Looking for that vintage Victorian or your dream fixer-upper? Great! While it’s always wise to get a professional home inspection — and that’s especially true if you’re buying an older home — this checklist can help you avoid some of the pricey surprises older properties can spring on their owners. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list — home inspectors in Massachusetts have eight pages of items they are legally required to report on, and a generic home inspection list can run to 100 items, even before you get into issues peculiar to an older home. But when you’re touring for the first time, it will help identify potential problems to explore more fully.
■ Does the home appear well maintained, with the roof in good condition? Or are the gutters sagging, missing a downspout, or even sprouting weeds? Water is a home’s worst enemy, so look for signs that the home has been consistently well protected over the years.
■ Does each plumbing fixture (toilet, sink, dishwasher, etc.) have a working shutoff valve? Old homes don’t meet modern building codes in many ways (and aren’t typically required to unless new work is being performed), but local shutoff valves are your first line of defense against leaks and water damage and make it immensely easier to repair or replace a faulty fixture.
■ If there is still knob-and-tube wiring, is it active? That can make the home harder and more costly to insure, because if the wiring is in poor shape, it can be dangerous. (And you won’t be able to add insulation to your walls until the old wiring is replaced.)
■ Are brass pipes still in use? Brass in contact with water gets brittle with age, increasing the chance of unexpected plumbing breaks.
■ If drains are cast iron,is there any history of active leaks or backups? Cast iron pipes are generally okay, but those with mushroom-like growths on them should be replaced before they start weeping sewage.
■ Galvanized (threaded) steel pipes can be troublesome, rusting from the inside, creating blockages. You’ll want to replace them before they clog.
■ Foundations settle over time, so sloped floors and sagging stairways don’t necessarily indicate structural problems. But you may want to get a structural engineer’s assessment, to put your mind at ease.
■ Depending on what your home inspector finds, you may want to hire additional specialists to test for more specific hazards like lead paint, asbestos, and wood-boring insects. (And if you plan on doing some home improvements yourself, note that they may be more time consuming or complicated, since you’ll need to take safety precautions if lead or asbestos is present.)
■ Check the home’s record at city or town hall to see what building permits have been pulled, whether they were approved, and who did the work. Unpermitted work or amateur DIY jobs performed by a previous owner could mean concealed problems that need be addressed.
■ If the home is in a local landmark or historic district, find out what restrictions may be in place. For example, you may need to seek permission before making exterior changes or be required to use a particular type of window.Jon Gorey is a writer in Quincy. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.