NTE Podcast: Buying an Older Home

Well folks, I’ll warn you that this episode contains some extremely horrible audio. Between my cold and difficult audio connections, this one might be tough to get through. But we really wanted to get this episode out there for you because its got some excellent information. Thank you for you patience!

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NTE Podcast: Buying an Older Home

Buying an Older Home

Andy Pace: Jay and I spend an awful lot of time on the show talking about new homes, about building new homes and how to do it in a healthy way. On today’s episode, we’re going to talk about what to look for when buying an existing home, the age of the home, the construction, where it’s built, the pitfalls of buying old or building new today on Non Toxic Environments.

All right, folks, welcome back to Non Toxic Environments. This is episode 3.03. I hope you don’t mind that I’m using that new lingo, three point whatever. That’s to talk about the Non Toxic Environments, season three and Jay, great to have you here this week.

Jay Watts: Yeah, and you know, Andy, it’s okay to be a little bit wonky. I think people now appreciate this kind of a, you know, focused identification. And that’s kind of what we do in our podcast. We try to identify important issues around building healthy homes and remodeling healthy homes. I think you’re right on with that. Folks, welcome to the cast. We’re glad you’re here. Andy and I were talking today before the show about the idea of searching, going out and looking if you’re in the market for a new home or you’re planning to remodel the home you have, but more importantly, and probably more to the point of our podcast today is if you’re shopping for a new place with the things you need to be looking out for when you’re doing that, that research, the age of the home as important as anything. And Andy will allude to all the different things that come into that kind of focus when you’re doing that. But that’s kind of the going to be the focus of the show today and I hope it’s going to be helpful to you, Andy?

Andy: I’ve done this topic before; the whole concept of building new or remodeling has come up several times and it will still, I’m sure it’ll come up several times in the future because it’s a very talked about topic amongst families who are needing to make a change. And what made me think about this recently though is- I have a client that has been searching around the area for a home and they have decided they cannot wait to build… which is understandable. It’s taking between a year, a year and a half to build a new home these days. So they can’t wait for the home to be built. They’ve got to get out of the home they’re in. They haven’t expanded yet. Family home itself is not very healthy. While they’ve done some things to make it a better space, it’s just not as healthy as they’d like it to be.

So they’re looking to buy an existing home. And they actually hired me as a consultant during the search project. It was interesting because every couple of days I would get via email some Zillow listings of homes in the area they’re looking at. And it would give me a chance to pour through the pictures, go through the description of the home and give an idea of what I would think it would take to bring it up to healthy specs. Now, in that process, it allowed me to put together some sort of constant topics to look at and some rules to follow. And I say rules, you can’t see me. But I’m using the air quotes for rules because we all know that if I say a home built in 1948 is the best year to buy, it just kind of depends on what was happening in the area at that time.

Andy: Construction trends across the country start at different timeframes. So what was being done on the East coast or the West coast in 1948 didn’t hit the Midwest here until 1955.

Jay: Will this impact material selections and material access, depending on where you are in the country, you may not be able to get some things that would be available in other parts of the country.

Andy: So exactly right. And there are things that are done in the upper Midwest and aren’t done in the South and so on. These are somewhat general terms of general rules. But first of all, we have to look at homes that are built between let’s say, anything built pre war, pre World War II. So anything built prior to 1940, let’s say. Homes built prior to 1940, you would think by now have been remodeled.

So you’re not going to be the second owner of that home. You’ll probably be the, the 10th owner of that home. If you’re lucky, you might be the second owner of the home. But that then means you have a lot of updating to do, from electrical to plumbing to insulation. But the home itself will be built in a solid foundation. We’ll know that that home was built without the use of the common plastics that are used in today’s homes. So that right there is just a huge benefit, but the problems with the electrical, the problems with plumbing and then things such as asbestos in there and other strange things that could be in their lead based paint and whatnot. Homes built after the war, in the baby boom times, probably in through the late 60s. These homes are kind of in a transition period.

Andy: These are built either utilizing the materials and methods that were done prior to the war or because of the war and because of all the inventions during that time in the plastics industry, homes were starting to be built using plastic materials here and there. But you also have to remember that homes built during this time were built during the baby boom. And during the time when the boys came home from war and some needed a place to live.

Jay: And this was just the beginning of the tract home concept.

Andy: Yep. Beginning of the track home concept. Homes going up awfully fast. Matter of fact, the subdivision that I live in to this day at one point was the largest subdivision in the country. Now this is actually our second home in the same subdivision, this happened to be the subdivision my wife grew up in. So that’s her third home in the division. We love it. We love where we are. We understand the homes in this area, what they are, they were built between 1959 and 1970. We understand how these homes are put together. We know what to expect. And so a lot of it when you’re looking at homes as a general rule, if you’re looking for a home built in around the same time as the one you’re currently living in, understand that this probably a lot of the same technologies being used, if you’re in the same area. All right. And so I know in our subdivision, these homes being built after the war when plastic started to be used, we don’t have a lot to worry about except for some issues with potential mold problems in a roof because of past damage. Or in our area, most homes have basements. So most of these homes around this time, were built with basements that were not designed to be lived in. And this is a big thing for my client who is looking for homes. They wanted to be able to finish out the basement to be utilized for spare rooms. We had a quite a time finding something because homes that were built at this time, those basements were designed to house mechanicals and that’s it. The waterproofing wasn’t good. It was essentially just a damp proofing that was put around the foundation. And, if you have water in the basement, who cares? Because it’s just where the laundry is and where some storage is. If you get a home that was built around this time and you’re the second or third owner and somebody along the way finished out the basement, you can almost guarantee that there’s going to be some inherent mold problems down there because the foundations were never properly waterproofed.

Jay: Here in San Diego where I am, we live in a community just outside of downtown San Diego; we’re surrounded by craftsman homes. And then most people are familiar with what craftsman homes look like. Ours in particular is really unique because I have zero insulation in my walls.

Andy: Oh, wow.

Jay: None. I have some insulation in my attic, I have little in my wall. I have none in my walls. And it’s mainly because we’re in this Mediterranean climate where we don’t have a wide swing and temperatures. But I think what’s funny about that is when we first bought this home 20 years ago, I was doing some work and I was working inside and I was putting some screws into the wall. I didn’t realize that my walls were really only about two inches thick. And so I put a screw through the wall on the inside and then went outside. And that dang screw was poking out and the outside of that house.

Yea so, they call this style Hawaiian bungalow. I don’t know where they got that, that’s basically what it is. It was Redwood, beautiful Redwood, 12 inch redwoods, butted next to each other and then they put a in a board and batten kind of construction. And then on either side of that, some sheet rock on the inside and two layers of sheet rock on the inside. And then just the board and batten on the outside, which was painted. And that’s my wall system. And you know, we could get away with that, but that’s not gonna fly in Wisconsin. We know that.

Andy: Well, won’t fly in Wisconsin and, and really in today’s building codes, that wouldn’t fly just because of the possibility of moisture again.

Jay: Exactly. You wouldn’t be able to get a permit.

Andy: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. This is what I’m talking about. Every area of the country has different struggles and different things to look for. If we look at it big picture wise, homes built around this time up until about 1970… Now, homes built after 1970 between, let’s say 1970 and, 1980 to 85. These homes were built in the mindset of cheap, fast… And starting to become a little more energy efficient. With the oil embargo of the early seventies, people really got a sense of what it’s like when energy costs go up. So if you’re literally burning money trying to heat your home because you have poor insulation, well, builders started to recognize this. Now the downside is while recognition was there, materials and methods weren’t really figured out yet.

Andy: So you’ve got a lot of these homes again, that could be subject to mold problems. You have homes that in this time in the 70s, you’ve got a lot of urea formaldehyde being used in the plywood and plywood was not used just for subfloors, but it was also used for things like cabinetry. Cabinetry back then was not necessarily built in individual units that was then installed on the wall. A lot of times these cabinets were actually built in the house right by the carpenter and stained and finished right there. A lot of lot of toxins that go into that process. By the time you bought the home, you could argue that a lot of those finished toxins were gone, but that plywood is still there. But most of these homes also used just different installation methods. You had soffits above the kitchen cabinets that may be housed plumbing and other things, but don’t really need to be there because it’s unnecessary, just really no more than a place for mold problems to occur and for mice to live in. So in the process of doing a remodeling of this home, you’ve got a lot more than just aesthetic changes to make, which you may have some structural issues that take care of.

Jay: Focusing on the energy of course. And this is what we talk about all the time. That was fine, but it kind of missed the whole mark for indoor air quality.

Andy: You got that right. I mean, that’s the thing is again, they had the mindset of it and understood I think that if it costs more to heat the home, that’s money out of your pocket. But, at this time there wasn’t this building science that we have now and now in the, in the mid to late eighties and throughout most of the the early two thousands, the whole concept of building science and green building really became a focal point of the industry, really became a focal point. Here’s the biggest problem with homes built during that time between the eighties and I would say that the late two thousands: we had a problem with homes being built super, super tight to cut down on an energy loss, but they still forgot about the human occupants of those homes. And so what do we say all the time, Jay? What good is saving the environment if we’re still poisoning the occupants? Well, this is happening in these homes. These homes are designed to perform really well, but then unfortunately there’s no fresh air in the house. There’s a purified air in the house. And as we say, you’ve got to use all the tools in your toolbox to make the indoor air quality healthy for the human occupants, whether it’s in reducing the pollutants or the toxins during construction, air purification, air movement, natural light, all these things that make the indoor air quality better. And they just didn’t have that down yet.

Jay: Yeah. You know, me reminding me of our interview last week with Matt Grocoff of the Thrive Collaborative, folks, if you haven’t had a chance to listen to our interview with Matt, I highly recommend you listen to it because where Andy’s going with the discussion is something that Matt’s addressing with his project. And I think that the value there is that more and more people are looking for the best alternatives. And that means a combination of all the best things. Energy efficiency, yes. Material selection and indoor quality. In Andy and my book, indoor air quality is at the top of the pyramid as it should be.

Andy: Indoor air quality for the occupants of the human occupants. And of course our pets as well. But you know, the living occupants unfortunately. Our industry is full of just wonderful experts that are very concerned about the performance of the home, not from a human health standpoint, but from an energy loss standpoint. And of course that is important, but it should not be the focal point. Right. And you’re right, that interview last week, it really opened my eyes to a number of new ideas. And he’s a wealth of information. Can’t wait to have him back on the show. One of the things that he said really stuck out, and I think I might even said something at that time when he said, you know, he would have these building scientists coming through the house and they’ll say, well, why didn’t you do this down here? You should have done that. You could’ve improved your score. You could have, you know, this. And then he’s like, who cares? I mean, is it working? Check. Yes, it is. Yeah. Did I save tons of money? Am I now making money in this deal? Yes, check. So just because you can do something more doesn’t mean you necessarily should.

Jay: Yeah. I think the other thing that’s happening too is the awareness of the consumer is growing at such a fast pace that they’re now demanding these kind of things. And so you’re seeing, you’re seeing a shift in the builders and they recognize now that there’s real value in that. Their clients and customers are wanting these things. Today, most of the time it’s an option you pay extra for. But very quickly, I think in the next few years going to see all of these things that, and hopefully everything that we’re talking about are becoming, become standard features of a home. Again, Matt Grocoff’s project in Michigan is an example of where I think, and where I hope community development goes.

Andy: Well. And I agree. Of course. I also look at things like, there was and still is I believe an organization out there that’s called the Green Realtors Association. The organization’s realtors they were pushing this for a while. I really liked this concept because there are a lot of folks who are looking to buy an existing home and they want somebody on their side, an expert or a professional on their side asking questions to the seller, what type of installation did you use? What was used during the remodeling when you did remodeling 10 years ago? Just looking for those things. I’ve done it, as I mentioned before, working for clients remotely and they’re sending me pictures and whatnot. I’ve even done where we’re walking through these homes on on a walkthrough and I’m on the phone on FaceTime and they’re showing me things and I’m sure their realtor for the seller was probably wondering what the heck was going on.

But I think something like this is what will drive this narrative further. I believe the realtors who focus on not just finding the right home because it’s in the best area for your kids because it’s has access to, to this and for that. I think more and more people would like to know more about what they’re buying.

Andy: The other thing we look at when the question comes up, should I build new or buy? My response almost always is that if we’re building from scratch, I can guarantee that everything that goes into that home is something that you and I have approved that everybody has put their stamp on and says this is going to be healthy and safe and we’re going to love it. When you buy existing, you don’t know what you’re getting into because you have to peel the layers off the onion in a way. And when you start peeling layers and all of a sudden you find a rotten layer, that’s an unwelcome surprise. But unfortunately when you buy existing, this is what you deal with.

Jay: And it’s difficult too because the way people market their homes now is they have someone come in and fix it up. They paint, maybe they take really nice photographs and then you come in and everything looks great and you’re all excited because this is a new place we’re going to live in. And you know, you’re looking at and you’re going, I don’t have to do very much here. It’s all done. The kitchen’s in, everything’s painted. And that’s where, you know, you get caught up in kind of the enthusiasm and excitement of a change and potentially that could be a pretty big problem. There is the National Association of Realtors has a green component, the site addresses green.realtor, green.realtor.

Andy: Yeah. So we’ll definitely look into that myself cause I think that that’s probably where this has progressed over the years. I think that this whole concept started probably 10 years ago. I liked this idea. I just think more and more professionals need to be trained on what to look for. So if you buy this home that that was built in the 80s and, you don’t necessarily know what to look for in. And as you say, Jay, they put on a couple of coats of paint and some new carpet. And essentially what we like to refer to as putting lipstick on a pig to make it look in sellable condition, that makes it even more difficult for somebody to determine what’s going on.

Jay: Right. Something has to break, something has to blow up and then, my God, what’s going on here?

Andy: Right? And so on the flip side of that, I’ll always consult my clients who are looking to sell their home. And I’ll tell them, if I were you, I would not paint and put a new flooring and so forth just to try to sell it because a lot of people today recognize that as a sign as you’re trying to cover something up.

Jay: Sure. And it’s very rare that someone moves into a place and doesn’t want to change things anyway.

Andy: Exactly. Right. So if you do any project in your home, I don’t care if you put in purple countertops and yellow floors, if it’s done well, if it’s done using good quality products, it’s tasteful of course. And I know that can kind of change from person to person. But generally speaking, if it’s done well, people will like it. If it’s done hastily just to try to sell the home, it’s going to causing flags to be stuck up.

Jay: How do you, I’m just thinking out loud here, you’re out there looking for a realtor that you want to work with. I mean, what kind of questions would you pose to a realtor in the search phase of this thing? Or you find somebody you think you like and you say, listen, here’s kind of the list of things I’m looking for in a new home. Do you have kind of a short list that you could suggest our listeners think about if they were gonna interview a realtor and get them on the page in terms of the kind of kind of home that they really want? Obviously price is always at the top of this list. You know, what can I afford and is it in my neighborhood? But at the same time I think might some value in saying, okay, these are the priorities for us.

Andy: Well, you raise a really interesting question, which is, if I’m interviewing realtors before I hire them… Yeah. I guess I would like to know how well they know construction.

Jay: Yeah. Very important.

Andy: Uh, do you know the difference between a a TJI joist and an open web truss? Yeah. Do you know the difference between plywood sub floor and 1 by 6 diagonal pine board sub floor?

Jay: Yeah. Because here’s the guy, here’s your realtor. If he knows his stuff, when the, when the, when the, uh, inspection comes through and you’ve got the sheet, you know, 15 pages of inspection document to go through, a person who’s got this knowledge can look at these things and see if there’s any hot spots we need to be aware of.

Andy: Exactly. If they know. And here’s the other thing, is it a realtor that’s specialized in a certain area, a certain subdivision, a certain price points, range. If I’m looking for a home in my area that’s worth $300,000, I’m going to find a realtor that that’s all they deal with. They don’t deal in the multimillion dollar mansions.

Jay: Correct.

Andy: They’re dealing with the low to medium cost homes because I want to know that I’m working with somebody who… these are the homes people are going into on a daily basis. And so, they probably have a better set of questions to ask. I would like to work with somebody who is more health conscious and I don’t need a somebody who is on a keto diet and is doing  marathons. I just want to know that I’m working with somebody who kind of understands the plight that I’m dealing with. But honestly for me, it’s all about does the real estate agent understand how a home gets put together? Therefore they’re going to be working for me to make sure they’re asking questions that I forgot about.

Jay: Right. And I think you’re right about the realtor that’s selling million dollar homes is not going to want to sell a $300,000 home. There’s not enough commission in there for them. If they were even going to do it. My feeling is that they probably just kind of be cursory in terms of the research. You’re right, I think you want to find someone who’s in that category and especially if it’s in a neighborhood you want to be in, you find that the person in that neighborhood who’s got the track record and understands, as Andy said, very importantly, understands construction. I think that’s really a big deal.

Andy: It is. It is. And so there are other things to look for, of course. Does the realtor know about the other homes in subdivision? And what I mean by that is, do we know if there’s a radon problem in the area, if other homes are requiring the need to install whole house water purification systems. There’s a lot of information out there to be had by just knocking on the door of a potential neighbor.

Jay: The other thing too, and Andy and I talked about this off-show, and depending on where you live, there may be some historical home risk or requirements that you have to follow and comply with.

Andy: That’s a big one, Jay.

Jay: Yeah. So you need to understand what those might be and the associated costs with that and the limitations you’re going to face when…. We here in San Diego have something in our area near downtown called the Mills Act. And basically if you’ve got a historical home, it’s designated under the Mills Act, you are really restricted in what you can and can’t do. They make sure you do what you are proposing to do and it falls within the Mills Act guidelines and they’ll come in and inspect your home. And if you didn’t do it that way, you’re going to have to do it over. So it’s important to make sure that when you’re considering a property, and it may be the designated historical, that you figure out exactly what that means in terms of what you can can and can’t do.

Andy: Right. On that same train of thought, there is also a home that was built in a subdivision that may have architectural controls. And of course that doesn’t really deal with the inside of the home. But if you’re doing remodeling or major renovation where the outside will be touched, you’re kind of limited to use the materials that the association allows you to use. And this is something to talk about prior to putting an offer on that house because what are those material recommendations or requirements. And is that something that you can tolerate because of sensitivities?

Jay: Yeah, and I think many times that’s as much decorative as anything else. However, I have known people who have moved into controlled community like that and you can’t leave your garage door open. That kind of handcuffing seems a little extreme to me. Well, Andy, it’s been a great topic. I think unless there’s something else that we can talk about and I’m sure this can lead to other discussions and when we bring in people for interviews folks, hopefully, be able to expand a little bit on the subject and going forward.

Andy: Well, it’s interesting you say that Jay, because you know, this is our 90th episode, 90 episodes of Non Toxic and it’s amazing. The topic comes up between Jay and I in conversation. It’s like, well, what are we going to talk about next week? What should we talk about next month? And you know, we’ve talked about a lot of things in the last year…

Well folks, I had to stop that episode between the audio problems, my cold, that I just cannot seem to shake. It really started getting to be quite annoying for me to even listen to so I’m sure sure you’re having the same technical problems with it, but we did the best we could to put it together for you. We wanted to get the information out because it is good information really is good information. But a bad delivery on our part this week. I do apologize, still trying to work through some of the technical issues with the new equipment that we have here. And again, once I get rid of this cold, I should be able to record some better audio myself. So on behalf of Jay and I will apologize to Jay and for Jay for these audio problems, but it seems to be on my end here. But anyway, folks would really appreciate you listening to the show, especially on weeks like this where we just can’t seem to get it to sound good. But the information is still there, so thank you so much. Please follow and subscribe to our show and leave us a rating and review. We greatly appreciate that and we’ll be back with you again next week with another great topic, better audio. We appreciate you listening. Thanks a lot folks.


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