What are the common problems to look for when buying a 1960s house?
Monday, October 22, 2018
The 1960s was a decade of political and cultural upheaval: the civil rights movement, flower-power hippies, Vietnam War, and the Beatles are all symbols of the era. It is also often called the “Swinging Sixties” because of the dramatic shift in norms about clothing, music, drugs, and sexuality.
But home construction methods were mostly just an extension of the trends of the 1950s. Terrazzo floors became a hot button for home buyers and floor plans opened up even more than the previous decade, with the daring innovation of a pass-through window and counter in a kitchen still otherwise completely enclosed from the rest of the home. Thanks to the TV show “Mad Men,” it’s also now a popular era for homebuyers to tackle for renovation project.
Here’s what to look for if you are considering buying a 1960s home:
Floor Plan - The average home was smaller, with about a 35% less square footage than new homes today. The master bathroom had not yet become standard and, if there is one, it is usually the same size or even smaller than the hall bathroom. Also, the split floor plan, with a master bedroom suite on the opposite side of the house, had not evolved yet. Look for the master behind the last door at the end of the hall.
While you can add more square footage by enclosing a porch or building an addition, gut and remodel the kitchen, or even knock down a wall to open up more visual space, moving rooms around is prohibitively expensive, so it’s important to be sure the basic layout suits your lifestyle.
Energy Efficiency - Energy was cheap and plentiful in the sixties. Wall and attic insulation was minimal and windows were uninsulated single-pane. The concept of carefully sealing the envelope of the house from air leakage was also not a big concern. Jalousie windows, which are great for summer ventilation but do not fully seal when closed during the winter, were popular. Some of this may have been fixed over the years, but it’s a good idea to take a peek at the condition of the insulation in the attic if you can, observe how well the doors and windows are sealed, and ask the seller to provide a few recent utility bills. Some homes from this era are surprisingly energy inefficient.
Foundation and Exterior Walls - Earlier era homes were built on a stem wall or piers, but most 1960s homes were concrete slab-on-grade, with a thickened edge that served as a foundation. A site dictates the foundation type to a certain extent, however, and sloping sites often required a combination of a concrete block stem wall on the more sloping part of the ground under the home and slab-on-grade on the flatter areas of the site.
Over the half century of the home’s existence, soil erosion will take its toll on a sloping site as the soil slowly migrates downhill. Look for tell-tale stair-step and diagonal cracks, especially on the down-side of slopes, indicative of settlement, along with areas where the base of the foundation is beginning to become exposed. Other factors, such as expansive clay in the soil under the home, can also cause foundation distress over time.
Any older home will accumulate a few cracks from minor settlement and the natural expansion and contraction of the structure through the temperature changes of the seasons, and they are not a reason to be concerned. What you should look for are cracks larger than about 1/8” across (that you easily can stick two quarters into) and/or that have differential (one side is kicked-out higher than the other). Differential is usually the result of significant movement.
If you find signs of structural problems, it is not necessarily a reason to abandon a prospective house. Your home inspector can evaluate the defects further and give you insight into how severe the problem appears to be, along with referring you to a foundation contractor for further evaluation, if warranted. To learn how to evaluate the purchase of a house with known structural defects, see our blog Should I buy a house with structural problems?
Roofing - The low-slope and flat roofs of 1950s continued into the early ‘60s, and then were replaced later in the decade with higher pitch gable and hip roofs. “Tar-and gravel” was the standard roof covering for the low-slope roofs—which is actually a three or four-ply built-up roof with a final flood coat of asphalt tar and embedded gravel.
As the roof ages, loss of the gravel covering and “alligatoring” cracks in the asphalt tar surface underneath begin to appear, as shown in the photo below. To find out more about this type of roof, see our blog I'm buying a '50s modern house with a "gravel" roof. Is the roof going to be a problem?
One of the problems with this roof style for today’s homeowner is a lack of space for insulation and air conditioning ducts under the roof. Flat roofs with exposed beams have no space, and its minimal under low-slope roofs. There are ways around this dilemma: rigid insulation on top of the roof sheathing provides a moderate level of insulation, and dropped ceilings and interior soffits can be added for duct runs. But if these improvements are done haphazardly they detract from the character of the home. As the roof slope headed upward, homes returned to having an accessible attic and room to insulate. While insulation was limited, at least there will be room for retrofitting additional insulation to meet modern standards.
Many of the gravel roofs will already have been replaced with another material, such as modified bitumen, peel and stick, or EPDM. But occasionally we see low-slope roofs redone with asphalt shingles, which is an unacceptable alternative because it is only rated for roofs with a slope of 2/12 or more.
Plumbing - The big problem lurking inside many sixties homes is galvanized steel water supply piping—the pressurized pipe that delivers water to the plumbing fixtures inside the home. It was used extensively until the early 1970s and the pipe has an average life of 40 to 50 years. It deteriorates by rusting from the inside surface of the pipe outward, delivering rust particles to the backside of faucet valves, which gradually strangles the water flow at plumbing fixtures. The photo below shows the end of an old galvanized steel pipe that was cut off behind a washing machine faucet valve and replaced with the cream-colored CPVC pipe to the right of it.
While the restricted water flow can be a nuisance, especially at a shower, the pipes eventually rust through and spring leaks as the corrosion progresses. Galvanic corrosion, an electrolytic reaction between dissimilar metals, can speed up the corrosion at water heater connections, like in the photo below, where copper feeds cause the adjacent galvanized steel to rapidly deteriorate.
To learn more about galvanized steel water pipes, see our blog Why is old galvanized steel water pipe a problem for homebuyers?
A secondary concern is cast iron drain pipe, which has a 60 to 70 year life. Roots get into the pipes as they age, especially at the hub connections, and clog the drain; and, as the pipe reaches the end of its serviceable lifespan, it corrodes through. It will coming to the end of its average lifespan in the years ahead, and likely some of it will fail early. Many plumbers offer a video inspection using a snake-like borescope that they feed down a vent pipe on the roof to examine all the drain piping in a home, and we highly recommend this inspection for older homes.
Plus, we suggest you look under all the sinks at the condition of drain pipes at the P-trap and check for an evidence of leakage below them. Then check the shut-off valves under the sinks and at the toilets. If they look original, like the one shown below, they are likely frozen in the open position and will need to be replaced. Because a water heater can last anywhere from 10 to 25 years or more, it has already been replaced twice or more, so the age is variable. Your home inspector can tell the exact age of the water heater from the serial number later, or you can jot it down and determine how old it is yourself by using the search box at the top of this page and entering the brand name.
The building code was upgraded to require grounded 3-slot receptacles in the early 1960s, so almost all homes of this era will have fully grounded wiring. Also, screw-in fuse panel were replaced by circuit breakers in the late ‘50s and the electric panel will be a modern type, if a little undersize at 100 amps by today’s standards. Because 50 years is the average serviceable lifespan of electric panel and breakers, they will be coming due for replacement soon, if the panel hasn’t already been replaced and upgraded to a higher amperage. Also, GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) shock protection for bathroom and exterior outlets was not required until the very end of the 1970s, so most homes won’t have it unless installed as part of a later remodeling. To learn more about GFCIs, see our blog post “Why does that wall plug have push-buttons in the middle?”
One potential hazard is a brand of electric panel manufactured during the era. The “Stab-Lok,” made by Federal Pacific, caused numerous fires and it was later found that the company fraudulently obtained UL-approval for their panel design. They went out of business due to lawsuits over panel and breaker failures. Home inspectors consider the panel to be a “latent defect”; in other words, an accident waiting to happen, and recommend replacement. Also, most insurance companies will not insure a home with a Stab-Lok panel.
So find the electric panel during your house showing, open the door and look inside. If it says Stab-Lok between the two columns of breakers, you should consider replacement a priority if you buy the house. For the full story on the Stab-Lok panel, see our blog Who is the manufacturer of those "bad" electric panels?
Another electric panel from the same era that has a checkered history is Zinsco, although the standard recommendation for this panel is evaluation by an electrician. It was also sold under the names Sylvania-Zinsco and Kearney. To read more about the Zinsco panel, see our blog post Why are Zinsco and Sylvania-Zinsco electric panels a problem?
Low voltage switches were also popular during the 1960s and the photo at right shows an example the distinctive “Jetsons” style that many of them had. They are at the end of their serviceable lifespan now, and repair or replacement is expensive because of limited production of replacements. Rewiring may be necessary if you see this type of switch on the wall. To find out more, go to our blog post What are those strange looking wall switches in houses from the 1950s and 1960s?
HVAC - This system has likely been replaced at least twice by now. Because the components of a heating and air conditioning system may have been changed out at different years and evaluating the condition of the ducts require crawling around the attic, wait for a thorough evaluation by your home inspector on this. But definitely take a look at both the interior and exterior units. If they are rusty and look really old, they probably are.
Also, you may see a metal-louvered panel in the ceiling of the hall, like in the photo below, which is a whole house fan. To learn more about this energy-efficient house cooling appliance from a bygone era, go to our blog post How did homes stay cool in Florida before air conditioning? and Should I remove an old whole house fan or keep it?
Lead was banned by the government in 1978, but much of the paint in the sixties had lead content. Testing for lead paint can be done later, by a lead specialist using a high-tech tool, if you are concerned about this contaminant. To find out more about lead contamination issues in older homes, see our blog Why is there a lead paint disclaimer in my real estate sales contract?
A number of building components, including roofing, pipe insulation, floor and ceiling tile, and siding, were manufactured using asbestos during this period. These materials are generally considering acceptable by the EPA and safe, as long as they are not disturbed, but can put dangerous asbestos fibers into the air if drilled, sanded, cut, or otherwise disturbed during any remodeling. To learn more, see our blog post How can I tell if there is asbestos in a house?
Houses from this era run the gamut from rough shape to recently completely redone. For tips on evaluating one that needs repairs, see our blog Should I buy a fixer-upper?; and, if the house has been remodeled by an investor for resale, find out more at What should I look for when buying a house that is being "flipped" by an investor seller?
NEIGHBORHOOD AND VALUE
These are things your realtor can help you with. But if have a yearning to make like Don Draper and swing ‘60s style...we say go for it!
Older homes also have some advantages to consider. See our blog post Why is buying an old house sometimes the best choice? for details.
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One final note: your insurance agent will likely request a four point inspection report (also sometimes called a 4-point letter) in order to issue insurance. It’s a standard requirement for homes over 50-years old. The four points are 1) roof, 2) plumbing, 3) electrical, and 4) heating/air conditioning. Because older homes statistically tend to have more insurance claims related to the deteriorated condition of their components, insurance companies want to be sure that the home has been maintained over the years. Your home inspector can provide this additional report for you and, more importantly, can advise at the time of your home inspection if any conditions observed would be a “red flag” in the insurance 4-point inspection. To learn more, go to our blog post Why does my homeowner's insurance want a four point inspection?
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To learn more strategies for getting the best possible home inspection, here’s a few of our other blog posts:
To read about issues related to homes of particular type or one built in a specific decade, visit one of these blog posts:
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