Election Section

What to Expect When Buying an Older Home

By Matt Cantor
Tuesday August 21, 2007

A few of years ago the California College of Arts and Crafts (CCAC) decided to change its name to the California College of Art (CCA). While it may not have been a direct slur against craft, I took it pretty hard (I’m very sensitive). What’s wrong with craft, I thought. We craftspersons need not hang our head in shame. Ceramics are neither lowly or common. Wood working is as valid and rich as painting and weaving, well, just ask any weaver; I’ll say no more.  

Personally, I think Frederick Meyer would be saddened. Herr Meyer, a German emigre, cabinet maker and founder of the School of the California Guild of Arts and Crafts (the original name of CCA) in 1907 (yes, one hundred years ago!) was an ARTIST. Crafts are a form of art, as much as poetry, drama or dance.  

One of those CRAFTS that I call art is home-building, and the Bay Area, and certainly our East Bay, are galleries of thousands of wonderful works, some by well-known architects like John Hudson Thomas and many by unknown common geniuses. 

America is nearly last in the world in supporting the arts and California is dead last among the 50 states (for shame). The very least we can do, if nothing else, is to buy up and restore these many fine works of art (or craft if you like) thus saving them from becoming compost. They can, for the most part, last for hundreds of years, if properly cared for and, far too often, fall apart in mere decades from simple neglect.  

Now, the garbage manufactured for mass consumption in the ‘70s is welcome to this demise, but the gorgeous little gems of the 1920s should be blessed and caressed and brought back to full constitution wherever we can. 

If you buy an older house in the Bay Area, you may want to have some idea of what sorts of jobs will be required and setting aside aesthetics for a moment, I’d like to lay out, what I see as the primary tasks needed when taking possession of your art work. 



We’re overdue by roughly a decade for a really big one. Older homes were not built with this in mind, but luckily most can be “retrofitted” with the additional bolting and bracing that they need for roughy 10K. Given the huge losses that can occur this is well worth it. Make sure you have someone extremely well versed in these techniques. Many who are not sufficienty expert can waste your money, despite their best intentions, and leave you with a false sense of security.  

The single best seismic upgrade is the installation of an automatic seimic gas shutoff valve. These are being required in some communities as part of the sale or remodeling process but don’t wait for it to become law. Just do it. At around 400-500 bucks it’s good no-fault insurance (yes, I am having fun at your expense). 


First day in the new house, put up smoke detectors. Fire is our greatest enemy, even in earthquake country. In fact, fire is our greatest enemy during earthquakes since you’re more likely to lose your house to fire than to shaking. That’s why the gas valve is so important (although explosions are no fun either). 

Smoke detectors should be on ceilings, never on walls. Smoke goes to ceilings. Get them away from corners. Smoke curls past the corner. Put them inside and outside of rooms. Basically, put them up in the bedrooms and in the hallway. If you have more than one floor, put at least one on each floor.  

Change batteries when you reset your clocks; twice a year. You can remember that, right? When you’re buying smoke detectors, pick up a carbon monoxide (CO) detector as well. One should be fine and location is not critical. CO is deadly and odorless. The only house that doesn’t need one of these is one that is all electric. Any gas appliance can produce CO. 

The most important part of fire protection is ready escape. Make sure you can operate every window and door without a tool or key. The building codes have now caught up with this and those inside keyed locks are now in violation of the lastest codes. Sadly, it will take decades for us to get rid of them all. Remember that children can’t operate sticky windows or find keys. Make it as easy as possible to escape and this include removing window bars or at very least making sure that you have openable ones. Frankly, even they restrict access and prevent fire personnel from quick entry. 



Old houses have it. All of them. Lead is extremely poisonous and can cause developmental disability in children. Many thousands of East Bay children have been exposed in recent years and there is no safe level. Our bodies cannot tolerate and do not need lead. Main rule; Don’t sand. If there are paint chips visible, call your local lead prevention program. Alameda’s is the ACLPPP and is found, not surprisingly at www.ACLPPP.com.  

Most communities will give you a lead kit and will loan you a powerful and highly filtered vacuum for clean up. The best plan is to do no prep yourself. If you want to wash walls inside and apply a new coat of paint, fine. If you want to strip, sand or refinish parts of the interior (even clear finishes may contain lead!), hire a licensed professional and stay away ‘til they’re done (actually, it is possible to seal off several rooms using plastic and tape. They even make zippers for plastic barriers). 


Slips and falls 

Old houses, and newer ones as well, often lack good fall prevention. The codes still allow windows 2’ above the floor, which I think is loony. If you have little ones, take a look at the windows and think about the potential for falls. You may choose to use special locks or guards that raise the effective sill level to 3’. Stairways should have handrails that you can easily grip. It’s best to place these about 3’ above the stair nosing. If you have outside stairs that are smoothly painted, just imagine them wet and slippery when your high-heeled house guest leaves the party after dark, a little tipsy. Oh yes, it’s also dark outside because there’s no lamp on the front porch and she’s in a hurry. Now, I won’t lecture you on high heels or alcohol but it is wise to add texture to smooth outside surfaces (you can add it to the paint), to make sure hand rails are present, and to add light to any stairway or level change around the outside of the house.  

If you have a set of stairs leading from the yard down to the sidewalk or driveway, don’t forget to add a handrail there (if there are more than three steps) and to add a little lighting (solar lamps don’t require any wiring and are a nice easy choice for a spot like this). 



We can’t cover everything that you might want to know about your old house in one short article but these are a few of the things that I consider most important. Let’s finish with your old electric system. 

Electrical systems burn houses down. It’s not a myth. It’s the truth. Electrocution is rare and should not be overplayed but bad wiring can and does cause fires. There are a LOT of terrible electrical system around. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with an old “knob and tube” system, (these are the first wiring systems and run from the turn of the 20th century up to around the 1950’s. (technologies changed veerrry sloowwly)) older wiring system have often been abused by non-professionals and made dangerous.  

Fuses are also not inherently dangerous and are, in some ways, superior to breakers but when abused or misued can also become dangerous.  

There’s no easy fix for all of this. When you get into your new house, get yourself an electrician (or a home inspector) and give it the once over. While you can say no to a large number of new outlets and lamps, adding more circuits is a central method in creating safer wiring. The more branches we have, the cooler they all stay. If your wiring is from before 1910, you may want to replace nearly everything. If it’s from 1930, you may be able to save much while adding much. Again, talk to someone who knows. 

A few last thoughts. Do fewer jobs and do each one really well. It’ll create joy and you won’t be doing that one again. When picking contractors, don’t pick the cheap one. It’s rarely worth it. 

For every practical job you do, do one just for fun. This cuts down on owner burnout. Go wild with paint and lighting and flooring (in fact, paint your floor). Go look at other houses and copy what you like. It’s not cheating and if it is, who cares. Throw parties to show off your house or, if you prefer, hide inside with your cat. 

One last thing, don’t worry about your roof. Everyone worries about the roof and I haven’t yet heard of one death caused by a leaking roof.