, cesspools, and empty oil tanks can be filled in with solid materials as a remedy, but a buried tank that still contains oil has to be handled in a more official manner. The contractor will have to take soil samples and obtain an environmental permit before digging up the tank, and it will have to be disposed of at a special facility, which may increase the renovation costs.

Pitfall #4: Electricity

Of particular concern in renovating an older home should be the electrical system. Older wiring may still be functional, but it can contain hazards lying in wait. Old wire insulation was made from cotton, and while surprisingly durable, it doesn’t last forever. At any signs of fraying or crumbling, or if the wire insulation is missing altogether, it’s time to call a professional electrician to update the electrical system.

There are several other updates an electrician can perform to make the system safer and more useful. Many old homes lack a ground wire to provide a safe path for excess electrical current from outlets, and most older electrical panels are 60/100- or 125-amp capacity. Installing a ground wire and upgrading the panel to the modern standard of 200 amps can protect your home from an overloaded system and tripped circuit breakers. Most building codes today require installation of ground-fault circuit interrupter outlets in water-prone areas, such as the garage, bath, kitchen, and possibly basement. Also, consider generally increasing the number of outlets in the home. With the wide variety of devices that require direct power or recharging stations, modern electricity needs have grown exponentially from even 40 years ago; it is very likely that your older home won’t have the number of outlets you need to keep all your electronics humming.

While older home renovations can be complicated, engaging the services of experienced, vetted home improvement professionals can make the process significantly easier, and the reward is getting to live in your own little piece of history.

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Sources: Bankrate; Better Homes and Gardens; EPA; The Calgary Herald; The Craftsman; University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension.

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