Buying an old house in Portland, OR

Portland older house

So you are ready to buy a house in Portland and you’ve looked through many homes on the internet. As opposed to some folks who prefer newer homes, you are more inclined to buy an older house because it has more charm or historical character to it. Whatever your reasons are, you should be aware of the level of maintenance and items that could or should be updated after buying an old house. If properly maintained, buying an older home can be a great investment in an established neighborhood. It could also be a money pit if you are not ready for the task.

Older House Style Depending on East or West Side of River

First, you need to decide where you want to live and what type of older house you want. Depending on where you are buying in Portland, your old house will look different. On the west side of the river, you will see more ranch homes as opposed to bungalow styled homes on the east side of the river. Older ranch houses on the west side will have bigger lots and generally without a basement unless the house is built on a sloping ground. Older bungalow homes almost always have a basement (usually unfinished) and it sits on a lot generally no bigger than 5,000 sf. Bungalow homes may or may not have a car garage or even a driveway whereas ranch homes always have a plenty of space to park your car.

Basement or Crawl Space

Second, be aware of common upkeep items depending on what kind of older house you are buying. The biggest headache can be your basement or crawl space. Having a basement versus a crawlspace can provide maintenance issues while the maintenance issue can be caused by the same common enemy: water. If you are buying a home with a basement, while it can be a cool man cave, or an entertainment space, there may be concrete cracks and water damage to worry about. Most basements do fight the element when it comes to underground water. Water has to travel somewhere even inside the ground and if the house is old, chances are there may be cracks in the concrete walls and footings that need sealed to prevent water intrusion. Concrete walls and floors settle over time and may crack or bow. It could be a minor cosmetic issue or it could also be a result from a settling foundation issue, which could be expensive. Serious foundation issue needs to be identified during your home inspection and should be followed up by an unbiased foundation inspector or engineer. All signs of water damage must be identified during an inspection as well and followed up with the seller for further facts.

If your house has a crawl space, you must make sure that there is no standing water issues. Standing water can pose a problem to the structure as the water creates humidity and the humidity can rot wooden joists, beams, or load bearing posts. If there is water in the crawl space, finding the source of the water can be tricky as well. Most of the times, the cause is from an improper surface drainage system. Your solutions can be installing french drains, cleaning downspouts and gutters. Encapsulating the crawl space is also a good idea to prevent water damage to the structure in the crawl space.

Electric & Plumbing Issues

Third, there are electric and plumbing issues that can be present with older homes. First, many older homes do not have the three prong receptacles that are connected with a ground wire. So if an outlet has no ground wire, is that bad? It could be in theory when there is an flow imbalance. What you can do is to replace those old two prong outlets with GFCI outlets without the ground wire to comply with the code and to provide a safety measure. It needs to also have “no ground wire” sticker on the outlet.

Plumbing can be an issue if there’s a leak caused by worn pipe coupling joints. All these issues need to be inspected before purchasing a home but over the years, older plumbing pipes are more likely to leak than newer plumbing pipes. Moreover, make sure your old water pipes aren’t lead pipes. Simply scrap it with a screw driver to see if it scraps off and shows the shinny part under the scraped part. Portland water service lines do not have any lead water pipes but your old house might. Brass pipes may also contain a little bit of lead in it. Lead solder joints can also cause lead to be present in your water. You can order a lead testing kit from Multnomah County to test lead levels in your home water. In any case, use a filtering system to filter out any impurities before drinking water from the faucet.

Another common plumbing issue is worn sewer pipes.  Ordering a sewer scope inspection service is very important when it comes to inspecting an older home.  Although cast iron sewer pipes last a long time, coupling joints pose more frequent issues.  If there is a damage to the main sewer pipe, sectional repair must be done and it should be negotiated as the seller’s responsibility to fix at closing.

Weather Related Maintenance

This applies to all homes in rainy Portland whether your house is older or newer and you will have common weather related issues including cleaning mossy roof, deck, downspouts, gutters, and replacing rotted soffit boards, facia, and deck components. Cleaning moss off your deck or patio can be done easily with oxygen bleach, which is an environmentally friendly solution to kill off moss. Then you can simply brush the moss off with a nylon brush. Invest in a good pressure washer with a minimum psi of 150.

Cosmetic Issues

There can be cosmetic issues that are unique to an older home. For the most part, fixing cosmetic issues can be very easy if you watch some YouTube videos. Cosmetic issues can include painting, patching up walls, weather proofing window sills, changing carpets, and more.  When it comes to more serious issues, there can be materials being bent or sagging over time.  Some of this issue can be a structural issue such as sagging floors or garage header beams. With age and constant pressure load, sometimes joists or older beams tend to bow, creating a sagging floor or structure above them.  It can be an easy fix if the sagging joists or beams are above an unfinished basement or a crawl space, where a load bearing post or sistering joists can be installed.  If a pressure engineered beam such as an LVL beam or a steel beam needs to be installed over a larger open space where a substantial load needs reinforced, it cost be a lot more expensive to fix.  Jacking up the portion of the house can also cause cosmetic cracks in the walls, which need repaired.

Are you still interested in buying an older house?  I didn’t mean to discourage you but if you still are, work with a knowledgeable real estate agent (hint: like the author of this article) to help you identify issues with each house.  I work with top inspectors in Portland to identify major and minor issues during due diligence and negotiate with sellers using the buyer’s leverage to back out.

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Peter Park

I'm a realtor with attorney experience representing buyers and sellers throughout the Portland metro area.
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