Home Improvement: The Decision Point
Do you have multiple remodeling projects to get done on your house? Prioritize them by starting with the improvements that will make the biggest difference.
Want more articles like this? Download the Homeowner’s Handbook of Green Building and Remodeling.
Replacing old asphalt shingles like these can run you $500 per 100 square feet of roof. This roof is at the end of its life. Find out how much longer your current roof can survive when you buy.
How old is the roofing material?
Unlike countertops and old flooring, you can’t simply “get by” with a roof that has passed its useful lifetime. Leaks are not merely inconvenient. They rapidly cause rot, invite carpenter ants into the building, and allow mold and mildew to grow.
If you must replace, spend a bit more, and opt for ultra-durable materials such as standing seam metal, concrete, or clay tile. Choose a color appropriate for your climate: dark, if you live in a cold climate, silver or white in a southern region. You can also buy special heat-reflecting shingles in various colors.
Great products in their day, ancient oil furnaces like this one might still work, but with very poor efficiency. You’ll need to replace them with modern gear.
2. How old is the heating and/or cooling system?
This is a big one. Forced-air oil-burning furnaces or boilers can last 40 years or more, but they’re costly to operate, require annual cleaning, and burn heating oil, which has quadrupled in price in recent years.
Natural gas systems generally operate more cleanly and at less cost to you (although gas extraction can be extremely polluting), and older models of wall-mounted gas boilers are notorious for their short lifespans. I owned a couple of Baxi models, for example, and replaced the expensive computer panels in them multiple times, until they ultimately failed after less than 10 years in service.
The best heating/cooling systems rely exclusively on electricity, are relatively new, and employ heat pump technology. If you have to replace a home’s HVAC, expect to spend several thousand dollars, depending on which technology you use.
3. Does the home run on gas or electric?
The end of the fossil fuel age is coming fast, and it’s time to hurry its demise. If the home you’re buying relies on gas for heating, cooking, and water heating, you may find your options limited as the nation goes renewable. Your house will be part of the Climate Crisis, and you’ll be unable to take advantage of the dropping price of renewable energy. The best way to avoid that complicity is to convert to all-electric living. That means switching to electric appliances, induction cooktops, electric heat pump water heaters, and heat pump space heating.
So passé. Gas cooktops are likely to be phased out in coming years because they rely on fossil fuels linked to climate change.
4. Could a kid or dog play safely in your house?
If you ever imagine kids in your new digs, think about what that means. Any home built before 1978 likely contains some layers of lead paint.
Are windows and blinds safe for toddlers? Cords are a no-no, and many blinds from China contain lead. Can tiny hands or paws reach hot radiators or pull bookshelves over? What about stairwells and decks? Are stairs too steep to easily navigate? Are deck railings and balusters safe? Are the underpinnings of lofty deck spaces sound and not rotting away?
A safe home is a “greener” home.
5. Which side faces south?
It’s shocking how many older homes seem to have been built with no awareness of the way the sun hits the building. In northern climates, a home’s living spaces should generally face south, with ample windows to soak up the sun, and minimal overhangs. In hot southern climes, you want to minimize direct sunlight, so the house should include minimal window openings on the south face.
Rather than hard and fast rules, however, these are starting points. Shady trees can mitigate a southern exposure, as can extended roof overhangs. Your heating and cooling system should work side by side with siting, not against it.
6. How much lawn must be maintained?
It’s easy to romanticize lawns, and the smell of fresh cut grass. But surveys show that we hate lawn mowing. Why fall in love with that quarter-acre of labor-intensive monoculture next to your house? If you do choose to mow, think about drought-tolerant, slow-growing grasses.
Be honest. Do you want to spend significant money and weekend leisure time babysitting a lawn? Could some portion be turned into low-maintenance perennial beds, vegetable gardens or patios—or are you stuck with homeowner association rules that limit your ability to cut yourself free from lawn tyranny?
7. Does it smell musty or moldy?
If so, buyer beware. This suggests that moisture is going where it shouldn’t, getting trapped behind walls or in ceiling cavities. Be especially careful when buying a home with a “finished” basement. Unless great care has been taken to drain water away from the house, seal walls and so on, you could end up tearing out every wall and surface in no time. Not all mold is black mold, which is especially dangerous to people, but no mold is good mold in a house.
Special outlets like this GCFI from Leviton prevent deadly shocks in the bath and kitchen. They’re required by code now.
8. Has wiring been upgraded?
Notice whether outlets in the home look new. They should have three holes (not two). The third hole is for a grounded circuit, and old homes didn’t have one. All homes should be upgraded from fuses to circuit breakers if they haven’t been already.
A whole-house rewire can cost up to about $10,00, if electricians have to pull new wires through walls, but it may be much less, depending on the labor involved. Keeping older wiring in place increases the risk of house fires. Insurers don’t like it and may charge you more.
9. How is the building insulated?
To identify gaps in your home’s insulation and air sealing, you will want to have an energy audit (typically about $250) of your building done. A technician with a thermal imaging gun will “look behind the walls” of every room and tell you if and where you need more insulation. You’ll learn more too, about places where conditioned air is escaping your living space due to leaks.
The image here shows an example of a thermal audit of a house in Scottsdale, Ariz. Red areas show where outside heat penetrates gaps in the insulation
10. Are the windows and doors modern or past their prime?
When old windows are well maintained, with intact storm windows and caulking, they may perform quite well. But often in old houses, it’s not the window itself that’s allowing large amounts of air transfer. It’s the area around the window, which may have no insulation, no caulking—nothing to stop air seepage.
Single-pane glass just isn’t good enough anymore. Ultimately, you’ll want to replace all single-pane windows and exterior glass doors with double or triple-pane modern units. Look for products with the longest available warranties on both frame and glazing.