Many buyers think a new home is better than on older one because it will require less maintenance, at least initially. The fire that scorched thousands of homes in the hills above Oakland, Calif., in 1991 put this theory to the test. Many new homes were built with engineered foundations fit for earthquake country and modern features like dual-pane windows to improve energy efficiency.
However, far too any of these homes developed problems soon after they were built — often almost immediately. One family who rebuilt found the house was uninhabitable because the windows and doors leaked, as did the slate terraces, which were over finished ceilings.
They had to move out of the house while it was virtually rebuilt. All windows, doors, decks and the exterior wood siding had to be removed and redone. The experience was so unpleasant — involving a legal action as well as the hassle of the construction work — that the owners never moved back into the house. They sold it.
In other cases, homes built post-fire had serious deterioration issues develop within years after the home was completed. Many of the problems involved windows and decks that hadn’t been installed property. Another common problem was decks and staircases that were constructed without proper ventilation.
One woman was surprised to discover that the front stairs and porch of her 5-year-old home needed to be replaced. The wood structure was wet underneath and damaged beyond repair. The stair system had been built without any ventilation. When water got trapped underneath the stairs, due to leaking caused by improper flashing, there was no way for it to dry out.
A final approval of a building permit by the local planning or building department is not a guarantee that the work was done properly, or even according to building code requirements. Inspectors are human and miss defects. Also, some cities don’t require builders to strictly follow the Universal Building Code. For example, Oakland’s planning department doesn’t adhere to crawl-space ventilation, which can lead to moisture-related problems.
Homes built by contractors who are known for doing good work can develop problems if the subcontractors drop the ball. The general contractor should oversee the subcontractor’s work, but that doesn’t always happen, resulting in work having to be redone when a defect shows up.
HOUSE HUNTING TIP: Always have a new home inspected by a home inspector before you commit to buying it. If the home inspector recommends further inspections, have these done before removing your inspection contingency. Most buyers think there’s no need to have a structural pest control (termite) contractor inspect the house because it’s new. However, if a deck isn’t flashed incorrectly, it will leak right away if put to a water test.
Older homes do, in general, require more maintenance than well-built new homes. They also may be outdated and in need of renovation. The floor plans often don’t work for a modern lifestyle. They can require work and financial investment to bring them up to date. But, they usually don’t cost as much as a new home. And they are often located in a more central location.
Another benefit of older homes is that they tend to be located in established neighborhoods with mature landscaping. Also, they have weathered the test of time. Major defects are likely to have surfaced after a half century or so.
One of the best buying opportunities is a newer home that has been occupied by at least one owner for a number of years. If defects show up soon after the new home is finished, someone rather than you will deal with the contractor to have the problems corrected.
THE CLOSING: Make sure to get full disclosure on any of these corrected defects and have an inspector check the work carefully.