Living in a House Built Before 1978? 6 Things You Should Check

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Living in a House Built Before 1978? 6 Things You Should Check

Old houses can hide some not-so-pleasant secrets.

The wistful and popular phrase “They don’t make ‘em like they used to” typically refers to older homes that were built with a higher quality of materials and are more structurally sound—and built to last. However, not every attribute of older homes is positive.

For example, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), many homes that were built before 1978 used lead-based paint—and even the dust from the paint can be hazardous to your health.

And that’s not the only potential problem you might in a home built before 1978. If you live in an old house, these are the things you need to check—or call in a professional to check for you.

 Lead

In 1978, the federal government banned consumer use of lead-based paint, but most homes built before then will likely have some degree of it. When the paint cracks or peels, it results in dust and paint chips that also contain lead. In addition to walls, other sources of lead-based paint include doors, windows, floors, cabinets, and stairways. According to info from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 29 million U.S. housing units have lead-based paint hazards—and 2.6 million homes have young children.

Mike Powell, a structural engineer, certified home inspector, and the owner of Red Flag Home Inspection in Tampa, Fla., tells us that even if you apply new paint, the lead-based paint is still there. It never breaks down or goes away. “This material is particularly problematic for those with small children who may chew on painted surfaces, or high traffic/wear surfaces where paint can flake off over time,” he says.

The EPA notes that lead exposure can cause a variety of problems in children, including behavioral and learning problems, hyperactivity, lower IQ, hearing problems, and anemia. While rare, it can also cause seizures, comas, and even death.

Lead is also dangerous to pregnant mothers and their fetuses, where it can increase the risks for miscarriage and premature birth. And in adults, it can damage the kidneys and cardiovascular system, and cause memory and concentration issues as well as joint pain.

DIY lead kits are available to test for lead, but Powell says they may not be accurate, so he only recommends them as a last resort. “A certified lead professional should be consulted before undertaking a renovation project, and until such an evaluation is carried out, care should be taken to minimize sanding, cutting, or disturbing painted surfaces.”

Unfortunately, lead exposure can come from other sources in your home. “Lead can also come in the form of older piping systems used for water service, so you should contact the water utility company or a licensed plumber to help determine if there is cause for concern,” Powell says.

 Asbestos

Asbestos is actually a popular mineral fiber due to its strength and heat-resistant properties. “Asbestos is among the most effective insulators and fire retardants that we have at our disposal,” Powell says. “It has high tensile (or pulling) strength, flexibility, electrical resistance, and can be woven into fabric.”

Although the U.S. doesn’t produce it anymore, Powell says the material is used in the U.S. in specific applications like pipe, furnace, and boiler coverings, as well as brake shoes and clutches, and commercial roofing materials.  

“The truth is that asbestos is perfectly safe to be around, but becomes extremely hazardous when friable—easily crumbled—and broken,” he explains. That’s because the broken fibers can remain suspended in the air for days, and inhalation of the fibers can cause serious health issues, including lung scarring that leads to lung cancer and mesothelioma, as well as ovarian cancer and cancer of the larynx.

“This is why identification of asbestos containing materials must be carried out prior to demolition activities in older homes,” Powell says.

In older homes built before 1975, Powell says asbestos was found in several places, including blown-in insulation, window caulking/glazing, vinyl floor tiles, glue that attaches floor tiles to concrete or wood, linoleum products, air-duct insulation, siding, corrugated panels, and roofing materials.  In fact, he says 9-by-9 vinyl floor tiles were known to contain asbestos, and manufacturers actually changed their dimensions to distance themselves when asbestos became problematic. 

If you’re not a trained professional, Powell says it’s almost impossible to identify asbestos containing materials—and even then, a laboratory analysis is needed.

Foundation Cracks

Don’t automatically assume that an old house has foundation issues. “When it comes to foundation cracking, an older home has a more stable and consolidated bearing on its soils, compared to its newly constructed counterparts,” Powell says. But he still recommends having an older home fully checked out and evaluated by a competent inspector.      

“This person would be looking for signs of differential settlement—the action of portions of the structure settling irregularly when compared to the rest,” Powell says. “This distress would typically come in the form of cracking and separations in the lower foundation element.”

The length of the crack is not as important as the width of it. “Wider cracks—beyond 1/8 inch wide—should be considered for evaluation by a structural engineer,” he says. If you’re experiencing differential settlement, your doors and windows may be hard (or even impossible) to open and close. You may also have a cracked chimney, and if you have a wet basement, you may notice insects entering through foundation cracks.    

Insects and Pests

You can encounter pest problems with homes of any age. However, there are certain factors that may make it worth paying special attention to an older home. “Just like humans, over time, houses wear down, and erosion, natural degradation, and years of bad weather all take a toll on a home,” says Thomas Dobrinska, board certified entomologist with Ehrlich Pest Control.  

“Moisture damage to the home can create water-damaged wood, which is attractive to wood-destroying insects such as carpenter ants, and a leaky basement or a wet crawlspace is attractive to numerous moisture-loving insects such as silverfish, cockroaches, and springtails—and the spiders that feed off of them.”

Dobrinska says you can regrade your yard to ensure water is directed away from the foundation. “In some instances, installing a professional flood-control system will prevent water from leaking into the home.” In addition, he says you can get an exterminator to treat carpenter ants, and install a dehumidifier in the basement to alleviate the relative humidity.

“Sealing around door frames and louver vents will prevent entry of overwintering insects, such as boxelder bugs, lady bugs, and queen wasps,” Dobrinska says. “Installing a properly fitted chimney cap will prevent brown marmorated stink bugs and wildlife, and installing door sweeps under the base of doors will prevent rats and mice.”   

 Mold

As a general rule, mold is all around us, and Powell explains that in older-style construction, the building envelopes weren’t as sealed as they are today. This was intentional to allow the building to breathe. “While under some circumstances, this can allow building materials that got wet to harmlessly dry up, it also has been known to allow moisture to intrude and cause mold.”

So, if you have an older house, he says the doors, windows, and wall assemblies may not keep the outside elements out of the home. There are several signs that you may have mold, including condensation on walls and windows, leaks and stains, musty smells, bubbling or peeling paint, and even the actual sight of mold. The problem with mold is that it can cause problems ranging from coughing, wheezing, sore throat, stuffy nose, and burning eyes to more serious issues like lung infections.

Mold testing should be done by a professional, but there are things you can do to reduce the probability of having mold. “Considerations toward replacement of windows, painting, and caulking should be accounted for in the early to mid-years of ownership,” Powell says.  And if those upgrades are made before you purchase the home, he says you’re less likely to have mold issues. “Just make sure your inspector uses thermal imaging and moisture-mapping techniques to make sure conditions are dry.”

Radon

According to the EPA, radon is the leading cause of lung cancer among non-smokers, causing 2,900 lung cancer deaths each year among people who have never smoked (radon also causes 21,000 overall lung cancer deaths yearly). “Radon is a naturally found radioactive gas that’s created from the natural breakdown of uranium in soil, rocks, or groundwater,” Powell says. When this gas is allowed to dissipate, he says there is no cause for concern—but when it’s trapped within a residence or other type of building, it poses a threat to the inhabitants.  

“In areas known to have radon gas content, after a series of studies done in the 1970s, homes started being constructed with passive measures to ensure adequate ventilation to dissipate the radon gas levels,” Powell says. “Those prior to the 1970s, however, likely did not account for the need for this air movement and would require retrofitting if not already carried out.”  

Fortunately, he says radon testing is a simple and relatively inexpensive process and some states offer the service for free. “The testing protocol is simplistic enough for DIY testing,” Powell says.
“Whether professionally collected or DIY, the results are evaluated by an approved laboratory, which makes the results reliable.”

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