What’s hiding in the walls?

I’m a child of the 1950s so, I get nostalgic about houses that were “new” in that mid-century modern time.  I happen to like big banks of multi-paneled windows, the oddly canted roof-lines, the step-down living room and the ripple-patterned patio awning (oops! It was made of asbestos!)

When I was a kid, we were renters in Minneapolis. The thought of owning a home was not ever a part of our family’s serious thinking. We never remodeled our home, either.  We lived in the accommodations the landlord tolerated. There was nothing stylish about our home when we moved in (I was 5 years old) or when we moved out (I was 19).  In that time, the cement wall in the basement was repaired (not replaced), the 1930s ringer-washer was replaced with a “modern” agitation washer, and the windowpane, broken by a neighbor’s stray softball got replaced (single, not double or triple-pane!).

So, I was very envious when a “new build” went up in the neighborhood.  I longed for all the amenities that I thought every house (well, every Barbie house) should have.  Ours had none of that.

But what about your 1950s house?

Be sure you fall in love with those “good bones” because there may be surprises lurking in the walls that you’ll need to replace, and those considerations will have nothing to do with fashion and everything to do with safety!

Look to the core systems that are the skeleton of your home:

  • Plumbing – are there lead pipes anywhere? You’ll want them replaced for obvious safety reasons. Is there corrosion, obstruction or connection difficulties (where YOUR plumbing connects up to the municipality, and everyone else’s plumbing)? What’s been updated in the community as a whole?  How much water will you use (more than the folks who first lived in the house, no doubt!) so be sure there’s adequate capacity and flow; and that applies to HOT water too.
  • Electrical – No one had hair-dryers in the 1950s.  That’s a simple way to think about what you have versus what you need.  Everything we like to surround ourselves with today require more “juice” so, be sure you’re prepared to upgrade the panel (possibly from fuses) to something that will support the way you and your family expects to live in this century.
  • Structural – Not only is this geography-specific (like termites and carpenter ants) but it is also wear-and-tear specific.  Have previous owners cut into joists to re-direct a plumbing issue? Did they support the floor sufficiently to hold that granite countertop you’re planning to put into the kitchen upgrade?  And have you traced that crack in the garage wall to its origin? Hopefully it isn’t matched to the sloped floor that’s off by five inches, where all the water is pooling.
  • Roofing – Hopefully, the roof of a house this old has already been replaced once or twice but, that too could be a problem – how many LAYERS of roof are covering your house?  And, what is the weight of all that material over the $50K truck in your garage? Is it safe? Is it secure? Does it need to be replaced or reinforced? Good things to consider.
  • Heating/Cooling —  We grew up in the world of malls where the environment is always “72 and Sunny” but in an old house, hot and cold zones are likely.  Leaks around windows, doors and any other opening are likely. Windows may be single-paned and barely efficient in a world of climate changes.  Knowing the capacity of the system you’ve got and the system you need is an essential calculation.

This is not to discourage you. It is to help you be honest about finding the house you love, the house you can afford, and the house you can turn into your dream-home.  For older homes, be sure your contractor is familiar with all the vintage issues you’re likely to discover. And, know what you’ll sacrifice to retain the look of the 50s while planning to live in the comforts of 21st century style!