Five Major Considerations When Buying an Old House

As a commissioner for the City of Tacoma's Landmarks Preservation Commission and a former board member of Historic Tacoma, I've had a lot of experience with historic properties.  I've also been buying, renovating and selling historic homes myself for more than twenty years (45 houses and counting).  Not surprisingly, clients often seek my advice when they're thinking about buying an older house.  With the busy spring home buying season upon us, I thought it might be a good time to share some thoughts about what to consider when buying a historic home.  Below, I describe some of the “big ticket” replacement and repair costs that you may incur during the restoration of an older home.  It's important to note that there are loan programs and tax credits available to help defray some of these costs if you are buying a historic home in Tacoma.


1.  Not all old houses are created equal.  In my experience, houses built before 1900 were generally more poorly constructed than those built from 1900-1950.  The exception to this rule would be what I call the "robber baron" homes.  These turn of the century mansions were built with higher quality materials and engineering practices than more modest cottages built at the same time.  The grander homes are standing the test of time well.  The worker cottages, less so.  Smaller Victorian (pre-1900) homes were often built on posts and piers or loose rock/brick and mortar foundations.  In some instances, these foundations were later replaced or supplemented with concrete or block foundations, and settling issues are common.  This isn't necessarily a deal breaker.  Newer technologies allow for the levelling and repair of these foundations without breaking the bank.


 2.        Old houses aren’t usually insulated.  Builders didn't really begin insulating homes until the late teens and early twenties, and even then they generally just added cellulose (paper pulp) to the exterior walls and attics at very low insulating levels.  If you’ve ever demolished the ceiling in an older home, you'll know what I’m talking about.  You’re probably still discovering bits of the pulverized paper in your hair, ears and clothes.  If you’re doing a major remodel to a home, it makes sense to strip off the old interior plaster down to the studs so that the wiring and plumbing can be updated and insulation can be added.  If you’re not doing a major renovation, my advice would be to simply add insulation to the attic and underneath the first floor to increase the insulation value as much as possible.    Learn more about insulation at


3.      Are the mechanical systems up to date?  When buying an old house, people often encounter things like knob and tube wiring, galvanized and lead pipes, oil burning furnaces the size of a Winnebago and broken sewer lines.  Older systems aren't necessarily a problem, but a thorough pre-purchase home inspection can identify failing systems in need of immediate attention.  Be sure to factor the cost of plumbing, electrical and heating system upgrades into the purchase price of a home before you make an offer, and make sure you can afford to repair or replace these systems as it becomes necessary during your ownership.



4.       Original windows and doors are great.  Leave them alone!  Nothing frustrates me more than buyers who immediately think they have to replace all of the original doors and windows in a house.  It is significantly more cost effective to repair original windows and doors and install storm windows.  They’ll be just as energy efficient and will last exponentially longer than their cheap vinyl counterparts.  For more details regarding wood windows versus vinyl, check out my blog post regarding that subject here. 




5.       How many layers are on the roof?  Many older homes in Tacoma originally had wood shingle roofs with no underlayment to support a modern roof.  Over time, home owners have simply shingled over the original roof.  If a roof has three layers or more, it's no longer a candidate for re-shingling.  The roof will have to be completely torn off, and an underlayment of plywood or particle board will need to be installed before the new roofing material can be added.  Tear offs are three times as expensive as simple re-shingling so it's helpful to know how many layers a roof has before writing an offer to purchase an older home. 




Jeff Williams is a top-producing Realtor with Windermere in Tacoma specializing in the purchase and sale of historic and luxury homes.  Click here to email Jeff or give him a call at 253-303-1135.











Posted on April 2, 2014 at 3:18 pm
South Sound Property Group | Posted in Buying A Home, Historic Homes, Home Remodel, Investing In Real Estate | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Jeff Interviewed by Fox 13 News Regarding the City “Flipping” Houses

I was was recently interviewed by Fox 13 News regarding a proposal going in front of the Tacoma City Council that recommends the city start "flipping" derelict properties.  Given my experience flipping houses I feel that an $800K grant is not enough money for the city to impact the many derelict properties in Tacoma.  I believe the money could be better utilized to provide incentives to private individuals to take on the projects instead.  I will be working with City of Tacoma officials to further explore more realistic and concrete ideas on how to best utilize the grant money for maximum impact for the residents of Tacoma.  Click the photo below to see the full story below.  -Jeff


Posted on August 15, 2013 at 9:21 am
South Sound Property Group | Posted in Community, Home Remodel, Tacoma Real Estate |

Why Replacing Wood Windows is a Costly Mistake

As a member of the Tacoma Landmarks Preservation Commission, former board member of Historic Tacoma and a long time restorer of historic homes, Jeff is frequently asked by friends and real estate clients about restoring their houses.  In Tacoma, and across the country for that matter, many home owners believe vinyl windows are an inexpensive solution to replacing deteriorating, wood windows.  But, we now have evidence that the replacement of wood windows is a costly mistake.  

Jeff thinks most will agree that original wood windows are important architectural features in any historic structure. They are the "eyes" of the building. They convey a sense of craftsmanship and detail that cannot be achieved with substitute materials. In Jeff's experience with renovating and selling historic homes, he finds that buyers are willing to pay a premium for an older home with well maintained operational original wood windows than those with cheap vinyl replacement windows. Jeff cites the fact that the majority of his restoration projects involve removing vinyl siding and inappropriately sized vinyl replacement windows.

Jeff believes that windows are replaced by homeowners if they begin having operational problems: they stick or rattle, latches break, glass is broken, sash cords break and the windows have to be held open with a stick, let in outside air, or need to be painted. However, these problems are the simplest, most cost-effective to fix. More often than not, wood windows can be easily repaired to operate correctly and last another hundred years.   









                                     Vinyl Windows                                                                                                                Wood Windows 

Here are just a few of the problems associated with vinyl windows, and why they're not "maintenance-free."

  1. While it's true that they don't require painting, they are not a rigid material like wood, thus they shrink in cold weather, and expand in hot weather. Vinyl begins to soften and distort at 165 degrees Fahrenheit (a temperature that's easily reached in the space between a window and drapes on a sunny day). And though all windows expand and contract with temperature changes, vinyl expands more than twice that of wood. It expands seven times farther than glass with each degree of temperature. This causes the seal between the vinyl framework and the glass to fail. The problem increases with the size of the window; the bigger the sash, the sooner it fails. 
  2. Vinyl windows have only been around about 20 years. Will they survive for a hundred?   No one knows, but studies prove that many of the windows installed since the early 1980s are failing at an alarming rate.  According to the International Association of home inspectors, vinyl windows are expected to last between 15 and 20 years.  To make matters worse, vinyl windows can’t be repaired. 
  3. A big selling point of vinyl windows is double or triple glazed (insulating) sash (two or three panes of glass). These units are manufactured with desiccant filled spacers between the glass panes and sealed on the outside with butyl rubber or silicone. All insulated glass units eventually fail because no sealant stops all moisture penetration. Eventually the desiccant absorbs all it can, and the window becomes cloudy, forever. Conventional wisdom indicates that only marginal heat loss is recovered using insulated glass. As much as 85% of air infiltration (or heat loss) is around the edges of the sash, not through the glass. Energy savings realized by replacing single-glazed windows with insulated windows seldom justifies the replacement cost. Another study indicates it would take more than 50 years to recover the expense; and with an average expected life of 25 years or less, insulated glass units hardly make economic sense.
  4. Consider the overall energy efficiency.  According to a study by Preservation Green Lab issued in October 2012, a single glazed wood window with a fitted storm window reaches 92% of the efficiency of a vinyl window (see chart below).  Plus wood lasts 6-8 times longer than vinyl, so the small gain in energy efficiency is lost in replacement cost.

With the aforementioned problems associated with vinyl windows, it's clear that vinyl replacement windows aren’t a cost effective long term solution.   According to Mark Huppert, technical director of the Preservation Green Lab, “a number of existing window retrofit strategies come very close to delivering the energy benefits of high-performance replacement windows – at a fraction of the cost, from weather stripping and sealing, to installing exterior storm windows or interior cellular shades, almost every retrofit option offers a better return on investment than outright replacement.”  Jeff's rule of thumb is the 50% rule.  If a window sash is less than 50% deteriorated, it probably is cost effective to repair. If more than 50% deteriorated, replace it with a new wood sash window that matches the existing window.

If you’d like further information and access to the complete study by conducted by Preservation Green Lab visit


Jeff Williams is a top-producing Realtor with Windermere in Tacoma specializing in the purchase and sale of historic and luxury homes.  Click here to email Jeff or give him a call at 253-303-1135.


Posted on April 12, 2013 at 1:30 pm
South Sound Property Group | Posted in Historic Homes, Home Remodel |

A Charming North Tacoma Bungalow – Before and After Restoration

4715 N. 33rd Street, Tacoma

This charming 1948 brick-faced bungalow was an abandoned property that Jeff purchased from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.  Misguided renovations had left the property sub-optimized.  One of two downstairs bedrooms had been converted to a bathroom, the original bath was converted to a laundry, and there was no bathroom on the second floor.  Jeff restored the first floor to its original configuration, repaired hardwood floors that had been damaged by former tile installation, and added a bathroom and two closets to the second floor by adding a dormer.  The plumbing, electrical and insulation was all replaced, and the existing kitchen was updated.

Before                                                                                                                       After








                                                                                                                                  Additional Photos

Posted on March 21, 2013 at 4:54 pm
South Sound Property Group | Posted in Home Remodel, North Tacoma, Tacoma Real Estate |

Before and After photos of Jeff’s North Tacoma Flip Project

Finished in just six weeks and sold in only four days, this charming North Tacoma bungalow now has a new lease on life!

Click here for all the before and after photos.



Posted on January 25, 2013 at 12:45 pm
South Sound Property Group | Posted in Home Remodel, North Tacoma, Tacoma Real Estate |

Jeff’s next flip is in escrow

How does one describe Jeff's next project…  dirty, weird, sad, has potential, could be cute?  Let us know what you think (click the photo for details).


Posted on October 3, 2012 at 12:06 pm
South Sound Property Group | Posted in Home Remodel |