Old homes have their charms, their wires, their leaks, their hazards – what to do?


The morning light streaming in the windows was the first thing I saw on inspection day. I heard a repeated call, looked up and saw a Cooper’s hawk carrying a large twig to its nest in a neighboring yard. Juncos also called. I heard a titmouse and a white-throated sparrow. A sprig of forsythia bloomed by the front steps. I looked out the window to a great spot for a vegetable garden, in front of the garage. Sun lit this home everywhere.

I saw the worn wooden floors with narrow slats, but the rugs hid only more floor, less used. But, what about the rest? What secrets would this old house hold, built when my 90 year old mother was just two years old? The stairs creaked in a Caspar-the-ghost sort of way, and I could live with that.

In a way it’s like evolution, with the new built on what was there before. I think one of the best expostulations on this topic from an evolutionary perspective is Richard Dawkins‘ wonderful book, The greatest show on earth. The eye is one of the greatest examples with its backwards parts, upside down images, and an exit hole right in the middle of it all. But, please, read or listen to the book. It is so worth it.

So, what does this have to do with old houses? Just that they are the same way, at least in some respects. They follow the same rules. First, conserve what you can. Second, reuse whenever possible. Third, overlay new stuff on old. Money is always limiting, so repairs are good enough, not perfect. This lovely home had both electricity and gaslights. An unknown portion of the wiring is still knob and tube, where individual wires run apart, kept from wood by ceramic knobs. It isn’t worse than what we have today, and some say it is better, but it can be hard to get insurance. At some point a lot of the electrical service was upgraded, but the old intake was left in place. Is this like a gene duplication where the new copy changes and ultimately takes over the original function?

I’m not sure why a house wired for electricity originally also had gaslights, but this one did, at least in the basement. Who knows if gas still flows to it?

Besides electricity, we now have phone lines, and internet cables. I suppose the phone lines are not so important now, in the day of cell phones, but we’ll still probably have a land line. We struggled to put cable here in our 20-year-old home, and there were struggles in this house too, with hilarious solutions – see photographs below. Clearly these are new functions cobbled out of old ones.

The heat is in hot water radiators, which can be ornate. Apparently they were made too big in the 1920s, after the1918 Spanish Influenza because it was considered important to keep the windows open, even in winter. These things need to be bled to remove air and things like that. I suppose you can get someone to do this in St. Louis where there are so many. Or maybe it isn’t too hard. At least they don’t dry out the air.

Fireplaces are also common, for heat and beauty, but the chimneys should be straight. This is a simple malfunction.

It could be a scary thought that both water and electricity run through the walls. This house has copper tubing, which must be mostly new. Too bad it drips, sometimes through the living room ceiling. There are all kinds of old features on sinks and tubs. Apparently if the tub faucet gets underwater it can cause a situation that results in tub water coming out the sink faucet. Modern buildings have higher faucets that can’t get underwater. Modern hoses have valves at the house that prevent backflow.

Water has to drain from other areas too. The lovely 3-season room was originally open to the elements, and had a drain, no longer needed. I didn’t notice if the floor sloped, but it must have done so once. Gutters drain water off the roof straight to the sewer system. The copper gutters and downspouts need maintenance. I wish they drained to a nice big storage tank so we could use the rainwater to water the garden instead of wasting this clean water down the sewer.

In many ways old homes were built better than modern ones. This is a strong, beautiful house. I don’t show it out of respect for the privacy of the current owners, but it has all the best features of old St. Louis homes, stained glass, wooden floors, working fireplaces, true elegance, great location.

The best bathrooms back then were floored with a thick layer of concrete. These floors are now settling into their wooden frames, cracking and falling. To fix them is very expensive, and means removing not just everything in the bathroom, but a bedding of concrete.

Last, I must mention the hazards, old and new. Decks need to stay on their footings, and this one has nearly escaped its pier. This can’t be original because decks don’t last that long. Other hazards are mold, radon, lead, and asbestos. This house tested low for radon, a quarter the allowable level. I’m inclined to worry even about that low level, though. The house didn’t smell moldy, though everyone says these old limestone foundations weep. The asbestos needs to be encapsulated better, and this is easy. Removal can leave dust you would have to worry about. Unfortunately, it is mostly the dangerous straight fiber kind, not the safer curly fiber.

Lead is the safety issue people in St. Louis have agreed to pass on. If you test your house, you have to declare it. But basically every house painted before 1978 has it. So they don’t test for it, and sign something that says it was built before 1978, and so probably has lead. Don’t eat it. Keep kids away. But what about the inevitable powdering from windows or doors? What to do with flaking like this, shown below? Apparently rectangular flaking is indicative of lead. We were told the homeowner doesn’t need to be lead-paint certified to work with it, but we did not find this comforting.

At what price charm? I love my home in Houston because the wind blows through it, and the children come home to it. I love it for the meals we share here, the love we share. But it is not a fancy home, not an old home, one we built to live in. I am beginning to understand that loving an old home is a love of projects. I am beginning to understand why people are selling their large, old homes and moving to newer places nearby. Can I live in an old home without being an old home person?

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Knob and tube wiring.

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Why bother to remove the dead electrical intake? Isn’t it harmless just staying there?

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Phone, mystery hole, ungrounded 2-prong outlet.

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This is my favorite picture. Is that phone cords running through an old whole-house vacuuming system? An old phone thing? An old function, no longer used, put to a new use. The question is, do I want to live with it?

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Remember gaslights? This is one!

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Radiator heat. Some swear by it, since it doesn’t dry the air.

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Dormers are not supposed to support the chimney, are they?

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How can we tell what pipe goes where? Notice the leak? At least this one is reachable.

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This tub faucet can end up under the water surface, and that can make tub water come out of the sink. Not good.

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What is that vent like thing on this sink drain?

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This drain for the sunporch is no longer needed, but does no harm, like a pseudogene.

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This downspout was sealed halfway up.

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This garage drain won’t drain, falls apart when lifted.

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Under this nice tile floor is a cement base that is slowly sinking into its wood supports.

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How did this deck get so shifted off its stone support?

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Why are these pipes wrapped in plastic? Asbestos anyone?

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Painting is easy, but what if there’s lead in the flakes?

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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