What are the common problems to look for when buying a 1950s house?
Monday, September 3, 2018
The Fabulous ‘50s
Homes of each era are reflections of the attitudes, technology, and aspirations of their time, and the consumer trends of the decade shaped the unique characteristics of the 1950s home. The end of World War II and return of millions of military veterans in the late 1940s set the stage for a surge of home building. The huge demand for housing created by the postwar baby boom, along with a popular affinity for everything futuristic, and success of early large scale housing developments, like the famous Levittown in Long Island, New York, all influenced home designs.
Here’s some characteristics of a 1950s house:
•• It was an optimistic era. Tall tailfins on cars were matched by swooping and often whimsical rooflines. Long, rectangular floor plans were dubbed ranch-style, and split level floor plans were popular.
•• Split floor plans were not yet in vogue. All the the bedrooms are typically on one side of the house. Bathrooms were smaller than now, with a standard dimension of 5-feet by 8-feet. Most homes have only one bathroom. A second bathroom in the master bedroom was a deluxe upgrade and, if added, was no larger than the hall bathroom.
•• Carports and attached garages replaced the detached garage of previous decades. A utility room with the water heater, laundry, and electric panel was typically located at the back of the carport.
•• “Better Living Through Electricity” was a catch phrase, and the most advanced, all-electric homes were branded with a Gold Medallion. The advent of television and surge in demand for electric kitchen and laundry appliances meant the average electric panel grew in size from 60 to 100-amps over the decade. We recently visited a 1950s Gainesville home with the Gold Medallion plaque still mounted at the front door next to the doorbell.
•• Homes had more glass than both previous and the current eras. Energy was cheap, so insulation was minimal.
•• Kitchens were still a room where mom prepared dinner and brought it to the dining room. The concept of a kitchen as the family gathering place that opens onto the dining room was still years away. The only concession to casual entertaining was a pass-thru kitchen window.
•• Closed floor plans with walls and doorways between rooms were still the norm, but indoor-outdoor living became popular with the addition of sliding glass doors opening onto a patio for backyard barbecues.
•• Air conditioning was not standard. As late as 1965, only 10% of U.S. homes had it. So cross-ventilation with aluminum-frame louvered windows, and often an attic exhaust fan, were used. A ducted, central heating system was included in many Florida homes, except in South Florida.
•• Although some homes were still built with elevated wood floors over a crawl space, most had the new style concrete slab-on-grade floors.
•• New materials and new ways to use materials were introduced, such as decor concrete block, exposed steel pipe columns, mica kitchen counter tops and appliances in bright colors.
Over the years some of these defining characteristics of a 1950s home will likely have been removed through remodeling: jalousie windows—notorious energy-leakers—replaced with insulated single-hung, walls torn down to open up the floor plan, pastel color kitchen appliances replaced with stainless steel, and central air conditioning retrofitted into older furnace ducts, often with the addition of a dropped ceiling in the hallway or a soffit along a wall to hide a new duct run.
When you buy a 50s home, you can choose to cover up their style and construction details with extensive remodeling, or keep, enhance and celebrate them like the readers of Atomic Ranch (www.atomic-ranch.com), a magazine for lovers of mid-century modern homes do. Whichever route you choose, there are a number of typical defects and obsolete components that you may encounter.
FOUNDATION AND EXTERIOR WALLS
Earlier era homes were built on a stem wall or piers, but the concrete slab-on-grade with a thickened edge that served as a foundation was the up-and-coming new technology, enabling a home builder to construct a foundation and floor all at once and thereby cut costs. 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 area.
Over the more than a half a 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 know what to look for, read our blog post How do I recognize serious structural problems in a house?. And for advice on proceeding with a house with known structural defects, see our blog post Should I buy a house with structural problems?
The dramatic linear look of ‘50s homes is primarily due to the low-slope and flat roofs, accompanied by a tall fascia and deep overhang, that were so popular during the era. “Tar-and gravel” was the standard roof covering—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.
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. Also, see our blog post I'm buying a '50s modern house with a "gravel" roof. Is the roof going to be a problem?
Two big problems may lurk inside the pipes of a 1950s home. The first involves galvanized steel water supply piping—the pressurized pipe that delivers water to the plumbing fixtures inside the home. It was used extensively at mid-century and the pipe has an average life of 40 to 50 years. It deteriorates by rusting on the inside surface of the pipe outward, delivering rust particles to the backside of faucet valves that 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. Also, see our blog post Why is old galvanized steel water pipe a problem for homebuyers?
The second potential problem 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. Some 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. Also, see our blog post What are the most common plumbing problems with older houses?
Homes had 2-slot ungrounded receptacles up until the building code was upgraded to require grounded 3-slot receptacles in the early 1960s. Older 2-slot receptacles are not unsafe, but they can be annoying when you want to plug in an appliance with a three prong cord. We often find an unsafe solution to that problem in older homes: using a “cheater plug,” like the one shown below, to connect a grounded, 3-prong appliance cord to an ungrounded receptacle. Connecting the little metal clip to the center screw at the cover plate rarely actually makes a ground connection and most people don’t even bother with it.
Equally unsafe is the replacement of old 2-slot receptacles with 3-slot ones when there is no ground wiring to connect to the third slot. Your home inspector will check for this defect, and it is a common one in homes 50+ years old. Also, see our blog post How can I tell if the electric receptacle outlets are grounded?
Another issue that may need to be addressed is an undersized electric service and panel. The standard service in the early 1950s was 100-amps and some homes had only 60-amp service. An amp is a measure of electric power capacity and 60-amps is now hopelessly inadequate. While 100-amps was fine for the electrical loads at the time the home was built, it may be too small for the electric demands installed in homes today, like central air conditioning, range, water heater, dishwasher, ceiling fans, big-screen TV, and multiple kitchen counter appliances. Again, your home inspector may flag the size of the service for further evaluation by an electrician if it appears inadequate or the panel itself is at the end of its serviceable lifespan. See our blog post How can I find out the size of the electric service to a house? for more.
Some early 1950s homes still have fuse panels, like the one shown below, which are unsafe by today’s standards. They are also not acceptable by insurance companies for your homeowner’s insurance. Check for glass screw-in fuses in the electric panel and, if you find them, panel replacement will be necessary. To learn more, see our blog posts Why is an old fuse panel dangerous? and What are the code requirements for an old fuse panel/box?
Low voltage switches were also popular during the 1950s 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?
HEATING AND AIR CONDITIONING
Houses back then were designed for cross-ventilation in the summer and, because energy was cheap, winter insulation of the home’s envelope was not a priority. A big whole house fan, mounted in ceiling of a central hallway, was the only cooling system. If see a metal-louvered panel in the ceiling of the hall, like in the photo below, it’s still there. To learn more about this energy-efficient house cooling appliance from a bygone era, go to our blog posts How did homes stay cool in Florida before air conditioning? and Should I remove an old whole house fan or keep it?
Moving forward in time to today, homeowners keep their windows closed year-round (although most are loathe to admit it) and energy costs have surged upward. So energy efficiency is now a priority. But leaky and single-pane—or, even worse, jalousie—windows, minimal insulation, and an ancient heating/air conditioning system contribute to high electric bills for many 1950s era homes.
Many of these older and energy inefficient components will likely have been replaced by by now, but the minimal insulation of homes of this era is difficult to upgrade because many of the home have no attic or an attic that’s not large enough for someone to move around it to adequately install insulation. Be sure to take careful inventory of what original building components still remain.
Lead was banned by the government in 1978, but much of the paint in the fifties 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, floor and ceiling tile, and siding, were manufactured using asbestos during this period. These materials, except for vermiculite attic insulation and asbestos pipe insulation, are generally considered 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. See our blog posts How can I tell if there is asbestos in a house? and Why is vermiculite attic insulation a problem for both buyers and sellers of a home?
THE BIG PICTURE
While most ‘50s era homes will have one or two of these issues, only a few will have most of them. Look closely for what upgrades have been done over the years and, if a retro-modern home suits your fancy, 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.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Roofs on ‘50s houses are not always visible from the ground, but we don’t recommend that you get up on the roof. Let your home inspector do that. However, you can do a search for roofing permits if your local building department provides online access. Or visit the building department to request permit information. Age of roof is important!
Look at up at the fascia and soffit for any rot or repaired areas.
Scan the ceilings for stains that may indicate roof leaks.
Hire a home inspector with an infrared camera, if possible, who can check for wetness in ceiling that is not yet visible.
Check the faucets at sinks and tubs for adequate flow.
Look under all sinks for stains or puddling water.
Is the water heater rusty and ancient? Look for corrosion.
Find the main electric panel and open the door (or it may be outside next to the electric meter). Look on the side of the main breaker switch for a number indicating amperage rating of panel.
Be on the lookout for any additional older electric panels lurking in an odd location. Open the door and make sure it’s not glass screw-in fuses.
Does the home have any ungrounded 2-slot receptacles?
Check to see if there is at least one receptacle on each wall of each room and sufficient receptacles at kitchen counter. Extensions cords running along the walls are a sure sign of number of inadequate receptacles.
Is there a wall receptacle near the sink in each bathroom?
HEATING AND AIR CONDITIONING
With air conditioning system running in cooling mode, hold your hand over the top of the exterior unit (condenser). The air blowing up at you should be warm. If not, the system will likely need service.
Look over the condenser unit. Is rusted, older, leaning out of level?
Verify that there is at least one duct serving each room, especially at porches that have been enclosed or garages or carports converted to living space.
Do any rooms feel noticeably warmer or colder than others?
Look at the condition of the interior unit (air handler or furnace). Any corrosion or mold around it?
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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. See our blog post How do I get insurance if my home can't pass a 4-point inspection? for more.
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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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