Home Buying in Alameda>Question Details

Trulia Roger, Home Buyer in Alameda, CA

What specific problems do Victorian homes have?

Asked by Trulia Roger, Alameda, CA Wed Oct 15, 2008

I like Victorian homes (there are a lot of them where I live) and I'd like to own one at some point, but I'm curious what specific issues I need to be ready for: rot, foundations, insulation, etc? Any gotchas I should know about?

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I used to work in construction and have renovated a Victorian home in San Francisco. In my experience, there are a couple of things to pay attention to...

First - the standard of construction can vary considerably. Look out for undersized framing members. Especially in the floor joists. Some Victorians are built very solidly, while others look like they were built quickly and by scrimping on materials. When the framing is undersized it can be more complicated to remodel since the city inspector may want you to upgrade the structure.

Second - look out for foundations that are too low to the ground or made of substandard materials. My Victorian in San Francisco had a concrete foundation that had deteriorated significantly. The contractor said that they often used beach sand in the concrete in those days. The salt in the sand then leaches out over time causing the concrete to crumble. If the foundation is too low to the ground (I think the current building codes require the wooden framing to be at least 6" above grade ) then water and termites can work their way into the framing - not good.

Also - some houses of that vintage are built on brick foundations which are not sound in the event of an earthquake.

The good news about Victorians is that they are typically built from very high quality redwood that is rot resistant and very long lasting.

I would be happy to elaborate on my experiences if you need more information. Just contact me directly.

David Kendall
Prudential California Realty
(510) 524-4131
2 votes Thank Flag Link Wed Oct 15, 2008
Most victorian homes were built in the late 1800's or early 1900's and my observation is that most of them were built by excellent builders. The problems that can be experienced in buying them can be as many were built on brick foundations, and I have seen many that have survived for many years, but they are not as stable as a poured concrete foundation and many buyers currently put in a new concrete foundation as a start. of course unless the wiring and plumbing has been redone, there can be a large expense in redoing both the wiring and plumbing. Dry rot can be a problem if the damage that excess water causes or termite infestation has caused, so this must be considered and will need expert evaluations done to determine the damage and the cost to fix the property. I have seen many victorians that have been restored and they are exceptionally, unique and have features, such as stairwells and other fixtures that are irreplacable today Many have full basements that are remarkable They are beautiful homes. Evaluate the costs and if you can afford to make the restoration changes you will have a beautiful home. Jo Anne Chandler, Gallagher and Lindsey.
2 votes Thank Flag Link Wed Oct 15, 2008
Bill, in Alameda CA, we have a local ordinance to ensure that the sewer lateral is tested. If it fails, it should be replaced witin a few months from close of escrow. I believe this is now true of other cities in the Bay area where we have quite a few Victorians.

So yes, tihs is addressed in our market.
1 vote Thank Flag Link Fri Nov 28, 2008

As a design style Victorian homes have the same type of septic problems as any other kind of design. An important concern should be the approximate age of the system and weather there are trees with root systems near the under ground pipes that could cause clogging.
1 vote Thank Flag Link Fri Nov 28, 2008

I was a bit amused when you said the "real" part of Alameda

Here's a link to a geomap http://geomaps.wr.usgs.gov/sfgeo/liquefaction/susceptibility.html

This shows the liquefaction factor -- keep zooming in to see Alameda. You'll see that as expected there is higher probability of liquefaction in the perimeter of the City (and newer areas like South Shore and Harbor Bay).

Not all Victorians are created equal....some have been maintained and updated beautifully, and others need help. If a house is over 100 years old, you'll expect that there will be problems. How do they do it in Europe where a 500 year old house is considered "new" ?

By the way, a couple of my clients are buying my listing, a duplex on Encinal. Happily, the foundation of that property was already done by Gutleben. So although it does need a fresh coat of paint, structurally, it's in good shape. We also peeked into the attic ---- and it's huge! It's almost like a third floor. That's another surprise when it comes to these older homes.

Take care.
1 vote Thank Flag Link Fri Nov 28, 2008

From our experience, one of the commonly found condcerns for northern Victorian homes is that people overlook the impact of the high ceilings on the cost and ability to heat these homes during the winter months.

Zoned heat, ceiling fanc, and efficient windows can make life more comfortable in these beautiful homes.

The "Eckler Team"
1 vote Thank Flag Link Sun Nov 23, 2008
There's a really good site you can check out as a reference for general remodeling, etc.


This is an interactive map, so you can zoom in to the San Francisco area for this purpose. It gives you estimates of
Job Cost, Resale Value, Cost Recouped, and type of project. This list includes:

Roofing replacement of $21,360 in the SF area, $18,042 nationally
Siding replacement of $12,139 in the SF, $9,910 nationally

As for foundation --- you'll have to interview some folks for that. In Alameda, Ken Gutleben has a stellar reputation.

Another one we refer to a lot is Chee Chan from Sing Sing --- he's a licensed general contractor, and does pretty much all of the things on your list.

Call/email me if you need more info on some of the folks realtors like us refer our clients to. Our reputation depends on how well they do their job. Thus far, these folks have been great!

510 748 1148 office
1 vote Thank Flag Link Sat Nov 22, 2008
I have a Victorian duplex. Luckily for me, the previous owner has done some improvements, and therefore, we're comfortable for the most part. But not having double pane windows make for very drafty winters.

Keep in mind that most Victorians were built in the 1800s. By 1900, the architecture has changed to Colonial Revivals, etc. These old painted ladies will need upkeep, maintenance and renovation to bring it up to modern times (including upgrading the electrical amperage to accommodate the latest electronics and appliances)

The size of the Victorian house may also determine the height of the basement. Some Queen Anne High Basement features the living areas on the second level, and then have a low-ceiling for the basement.

Things to look for:
* Foundation --- brick? Would need to be reinforced or replaced
* Insulation
* Windows --- Drafty? Single-pane?
* Attic -- insulation?
* Electrical and plumbing upgrades
* Furnace --- how old?
* Fireplace --- functional? In good shape? Do not use unless you have it tested first.
* Sewer lateral (in Alameda, this has to be tested; if it fails, it must be replaced within a certain period of time, before or after closing escrow for the most recent sale)
* Siding --- sealed? Any cracks that will allow water to seep in?
* Roof -- how many times was it replaced or re-roofed? In Alameda, we can have up to 3 layers of roof. After that, they should all be removed and a new roof installed.
1 vote Thank Flag Link Fri Nov 21, 2008
Depends on whether or not the owner has upgraded the home. If not insulated, or upgraded window, utilities are costly. Older homes are built far better than new ones. Most victorians in Alameda have had brick foundations replaced. Victorians need a lot of maintenance.
1 vote Thank Flag Link Fri Nov 21, 2008
I'm in the process of buying a Victorian home built in 1900. Does anyone know of a good inspector with experience with Victorian homes in the Hercules area?
0 votes Thank Flag Link Fri Jan 25, 2013
Thanks Gene--your last sentence got a chuckle out of me :)
0 votes Thank Flag Link Fri Dec 5, 2008
Thanks so much! This is great information.

Here's another question: the Victorians in Alameda are built on the "real" part of the island, not the landfill section. How stable is the soil in the old town? I've seen a lot of Victorians that have suffered some uneven settling over the years, visible to the naked eye--one house looked like you could put a billiard ball down in one corner of the living room and see it roll all the way down to the front of the house.
0 votes Thank Flag Link Fri Nov 28, 2008
Thanks, Pacita, Jean, Jo Anne and David. What kind of costs are we talking about, assuming a 2000 square foot 2-story Victorian that's between "good condition" and "needs TLC" (i.e. not as bad as a "contractor's special") if it needed things like:

A new foundation
A new roof
Sewer lateral (not clear what that is--is it just the sewer line between the house and the street?)
Upgraded electrical
Siding replacement
Whole-house floor refinishing
Minor dry rot
A 3000 square foot dirt yard's worth of sod
Exterior paint

I don't have a specific house in mind--it's just that the ones I've seen in person needed a combination of some of the above repairs. One house I saw came at $250K worth of repairs (ballpark from a contractor who spent a good amount of time with me looking at the house inside and out) and that scared me a little :)

Thanks again, this is very informative.
0 votes Thank Flag Link Sat Nov 22, 2008
Thanks for your answers, everyone!
0 votes Thank Flag Link Wed Nov 5, 2008
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