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Old 03-23-2009, 11:57 AM
16 posts, read 48,721 times
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Hi All,

I know this topic has been touched upon in the past, but I had a few more specific questions about health issues and build quality of new vs. old construction in Northern Virginia.

First off, a bit of background: I'm moving in a couple of months from Northern California to VA (working in the Reston/Herndon area, where I actually grew up--but haven't been in the area much over the past 6-7 years). In California, much like Fairfax County, there is tons of of old construction (single-story ramblers built in the 50's and 60's). The construction quality in these homes is typically quite poor. Tons of mold problems, walls thin as paper--they just really don't look like they're built to last.

My wife and I are thinking of buying in VA sometime in the Fall once we get settled in, and at the moment we've been focusing on many of the newer homes in Ashburn. We figure with most of these homes being built in 90's or 2000's, there will probably be relatively few maintenance issues to worry about and we'll be able to get into a single family home in our price range (around $500k, hopefully closer to $450k). Also, I'm assuming the insulation in these homes will help out during summer and winter.

The other alternative would be to look at older homes in Fairfax County (but with substantially larger lot sizes--around 1/2 acre), but I'm concerned about health issues and heating and cooling costs. Specifically, I've noticed many homes built in the 60's that look pretty decent but wonder about health issues like asbestos that may have been used in the construction during that time period. And is mold pretty much unavoidable in homes of that age? I'm pretty allergic, so am trying to avoid mold as much as possible. Also, if the homes are built anything like the ones here in CA, is the insulation pretty much non-existant? What about other issues, like the plumbing materials used during that time?

Can any owners of homes from this time period share any of their experiences? Or anybody who is pretty familiar with the construction standards of homes built around 50 years ago? In there a specific time period when homes were particularly well-built (or poorly-built)? When did insulation improve and asbestos get phased out of building materials (in the early 80's?).

Thanks in advance for your help! I've learned a ton on these forums so far.
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Old 03-23-2009, 12:26 PM
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We live in a 70's brick home in Fairfax and the qulaity is great - no mold, solid wood floors - now of course the home has been updated with new windows, door, roof, kitchen and baths - it might depend on the builder or neighborhood but there is some quality construction around - and it also has to be well maintained and updated.

A lot of the new homes look good too but I have heard some complaints like - paper thin walls, everything built fast and with the cheapest materials possible.

A while back there was something in the paper about firefighters being scared to fight fires in the newer construction townhouses/condos because the flames spread so fast because of the cheaper construction.
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Old 03-23-2009, 02:35 PM
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OP, I've been house hunting myself and going through the same debate.

I look at DC, where the row houses of 100+ years old look absolutely stunning, and then at NOVA where 25 year old homes are looking ragged.

My understanding (from talking to people who know construction, it's not my field) is that the pinnacle of American construction was right around 1925. People were designing/building homes individually (no subdivision concept), we were relatively affluent, using good materials. Independently built homes of any era can be as good or bad as the designer/builder chooses, but most houses now are mass built.

The, the depression, the war and immediately post-war period (up until 1950 or so) was a very low point because the country was less affluent in general.

After that, as a cost-saving measure, subdivisions and mass housing began. Over time, materials and technology and design have improved, but as builders compete against each other to have the most flash/upgrades for any price point, quality has in many ways declined. Particularly during recent housing boom years, builders can still make huge profits from poor quality construction with lovely floors and counter tops. Buyers don't really care if it will develop issues in 5 years.

That said, I think in real life it's a much more complicated relationship. For each house there is the quality of original construction, plus the years of wear and tear, plus the level of maintenance it's seen. In NOVA, there's a huge emphasis on new construction, meaning that older neighborhoods are often "less good" neighborhoods and therefore don't get the maintenance they should. In my opinion, a lot of the best construction in this area was 60s, and there is no reason why that should be "old," (think of all the small towns in the US full of older homes), but from what I've seen looking at houses, most of it has just not been taken care of.

Looking at a nicely built 1968 TH that has been abused for 40 yrs, makes a crappy 2005 TH that's still relatively shiny look much more appealing, especially if it has the touches of the last decade or so (the cathedral ceilings, the big master suite, big closets/windows, modern kitchen, etc.).

So I'm not sure. My dad declares every house I look at (of all ages) horribly constructed, so I think wear and tear and maintenance become important.

Hope some of that helps.
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Old 03-23-2009, 03:03 PM
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I used to live in an all-brick rambler that was built in 1966. It had EXCELLENT construction (this in the DC area). I think if you want an older home, look for one that is all brick. Especially in the Fairfax area, where people have $$$$, you will find that many people continue to live in these 40-50 year old homes and have made all the great updates inside (kitchens, flooring, bathrooms, etc). The houses themselves are solid.

I would definitely stay away from older homes that may not be all-brick construction.

The only other problems around here with homes built during that timeframe is basement flooding. Have a good inspector check this out for you. It seems that grading specs were not up to snuff in the 1960s (are no one really cared) but people I know with these older homes seems like they deal with this a lot as opposed to people I know with homes built during the 1990s and later that seem not to have issues with this.
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Old 03-23-2009, 08:42 PM
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I agree...it all depends. The history and evolution of local building codes is a factor to consider, but there are still great and cheap houses built in every era. An inspector can tell you what you've got and what shape it's in. They are usually worth the money.

On the matter of leaky basements, there often isn't much a builder can do. A hefty part of NoVa has marine clays in the substrata. These expand and contract like a sponge depending on water content. The expansions put a lot of strain on foundation walls, then they contract and bits of soil from above fall into the gaps, then act like levers during the next expansion. Eventually, tiny cracks and tiny leaks are going to come about. Some areas without marine clays have hardpan instead. These can create underground river systems that push all the water that falls anywhere nearby onto one small area of a foundation wall. Same outcome over time. On these accounts, some builders just automatically put a sump pump in. It's a plus if a house comes with one...one way or another, you might soon enough need it no matter who built the place.
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Old 03-24-2009, 08:02 AM
Location: NoVA
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If you have allergy/mold issues, you may want to look at newer construction. There is only so much cleaning you can do to an older home, and inspectors may not always find mold issues behind walls, etc. But if you do go with an older home, having the ductwork cleaned will help cut down on airborne allergens, as will tearing out all old carpet and padding. Also, installing the best HEPA air-filter in your furnace is a must.
We have a child with allergy issues, and went with new construction. There will always be pros/cons of new or existing homes, but we found the new construction to be the better choice for us. With the slow-down of booming construction, it seems as though quality with certain builders and subcontractor crews is improving. Make sure you hire a private inspector if you go with new construction, to fully inspect the home at 3 main intervals: after foundation is poured, pre-drywall, and pre-closing. It will run you about 200-300 each time but well worth it.

It was a better "deal" to build new for us, with all the incentives these days. Plus, we didn't want to risk buying a home built in the 60's, 70's, 80's, and spend a lot of time/energy/money updating, ripping out old items, replacing roof/windows/flooring, or sitting on somebody else's toilets.

BUT, with that said, you just can't find any charm to these new communities, mature trees, etc. So it is going to be a trade-off in many areas.
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Old 03-24-2009, 07:22 PM
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Give me 50's or 60's construction anyday. Solid brick (not veneer) on ALL FOUR SIDES (gasp).

The exterior walls on the new stuff usually consists of vinyl siding, 1/4 inch of cheap sheathing, 2X4 or 2X6 studs and 1/2 inch drywall. Give me a dull utility knife and 5 minutes, and I could slice and kick my way right through the wall. (Not sure I could squeeze through those 16" OC studs, though!)
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Old 03-24-2009, 09:50 PM
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Originally Posted by car54 View Post
Give me 50's or 60's construction anyday.
I have thought about this few times myself...great post.

What about electric, plumbing issues in older ramblers?

Is there a way to evaluate construction? Can you find out builder who built it for example? Is there any judgment guidelines from old-timers as to which ones might be good quality? I assume it is possible to build poor quality homes with bricks as much as anything else.

Also, would brick homes have poor insulation compared to wood - possible higher heating/cooling biils?
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Old 03-25-2009, 07:43 PM
4,711 posts, read 10,860,588 times
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Originally Posted by spidercharm View Post
I have thought about this few times myself...great post.

What about electric, plumbing issues in older ramblers?

Is there a way to evaluate construction? Can you find out builder who built it for example? Is there any judgment guidelines from old-timers as to which ones might be good quality? I assume it is possible to build poor quality homes with bricks as much as anything else.

Also, would brick homes have poor insulation compared to wood - possible higher heating/cooling biils?

Older houses may have fuses instead of breakers, but the panel can be updated pretty inexpensively. There was an unfortunate experiment with aluminum wiring in newer houses.

The plumbing in older homes will be copper....there was another unfortunate experiment with a type of plastic pipes in newer houses. The thing I don't like in any age house is copper pipes in a concrete slab....they will fail eventually.

Some builders built a LOT of very good houses around here...like Oliver Carr and Regor. Usually somebody in the 'hood will know who built them...or it should be on the deed/land records.

My opinion is that stuff like windows and insulation can be added pretty easily to bring them up to today's standards. Then you have an energy efficient AND solid house!

The one modern innovation that I heartily endorse is poured concrete foundations/basement walls....much better than the cinder block construction of yore.
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Old 03-26-2009, 05:53 AM
Location: Ashburn, VA
989 posts, read 2,466,511 times
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I live in a 1990 house in Ashburn Farm-on .69 acres (so, yes, there is some land to be found out here). I feel lucky in that it's a great house.

Things to think about with the approximately 20 year old house, though-we replaced the HVAC and roof last year, have replaced all the kitchen appliances and are looking at new windows this year. This will reset the clock on those items so we won't have to deal with them for many years to come. My kitchen and bathrooms are VERY 1990-linoleum floor, formica countertops, awful cabinets. I will need to address those issues at some point.

But I love, love, love my house. And I absolutely love my neighborhood, which is almost as important as loving the house.

There are some amazing deals to be had right now-here's an example of a house on a great street for under what you're looking to spend:

LO7011805 on FranklyMLS.com 43460 WHETSTONE CT, ASHBURN VA for $429,900 in ASHBURN FARM Home For Sale

On a side note, my parents live in a 1930's house that has plaster walls. They have had a harder and harder time finding plaster people when they need to patch. But their roof is slate and original from the 1930's. They just add a few slates every 3-4 years.

Good luck!
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