As a commissioner for the City of Tacoma's Landmarks Preservation Commission and as a former board member of Historic Tacoma, I've had a lot of direct experience with historic properties.  I've also been buying, renovating and re-selling historic homes myself for more than 25 years.  Not surprisingly, my real estate clients often seek my advice before buying an older house.

Five Things to Consider When Buying an Older House

In this post, I thought it might be helpful to highlight a few things to keep in mind when purchasing an older home, including some of the “big ticket” replacement and repair costs that you may incur during the restoration of an older home.


  1. Not all old houses are created equal. Generally speaking, houses built in the area before 1900 were more poorly constructed than those built after 1900.  The exception to that rule would be what we call "lumber baron" homes - turn of the century mansions that were built with sounder engineering practices and higher quality materials than more modest cottages built at the same time.  These grander homes have stood 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 cases, these original foundations were later replaced or supplemented with poured or block concrete foundations.  Settling issues are common but not necessarily a deal breaker.  Newer technologies are available for the levelling older foundations, technologies that won’t necessarily break the bank.
  1. Old houses aren’t generally well insulated.  Builders didn't really begin insulating homes until the late 1910s and early 1920s. Even then, they often just added cellulose (paper pulp) to the exterior walls and attics at very low insulation levels.  If you’ve ever demolished the ceiling in an older home, you'll know what I’m talking about.  You’re probably still finding bits of pulverized paper in your hair, ears and clothes.  If you’re doing a major home renovation, I would recommend removing 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, just add insulation to the attic and underneath the first floor to increase the insulation value as much as possible.  You can learn more about insulation at


  1. Are the mechanical systems up to date? When buying an old house, people often encounter 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 if it becomes necessary during your ownership.


  1. 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.
  1. 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 two 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 more expensive than simple re-shingling so it's helpful to know how many layers a roof has before writing an offer to purchase an older home.

It's important to note that loan programs and tax credits are available to help defray some of the costs of updating a historic home in Tacoma.  Please let me know if you’d like additional information about these programs and/or if you have any questions about purchasing an older home.  I’m happy to help.

Jeff Williams is a top-producing Realtor with Windermere Chambers Bay, specializing in residential real estate in Tacoma, Gig Harbor, University Place and Lakewood.

Jeff Williams: (253) 303-1135

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