What are the common problems to look for when buying a 1980s house?
Monday, October 22, 2018
A 1980s home looks neither new or old—but in-between. Also, unlike mid-century and ‘70s houses, there is no clearly defined retro-style for the eighties popularized in movies and design magazines yet. Although it was a prosperous time overall, a million fewer houses were built than during the the peak of household formation for baby boomers in the seventies. Here’s what to look for if you are considering buying a 1980s home:
Floor Plan - The average home is only a little smaller than new homes today, and the master bedroom suite and split floor plan became pretty much a standard over this decade, if not quite as spectacular as now. The eighties was also when the walls between the kitchen and the rest of the house began to come down.
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 - Wall and attic insulation R-value was about three-quarters of the standard today and double-pane insulated windows were installed in many, but not all, homes. The concept of carefully sealing the envelope of the house from air leakage for energy conservation was still not a big concern.
Some of this may have been upgraded 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.
Foundation and Exterior Walls - Most eighties homes are 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 30-plus years 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?”
Plumbing - Although copper water supply pipe was standard, a flexible gray, plastic pipe called polybutylene became a popular and less-expensive alternative for builders during the ‘80s. It went by the acronym “PB” and was considered a wonder of new technology at the time. Unfortunately, there were recurring leakage problems at the crimp-type pipe connections early in the use of the new pipe. This was resolved by the manufacturers, but it was later discovered that the composition of the plastic was also flawed, and it could develop micro-fissures after about 20 years of service. The fissures would eventually pop open, and class-action lawsuits over the defect followed.
Many homeowners received settlements for pipe replacement, but the period for filing a claim has ended and PB is no longer manufactured or approved by the plumbing code. Also, many insurance companies will not issue a homeowner’s policy for a home with PB pipe, so replacement is usually required. To learn how to recognize it, see our blog What does polybutylene pipe look like? Why is it a problem?
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 probably already been replaced at least once, although it is possible that it is original equipment and in dire need of a change-out. So the age is variable, and 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 doing a search by the brand name.
Electrical - The good news is that all homes built in the 80s have modern 3-slot, grounded receptacles and the electrical system is very similar to today’s equipment. GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interrupter) shock protection was required for bathroom and exterior outlets, and also phased in for outlets near the kitchen sink later in the decade.
HVAC - This system has likely been replaced at least once by now, but it is also possible that it is the original system. 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 30-plus years old, the roof has been replaced at least once by now. 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.
Overall Condition - Houses run the gamut from rough shape to recently updated. 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 are the common problems to look for when buying a ‘flipper’ house?”
Neighborhood and Value - These are things your realtor can help you with. But if you are ready for a ‘80s home, this era offers a combination of good value for your dollar and reasonably modern construction and technology.
It’s not all bad news. 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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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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