Home & Garden

About the House: What It Means to Say a House Has Good Bones

By Matt Cantor
Wednesday January 14, 2009 - 06:45:00 PM

During inspections, I often hear people refer to old houses as having “good bones.” This is such a trigger for me that I have to duct-tape my mouth shut to keep from launching into a harangue on what is good and bad about old houses. Luckily for me, when I sit down to my computer, I can digitally rant all day long. There’s no duct tape on my keyboard. So here goes: 

I think we have to cull the deeper intent in the use of the term “good bones” which is, I believe, that old houses are better built. That the builders “back then” worked with better materials, better knowledge of construction, and more care. This is true just enough of the time and in enough areas of the trades that the notion has never been fully unseated but let’s break it down, take it by domain, and see if we can inject some sense into this “old husband’s tale.”  

First of all, the notion that old houses necessarily have good bones—presumably the framing or wooden members—is wrong enough of the time to fairly state that all older houses do not have good bones. It is also unreasonable to assume conversely that newer houses are lacking in a decent skeletal system. The problem with the entire notion of good bones—to draw a further anatomical analogy—is that it lacks any discussion of the viscera: the bloodstream, neurology or fascia that flesh out, protect and inhabit this skeletal system. 

To widen the attack on this notion: if we take a typical house from, say, 1915, and another typical house from 1975 and compare them, we will certainly find that the older house is fairly well framed. Often these older houses used very good lumber, which seems not to be as prevalent in the modern house. The quality of the wood used has diminished somewhat over the last century and wooden members have gotten smaller (2x4’s are now 1-1/2” x 3-1/2”.) However, a 1915 house would have used smaller pieces of wood in many areas, and also spaced them further apart. A roof framing from 1915 would typically have been made up of 2x4’s spaced about three feet apart and this framing can’t compete with the 1975 house which will probably have 2x6’s spaced about 2 feet apart. The latter framing is stronger by any objective standard.  

One thing that will almost certainly bear in the favor of the older house will be the quality of the nailing. Nails were often larger, were generally better installed—all pounded in by hand with huge hammers and powerful triceps—and more were installed at each joint.  

By contrast, I remember reading a story about a development in Florida built around the 1970’s. When hit by a hurricane, it literally pancaked: the houses just fell to pieces. Forensics done in the aftermath of the tragedy clearly showed the reason for the widespread failures: only a small fraction of the mandated nailing had been done. Though proof of the particulars is hard to come by, images of tight budgets, framers on speed, and poor inspections come to mind. The general notion of cheapness as an element of late 20th century construction clearly fit in this instance. 

Before moving on from the issue of framing in a comparison of our 1915 vs. 1975 houses I do think it’s worthwhile to point out that that the floors and walls of both houses are quite similar but do favor the older house much of the time.  

(Why do you favor the older house in spite of similarity?)  

The place where the framing differences really manifest is in those areas that we think of as being of seismic relevance. The very bottom part of the framing in the older house does not have the interconnectedness of the modern house: the methods of bolting houses to foundations, the nailing of exterior cladding and the ways in which various parts of the house are attached to one another.  

For some odd reason, builders and building designers were not thinking about how houses fail during earthquakes, even 20 years after the great San Francisco quake. It seems to take another 60 years before significant measures get taken to change the way houses respond to earthquakes.  

This is one of those areas where I tend to say that the bones of the older house may be good, but the tendons and ligaments are lousy.  

Even though houses from the 1960’s on may show increasing signs of cheapness, ignorance and lack of integrity, the technologies had advanced and houses were better for them. I would never trade in a 1975 reinforced-concrete foundation for the soluble brick foundation of 1915. Were I to buy one of those glorious painted ladies, I would make the replacement of the foundation my first task. 

As is so often true, this subject deserves ten times the space of this column, but let me finish briefly with a few other areas of comparison. Electrical wiring is so much better today than in 1915 that it’s hardly worth discussing. Many safety features have been added as well as pure utility in the from of lighting, zillions of outlets and safety features like the GFCI. 

Heating has advanced greatly, along with insulation and thermal windows. Plumbing systems are no longer corroded steel with their advanced cases of arterial sclerosis. (If you’ve ever showered in an older house when someone flushed the toilet, you know what I mean.) Modern copper piping is a small wonder and no matter how marvelous that old Victorian is, until you upgrade the plumbing, your wife will continue to threaten divorce. 

I’ll answer the question that I’m sure at least some of you are asking yourselves at this point by saying that I live in a 1922 house. The foundation has been replaced, as have the wiring, plumbing and heating. This is my personal answer to the dilemma of old vs. new. I don’t care for most newer houses I see. The architecture and lack of detailing often leave me cold and I’m never sure which room I’m in. I can’t tell the foyer from the laundry room. On the other hand, I won’t deny that an old house without modern upgrades is a daily trial.  

To my mind, the best of both worlds is a classic old home with modern updates. So I suggest a new version of an old ditty; Good Bones, Good Heat, Good Pipes, That’s sweet.