Home & Garden Columns

About the House: How to Handle a Condo at Forty

By Matt Cantor
Friday May 25, 2007

Woody Allen says “When you're forty, half of you belongs to the past—and when you’re seventy, nearly all of you.” 

We’re all getting older. There’s no nice way to put it. There are benefits to aging, but with time, things and people wear out. It was hard not to think of this today as I looked a condo that was, you might say, “of a certain age.” There was nothing substantially decrepit about the place but there were what we Berkeleyans like to call “issues.” I have issues too. 

The reason this seems noteworthy, at least to my geeky mind, is that I see many of the same set of issues repeatedly, so I’d like to offer some sort of list of the things one might find when looking at a condo of, say 45 years. Now that would be 1962 (was that actually 45 years ago?) 

The things I might note from a condo of this vintage fall roughly into two categories; things that are wearing out (or worn out) and things that we’ve learned from (and improved). 

Let’s start with the latter. One of the things that had just begun to change in 1962 (but not widely or quickly enough to reach every way station) was the use of safety glass. The place I saw today had a sliding glass door in three segments that stretched 11 feet across the boundary with a balcony. 

Should an unwary and marginally clad inhabitant stride blithely through the clean class door, assuming it to be open, they might slice open an artery and terminate their rental agreement on earth. This was so common prior to 1961 that the building codes, followed eventually by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, began mandating the use of safety glass in glass doors. Shower doors have also taken a huge toll and even today, over 300,000 a year suffer some sort of injury involving non-safety glass. 

If shower doors have not been replaced, I’ll often see original (and dangerous) glass doors in a condo of this age (and, of course, other housing types as well). By the way, don’t be too quick to dismiss this danger. Only about 300 people a year die from electrocution. That is 1/1000 of the number of people harmed (sometimes killed) by non-safety glass. 

If you’re buying a place of this era, look for the “bug” or fused emblem in the corner of the glass and if you don’t see it, replace the glass. This should also apply to glass that’s near the floor (say, 18”) or next to a door. 

Another thing that has changed, and was common in this time period, is the practice of placing electrical panels in closets. We get more fires and also put electricians and service personnel more at risk when breaker or fuse panels are installed in closets. When they’re worn out, which is certainly the case with a 45 year old breaker panel, they should be relocated to a space that’s got good clearance, say 30” wide and 3’ in front. This is roughly what modern codes call for. 

Again, this is less likely to result in fire (sparks and flames can actually shoot out of a panel and set clothing and storable ablaze!) and also provides for a safe “ejector-seat” distance in front of a panel. It may sound shocking (I didn’t really mean to say that) but when working on a panel, you might actually be thrown from the panel by contact with hot wires but if that same person is bunched up in a closet trying to work on the same panel, it is harder to detach and you can get “locked-on” and expire in this inauspicious manner. They’ll have to lie about how you died. 

Breaker panels that are this old are no longer reliable. Period. I don’t care what anyone tells you. A breaker is an electro-mechanical device on which your life and property rest. That’s a big job and not suitable for something that is both seriously worn and also of primitive make. See, breakers have not been around all that long. A breaker that is 45 years old is essentially a prototype. They came into common use in the 1950’s (though they had been invented in Germany in the late 1930’s, so by 1962 we were still figuring out a lot about how to make these work properly. So, it’s probably best to replace any panels that are this old. I use 40 years as my standard although there is, sadly, no industry standard for the replacement age of circuit breakers (shouldn’t there be?) 

By the way, I always seek an opportunity to mention our most notorious of electrical devices, the Federal Pacific Stab-Loc Load Center and it’s wonderful trip-proof breakers. Depending on which of the many documents and opinions you can find on the web, these are either wholly unreliable or just largely unreliable. In either case, I wouldn’t keep one in my house or apartment building for a nanosecond longer than absolutely necessary. 

This begs a further question (actually two) for condo owners. The first is, what about the other 11 panels in the building? And the other is “How many people can you kill with your bad panel?” The latter question actually applies to all manner of fire hazards. When we live clustered in condos or apartment buildings, it is far more important to minimize possible causes of fire since so many more people are depending upon it. This is one of the reasons that fire codes are so much more stringent for multi-family dwelling. You’re more apt to see fire sprinklers (saw them today), fire hoses (yep, saw them too), and hard-wired smoke or detectors (nope, didn’t see ‘em). 

The former question regarding your 45-year-old Federal Pacific panel should really be a question for the home owner’s association and I genuinely urge those of you who own condos to take charge of your HOA and steer the ship to safe shores by replacing all the old panels in the building, not just the one in your unit, for what good is your good deed if it is overwhelmed by the inertia of the many. 

One thing I’d like to add that isn’t exactly chronologically authentic to this article is the issue of aluminum wiring. Houses and especially apartment buildings between 65 and 73 years old (mostly but not exactly) often have aluminum small-branch wiring and, while I’ll save the long spiel, this should always be identified and referred to an electrician familiar with the problem. Aluminum small-branch wiring is really, seriously dangerous. 

The last item I saw at my condo today was a very worn-out furnace. Here’s my old furnace rap: It’s getting a little tired but I’ll take it out for a spin just so you can see just how droll I get. 

An old furnace is like a Model T Ford. Now, you may own a Model T and it might be in good working order and all but taking it out on the freeway is a bit crazy. A modern car has air-bags, anti-lock brakes, side walls that crumple and a plethora of safety features that came about as a result of years of advances. 

Your 45-year-old furnace (or your 80-year-old furnace) is like the Model T. Yes, it may still be running and it might even be free from obvious signs of leakage of flue gases into the air supply but there are all those other issues (including efficiency) that make the new furnace well worth the money. 

My other favorite saw is that you wouldn’t keep riding on brakes that hadn’t been serviced in 10 years. Brakes need servicing because your life depends on them. Circuit breakers, furnaces, water heaters and all mechanical devices are like this. New ones keep getting safer (as a rule) and old ones keep getting … older.  

Condos have many advances. They’re greener, because we live in clusters with less surface area per square foot of living area (meaning less energy required to heat or cool) and less construction cost per person. They’re also less of a gamble to own because we share the cost of a roof or a paint job. It’s very socialistic. You also don’t have to concern yourself with gardening if it’s not your thing. On the whole, there are very good reasons to go condo. Just remember that you’re clustered, for better and for worse. Sound issues and smell issues often arise in condos and fire safety is amplified.  

Aging has benefits and old buildings certainly win on charm and often on space and flow but as someone said “aging isn’t for sissies” and this surely applies as well to our homes as it does to our selves. 


Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor at mgcantor@pacbell.net.