Home Improvements by the Numbers: The age of your home delivers clues to what might need work

You've probably heard it said dozens of times before "they don't build 'em like they used to." Well, it's true – and sometimes that's a good thing! While home construction has changed quite dramatically over the years, every era of home construction had its strengths and weaknesses. For example, old homes offer character and charm that is rarely reproduced in modern construction. But, old homes are also drafty and leaky. Newer homes might offer energy efficiency but they go up so quickly that workmanship often falls by the wayside.

Before hosting The Money Pit, I spent 20 years as a professional home inspector. In that job, I developed an uncanny ability to predict what might be wrong with a home without even setting foot in the door. This wasn't a parlor trick but the result having done thousands of home inspections and seeing the same problems over and over again. Once you know the age of a home, the construction shortcomings are fairly consistent.

Here’s what you need to know, by the numbers:

Homes Built 1900 – 1940

Homes Built 1940 – 1960

Homes Built 1960 – 1980

Homes Built 1980 – Present

1900 – 1940

GREEN LUMBER – Ever wonder why old houses have so many unusual twists and turns? Much of this is the result of “green lumber”, wood that was never kiln dried. Between 1900 and 1920, it was common to use lumber that came right from the saw mill as the kiln drying process had not been developed. As a result, this lumber shrank, twisted and turned resulting is some pretty interesting wall and floor shapes. The good news is that this is mostly a cosmetic defect. Think of it as house personality!

KNOB & TUBE WIRING – Around 1920, it became standard practice to install electrical wiring in homes. This wiring was called “Knob & Tube” because it was strung alongside wooden framing on ceramic knobs and run through lumber via ceramic tubes. If you spot some of this in your home, get rid of it. Knob & Tube wiring is unsafe for a bunch of reasons and should be completely replaced.

STEEL WATER SUPPLY PIPES – Used from 1900 until around 1940, steel plumbing pipes worked well for the first 20 years or so, then they began to rust shut much like a clogged artery. If the reduced water pressure doesn’t force you to change them, the bursting pipes will. If you spot steel pipes in your house, you might notice white spots on the outside. Don’t touch them. The white stuff is a mineral salt deposit that got left behind by the leak which you’ll soon discover once the mineral “scab” falls away!

BALLOON FRAMED WALLS – Old homes were commonly built with studs that were two stories. This was known as balloon framing. The downside is fire. In a balloon framed wall, fire can rush up through two stories in no time. The solution is to install “fire blocks”, short pieces of two by four lumber installed horizontally between wall studs. This slows the fire and buys precious time to get out.

UNINSULATED WALLS – Before 1940, insulated exterior walls were a rarity. Insulating the attics wasn’t much better. If you had any insulation at all, it was usually just an inch or two. Today, blown in insulation is a good option. By drilling a small hole in each wall cavity, a pro can blow in insulation that fills the space and warms your home.


UNLINED CHIMNEYS – Between 1900 and 1920, chimneys were commonly made of brick and had no terra-cotta clay liners. If you look up your old house chimney and see just brick, it might be very dangerous to use it burn wood and it might even be unsafe to use to vent your gas or oil furnace. The solution, get it relined or build a new one.


PLASTER ON WOOD LATH – Plaster walls, constructed by attaching thin pieces of wood to wall studs and then covering them with several layers of wet plaster, was the standard up until around 1935. The problem with these walls today is that they are weak and usually badly cracked. The solution is to either completely remove or replace the plaster with drywall, or to skin them by nailing new drywall over the old walls.

ASBESTOS HEATING PIPES AND DUCTS – Unfortunately, asbestos was the insulation of choice for heating systems up until the 1940’s. On hot water systems, a version that looks much like corrugated cardboard was wrapped around straight pipes and a wet plaster like concoction was packed around the elbows. This stuff can be downright dangerous. If you still have asbestos on your old heating pipes, contact a pro to get it removed, then reinsulate with a non-toxic product. Whatever you do, don’t do it yourself! Asbestos fibers are so fine, you could easily contaminate your entire house with these cancer causing fibers.

1940 – 1960

UNDERSIZED ELECTRICAL SYSTEMS – Although the wiring of the 1940’s was a bit safer than knob & tube wiring of the 1920’s, it was still plagued by lots of problems. Have you ever wondered why your old house wiring dims the lights from time to time? It’s because back-then, it was common to put all the electrical needs of one room or even a couple of rooms, on the same circuit. With kitchens, for example, this would cause the lights to dim every time the compressor in the refrigerator kicked on. Small electrical systems of less than 100 amps were also common, as were two-prong ungrounded outlets. If you have some of this wiring still running parts of your home, add upgrades to the “to do” list for your local electrician.

LEAKY, DRAFTY WINDOWS - Inefficient steel and aluminum windows were common in this era. While seen at the time as a modern upgrade to iron weighted wood windows that swelled and rotted, time has proven these windows to be just as problematic. Steel windows rust badly and unless they have rusted shut, are probably very drafty. If you are still nursing some of these antiques, they should be replaced as I can guarantee you they won’t become more valuable over time!

ASBESTOS CEILING TILE AND TEXTURED CEILINGS – Remember those old 12 x 12 ceiling tiles that you may have grown up with? Chances are they contained asbestos. The same goes for textured ceilings that were from this same period. If you still see these in your house today, it’s a good idea to have them tested by a lab to make sure they are asbestos free before removing them.

VERMICULITE – Vermiculite is a lightweight brownish-gold mineral that was used as insulation in attics. While it seemed like a good idea at the time, it also loaded with asbestos and needs to be removed by a pro.

1960 – 1980

DECORATING’S “DARK ERA” – The 1960’s was certainly an odd time for decorating trends. Wall paneling, dark kitchen cabinets, carpet in kitchens and bathrooms and poor lighting were all the norm. Remember the “Early American” trend? It was popular in my house growing up and I swear if I saw just one more badly drawn picture of a bald eagle I would just choke! If some of these decorating archives adorn your walls, get out the paintbrush or crowbar and start swinging!

ALUMNIUM WIRING – In 1962, a new era of electrical code made homes a lot safer than they have ever been before, with one single lapse in judgment. This same code allowed for aluminum branch circuit wiring. Used between 1964 and 1973, this wiring had the nasty little habit of catching on fire and took many a home down before it was pulled out of service. If your home was built in these years, have an electrician check to determine if you have any aluminum branch circuits. If so, there is a modification that was approved by the Consumer Product Safety Commission called “Copalum” that can make the wiring safe.

FIRE RETARDANT PLYWOOD – Millions of condominiums were constructed from the late 70’s on that used a material in their roofs known as fire retardant plywood. In principal, this stuff was supposed to slow the spread of fire between adjoining units. Unfortunately, it had design flaws that caused the wood to disintegrate. Most has already been replaced but if you ever look up in the attic of your condo or townhouse and notice that the wood nearest the next unit looks more like shredded wheat, you might still have a roof repair on your hands.

INADEQUATE ROOF VENTS – In the 1960’s and through to the mid 70’s, attics typically did not have enough ventilation. As a result, moisture build up over all those years caused the roof sheathing to eventually rot away. If you own a home in this era, your best bet is to add more. Continuous ridge and soffit venting works best. This system will flush warm or moist air out of the attic 24/7, leaving the structure in good shape while keeping both heating and cooling costs in check.

FOGGED WINDOW & DOOR GLASS – Insulated glass was becoming the norm as energy prices rose in the 70’s. Unfortunately, manufacturers didn’t quite have it down right just yet and as a resulted, the seals between the often glass failed leaving windows and doors fogged. If you spot old windows around your home that have bad seals, replace them to restore energy efficiency.

COMPOSITE SIDING – For some silly reason, a bunch of manufacturers thought hardboard would make a fine siding product. For those of you that don’t know what this is, it’s compressed PAPER! During the years I spent as a professional home inspector, I would tell my clients that they shouldn’t expect a single problem with their hardboard siding – as long as they painted it every day before going to work! There is not much chance you still have this on your home now as most of it has melted away, and taken some wall structures with it!

SPEED BUILT HOMES - If you really want to draw a line when homes began to be built poorly, my vote would be to set that mark at around 1970. When the Vietnam War and government spending stimulated high inflation, President Nixon instituted price controls that really hurt builders. Costs were going up; interest rates were sky high and the only thing that helped builders recoup was getting homes built as fast as possible. Also around this time, builders also stopped paying employees hourly for work and began paying by the task. The faster the kitchen was installed or the deck got built, the more that particular contractor would make for his day’s wage. As a result, workmanship really took a nosedive.

TIGHT HOUSES – As energy costs rose in the 70’s, homes began to be constructed tighter than ever. But, tight homes are a good thing right? Not necessarily. Homes that are overly tight don’t breathe and as result, suffer from indoor air pollution and worse – toxic mold. If you suspect your home might not be ventilated properly, you can install an air to air heat exchanger. During cold winters, this device brings fresh air into your home without wasting heat.

1980 – Present

OLD APPLIANCES – Many house components have life cycles that run from 15 to 20 years. These include appliances like furnaces, water heaters, washers, dryers and dishwashers. By plotting the age of your appliances, you’ll have a good idea when replacement should be expected.

CATHEDRAL CEILINGS - Oversized cathedral ceilings that did not heat or cool well were common in this era. If you have one that looks good but wreaks havoc on your heating or cooling bills, you may be able to install ceiling fans that would blow hot air down in the summer and pull cold air up in the winter.

FIBERGLASS SHINGLES – Around 1980 or so, roofing manufacturers began changing the way they made roof shingles by replacing the organic mat that held the asphalt with a fiberglass matt. Originally, this seemed like good idea but once many of these fiberglass shingles got to be 5 to 10 years old, they began to crack, rip and tear and needed to be replaced. If you have a home with fiberglass shingles, have it periodically inspected. The best way to do this is from a ladder at the roof edge as the cracks are hard to spot from the ground.

SYNTHETIC STUCCO – One of the more modern construction goofs in my opinion is synthetic stucco. Technically knows as Exterior Insulated Foam Siding or “EIFS”, this materials creates an attractive finish to home exteriors that looks very much like a masonry stucco. There is only one problem – it leaks. And, it can leak very, very badly, causing water to get behind it and rot away the exterior wall structure. Manufacturers claim the most recent applications have improved it by adding draining channels, but as home inspector friend of mine once said, this stuff was leaking on the drawing board. If your home has EIFS, you’d better watch it carefully for leaks and keep a caulking gun always at the ready.

Yes – they don’t build them like they used to. But if you know when your house was built, this will give you a good idea of what to watch out for.

Note: Tom Kraeutler is the Home Improvement Editor for AOL and host of The Money Pit, a nationally syndicated home improvement radio program. To find a local radio station, download the show’s podcast or sign-up for Tom’s free weekly e-newsletter, visit the program's website at www.moneypit.com.

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