What are the common problems to look for when buying a 1970s home?
Monday, October 22, 2018
While the burnt-orange shag carpeting and avocado refrigerator will be gone by the time you come upon a 1970s house for sale, several defining characteristics of the era will likely still be in place: diagonal siding, dramatic rooflines, an oversize fireplace, sunken bathtub and maybe a “conversation pit” living room. Even though it was a tumultuous decade, with multiple recessions and surging inflation, 19.7 million housing units were built, primarily because baby-boomers were sliding into household-forming age at the time. That’s more than any other decade of the 20th century.
The architecture of the seventies has not come back into vogue yet. In fact, the hot buttons for home buyers of that era, like a hot tub on a platform in the bedroom, look a little silly today. But retro-fashion in home design seems to shift forward every decade and, while mid-century modern of the 1950s and ‘60s remains the renovation rage for now, plenty of “Austin Powers” style homes are also currently a downright bargain.
So, what should you be concerned about, and checking carefully, when evaluating a ‘70s era home? Here’s our list:
•• Floor Plan - The average home was smaller, with about 25% less square footage than new homes today. The master bathroom had become standard, but it was not much bigger than the one in the hallway.
Also, the split floor plan, with a master bedroom suite on the opposite side of the house, was not yet in the game. Look for it 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 be sure the basic layout suits your lifestyle.
•• Energy Efficiency - Although the oil shortage of the late ‘70s dropped the speed limit to 55 mph, caused millions of Americans to take gas mileage seriously, and compact cars sales boomed, the energy efficiency of homes was not yet a priority. Wall and attic insulation R-value was just over half of the standard today 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.
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 1970s 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 40-plus 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 blogs Should I buy a house with structural problems? and How do I recognize serious structural problems in a house?
•• Plumbing - Galvanized steel water supply pipe was often used for 1970s homes but, unfortunately, it has a 40 to 50 year lifespan due to rust buildup—which is approximately the age of these homes. If the house has galvanized pipe, you may see some visible corrosion, especially at the pipes near the water heater. But the real problem is on the interior surface of the pipes, which releases little flakes of rust that build up behind behind sink and shower faucets, severely reducing water flow. Eventually, rust eats through the pipe and it begins to spring leaks, often under the floor slab. Also, many insurance companies will not write a homeowner’s policy on a home with galvanized pipe, or they will require a plumber to certify that the pipe is in good condition.
To learn more about galvanized steel water pipes, see our blog Why is old galvanized steel water pipe a problem for homebuyers?
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 once or twice, 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 at our blog by entering the brand name in the search box at the top of any page.
•• Electrical - The good news is that all homes built in the 70s have modern 3-slot, grounded receptacles and the electrical system is very similar to today’s equipment. GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) shock protection for bathroom and exterior outlets was not required until the very end of the decade, so most homes won’t have it unless installed as part of a later remodeling.
Aluminum wiring was substituted for copper in the early 1970s, during a copper shortage, and it was promptly discovered to be a fire hazard. Although several repairs were approved afterwards by the building code to the wire connections where the fires were starting, replacement is considered the only sure cure. Virtually all of this problematic wiring has been replaced, and we rarely see single-strand aluminum wiring anymore, but there is still some out there.
It’s important to note that only single-strand wiring used for smaller household circuits was a problem, and multi-strand aluminum wiring made from a different aluminum alloy is still in use today and code-approved. Because checking for aluminum wiring is usually done by opening the electrical panel, it’s best to leave it to your home inspector later to verify that the wiring is okay. To find out more about it, see our blog I heard that aluminum wiring is bad. How do you check for aluminum wiring?
Also, one brand of electric panel manufactured during the era has proven to be hazardous. 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?
•• HVAC - This system has been replaced at least once 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.
•• Roofing - The average life expectancy of a roof is 20 years and, since the home is now 40-plus years old, ideally it has replaced for the second time recently. To learn what clues to look for when trying to determine the condition of the roof, see our blog How can I tell if the house needs a new roof? Your home inspector will take a look at the roof up-close, but there’s plenty you can observe looking up at it from the yard.
•• Asbestos and Lead - Both were banned by the government in 1978, although not much lead paint was used in the ‘70s anyway, and asbestos was mostly limited to popcorn ceilings and some fireplace flues. Testing for lead and asbestos can be done later, as part of the home inspection, if you are concerned about these contaminants. 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?
•• Overall Condition - 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 you are ready for a ‘70s home, well...grooovy baby!
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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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