What are the common problems to look for when buying a 1940s house?
Friday, March 29, 2019
The 1940s was a decade split down the middle by the end of World War 2 in 1945. Construction of new homes was slowed by the war, and then dramatically sped up when it ended by a housing shortage and surging post-war economy. The way homes were built also changed during the ‘40s, and the best examples we can think of for comparison are the pre-war "Sears Catalog Houses” and post-war Levittown New York.
Up to 1946, homes were built one at a time by local craftsmen, using traditional construction methods. The catalog-giant Sears ramped up home-building efficiency somewhat by offering pre-cut lumber kits for their “Modern Homes," which were delivered to the nearest railroad depot, then trucked to a homesite to be assembled by local carpenters. Although modestly labor-saving compared to a home built totally on-site, Sears delivered their last house kit near the end of the war in 1942 due to slack demand. You can read more about it at our blog post Is this old home a Sears Catalog house?
Then Levittown changed housing forever when it opened in 1946 on Long Island, New York. America’s first major suburban development was built in an assembly line format, with 27 construction steps, and workers trained only to do their segment of the job. Also, concrete slab floors replaced wood floor joists to speed up construction. Levitt’s system could produce 30 homes a day and the price was afforable for returning war vets. A sales center sold homes pre-construction and it became a nationwide template for suburban housing.
So homes built in the first two-thirds of the decade are often constructed a little differently than ones built in the last few years. The later homes also usually shifted in style from "traditional” to something simpler, more resembling the “Mid-Century Modern” look that became the standard of the 1950s. But they all have similar problems, mostly due to age.
FOUNDATION AND EXTERIOR WALLS
Early 1940s 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 of the end of the decade. Some homes still used continuous concrete footings and a block stemwall. 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 many 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), which 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?
Asbestos cement siding was popular during the 1940s and, because the asbestos remains embedded in the cement of the shingle unless unless it is damaged or removed, the material is considered safe if painted and otherwise left alone. Unfortunately, some insurance companies will not insure a home with asbestos siding, so it may increase the difficulty and cost of acquiring homeowner’s insurance. We recommend that, if you do have to remove or disturb the siding for any reason, never do the work yourself. Have an asbestos abatement contractor do it for you. See our blog post The house has asbestos siding. What should I do? for more info.
Asbestos cement was also a popular material for roof shingles in the 1940s. The material has a very long life, but pretty much all of these roofs have been replaced by now. One exception is that some old asbestos cement roofs in our area are still in place, but have been covered over with SPF (Spary Polyurethane Foam). See our blog post What is the life expectancy of an asbestos cement shingle roof? to learn more.
Because the house is now at least 70 years, the roof has been replaced several times. Also, houses of this era did not have the roofs secured to walls with tie-down straps for hurricane resistance. The rafters are typically only toe-nailed to the top plate of the wall.
Both galvanized steel and copper water supply pipe were installed during this era. If the original pipe is still in place, the copper pipe is about at the end of a serviceable lifespan and the galvanized steel is overdue for replacement. Galvanized steel may also be a problem when securing homeowner’s insurance, bu it is very likely that the water supply pipe has already been replaced. See our blog post Why is old galvanized steel water pipe a problem for homebuyers?
Another potential problem the cast iron drain pipe of the 1940s, 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 60+ years old. Also, see our blog post How can I tell if the electric receptacle outlets are grounded?
Not enough wall receptacles is another problem in pre-1950 homes. It is not unusual to find only one receptacle per bedroom and none in the dining room or hallways. Look for extension cords running around the walls behind the furniture. More circuits and receptacles are necessary for our homes filled with electric gadgets today.
Another issue that may need to be addressed is an undersized electric service and panel. The standard service in the early 1940s was 60 or 100-amps. An amp is a measure of electric power capacity and 60-amps is now hopelessly inadequate. While those low amperages were fine for the electrical loads at the time the home was built, they 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.
Most 1940s homes had 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. The home may have already been upgraded to a larger service and circuit breaker panel. 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?
And, last in the electrical list, modern safety devices such as smoke alarms and GFCI shock protection at receptacles in wet areas of the home may be missing.
HEATING AND AIR CONDITIONING
Florida 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 you 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 and others 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. Leaky and corroded casement windows, minimal insulation, and an older heating/air conditioning system can contribute to high electric bills for many 1940s era homes. A 20+ year-old central air conditioning system has a SEER (energy efficiency) rating of 9. As the SEER number increases, the energy usage for the same amount of cooling drops proportionately. This means that a new 14 SEER system is about 50% more efficient. Newer gas furnace systems are also more energy efficient.
Also, you may find an abandoned chimney peeking above the roof, but no fireplace in the home. See our blog post Why does the house have a chimney but no fireplace? for the answer to that mystery. Or a fireplace, but no chimney:
Many of these older and energy inefficient components will likely have been replaced by now, but the minimal insulation of homes of this era is difficult to upgrade. Be sure to take careful inventory of what original building components still remain.
Lead was banned by the government in 1978, but almost all of the paint in the forties had high lead content. Testing for lead paint can be done 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 the roofing and siding mentioned earlier, 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. Sometimes the vermiculite is hidden below a layer of newer insulation, like in the photo below. 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?
WHAT TO DO...
While most ‘40s 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 the cozy bunglow style that was popular back then 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.
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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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