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8 common hazards in your old house

Got your eye on that lovely two-story Victorian in Charleston? A lakeside arts and crafts cottage in the Wisconsin Dells? That antebellum Greek revival in New Orleans?

Brace yourself. That old house can come with plenty of old problems, from asbestos in the attic to radon in the basement.

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Such concerns don't necessarily mean you must give up your dream of buying a piece of the past. But you do need to bring along a knowledgeable architect or design-build remodeling contractor to scout out hazards common in older homes.

And keep your checkbook handy.

"When you're buying an old house, it's not so much a matter of what you end up putting back into it. It's the realization that you've bought old housing stock and it does need to be maintained to keep your investment up," says David Tyson, a design-build professional in Charlotte, N.C. "If you spend your dollars right and do it well, it will hold or increase its value."

Tyson and Dennis Gehman of Gehman Custom Builders in Harleysville, Pa., have each renovated their own vintage homes. Here are eight hazards they say typically await older-home buyers, along with ways to deal with them and ballpark estimates of what it'll cost to correct them.

Radon is a naturally occurring gas that has been identified as the second leading cause of lung cancer in the United States. It usually enters the home through cracks in the foundation.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that one in 15 homes in the United States has a high level of radon. Real estate agents, contractors and home inspectors can help you test for radon before you buy.

"Options might be as simple as sealing the basement floor and installing ventilation or as costly as tearing up the floor and pipes and redoing it," says Gehman.

The costs to deal with radon range from $400 to $500 if you only seal the basement floor; $1,000 to seal and install a vent pipe up the exterior of the house; or as much as $5,000 to $6,000 for a new foundation and plumbing.

Cracked foundation
In addition to admitting radon, a cracked foundation left unaddressed can be a prescription for disaster. Common foundation materials used back then, such as cement and cinder blocks, crack and leak over time, especially if they weren't sealed on the exterior side, which also was common in those days. Water seepage can lead to both structural threats (rot and termites) and health issues (mold and mildew).

"There are numerous sealants that can be applied on the inside of the block, but if there is a lot of hydrostatic pressure from the outside, it can just peel it off. Then you would need to do some sort of an interior drain on the inside of the foundation walls and pipe that into a sump pump pit and discharge it," says Gehman.

An easy external tip: Make sure downspouts are draining water away from the foundation. Raised beds and extended runoffs might save you thousands in foundation repairs.

The cost for foundation repair runs from $1,000 for interior sealant to 10 times than for sealant and drain work.

Lead pipes
Even after lead pipes were replaced in the late 1940s, the earliest galvanized steel pipes still contained lead until it was changed over to zinc. Lead also was present in much of the solder used to join copper pipes as recently as the mid-1980s.

The easiest way to take care of lead in water pipes is with a filtration system. A kitchen system would run $500; a whole house system around $2,000.

It could cost upwards of $5,000 to replace all pipes in the house depending on how much of the structure has to be destroyed to get the old pipes out.

Lead-based paint
Lead-based paint is a tricky issue in a vintage home. In its solid form, whether on interior or exterior surfaces, it is not harmful unless ingested, such as by an infant chewing a sill. In all likelihood, the interior paint has already been painted over several times and is well encapsulated in a Latex-based product.

But when it peels or flakes off of exterior siding, particles can become airborne or drop into soil where children or pets might ingest them or they could contaminate a vegetable garden. As a result, contractors typically prefer to remove exterior siding altogether rather than sandblast or attempt to strip layers of paint that could contain lead.

To remove and replace siding, get ready to shell out between $12,000 and $15,000.

-- Posted: June 8, 2004




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