I am considering buying a 200 year old farmhouse in rural PA. What problems should I look for?

Asked by Ruth Parker, Exton, PA Thu Dec 11, 2008

What inspections should I have or just the standard? Will hazard insurance be more if there is an old dilapidated barn on the property? What exactly is a cesspool and can one be in good working order?

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Joe Michalski, , Philadelphia, PA
Thu Dec 11, 2008
Hi, Ruth! I am a home inspector and specialize in historic homes, having renovated 3 myself.

You should DEFINITELY get an inspection from someone who is familiar with old homes, since they very often have features and systems that are aged or unique but may be in good working order. Many inspectors have an automatic reaction to replace older items when it is not necessary.

Problems to watch out for include the roofing (slate or wood shake roofs can be VERY expensive to repair, and require some regular maintenance); visible plumbing system (old cast iron waste lines and galvanized supply lines may be present and have problems with corrosion on the interior); the furnace/boiler (most of these have been modernized, but I have seen oil fired boilers that are over 50 years old and on their way out); electrical wiring (often knob and tube is still present in portions of the home, fuses may be in use, electrical service may be inadequate for your intended uses, and ungrounded outlets are common); fireplaces (especially in bedrooms) are often original coal fireplaces and not approprate for use with wood, and chimneys/liners may need repair; cracking plaster (cosmetic, but if the plaster is falling away from the lathe then it needs major repair or replacement).

Lead paint is a strong possibility, and asbestos may be present on some materials used in the home in more recent years. Windows are often drafty (if original and using a balance weight and chain system).

There are likely many wonderful and charming featuers that your home may have as well, and those items I listed are just a checklist of potentially costly repairs.

I can't comment on the insurance, since I don't have much experience there but regarding the cesspool:
It is possible that it is in good working order, but it is equally likely that it is dated and may need replaced. A cesspool is just a septic system that combines the tank and absorbtion field into one component (usually to save space). They have been used for a long time but it is generally considered that septic systems are better. Here is some really good info for you:


Hope that helps!
Web Reference:  http://www.sherlockHI.com
2 votes
Mim Heisey, , Shippensburg, PA
Mon Dec 15, 2008
Hi Ruth,
Great Question. Joe has given you a lot of good info from my perspective. My husband & I have renovated numerous older properties, including the 1860-1880 one we are in now, and a 1790s stone and log structure They do pose some unique problems, but by and large they are well built (they are the ones that have lasted!). One other resource that you might check is your local historical society or the office that handles historic registries in your area. They have some good info tha twill be especially helpful if you intend to register the home. You may, however find that the restrictions that such a registration carries with it, outweighs the benefits to you personally.
Best wishes as you take on this project. It can be very rewarding!
1 vote
Joe Michalski, , Philadelphia, PA
Thu Dec 11, 2008
Hi, Ruth! I cover anything on the Eastern half of PA (pretty much from Reading to the NJ/PA border). I do have several septic pros that I recommend depending on the location of the home, but you are by no means bound to my choices if you have someone in mind.

I also offer termite (Wood Destroying Insect) inspections, radon testing, and just about any kind of mold or moisture analysis you can think of. Generally speaking, though, I like to try to save clients the money they might otherwise spend on mold testing. Typically, this is only necessary if you are not sure that the substance in question is actually mold, or if you have a specific allergy and/or need to know the type of mold present. Most times, we can do more for free by identifying the source of the moisture that created the mold problem and correcting that, then recommending removal and replacement of molded materials.

This eliminates the mold from the area, exposes any hidden concerns, and addresses the underlying cause - all for Zero Dollars. I use a digital moisture meter to identify any higher than usual moiture contents in any material (sheetrock, plater, concrete, wood, etc) and a thermal imaging camera to try to identify the hidden cause or leak (this is a cool toy that I recently splurged for, but have found invaluable - I even found a leak in my slate roof that is not visible from any vantage point or location in the home!)

As for buried oil tanks - most times we can identify if they are on the property, but if the area has been significantly disturbed (to add a garage, for example) or otherwise altered, the telltale indicators may have been removed and no one would be able to know for sure (save excavation or metal detection devices).

I also do well water testing, using the FASTEST and CHEAPEST (as well as accurate!) lab I have ever encountered. It also happens to be in Chester County!

I carry lead paint swabs (a VERY basic test) to see if there is any surface lead in suspect areas (like closet interiors or wood window frames with cracking or peeeling paint).

Prices and services are listed on my website if you are interested. And of course you can always call me with any questions (about old houses, problems, services - anything house related!) Good luck and I hope I can help!
Web Reference:  http://www.SherlockHI.com
1 vote
Joe Michalski, , Philadelphia, PA
Thu Dec 11, 2008
These are all good sugestions and triggered a few more throughts (well water quality testing is a definite must-have in rural Chester County due to potential nitrites from fertilizers from any nearby farms).

My experience with home warranties and older homes is that it can be difficult to get some items covered because of lack of previous maintenance, so try to get any serivice records for heaters, etc if available. They also do not cover the cost of excavation for plumbing repairs (for buried lines) so the septic inspection is a good idea, and I would recommend having the main line scoped with a camera to determine its condition (this can be done by a good plumber and possibly the septic inspector).

A U&O inspection will likely turn up safety related issues (but vary widely from town to town). Smoke detectors, GFCI outlets, and handrails are typical concerns, but some are far more detailed.

My insurance agent never came out to my home, but that may vary by insurer or policy type. I took plenty of digital photos of the home and any covered items (along with serial numbers) which I keep in a safety deposit box with other important items, just in case I ever have to prove anything.

Finally, I forgot to mention the prevelance of powder post beetles in old floor joists in the basement. If you see lots of small holes, and some powdering of the joists, that is them. They are easily treated, but nearly every old home I have ever inspected has them.

Hope that helps a little more!!
Web Reference:  http://www.SherlockHI.com
1 vote
Bill Eckler, Agent, Venice, FL
Thu Dec 11, 2008

To protect your best intrerests you should engage in the entireinspection menue-structural, WDO, mold, septic,and have a survey done. Pay close attention to the structures wiring because it would have been installed over a period of years, possibly in stages which could leave areas dated and in need of updating.

A cesspool is a holding area for waste. We haven't heard of or seen anything on cesspools in years, so with all of the environmental issues, we would advise investigaitng the legality and responsibility of having one of these.

The insurance rate question probably would depend on a number of factors..First and foremost would be its proximity to the home...if it's very close, you may have more of an issue. Having a pond, lake or creek nearby should help your cause for a lower rate.

Owning historical property is great fun and usually comes with a laundery list of things that need to be done.

Best of luck

The Eckler Team
Michael Saunders & Company
1 vote
Joe Michalski, , Philadelphia, PA
Fri Dec 12, 2008
While I obviously disagree with the recommendation that you need a structural engineer (few I know have ever evaluated or worked with mortice and tenon for instance) the insurance info is something I do agree with. Their expertise can be useful if there is a failing foundation, but you are likely to find rough cut or half log floor joists, and some mortice and tenon roofing (particularly in the barn), etc, and most SE's don't have the first clue about insects, moold, roofing, electrical, HVAC, plumbing, etc. so, you are likely to want an full home inspection done anyway. Typically, an SE is called in when we see structural stress, foundation issues, or concerns with additions to a structure that may not have been done with permits.

That said, some people feel more secure when they have specialty pros evaluate certain portions of thier home and I certainly understand that.

My insurance carrier offers a higher rate plan (Ultra Cover) which guarantees that they will replace the materials with the same materials. It costs me about $500 more per year, but I bought this home because I like the slate roof, period architecture and trim, and 18 inch thich brick walls. I wouldn't want to see it replaced with vinyl siding and asphalt shingles because that is the replacement value the insurance carried.
0 votes
Brittany Sim…, , Columbus, OH
Thu Dec 11, 2008

Use a structural engineer as an inspector. It should not cost much more than a traditional inspector, but will be worth the difference. Your insurance will likely be higher on this type of property (barn or not) due to the materials. (framing was more expensive-more wood, hardwood floors, woodwork, etc.) These materials are more expensive to replace in case of fire versus the less expensive materials used today. Re[;acement cost would be quite high to replicate the same house.

Common problems with older homes-knob and tube wiring, slate roofs, termite damage, lack of insulation, plaster walls, drainage and foundation issues.

Good luck!
0 votes
Ruth Parker, Agent, Exton, PA
Thu Dec 11, 2008
Thanks for all of your advice. I really appreciate your experiences, Joe, with older homes and wonder if you travel from Philadelphia to outer Chester County to do inspections? Do you have affiliations with inspectors of these other things like septic, radon, well water, buried oil tanks, etc or do you do them all yourself?
0 votes
Cheryl R. Su…, , Schwenksville, PA
Thu Dec 11, 2008
Hi Ruth, you will want to have the following inspections besides a regular inspection: Termite, Radon, Septic, and well if there is a well. You will also want the heater and roof certified by a qualified licensed professional. Another possible precaution may be to have a U & O done as well as buy a home warranty. Don't forget to obtain home owner's insurance. They will come out to assess the home prior to giving you a policy. Wow, that's alot to take in. When you make an offer on this type of home, make sure your offer is contingent on all of these items coming back as satisfactory to you, otherwise, they may want you to buy the home in "as is" condition and that could be risky.
0 votes
Tim Joyce, Agent, Nashua, NH
Thu Dec 11, 2008

Old prpoerties are a labor of love, get the home inspected by a professional with the well and septic. Cess pool is an old form of septic and does not have a leaching field. I'm not too sure of local requirements you may want to get a test pit done to get the cost range of a new septic if needed. Cost of insurance may require a site visit, attached barns can cause insurance companies to increase rates.
0 votes
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