Deconstructing a dream home, decade by decade
by : Jenny Higgons
1970s decks had a 25-year lifespan before needing serious upgrading or replacement.
Upgrade 1990s manually programmed thermostats
Beware of asbestos, out-dated electrical systems, single-paned windows, and fake stucco.
Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties are filled with houses that were built more than 100 years ago. We also have a lot of houses that are, quite literally, being finished as you read this.
Whether you’re considering buying a historic Colonial or a turn-key contemporary, homes from every era have their charms — and quirks — along with some features unique to each that need to be carefully considered before you buy. Materials like lead paint and asbestos, for example, were considered standard in the 1920s and ’40s, but no homeowner wants them today.
As desirable as original features may be — like that expansive back deck on a 1970s’ era split level you’re considering — they should be looked at closely for aesthetic and safety reasons.
Starting in the 1920s and going decade by decade to the 2000s, we asked three experts for things that homeowners should look for in homes of each period: John D. Fry of the American Institute of Architects, Paul Coombes of Mr. Inside Out Home Inspections, and Bruce Elton, a licensed and bonded designer and home builder.
Many home styles were popular in the 1920s including bungalows, Craftsman, neo-Tudor, neo-Colonial and the American Foursquare.
Lead: Lead ended up being that decade’s main enemy. It was in the paint on the walls, and perhaps because covering the paint was more common than removing it, under wallpaper. Many of the main water supply pipes in homes built in this era were also lead.
Mortar and stone work: The mortar used in stone and brick foundations in homes built during this period might now be deteriorating and allowing water and moisture to seep into unfinished basements, which, if unfinished, can spawn mold and mildew. The home’s interior walls are also vulnerable. Black mold is especially dangerous to your health.
Good to know: “You also have to think about the fireplaces in homes from the 1920s,” says Fry. “They worked well back then because they tended to have good draw and the houses leaked air by default. But many of the windows in homes from that era have been replaced and are more air-tight. They could also have a new heating and air conditioning system with a return-air vent system. Those factors influence the natural draw of a fireplace and produce indoor smoke, so you need to create an air vent in back of the fireplace chamber to allow the intake of fresh air.”
The Cape Cod and Dutch Colonial were popular styles through the 1930s.
Attics: That unfinished attic space, commonly found in homes of this era, might look like a great opportunity for a master suite, but zoning codes now require that third floors have sprinkler systems that meet building and fire code regulation. Updated attics also now require an exit window that provides a clear opening and is a certain number of feet above the floor.
If an attic has its original window, it’s probably sloped and doesn’t meet those requirements. You might need to consider installing dormer windows, which are cost effective, attractive, and can accommodate safety-exit and zoning (bulk and height) requirements.
Insulation: Fine-particle material was used as insulation in the attics’ ceilings; it wasn’t very effective. Nor was the newspaper shoved between the space between the outside and inside walls.
Wiring: The knob and tube electrical wiring used in the 1930s’ central wiring systems come up short compared to today’s electrical demands. The oldies’ 60- to 100-amps service could pose a fire hazard, so an upgrade to at least 200 amps is highly advisable.
Good to know: “The electrical system is the most important factor in the house,” says Elton. “Insurance companies want them updated….