Sep 2017 22

Things You Need to Know Before Buying an Old House in Vancouver

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A West End home - City of Vancouver Archives

Though a fairly young city, Vancouver has its share of older houses. In 2011, out of 41,440 owner-occupied single detached homes, thirty per cent of them were built in 1946 or earlier.

Older houses present problems for the prospective buyer. Insurers may refuse to cover, or renew policies on, houses that have not been upgraded to modern standards. What follows is a list of known issues that a buyer should investigate.

Is your wiring up to date?

Modern lifestyles, full of appliances and entertainment devices, consume far more electricity than they used to, and the electrical systems of older houses, built when the cutting edge of domestic technology was a two-slice toaster, may be inadequate to the task.

Many old houses have knob and tube wiring, also known as K&T wiring or open wiring. Every house in North America built between 1880 and 1940 had K&T wiring, and "It is still present to some degree in the vast majority of occupied houses in B.C. that were built pre-1950." The copper wire was covered by a cloth and rubber insulation called "loom", and ran through porcelain knobs and tubes. K&T is ungrounded and can short out. Electrical service was often limited to 60 amps.

K&T wiring was not designed to handle modern demands, and can post a risk for fire hazards. If a system built for 15 amps is overtaxed and constantly blowing fuses, homeowners may install 25 or 30 amp fuses, which may cause the wiring to overheat. This makes the wire and insulation brittle and contributes to the risk of fires. Another problem comes from retrofitting modern outlets to older wiring systems.

Some insurance companies will increase their fees for houses with K&T wiring, or not cover them at all. Furthermore, unprofessional electricians may not know the requirements of this kind of wiring, and repair it with scotch or masking tape instead of professional electrical tape.

Homes built between 1965 and 1976 may have aluminum wiring instead of modern copper wiring. Aluminum wiring is susceptible to overheating and failure of terminals, indicated by discolouring near the wall receptacle, the smell of hot plastic, or flickering lights. Most of these problems occurred with 110 volt circuits for outlets and lights, not the 220 volt circuits for major appliances.

According to an essay by a master electrician, out of the 500 Vancouver houses more than forty years old he surveyed, 95 per cent of them had electrical fire hazards, which he attributed to "handyman tinkering" by non-professionals.

When selling houses, particularly old ones, realtors are obligated to educate the buyers and sellers about the kind of wiring. It requires a certified electrician’s inspection, and that finding will inevitably recommend replacing the wiring. Removal and replacement of the wiring for a 1500 square foot house can cost from $5,000 to $8,000, and take one week or more. Upgrading an existing electrical panel to 200 amps can cost about $1,200.

Beware of the UFFI

UFFI is urea formaldehyde foam insulation, a shaving cream-like foam that can be injected into and around electrical outlets, plumbing and other hard-to-reach spaces. During the energy crisis of the early 1970s, hundreds of thousands of Canadian homes were insulated with UFFI to reduce heating costs. However, homeowners afterwards reported respiratory problems, eye irritation, fatigue, and other symptoms, which Health Canada attributed to formaldehyde gas released from the UFFI. The insulation was banned in Canada in 1980, and later in the USA.

Whether UFFI actually releases enough formaldehyde to be harmful is debated, particularly cases in which the insulation was installed 30 or more years ago. The Canadian Cancer Association’s website says, "Homes that had UFFI installed many years ago probably do not have high formaldehyde levels now." A post on the website of Carson Dunlop home inspection services concludes, "urea formaldehyde foam insulation has not been shown to be a health concern." Health Canada also points out that UFFI can deteriorate when wet, and release increased formaldehyde if installed incorrectly.

Regardless, currently UFFI is banned in Canada. The presence of UFFI in a house can lower its price greatly, and prevent mortgage companies from financing it.

Always check for asbestos

Perhaps the best known dangerous house material, asbestos is an insulating agent known to be cause cancer and respiratory disease, and cannot be detected just by looking at it. Homes built before 1990 are more likely to have asbestos, in floor tiles, wrapped around furnace ducts or pipes, or in other areas.

Health Canada recommends that people reduce risk of exposure by hiring professional inspectors before altering their house. Often, the best response to pre-existing asbestos is to leave it be. WorkSafeBC recommends that asbestos should be identified and removed by trained professionals with protective gear, and that homeowners should contact their municipality to learn how to safely dispose of asbestos materials.

Homeowners should note that asbestos in a home may fall under the asbestos exclusion clause of an insurance policy.

The Professional Standards Manual of the Real Estate Council of British Columbia requires that sellers discloses the presence of UFFI and asbestos in properties. A hazardous materials survey can cost from $500 to $2000 or more, and removal of asbestos, depending on the type of material, can run from $400 to $15,000. Removal of UFFI can cost about $10,000 for an attic and between $15,000 and $20,000 for an entire house.

Vintage furnace is not always a win

Beginning in the 1930s, gas- and oil-powered furnaces were a major improvement over older, coal powered furnaces that had to be stoked. However, oil furnaces can be an environmental hazard and a fire risk, causing higher insurance costs. Forced-air gas furnaces and electric heat are much lower risks, and are more efficient too. A new furnace and re-routed ducts can cost about $8,000.

Another common feature of older houses is oil tanks for furnaces, whether indoors or outdoors, aboveground or belowground. Leaks from oil tanks can releases hundreds of litres of oil into the home or the ground, contaminating the soil and groundwater, or getting into the sump pump or floor drain. Many oil tanks corrode from the inside out, making their weakness invisible. As water in the tank sinks to the bottom, it may cause rust or corrosion where the legs attach. The only sign may be the odor of oil.

The presence of an old oil tank may cause the denial of homeowners insurance. According to a report from the Canadian Real Estate Association, "A home with an exterior oil tank older than 15 years, or an interior tank older than 25 years, usually will not be insured." British Columbia has standards for residential oil tanks in place, but voluntary guidelines for the maintenance and repair of installed tanks.

A paper from the environmental law clinic of the University of Victoria says that "B.C.’s Environmental Management Act and the common law can require the owner of a property that is a contamination source to pay for the cost of cleaning up that contamination and contamination of neighbouring properties." Insurance policies may have pollution exclusion clauses that keep them from having to pay for such spills. Removal of an oil tank from a basement costs between $350 and $500.

An older or heritage home may also be denied insurance if it has a roof has not been updated in the past 20 years, a wood-heating system, galvanized pipe or lead plumbing, lead-based paint, or problems with the septic or well installations.

Despite the issues with older houses, it is still almost always possible to get insurance, especially for people who already had insurance and are renewing policies. First-time buyers may need to turn to a specialty provider with higher premiums. Such houses also may take longer to insure, and buyers should start looking for coverage as soon as possible. Installing smoke alarms, sprinkler systems or monitored burglar alarms can also be rewarded with discounts.


2 Responses to “Things You Need to Know Before Buying an Old House in Vancouver”

  1. Craig

    What a wonderful post! Every point is valid and should be taken into consideration. Thanks a ton.

  2. Keith Roberts

    Foundation issues are also common in older houses. Very small cracks, called hairline cracks, are not necessarily an indicator but you should definitely take them into consideration. But if you notice doors or windows that don’t sit properly in their frames or don’t close properly, never neglect these signs.
    You can find more good tips here:

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