Heritage Restoration, Inc.

New House, Old House

I was wondering what is better, an old house or a new house. And which is more expensive to maintain?

John, Bristol


I want to say hands down an old house. But I won’t. I can’t. It’s not up to me. I have been fixing houses for over 25 years, and I have to say the biggest unnecessary houses expense is poor work and neglect. There are truly many amazing old houses out there. I have been at many old houses that were better than a new house. The even have closets, bathrooms, HVAC, and modern kitchens.

So let’s consider the new house. They are great since everything is new and will not fail for a long time, right? Well, sort of. This ties into my common rants about easy access to poor materials and inexperienced workers. I can’t say this is a big box store issue, since reputable lumber yards offer low grade options to stay relevant. And spending more on a custom house has little to do with craftsmanship or quality materials where they matter. Most people just want to see the granite countertop, and have no idea their exterior is a ticking time bomb.

The best way to buy a new house is check on the builder and/or developer. Have they built a house that is over 10 years old, so you can see how it’s doing. Items like how the siding and the windows are installed and performing, that can cause extreme problems in less than 5 years. Poor quality new windows could last less than 15 years, just like an asphalt roof, decking, and other materials. You can get a brand new, well-built with quality materials house with a vetted builder that has at least a one-year guarantee.

If you want the sweet spot of a newer house, I would say between five and fifteen years old. If you are at your financial limit by buying the house and don’t want to fix anything, the five to fifteen works pretty well. If you think the house needs some work and you are on a tight budget, get a good thorough inspection. Have the inspector/builder develop a good maintenance schedule (a reputable contractor can give you more holistic inspection than a real estate inspector). Plan for big things like new windows in year three, new roof in year five, etc. The five-year rule allows big things to fail or functional flaws will be revealed.

Old houses on the other hand (1950 and before) have already proven themselves. And like a used car, it all depends on how the house was built, maintained, manipulated, and loved. There are plenty of houses that are only as good as their bones, others the bones are shot but it looks pretty good. And good is a matter of interpretation to the user and the contractor. A contractor that rehabilitates or builds new has little trust or patience for old buildings would want to replace a lot. My crew always look at the functional first, and replaces when things are due, not just because they are old.

The hardest thing for me is that I always see things. Every house, new or old, has stuff that can be cared for, changed, or upgraded. And when you have a house where certain functions have been neglected for too long, repairs become essential, not optional. For example, a poor gutter that is overflowing, draining into the building, or just not performing well, can start as a $300 fix, and turn into a $30,000 fix if neglected. I have seen neglected built-in gutters cause the side of a brick building to dislodge and collapse. To say all old buildings need a lot of work is just down right mean and wrong.

There are always annual maintenance and periodic upgrades. Many of them just happen, and have nothing to do with wanting to do it, it feeling good about it. But with an old house, there are intrinsic characteristics where maintenance provides beauty and function, even pride.

A recent survey from Trulia, an online clearing house for buyers, real estate agents, and building professionals, suggests 41% of homebuyers would prefer a new house over an existing one. The reasons are obvious; low maintenance, custom features, modern amenities, and being the first. But when faced with 20% in additional purchasing costs, the number dips to half of the 41%. But New England is predominantly old houses, so you may already be here for the character. And with only about 2,000 or so new Rhode Island houses a year, the choices are slim.

What I would recommend is make a list of benefits and objections. If you think of a house as a shell that protects your stuff and could care less about architectural beauty, then buy a new house. If you like the style, look and feel of an old house, just buy the right one. Don’t expect an old house to act or look like a new one. Don’t fight the old house, but be kind and work with it to give you all of the modern amenities you expect. The biggest factors should be what you love, how much money you have to purchase and fix it up. And develop a realistic budget for maintenance, since every house needs it.

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